In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes a compelling case for the notion that the "self-made man" is a rare exception at best, but more often than not, a complete myth. Nowhere is this more true than in Hollywood.
Several months ago I started working with a group of actors on what it takes to find consistent success in that vocation. The general principles apply to many chosen careers in the entertainment industry, but I wanted a challenge and seeing as how, in my mind anyway, acting is one of the most difficult professions to produce consistent results in, I felt that if any sort of road map could be developed it would be revelatory.
Anyone who wants to make it in the arts is confronted with an overwhelming number of "realities" (most of them harsh) that they must overcome in order to one day quit the Coffee Bean job and do their art full time. The first reality is this: No one, and I mean NO ONE, makes it all by themselves. This truth begins with the decision to pursue a career rife with roadblocks and remains so regardless of the level of success one achieves.
Like the old joke that the success of a musician is measured by his girlfriend's take-home pay, short of getting someone else to cover the bills, anyone who wants to act must find a way to survive whilst knocking on doors that open only erratically. So most will need a "regular" job that allows enough flexibility to go on auditions during the day and attend classes and the occasional play in the evenings and on weekends. There are only a tiny handful of jobs that fit this description, so most soon find themselves the beneficiary of an understanding boss or helpful coworkers.
And so it begins. No lone gun ever traded shifts to make it to a last-minute Pop Tarts audition.
Once basic survival is covered with the help of those mentioned above, there's the task of finding an agent and getting work. An actor can forward the ubiquitous headshot and resume to every agent, producer and casting person in town, but the likelihood that any of them will respond is slim-to-none unless someone else's name is attached to their humble request for a meeting or audition. This is because the amount of blind requests these people get each week is so voluminous that the time it takes to sift through them all is just not available.
It's all about filtering and it's done all the time in many professions, but nowhere is filtering more pervasive than in Hollywood. Agents filter requests from new actors by requiring that they have certain types of credits, training and/or be referred by a current client. Likewise, producers and casting directors will often restrict audition submissions to actors with agents, sometimes only certain agents, or they may require that the actor be a member of the Screen Actor's Guild. This is done to limit the number of submissions they receive from being in the thousands to being in the hundreds. Filtering as I've described is random and certainly unfair, but necessary lest the machine grind to a complete halt.
So in the beginning, before the actor's name is a door-opener in and of itself, the game is less about who you are and more about who you know (which is the truth behind the old adage). So while it's nice when an actor's resume includes "University of Southern California" under Education, a note from esteemed USC alumnus, Will Ferrell will get everyone's prompt attention.
This doesn't mean that if one didn't go to school with a famous comic actor or their father didn't direct Apocalypse Now that there's no hope. It also doesn't mean that an actor needs to harass famous people all over the city for an introduction to the big time. This will likely only result in restraining orders.
In fact, the process of being assisted by others in one's career in this town is most effective and reliable with one's peers. They're the people who get together for a beer after work or class. The ones who are equally committed and driven to succeed. Those who might make it big one day and possibly become a "name" for you just as you will do for them if you get there first.
In my work I call it one's "Personal/Professional Network," but really they're friends. More specifically, friends who happen to be pursuing a dream similar to one's own. Remember that opportunities come not only from meeting people in the business and making professional connections as anyone pursing any worthwhile career does, but from developing deep, authentic friendships with like-minded individuals along the way.
Trace the path of any successful actor in Hollywood and it becomes clear very quickly that the many opportunities afforded to them came because someone they knew liked them enough to extend a hand. In turn, most of them reach back every now and then and give a lift to others who need a step up.
This is the way it's always been, and how it will continue to be in Hollywood.