What I Learned About Acting by Pretending to be John Mayer
A few years ago, a friend of mine was involved with producing an event for VH1. It was Save the Music, or something like that, and she needed a stand-in for John Mayer, who was being honored that night.
Because I look so much like John Mayer, I took the part. My job was to basically show up on set and read John Mayer’s speech during the rehearsal. The gig paid like, I dunno, $400, and who is gonna pass that up, right?
There were other stand-ins at the rehearsal. The difference between us was that they were, ostensibly, trying to be serious actors. Although they’d been in movies, television shows and commercials, like the majority of working actors, nobody knew who the hell these people were. They were there that day because they needed a check.
My arduous work took all of two minutes and consisted of standing at the podium and reading some vaguely emotive words about the power of music and why we need to save it and stuff. The rest of the twelve hours on set was spent bullshitting with the other stand-ins.
In the middle of the day, thinking, Jesus Christ, this is like the best job of all time, imagine what it’s like to be a real actor, I told one of them that I was thinking about taking up acting as a serious endeavor. I figured— how hard could it really be? When I was a kid in school, I was in plays. Surely I could act too.
My compatriot fired back at me, insulted-like but still nice— he was being passive-aggressive, the height of acting— and asked me why I thought I was qualified to be an actor.
I said that in my day to day life I often felt that I was kind of acting anyway. It’s was the ol’ Erving Goffman frontstage vs. backstage thing. This idea that all of life was actually some grand work of theater, wherein just by existing, I was putting on an act. Smiling, laughing at people’s dumb jokes, pretending to give a shit. Isn’t that at least 90% of what life is about?
Take dating, for example. When you start dating some new, you’re kind of just auditioning, really. You wear your best clothes, make sure your hair looks okay, do your best to keep the conversation lively. You pay for an expensive dinner, then pretend you’re not thinking about it. The dating ‘you,’ that’s not the person you really are, but rather, the character you are presenting yourself to be. You’re trying to win the person over, so you’re pretending, ultimately.
I know this sounds incredibly shallow and in the context of dating, potentially even disgusting. Most people don’t think of it the way I’m explaining it, but when you break it down, you realize all of life is kind of like that. You wouldn’t go to work in the same clothes you wear around the house. You don’t talk to your boss the way you talk to your friends. You adapt to your surroundings. Society forces you to conform, to play a role.
As I relayed all of this to other stand-in, he started chuckling. This was probably all very funny to him. His hopes and dreams were pinned on being an actor, but in a way I was taking the wind out of his sails, saying that basically anyone could do what he did, provided they looked at life as if it was a movie, or something. As if that could possibly pass as training for being a real actor.
He countered my argument by saying that being an actor was actually incredibly tough, and that no amount of Shakespearan “All the world’s a stage” rationalizing could prepare a person for being professionally paid to pretend they are someone else.
The reason was, according to him, that while ‘life as theater’ was essentially true, in our day-to-day interactions, people don’t expect that you are acting. If you talk about the weather in the elevator, most people just assume you want to talk about weather in the elevator. People expect you to be sincere. You may be a slob at home, but when you enter the workplace, your boss suspends that disbelief. They give you the benefit of the doubt.
But when you go in for an audition, people know you are acting— there is the expectation there that you are already performing— and so you have to make it seem as if you are not. And that’s the hardest part. Pretending, but at the same time pretending to not be pretending. It’s a very delicate thing, and the best actors are the ones who are able to elegantly pull that off.
We are not who we are, the minute we know someone is actually watching.