The Top 2 Percent

March 5, 2012

At this year’s Austin Film Festival, Shane Black said something to the effect of: Ninety-eight percent of this business is just awful. People lie, they steal, they screw with you, they ruin your work, there are thousands of disgusting, despicable people in this business that just make our lives a living hell. But we still do it. Because that two percent that’s good is so unbelievably amazing, we’re like heroin junkies looking for another fix.

I’m paraphrasing very liberally here, but go with it—I’m making a point.

I still remember when I won the part in Conversations with My Father: I was 13 years old, and of the hundreds of kids who auditioned, I was one of two selected to play this role at the Old Vic, “London’s most famous theatre.” When my agent told me, I started laughing—a release of tension I just couldn’t control. In her stern British voice she said, “Is that funny?”

“No,” I said, mustering up all the seriousness I could. I’m just . . . I’m happy.”

“Good,” she said, “you should be.”

I passed the phone to my parents, who spent the next however long discussing business details, while I spent the rest of my evening bouncing off the walls, thanking God, crying, and asking my parents how they could possibly expect me to finish my homework at a time like this.

That was the 2%. That was that moment.

Much of the run was great, too. The play starred Judd Hirsch, and before every show I’d go into his dressing room, and he’d give me notes from the night before. He was one of the most wonderful people imaginable. I didn’t think much of it at the time, it was just normal. But looking back, I realize what an amazing opportunity it was to have this legend of the theater coaching me as an actor. At one point during the run I thought I had mono, but I was just exhausted from traveling between home, school, and the theatre all day long—each about a 45 minute journey away from the other—leaving me with very little time to sleep.

But that, exhausted as I was, was the 2%.

When I was 24, six months into doing some spec work for a company in New York that was developing an animated sitcom, I had a similar experience. I was sitting at work when I got the e-mail: they were cutting me a check for $500 and were going to pay me hourly to continue writing for them. Again, I laughed, a continuous nervous exhale for several minutes. The guy in the next office over, wondering why I was doing an extended Butthead impression, asked me if I was okay. Again, I couldn’t concentrate—how could I possibly be expected to work at a time like this?

That was the 2%.

As it turned out, that was the day my career as a freelance writer began. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—filled with struggles, failure, rejection, and a roller coaster of financial and emotional highs and lows—but ultimately one of the most rewarding, and although there have been times I’ve come close to going back to a j-o-b, in the end I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The challenging thing about creative writing is that these moments are so difficult to come by. You can spend years writing screenplays, or novels, and not get calls like this. Not get recognized for your work. So I’ve started acting again, which has a much quicker gratification cycle. A few weeks of auditions come with a lot of rejection, but my yeses also come much more regularly, affirming my sense of self-worth and the joy of working as an artist. After a play, people tell me how great I am. At Texas Renaissance Festival I won both Performer of the Day—an award given by the creative director—and Best New Character—an award voted on by the entire performance company. And last weekend, at Sherwood, the guy who created the stage act I’m participating in and has been doing it for 10 years, said “You could take a dump and the audience would love it.”

Needless to say, it was a compliment. That’s the 2%.

And although I’m exhausted, and although there’s plenty of gossip, and rejection, and nastiness in this industry, the compliments like these, and the laughter of the audience, and the occasional $20 bill in the tip box are so great, I’m like a heroin junkie looking for my next fix. Just one more. Just one more. I don’t think I can cope without one more.


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