One of the anxieties I hear expressed most often in my classes is something that actually has nothing to do with acting. Not really, anyway. It’s this: “I’m _______ years old. Can I really get started acting at my age?”
Sanford Meisner famously said that, “it takes 20 years to become an actor.” If you’re anywhere past the toddler phase of your life, that math can become pretty daunting, especially if you are looking to make acting something beyond just a hobby. So, in honor of the wonderful actor John Mahoney, who started acting in his late 30s and passed away this week after a long and illustrious career, today I want to say a little bit about the fear of being too old.
The first bit of solace is this: If you are anything past your 20s, the number of actors your age out there who are still actively auditioning and pursuing work goes down exponentially. The vast majority of actors out there fall in the 20 to 30 range. Actors in my classes in their 40s, 50s, and 60s often wind up finding a niche for themselves quicker than younger actors. A couple of years ago, I taught a 64 year old who had raised kids and had a long and utterly non-acting-related career, who wound up as a guest star on one of the network shows within a couple of months of finishing classes.
There are dozens of examples of actors who started late (what does that even mean anyway?) who have had successful careers. So don’t let fear of being too old to have a career get in your way. That student has since done several commercials, been in at least ten plays in Chicago and has done a lot of work in film. Why is he finding so much success? Because he trained hard, is good at managing himself and, frankly, he doesn’t have as many people competing against him for the roles he goes out for. He is also committed to doing this thing that he loves.
And this brings us to the crux of the matter: If you want to act because it excites you, because it’s something you’ve always wanted to, because you love it, then you are doing it for the right reasons and the love you have for the work will be your divining rod that leads you to work. Acting for attention or from a competitive drive is a surefire way to make yourself miserable and end up with a stack of unused headshots. If you are doing it for love, then you’ll do it because acting is a thrilling, wondrous exploration of what it means to be a human being. That thrill doesn’t have a “best if used by” date and it doesn’t ever go away.
Just ask Mike Nussbaum. He started acting in his 30s and has spent the last 60+ years lighting up the stage and screen. At 94 years old, he is the oldest working stage actor in America and he is still one of the best. I guarantee you, no one in the audience watching one of his shows is asking, “Isn’t he a little old to be doing this?” They’re too busy being dazzled by his tireless artistry and the humanity he brings to his work. He knows the answer to the question, “But how old will I be before I am successful as an actor?” The answer, always and forever is, “Exactly as old as you’ll be if you never started.” So get started.