Can a former ugly duckling become a handsome leading man?

I found my calling and fell madly in love with my scene partner -- but then I got scared and went back into my shell.

Published August 2, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Adolescence was tough on me, as it was on many. I had braces and my gums puffed up like a puffer fish; I was very overweight ... I felt like the ugly duckling. The high school I attended was full of wealthy, beautiful kids who for the most part were not cursed by awkwardness such as mine; I turned to computers as a means dis-identification from my sister and shunned all things "creative." Although I always had an eclectic group of friends, I felt like an outcast. As high school ended I lost a big chunk of weight. I went to college and my weight fluctuated over the next four years along with my eating, drinking and exercising habits. One thing remained constant though: I had no success with the ladies.

Years ago, a seed was planted in me, a seed that I never allowed to develop because I never felt worthy. My whole life, I wanted to be an actor. But who wants to watch a fat, awkward teenager? No one, I thought, so I avoided it and buried myself in science and math. So after 18 months in the real world, I said, Fuck it! and took a very intensive acting class. The classes have been cathartic to say the least. But I have reached an impasse of sorts; I have actualized the appearance of the man I wanted to be, but it stops there. It isn't really me yet.

My latest class, I was blessed and cursed with an incredibly beautiful scene partner. The scene we did was simple yet beautiful and compelling; moreover, it forced me to go to the dark places and dust out some cobwebs. The scene itself opened me up to a part of myself that I had put on lockdown and helped me immensely as an actor and in the process I fell head over heels for my scene partner. That's when disaster struck: Once our scene was complete, I turned to ice on her; it reminded me of what rejection and pain felt like, and I ran for the hills as fast as possible. Part of me thinks that she may think she upset me in some way, another part of me thinks she was never even into me in the first place, and then the saddest realization of all sets in: It's not about her. It's about my inability to make a connection with another human being. I'm so scared of what might happen that I never let anything happen.

Do I just bare my soul to her, let it all out? Do I try to repair the damage I've most likely done? I want to open myself up to her, to tell her -- no, show her who I am and why I went cold -- but I'm afraid that's asking too much of her. I want her to understand me, but I'm afraid that it will be too much, but I need to tell someone. I need someone to understand so I don't feel so alone.

Duck on a Pond

Dear Duck on a Pond,

First of all, I want to say that however panicked and afraid and confused you feel, these feelings won't kill you. You have chosen a kind of work that will bring much emotional turmoil; that is part of the work. So you need to maintain a kind of clean room within yourself, a place where you know that no matter how crazy and tumultuous you feel, you are still going to be OK. After you are done with a scene, go to that room that you keep for yourself. Ground yourself. Take some breaths.

Like I say, these feelings won't kill you. Obviously, in acting, you have found the key to becoming the complete person you want to be. That is your dream. Keep following it. The only thing that will kill you is not following your dream.

I can't say what to do about this woman in particular. Her feelings will govern what happens, and nothing you do right now will change her feelings. Don't worry that you did something wrong. What's important is that you acted well.

This pattern will probably become familiar to you: As you work to express a scene, you draw on deep emotional reserves. In doing so it will feel as though you are falling in love with your partner. Perhaps you really are falling in love with your partner. It doesn't matter whether we call it real or not. Perhaps the more real it appears, the better -- although you must maintain control over it or it is not acting. The point is, there will always be a bit of a shock when the scene is over. There will be some territory you must traverse, high above the rocks, where you are neither in the scene nor in your ordinary life. Part of your job as an actor will be to learn to traverse that vertiginous offstage space with some grace and surefootedness. Otherwise, acting will be too difficult. You will not be able to find your way back and forth from your daily life to your scene; you will get lost somewhere in the middle, and you will miss too many auditions.

Acting can be a route to the truth. Because you are acting, you are allowed to be authentic. Eventually, what you discover about yourself through acting will become less exotic; it will slowly become part of who you really are. You were surprised when you turned to ice once the scene was complete. But that makes perfect sense: Acting kept you warm. Ideally, you will learn to bring some of that warmth into your daily life. But this will happen gradually.

I think you are going to have an intense creative life; your main challenge will be to manage the psychic dramas that you stir up in order to succeed creatively. This is not at all unusual. The difference between creative success and failure sometimes has less to do with talent itself than it has to do with how well we traverse the void. Many cannot handle the journey back and forth; we get lost in the chill between acting and doing.

So don't freak out. That clumsy, frozen awkwardness: It comes with the territory. Keep working at your craft. Remember that you are moving back and forth between serving the needs of the drama and serving your own needs. It will be confusing at times. It will be terrifying. But those feelings won't kill you.

What will kill you is if, at this crucial moment, you turn away in fear. Acting is what you need to do. Keep doing it.

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