Acting can be a crazy profession, and while there are a lot of books about acting technique, very little has been written about how to pursue your acting career without sacrificing your health or your sanity. In this episode, Debra Wanger, author of The Resilient Actor, gives us her survival guide for the acting professional, which will help you stay motivated from audition through performance.

Debra Wanger: I have been acting since I was nine years old. I followed my brother to acting classes and shows. He was working with our excellent group of actors in Chicago, so I started following him and I kept going. And I don’t even ever remember making the decision of whether I wanted to act or not—I just kind of did it.

It became my everything. It was what I was excited about, how I got my attention, what I thought people liked me for. I put all my eggs in that basket, and luckily I must have been pretty good at it because I was successful and I did a lot of shows. I did children’s theatre and school shows and sang in the choir and took dance classes and did the whole thing.

Then, when I was 17, I went away to a competitive BFA—which is Bachelor of Fine Arts program—at the time, most competitive big deal program that you could go to. Of course ,I was 17 years old, holy cow.

“I can’t imagine sending my 17 year old across the country to go to college by herself.”

But I started working and I was just doing the fast track to doing live musical theatre and all that.

Immersion and Depression

Debra Wanger: After a few years, I found myself very lonely, depressed, fat, broken out, having trouble getting off the couch. Luke and Laura—or whoever the soap opera friends at the time—were my best buddies, and the mindset trick started to come in. So it was getting harder and harder to show up to auditions, feeling like they don’t want to see me, they’re just going to cast somebody else anyway.

When I wasn’t in a show, I was really down, I was really depressed, you know, when I was in a show, I had friends, I had somewhere to go, I had meaning, I had fun, I had a social life, I would relatively stay out of trouble but when I wasn’t in the show, I felt like I was the hole in the donut, so to speak.

I was emotionally eating which would of course make my weight go up, and then I was fat and uncomfortable. Then I didn’t want to go to auditions because I felt so fat and who’s going to want me. I certainly didn’t want to go to a dance audition and put on a leotard.

So I was in this really horrible cycle of feeling depressed and not wanting to show up and then of course, if you don’t show up for auditions, you don’t book jobs and then I’d feel bad about that.

“It was sad and lonely, and I was kind of doing everything wrong.”

I didn’t have a lot of a life outside of the theatre, that was a huge mistake. But I didn’t know anything else. I didn’t feel like I had value with anything else. You know, if I was in a show, I was very active ,but if I wasn’t, I wasn’t moving around much. So all of that was a downward spiral into not feeling good physically or mentally or, I guess, spiritually.

Learning Who You Are

Charlie Hoehn: How long did this stretch of time last?

Debra Wanger: It was kind of primarily about three years that I was really funky and then I did some geographical cures, you know, moved.

Which helps for a little bit but what they say is wherever you go, there you are.

I grew up in Chicago, and I went to Cincinnati for school and then I moved down to Florida where I was doing theater. There was a lot of dinner theater, a lot of places to perform. That was that main period.

I went back to college, I went to Boston and did everything but acting for a while. Took a bunch of classes that had nothing to do with acting and I didn’t even tell people I was an actor.

“I tried to figure who I was if I wasn’t an actor.”

I tried to gain some balance and did a lot more healthy things, you know? Was more active and had friends who were my friends whether I was working or not. I was able to restore the balance in my life and figure out who I was beyond acting.

So then when I chose to go back to it, I was coming from a much more balanced place and much more wise place, and I was doing it by choice.

This time I said, “I miss acting. I do want to go back to it and it’s fun and it’s creative and I’m good at it. I’m not doing it because I need it and I’m not a good person if I don’t do it but because I enjoy it and that’s my art.”

Charlie Hoehn: Right. Acting is something that you do and it’s not who you are?

Debra Wanger: When you say it, it sounds like yeah, duh, but that was a hard lesson to learn. When we are actors, it’s so consuming. Rehearsals are intense, you’re doing eight shows a week, or if you’re on a movie set, you’re there all day long, crazy hours and you have to be ready at a moment’s notice.

It’s pretty easy to get all consumed by it and forget that yes, it’s a lifestyle, but it’s your job.

I don’t know a lot of accountants who are like, “If I don’t count your numbers, what am I?”

Familiar Struggles

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, I take it, you didn’t just write this book, obviously just to tell your story and what you went through, you likely saw this in a lot of your friends, no?

Debra Wanger: Totally. I left out the part of my story as far as that I started, I worked on the other side of the business. I worked at a big talent agency and as a talent manager, then I started working as a coach as well.

“I encounter people every day who are having these exact same issues.”

I basically wrote this book as “what do I wish I knew 30 years ago.”

If I had a fairy godmother who could hand me one thing, hand me this book. It didn’t exist. There’s about 7,000 books on how to act and another 4,000 books on how to get an agent or the business of acting. But I’ve never seen a book on how to not be a mess. How to stay sane and healthy whether you’re working or not.

You’re always hustling for work. I mean, there’s a chapter in this book that says auditioning is your job, because performing is the perk. I think that the job is actually looking for work because there’s a few jobs that are serious or regular or you know, you get a long contract on Broadway.

Most of the time you’re just looking for the next job all the time, and that is really emotionally draining.

And then when you are working, you’re doing stories of—you know, most acting jobs are not boring days, they are the most important day of someone’s life, the highest and the lowest, you know?

The day you got inaugurated to be president, the day you were murdered, the day…whatever, it’s always a big deal or it requires a lot of emotional and physical energy.

Takeaway from The Resilient Actor

Charlie Hoehn: Let’s talk about how to stay sane. What would you say is the core idea in the book or the number one takeaway for actors in order to stay sane?

Debra Wanger: I would say, having a life outside of the theater. To not put all of your eggs in the acting basket. You should be seeing other people’s shows and networking and hanging out with people, and you should have friends who are actors. You should be watching movies and studying and learning and going to class and all of those great things but not putting all of your time and energy in that because it’s that all your eggs in one basket.

“If you drop that basket, you are out of eggs.”

Have some time and energy and I guess, emotional real estate in something else, whether it’s your yoga class or your knitting group or you know, your men’s group or whatever. You’re hanging out with your little baby cousins, whatever it is, having a support system and having something beyond just being an actor that you can identify with and have support from.

Charlie Hoehn: In your book, you talk about fine tuning your instrument/physical resilience. Where do you recommend starting?

Debra Wanger: I do like to start with the physical health. Everyone starts in a different place. Some people are in great shape and they have great energy and they don’t get sick very often, and some people are the opposite.

Regardless of where you are, I think it’s very difficult to have good mental and emotional health if you don’t have good, physical health.

If you’re drinking a lot, if you’re eating sugar, if you’re overdoing the carbs, if you’re driving through Taco Bell all the time, you’re not going to feel good. It’s hard to think good thoughts when you’re not feeling physically well.

“When you don’t have the physical energy, it’s hard to have the mental energy.”

A lot of us are kind of running on fumes and certainly as actors with not getting enough sleep, staying up too late, going out drinking with the cast all the time, eating junky meals on tour, whatever it is. There’s a lot of temptation.

If you don’t have the physical energy, it’s really hard to keep your spirits up and the mindset up. I think that requires physical energy. I forgot what the percentage is, but the brain uses a ton of physical energy. It uses more calories than physical exercise or something. We forget that.

I’d like to start with the physical.

Charlie Hoehn: I think it’s easy to have this image of actors really care about what goes into their body but it sounds like that’s not necessarily true.

Debra Wanger: Right, a lot of actors are on a tight budget. You know, living in New York or LA is not cheap. There’s a lot of ramen noodles and cans of tuna and Starbucks and all that.

I get it, those are expensive cities to live in. You got to watch your money. But the food that’s cheap is low quality food.

It tastes good, and after a long hard day or you know, I went to four auditions and I didn’t book anything, what do you want to do? Do you want to go home and eat a salad?

“You want to hang out with Ben & Jerry, you know? Your buddies will always be there for you.”

There’s so much of that, and if you’re eating crap, you’re going to want to eat more crap. Your body gets used to whatever you do to it, so if you’re eating vegetables and green juice and drinking a ton of water and exercising every day, your body starts to crave that. If you’re eating the junk, it starts to crave that.

Debra Wanger’s Breakthrough

Charlie Hoehn: When did you notice that you’d broken through? That you had a more balanced life, that you were physically taking care of yourself and what effects did that have on your acting?

Debra Wanger: I think when I came back to it after my 10 year absence and I moved to southern California and started performing again. I realized I wasn’t getting sick as much and I wasn’t crying, the late night crying phone calls home didn’t happen as much.

People thought I was just easy to work with. I would get hired again at the same theaters with people saying, come on back, you want to do this part? The whole road was smoother, I guess.

Charlie Hoehn: Was there any stand out moment I guess or was it just in general?

Debra Wanger: Yeah, I think it was more general like it’s just easier, it’s just calmer and less volatile and I’m more grounded. Back in the dark ages, I remember an older actor called me a troubled girl. She said, “She is a very troubled girl.” Not to my face, but it got back to me.

That stuck with me. It’s like, I don’t want to be called that, but I was. I was uneven, I was up and down, I was emotional, I was moody, I was very insecure.

“I wasn’t always nice to everybody because I didn’t feel good, and that’s so important.”

People will remember that. People want to work with nice, reliable, easy to work with, show up on time, people and talent will get you in the door but being easy to work with and being personable, that’s what keeps you working.

Who Needs to Learn Resilience

Charlie Hoehn: How common is it would you say for A list actors, the people at the top, to be following the rules that you list out in your book versus those who are at the top but are like the old Debra.

Debra Wanger: What I found from meeting a lot of people and sending them scripts and making sure they know where their lunch was and everything was that the people at the tip top—the Tom Hanks, the Meryl Streeps—the tip top people and the bottom people, the nobodies, the who people, the regular you and me people were lovely, kind, considerate, patient, all that stuff.

It’s the people in the middle, the almost famouses or the used to be famouses, you know? The B list people, that were the jerks.

“I think it was the insecurity and the feeling like they had to prove something.”

For every Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, the people who had their act together, you can just tell…Meryl Streep. Even though she’s the most bananas talented, most decorated actress ever, you know she goes home and hangs out with her kids, right? And probably scrubs her toilet or whatever.

And then there’s all those people and you know, whoever the list is this year, the Heath Ledgers and all those people who are ODing and just miserable and not taking care of themselves and riding the roller coaster. There’s definitely some people who take care of themselves and have the longevity.

They’re still able to do it.

Even when you’re Meryl Streep, I mean—she had a team of people doing it for her, but she gets a pile of bad scripts and she’s still looking for the next gig. She’s still not 100% sure what it’s going to be.

I’ve had conversations with actors who still have to pay their alimony and still have to pay for their accountant and their publicists and their manager. It’s expensive. They still have bills to pay.

So sometimes when you see them do some horrible movie and you’re like, “Why the hell did they do that movie? Didn’t they know it’s a piece of crap?” Sometimes they do know it’s a piece of crap, but they still have bills to pay.

Reaching the Next Level

Charlie Hoehn: Yeah, so what percentage of these B actors, the people who are in the middle, do you think if they implemented the stuff that you are talking about, could actually end up getting to the level that they really want to reach and staying there?

Debra Wanger: I think a lot of them, I mean obviously with film actors and some of it’s just fashion and luck and what you’re associated with. But if you’re talented and you’re easy to work with and you’re healthy between your ears, you’ll work and you’re persistent.

I think it’s discounted how much you’re—oh god I am going to sound very California—your vibe, you know? Especially with casting, you walk into a room, a casting director will say, “Yes please,” or “No thank you,” and a lot of it is before you’ve even opened your mouth.

It’s not how well did you sing or how well did you read that particular side or how was your monologue. A lot of it is just what presence do you bring when you walk in the room.

“If you’re bringing unhealthy, needy, “I am a freak show,” “I’m a mess,” you can smell it from a mile away.”

Especially casting directors, they’re trained to do that. And if you’ve been a mess in the past, everybody talks.

LA and New York are small towns, and other places too are even smaller. I’ve certainly had directors call other directors that I’ve worked with and say, “How is Debra to work with?” Because they’re all friends, or a lot of them are friends. They are watching out for each other. I would warn someone if I’d worked with someone and they were unpleasant.

It’s such a team effort.

The hours are long, it’s challenging, some of these spaces are very small, you’re doing physical stuff where you need to trust each other. I mean, you’re lovers or you’re having fight scenes.

You need to be able to really be in the lifeboat with these people. So if you have any sense that these people are not going to have their act together, literally, you’re not going to play that.

Producers are investing tons of money in these projects. Whether it’s a film or a TV show or a Broadway show or whatever, that’s a lot of money. You’re not going to bet your money on someone who you’re not sure if they are going to show up or you are not sure if they’re going to be drunk or high or be getting sick or whatever or just be insecure.

You would know someone who’s going to bring it. In order to bring it, you really have to take care of yourself.

Keep Yourself Going

Charlie Hoehn: I know act two in the book is mastering the balance and you talk about getting your healthy head on which I believe we kind of covered, managing your mindset. Is there anything there we haven’t talked about?

Debra Wanger: You’re looking for work all the time, and most of the time you are going to hear no. You do build up a resistance to hearing no, like a door to door salesman.

If you’re trying to sell vacuum cleaners, you are going to hear no a lot, you’ll get used to that. But it does wear you down. So you have to have some emotional resilience and mindset to combat that.

But also, our work is self-generated. I mean once you’re in a show, you have a call sheet or you have a stage manager or someone to get you to show up, he’s got the paycheck to get you to show up. But when you’re auditioning, you’ve got to get yourself to go. You don’t have a boss making you to go to the audition.

“So all of your motivation has to be self-generated.”

Getting yourself in the proper place as we were talking about not coming off as needy and desperate and insecure when you do walk into the room.

It requires a lot of mental and emotional energy to show up and not talk yourself out of the audition. Psych yourself up, get yourself into a good calm place where you can work and not freak yourself out, not to be too nervous and deal with all the rejection. Not every job has that.

There’s a lot of jobs where you are lucky enough if you book it. Once you get hired for the job, that’s your job, so you chose to leave or you mess up really big.

With actors, some days you don’t want to show up. You just want to stay in your cozy warm bed, or it’s very easy to talk yourself out of it. Oh well—they’re looking for someone older, or younger or they need brown hair, they need blond hair, oh they’re just going to cast that same person they always cast.

“There are 101 ways to talk yourself out of it.”

So you really need a good mindset to keep going. Sometimes, you have these long streaks of unemployment, which really can wear you down.

So how do you keep showing up when you’re not sure why you are showing up, so you are wondering why you’re doing it.

How to Get Stuff Done

Charlie Hoehn: And you talk about GSD—which to keep this a family friendly podcast I suppose, in case anybody is listening with kids—Getting Stuff Done. Talk about that. What do they need to be getting done?

Debra Wanger: Well there’s the whole actor’s life stuff, which is the resumes and the pictures and mailings and memorization and those kinds of things. But there’s also all the real life.

When I talk about GSD I’m usually talking about the real life stuff—filing your taxes, mowing your lawn, finding a babysitter or making sure you’re making enough money to pay your rent. All of the day to day, more mundane stuff.

Charlie Hoehn: So let’s talk about how do they make enough money to sustain, I use this term in a non-derogatory way at all, but sustain their hobby and eventually turn it into their full-time profession. How do they do that?

Debra Wanger: That’s a tough one for a lot of people, especially if you are living in an expensive city. I’m San Diego based. I love it. There is a thriving theater community here. It’s awesome. But it’s still an expensive city.

Most actors are in LA and New York or even San Francisco, Seattle. These are not cheap places either. So I’ve had had tons of friends who have moved to New York so they could audition and act. And then they’d have to get an office job to work to afford to live in New York and then they can’t audition anymore because their boss won’t let them out.

“They’re in this vicious cycle where to afford to live in New York they have to work so much, and then they can’t audition, they can’t act.”

It’s heartbreaking. They’re like, “Now why am I in New York?” It’s cold, it’s crowded, and I can’t even go out.

That is kind of the age old paradox, I suppose. That’s why jobs like waiting on tables and working at Starbucks and driving Uber and retail and some of the more flexible things are so popular because you do have some more flexibility.

Yes, you’ve got to do it and you’ve got to find something, and I encourage people to be creative and, you know, teach yoga classes. If you know how to knit, teach people how to knit. I coach and teach.

I have a lot of friends who teach acting or have voice students. Find out what your skills are and find a way to make money. You know, sometimes you do have to work two and three jobs at the beginning, and it stinks. It’s even more important to take care of your health then, when you’re working so hard and have so little free time. It can be done, but it is hard.

Feedback from The Resilient Actor

Charlie Hoehn: What’s been your favorite feedback that you’ve received from a reader?

Debra Wanger: There is one woman, she’s been acting for a long time, an actor-singer. I don’t want to give her name but she gave me the feedback that she has lost 20 pounds that wouldn’t budge for a long time, and that she’s nicer.

She said she was always one of those people who would kind of tell people what to do because she’d been around for a long time and saw people going down the wrong path and she wouldn’t be afraid to tell them.

“Even though she was right most of the time, it wasn’t necessarily that the best way to play well with others.”

People really didn’t like that she was butting in. So she was telling me that when she started kind of biting her tongue and smiling and even asking permission before she gave people advice, people were responding better to her and she wasn’t only getting a more comfortable reaction from people but she was happier. It was just a lot easier backstage.

And she said that it really made a big difference just making that tweak of not telling people what she thought, even if it was the perfect thing they needed to hear and if all the world’s problems would be solved if they just took this one piece of advice.

She was learning to zip it. She’s like, “I am so much nicer and people like me better now.” So there you go.

A Challenge from Debra Wanger

Charlie Hoehn: Can you give our listeners a challenge? What’s one thing they can try from your book this week that could improve their life?

Debra Wanger: I’m going to say meditation. I don’t know how many of you meditate and I don’t know how many of them are terrified about meditation because there is so much mythology around it. But taking five minutes and sit still in a quiet place and just be, how powerful that is.

To just meditate for five minutes every day, that’s where I would start. Try to just quiet the voices in your head a little bit.

I was completely surprised because I always thought that to meditate properly, you have to have no thoughts and quiet. I thought for years I was failing at meditation because my mind was still going.

“But you cannot turn your mind off unless you’re dead.”

Your brain is going to be having thoughts and that’s okay. Those thoughts can also be, “Oh I suck at meditation, this is too hard, I’ll never…” you know? “Oh my gosh I have four and a half more minutes to go.”

That’s not the point. You’ll never going to stop your thoughts.

If you could slow them down a moment or just say, “Oh I am having thoughts,” and just gently guide them back. Don’t get too attached to any one thing and don’t judge it because that’s when you get into trouble. “Oh I should have taken the dog out and I didn’t” and “Oh I am such a horrible person because… oh I shouldn’t be thinking that. I am supposed to meditating,” as opposed to just like, “Oh I should take the dog out, okay well when I am done I will do that,” and then next.

Charlie Hoehn: Great suggestion especially for our audience. So how can our listeners connect with you and follow you? You do coaching still, how can they work with you?

Debra Wanger: not to be confused with Debra Winger, that’s a whole different set of story.

I have everything with my coaching, my books, when the workbook and the audio book come out that will be on there. You can order my CD on there. If you want to know anything about what I’m up to on either side of the stage or screen, it’s on