A big part of sales and acting is relationships. People need to know you’re someone they want to work with, so always be professional. When I did extra work, I saw many stars in action. Some (Dustin Hoffman, for example, went out of his way to talk to extras, including me), yet others I won’t name were temperamental. You could feel the toll their actions and unpleasant moods took on everyone. Once a director of a TV show walked off set and left the entire crew, other actors and extras just standing there.
As a part of my series about the rising stars in popular culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ruth Kaufman. Ruth is an American actor who has had roles in independent features, short films, web series, national TV commercials and more, including an appearance on America’s Funniest People. Her thousands of voiceovers range from commercials to e-learning courses to medical narration. And she’s the award-winning author of six novels and two novellas.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I knew I wanted to be an actor from the minute I had a few lines in my Kindergarten class’s holiday show. I continued performing in grade school, high school and college, and even while attending law school and getting a master’s in Radio/TV/film, but my father strongly encouraged me to pursue a more traditional career.
After briefly working in sales at a radio station in Montgomery, AL (where I also wrote and voiced commercials, I returned to Chicago for a job requiring extensive travel. I set acting aside for three years and did the practical thing: earned a living. The travel took its toll on me (in the days before internet, travel apps and cell phones), so I quit. For three less practical years, I used some savings from that job to pursue acting full-time. I had representation, but wasn’t confident and looked very young for my age so I didn’t feel I fit in with the young moms. At auditions, everyone seemed so confident and to know everyone else. Being the newbie made me more nervous. So I took another full-time corporate sales, marketing and training job.
Eventually I completed the improvisation training programs at Second City, ComedySportz and iO, where I performed with a team. And I took some on-camera classes, a couple of VO classes and did as much acting and improv on the side as I could book and fit in. I feared my agent would stop calling because I was saying “no” so often because of my day job. So I quit my job at the end of 2005 to pursue acting and writing full-time. In early 2006, I finally made a voiceover demo and, in part because I was more available and in part because I felt ready, I started booking more VO and on-camera jobs. Now I’m one of those people who knows many people at Chicago casting director auditions.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?
One that comes to mind: I booked a national TV commercial for a sandwich chain. The director talked to me at the callback and, of course, on set during the shoot, but it was a busy day with eight principals and a bunch of extras, and we didn’t have any personal interaction beyond taking a selfie. After each of us mentioned on Facebook that we’d worked on a fun commercial, a mutual friend figured out the connection neither of us had noticed. Remember the cable comedy news show during law school mentioned above? The commercial director was one of the show’s camera operators…thirty years before this shoot. And the mutual friend was that show’s director (who married another crew member on that show). Small world! I’ve since worked on two more commercials with him.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I had a commercial audition for bagels. According to the script, I’d do some reacting to a voice off-camera with my mouth full of bagel, then I’d say a line. Unfortunately, my mouth was so stuffed with bagel — and also so dry — that I couldn’t spit the bagel into the spit cup (my first time using one, and I didn’t even know it was a thing until they handed it to me). Since I couldn’t spit out the bagel, I couldn’t say the line. I just sat there with my cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk.
Then I took a class which included 10 ways to bite and smile while eating a potato chip. That definitely helped me book a national commercial for which part of the audition was eating a Nilla Wafer. Nilla Wafers are hard and crumbly, yet I had to be able to take a bite and give a quick reaction showing how yummy I thought it was while looking natural and not getting crumbs in my lip gloss.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’ll be working on two feature films in June, but since the official cast announcements haven’t been made, I can’t share details yet.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The acting (and writing) life can be a roller coaster in both emotions (the highs of getting great auditions and bookings, the lows of not booking) and activity (often a feast of auditions and work, then a famine which can make it a challenge to stay motivated). So it’s important to make time for some self-care to refill the well. Ideas include: giving yourself permission to relax, whether that means taking a day or even a half day off to do non-industry things and/or meditating, getting a facial, massage or pedicure or just going for a walk on a nice day or spending time with friends. This could also include disconnecting from our devices. Actors often need to be connected so we can quickly respond to communications from agents and clients, but sometimes it’s helpful to put the phone down.
Have a hobby that brings you joy. I sing in a symphony chorus, in part because focusing on the music is relaxing.
Make a list of compliments and testimonials about you and your work and refer to it as needed. This list can help you remember why you got into acting in the first place.
Focus on gratitude and wins rather than whatever about the biz is getting you down or burning you out. This can be challenging and take effort, especially when social media delivers news about our colleagues’/friends’ amazing bookings at a time when we’re not booking or getting auditions. Consider keeping a gratitude journal and/or a list of motivational and inspirational quotes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d start “Do three small things a day to conserve resources and help the environment.” A lesson about the Tragedy of the Commons (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons) in an economics class stuck with me for decades. Basically, TotC means everyone thinks it’s ok to put their cows in a common field, leading to overuse because no one thinks s/he is responsible for maintaining the field.
Many people give little or no thought to how wasteful they are. If individuals took daily, small actions such as turning off the water while brushing their teeth and shaving (I’ve seen statistics saying that’d save up to two gallons every minute), using refillable instead of single use water bottles and choosing the right kind of reusable bag instead of throwaway plastic ones, collectively we could help the world. Here’s another small example that can add up: I drink a lot of water throughout the day, but at night often have half of a large glass left. Instead of just tossing that down the drain, I use it to rinse dirty dishes, which amounts to reusing at least 45 gallons a year.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. I knew from being in sales for more than fifteen years that it’s not about you, it’s about the client, aka any industry professional you interact with. Think about how you can meet the client’s needs and solve their problems. An example: in most if not all seasons of America’s Next Top Model, at least one model would resist a makeover or complain about having to wear something she didn’t like. These models were benefitting from an opportunity literally thousands of aspiring models wanted…to be mentored by some of the best in the business and boost their careers with publicity, a portfolio with pictures from top photographers and shoots for actual clients. Yet in the moment, they only thought about their dislikes and concerns rather than how they could benefit the team.
2. A big part of sales and acting is relationships. People need to know you’re someone they want to work with, so always be professional. When I did extra work, I saw many stars in action. Some (Dustin Hoffman, for example, went out of his way to talk to extras, including me), yet others I won’t name were temperamental. You could feel the toll their actions and unpleasant moods took on everyone. Once a director of a TV show walked off set and left the entire crew, other actors and extras just standing there.
3. Embrace technology. Actors need to know how to wear many hats (including sound, lighting, audio and editing) and have some equipment to produce quality self-tapes for on-camera auditions and voiceover auditions and jobs (unless we’re willing to pay each time or are lucky enough to have a very helpful friend). Even more than a dozen years ago when I took my first VO class, I was unpleasantly surprised by how much audio engineering I’d need to know. Now, I do almost all VO auditions and many jobs, even via agents, from my home studio. Fortunately, my agent now helps with self-tapes, but I still need to do a few on my own.
4. Do the hustle. Fortunately, I knew this from my time in sales. But I come across actors who think that because they have an agent, they can wait for the phone to ring/emails to arrive and don’t have to do anything to further their career. And others who think if they don’t have an agent, there’s nothing they can do aside from student films. Even now, most of my VO work comes from private clients obtained through self-marketing and referrals.
5. Learn to think, “Next!” after each audition rather than focusing on the outcome. Moving on is another lesson from sales that applies to acting. Not booking can be tough, especially after a callback filled with compliments for a next-level project or role, or when you have a bunch of auditions in a row and don’t book anything. But if you’re doing #4, you’ll already have other irons in the fire to help ease the sting.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Someday is now.” Even as an adult, I admit to succumbing to pressure from my father, who told me I wasn’t talented enough to be an actor. Even when I had those “real jobs” and took classes while acting on the side, he said, “What are you still doing that for?” He wanted me to be financially secure, and simply didn’t believe acting was the way I’d achieve that.
When I was 45, I realized that my life was half over. If I waited until retirement to fully pursue my dreams, would I have enough energy and/or be physically able to act? I chose to quit my well-paying corporate America job with benefits including four weeks of paid vacation to act and write full-time.
So if there’s something you’ve been wanting and waiting to do “someday,” can you make room for even a half hour a week for whatever that is? If fear is the main thing holding you back, can you seek ways to define and conquer those fears enough to at least take one small step a day toward achieving your dreams?
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I don’t have a particular person. But I’m grateful for everyone who has booked me, believed in me and given me acting jobs.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Actually, I have two people, because the content they create resonates with me and both are incredibly versatile and multi-talented: Seth MacFarlane and Rebecca Bloom. The Orville and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend mix comedy and drama while addressing serious issues via a fantastic ensemble of characters. And the use of music in both shows enhances the creative storylines (such as The Orville’s “A Happy Refrain” and CEG’s more than 100 original songs). I’d love to hear their thoughts about creating content and performing while basking in the synergy from both of them being at the same table.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thanks for asking!
Twitter @RuthKaufman https://twitter.com/RuthKaufman or @ruthkaufman
Instagram @ruth.kaufman https://www.instagram.com/ruth.kaufman
Amazon Author Page http://www.amazon.com/Ruth-Kaufman/e/B00JH7Z40S
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!