At what moment did you realize that you wanted to be an actor?
Initially, it was when I was a kid and I did my first play. I realized I really liked it, and I really liked the interaction with the audience. I was six years old and I had a “bit” and the audience loved it because I was this cute little kid and it was an exhilarating experience for a six year old kid.
I kind of fell out of it in high school, there wasn’t much going on at high school arts-wise, but then I rediscovered it again in college. It was always a combination of things that I’m good at… it requires people skills, it’s communal… you have to get along with people, you collaborate, you build something, it’s creative… all of these things at once.
There was no real epiphany, it just made sense and it was more fun and more viable than politics. [laughs]
Did you study acting in college?
I did. I went to a liberal arts school [Brown] so it was a broad theater arts curriculum, but there was a really active student theater community and we had a lot of autonomy. So there was ample opportunity to experiment and fail, and to do it twenty times during one year. There were just so many opportunities to do stuff. So I got a liberal education in my classes, and then a lot of hands-on experience with acting. I hardly had any friends outside the theater community because I was so busy. If you’re not in class, you’re on stage or you’re building something.
Was your family supportive?
It almost seems ludicrous to me that someone would have to go to their parents and say “this is what I’ve decided to do.”, as if to somehow tacitly ask for permission. My parents were very hands-off and wanted both me and my sister to be independent. And my mother was the one who drove me to my first audition when I was six years old. It was her idea.
So they were quietly supportive, but also quietly skeptical wondering whether their kids would have the best lives they could with their talents. I mean, I could go to law school and be making tens of thousands of dollars a year easily. But instead as an actor you have to scrape by and eat out of cans. I’m sure that creates anxiety in my parents. But my sister and I never had an pressure from my parents in any direction.
Do you feel your education prepared you for a career in showbiz?
Since I was doing it from the time I was a little kid, and I had done some semi-professional work in Omaha when I was a teenager, I had a lot of hands-on experience. Because of that experience, I was able to go to college without really worrying so much about whether it felt like a conservatory or not. I feel that you learn by doing, and that’s how I’ve always approached things. College for me was a place to do that. I went to a place with an open curriculum so I could decide what I wanted to do when I was there. I found that I had an interest in theater and wanted to live there.
I do think that it prepared me mostly because the nature of my school, which really promoted individuality and an entrepreneurial spirit. You built your own curriculum, which is really what you have to do in life as an actor. You have to learn how to market yourself and all that stuff. So a focus on those values rather than class work or scene study… which I also had… I was learning how to be a person. You learn to see what you lack, and you know it’s your responsibility to go get it and add that to your stockpile.
How do you cope with the constant rejection of showbiz?
The hardest time is when you’re first starting out and you don’t have any laurels. Because all you have is your own faith that you’re really good. It doesn’t matter how great you might be if nobody else believes it. So it’s harder at the beginning when you don’t have any credentials and you have to prove yourself.
The rejection was really hard at the beginning. Now, having achieved some of my own personal goals, that frees me up to know that I could do it again. For example, when you finally get an agent. Even if things go bad with that agent and you never book and they drop you or whatever… from then on you know that you’ve gotten an agent once and you can do it again. The rejection becomes easier the more you achieve, the more successes you rack up. You can look at your resume and see that you’ve accumulated these successes and rejection becomes easier to take.
The hardest thing for me now is not being seen for something, when I don’t even get the chance to audition for something I might be right for.
What are your goals as an actor?
I see showbiz as a ladder, and the ultimate step is “actor/producer”, like Robert Redford. But how do you get there? I’m always evaluating where I am and how I get where I’m going. Right now, the next step for me is name recognition within the industry, wider recognition for what I’m good at and what I do. I want to lessen the possibility that I won’t get called in for something that I’m right for. I want people to think of me and remember me as a solution for casting problem they might have. I want wider name recognition within the industry to increase the number of opportunities, which mathematically would increase the chances of getting a job.
The present goal right now is to feel satisfied that I am considered for every role that comes around that I could be right for. I don’t even expect to get them, I just want to be considered. That doesn’t always happen now, and I think that’s a viable goal. One way to accomplish that, of course, is just to do good work. But you can’t just do good work and expect everyone to notice. You kind of have to be a squeaky wheel.
You’re known among your friends as the King of Self-Promotion. Can you tell me some of the ways you approach marketing yourself? What are the tools, what is your philosophy, etc.?
Well, in terms of basic tools… I think everyone knows the basic tools. You need a good headshot that looks like you so that when you walk into the room, they see what they wanted to come in. That’s so basic that anyone who doesn’t do that is willfully deaf to that advice.
Another thing, too, that a lot of people don’t get is that you need to look like the best version of you… the “cleaned up” version of you. But people don’t realize that it is often their peculiarities that gets them the job. People are so concerned sometimes with what they think is “wrong” with them, that they don’t realize that it’s these characteristics that make them stand out, that make them unique. So the headshot absolutely needs to look like you. That doesn’t give you carte blanche to be a slob, mind you. People want to see interesting people who stand out. Let who you are come through.
Another thing actors sometimes don’t realize that we have control over how people see us. It is our responsibility to market ourselves. You have to ask yourself, “In my highest ideal of myself, what do I want people to think of me as an actor and an artist?” Then do everything possible to promote that image of yourself in everything you do.
If you want to be perceived as an edgy, street-y, urban New York type of person, then you should dress that way, you should act that way, you should bring that energy into the room, your pictures should look that way. If you have a website, it should look urban and edgy and incorporate those elements into the design.
You need to decide what you want to be ideally. The industry needs to understand you one way at first. If you’re trying to be everything at once, you diffuse yourself and you disappear. However you market yourself, if you pick this ideal thing you want to be and push everything toward that in how you present yourself, how you carry yourself, what you reveal to people… what you’re doing is building yourself toward your highest ideal which is good for marketing, but it’s also great for achieving your personal goals
I do think that making a bold, interesting choice and sticking to it is good advice for marketing yourself as a business. It’s “branding”. I’m always reading books about marketing and branding, and how to create a buzz. Instead of reading Acting as a Business, and all these books that are given to us in acting programs, it’s very helpful to read books for people working with products. It’s an interesting experiment, anyway, to see if you can apply the same principles to your acting career. You’ve got to give yourself an edge, and it can’t hurt to start thinking outside the box.
What sorts of things should an actor be doing regularly to increase the chances of getting work?
Here’s an example: I just went on a road trip and we’re driving along and there’s a billboard for Dunkin’ Donuts lattés. Then, a few minutes later, there’s an airplane with a banner, advertising the lattés from Dunkin’ Donuts. Then we check into the hotel, and we turn on the t.v. and there’s an ad for Dunkin’ Donuts lattés! The next morning… guess where we got coffee? Dunkin’ Donuts!
They’re a major brand, a hugely successful brand, everyone knows it. And yet they were in our face. Similarly, as an actor, the one thing that will help you is visibility. No one is going to remember to call in an actor who’s sitting home watching tv.
My point is, just like Dunkin’ Donuts is in your face, actors have to be in people’s faces. Not in an obnoxious way, you just have to be ubiquitous. And how do you become ubiquitous? Always be in something, even if it’s a showcase that doesn’t pay you anything. Even if it’s bad! You don’t have to invite anyone… you can send them a postcard the day before it closes just to tell them you were in it. They see your picture, they see your postcard, they know you’re working on something. It’s an excuse to be in someone’s face.
You get invited to an opening? Go. You get invited to a show? That means they’re papering the house and there’s probably going to be industry there. Go! You don’t have to be obnoxious or anything, and I would never advocate that. You don’t even have to introduce yourself to anybody. Just always be out, go to everything. Go! I don’t know if it works, but I do know that I went to Dunkin’ Donuts instead of Starbucks that day.
How important is it for actors to have a website, such as JohnLloydYoung.com?
Let me put it this way: it is your absolute obligation as a business person selling a product to make it as easy as possible for someone to learn about that product. You can’t complain that you’re not getting opportunities if you’re not making yourself as available as possible. You should always be letting the people who are hiring know where they can come see you in something, or if you’re right for something. It’s your responsibility to let them know about it.
Considering that, it’s insane not to have a website. It’s available 24/7 for anyone who wants to have access to it. Let’s say one day a casting director gets a post card from you and it’s the one day they decide to pay attention. They recognize the show, or they know one of the actors you’re working with or something. And they want to find out more about you. They can do a search on you and your name comes up and then… guess what?
They’ve chosen to go find out more about you. You didn’t accost them at a party and shove a card in their face, you didn’t call them a thousand times. When someone goes to your website, it’s because they want to. It’s an amazing opportunity to present yourself exactly the way you want to present yourself. You want to be an edgy, New York urban type? Design your site to represent that. You create the viewers’ experience when they come to your website. You shouldn’t lie, but you can custom tailor someone’s experience and how they’re introduced to you.
It seems ludicrous to me that someone would argue with the fact that it’s a good thing to have your information there 24 hours a day.
I think most commonly the problem is the cost.
Well, I mean, you’ll spend $500-$1,000 to have a professional website designed. People spend that much on their photos. It’s another tool for you. I’ve seen this happen where someone mentions an actor to a casting director and they’ll go and do a Google search because they don’t know anything about that actor. Do you want the first thing to show up on Google to be some review of an off-off-Broadway show you did somewhere years ago? Or do you want the first hit to be something that you have designed to present yourself in the best way possible?
It’s getting increasingly unacceptable to not have a web presence of some sort. For $35 you can post a picture with your Internet Movie Database listing. If someone is doing an internet search for you and they can’t find a picture of what you look like? You’re making a huge mistake. Because people do internet searches all the time. Even if it’s just as simple as paying the $35 to get your photo on IMDB, then you have to do that. How can you live with yourself if people can see your listing on IMDB and not know what you look like or get your contact information?
What do you love about acting?
I love the communication with an audience. I love when I feel like I’m teaching something important about life. Acting at it’s best is teaching people how to live, or showing them other ways to live. Giving them ideas for how to solve their problems. Oftentimes through art and theater, you see a character that you can sympathize with confronted with a problem, and in seeing how they deal with that problem, you can carry that over into your own life. When that happens, it’s exhilarating.
You’re teaching people and inspiring them. It doesn’t always happen… not everything is Chekhov, not everything works. But the potential for it to happen is what I like most about it.
And I also like transforming myself. Or, revealing myself and being validated. A lot of times, you open yourself up and you reveal things that you’re ashamed of or afraid to reveal in your own life. When the audience “goes there” and they validate you… they don’t have to know you’re revealing things about yourself… but when they accept it, it’s kind of cool.
Recommended reading list from John Lloyd Young
“Bang!” by Thaler, Koval, Marshall
“A Branded World” by Michael Levine
“What Clients Love” and
“Selling the Invisible” by Harry Beckwith
“Self Promotion for the Creative Person” by Lee Silber
“Power Networking” by Fisher, Vilas
“The Season” by William Goldman.
“Hello, He Lied” by Linda Obst.