Voice Acting and the Myth of Rejection
By Joan Baker and Rudy Gaskins
June 30, 2021, Revised article originally published in Backstage Magazine
As a voice actor, you may sometimes find yourself carrying the weight of rejection as a necessary price of admission into the field. This burden results from unreturned phone calls, auditions you didn’t book, agents who’ve said no, or a teacher who says, “You’re really improving but there’s still work to do.” It’s exacerbated by observing other actors booking gigs while you’re waiting to catch a break, or watching a great TV spot whiz by, only to recall that you auditioned for it?! It can be a difficult pill to swallow. After all, you too have bills to pay, family obligations, and a host of unexpected “stuff” coming at you at the speed of life. Then, there’s the constant doubt about your talent or whether you really have what it takes. Worst of all, you may be comparing yourself to others and feeling smaller and smaller by your perception of their success. At a certain point, without the encouragement or affirmation of an actual booking, all this crap gets lumped into one bad feeling actors like to call rejection. Marilyn Monroe summed it up this way: “Sometimes I feel my whole life has been one big rejection.”
The bizarre reality of the rejection phenomenon is that no one is actually being rejected in the process of auditioning. Casting is a process of selection, not rejection. To illuminate the point, imagine that you are attending a red carpet event and are given the opportunity to choose an outfit from the Armani collection. Every outfit is exquisitely designed but you can only choose one. To make the best choice you must consider the type of event, the season, your body type, and the accessories to be worn with the outfit. When your criteria are satisfied you select the outfit and you’re on your way. It’s not that you’ve rejected the other outfits. They were all amazing! You selected the one that accommodated your criteria. The casting process is the same. From a group of fine voice actors, only one can be selected for each role. Casting is the art of selection. Rejection, on the other hand, is something actors invent for reasons we will try to explain a little further. Of course, we must first put aside the obvious situations where an actor shows up intoxicated, late, inappropriately dressed, or in a foul mood. These actors are and must be rejected in the truest sense of the term before a selection process can begin.
If, as we assert, there is selection without rejection, why then is rejection one of the most commonly discussed issues among actors? “Actors search for rejection. If they don’t get it they reject themselves.” is how Charlie Chaplin once put it. There must be a perfectly rational, psychological reason that actors embrace rejection as part of the craft. And when you consider how painful rejection can be (triggering childhood trauma, depression, self-loathing, and the likes), you can surmise that that reason is a very powerful one. From a psychological standpoint, we learned that the actor embraces rejection, however painful because there’s a payoff that makes it seem worth the trouble. In the case of rejection, the actor can wear it like a badge of honor for having fought the good fight. That leads to public admiration. The actor, by bearing the pain and torture of rejection, becomes a martyr for his art. That might appear to be a noble stance, but it’s not true, and only leads to a deeper state of denial. There’s nothing noble about it. If anything, it leads to lowered expectations, self-doubt, and feelings of depression. One can imagine the voice actor taking on their auditions, not with an appreciation for the opportunity to audition, but with the notion of submission to a ritual lashing. Why not put on a hair shirt and call it a day?
When any of us is not selected after having put our heart, soul, and vulnerability on the line, we are left with the morass of our own thoughts as to why. Being left in the morass of your own thoughts is not a good place to be. We are far too brutal on ourselves. In two minutes we can go from contemplating what we could have done better to a total condemnation of a universe that has conspired to keep us from happiness. “Why does God hate me?” is what one actor friend exclaimed after being placed on hold for a national TV spot, given a recording date, and then released without explanation. That he went as far as to blame God, is a prime example of how far our own minds will spiral out of control—triggering negative life experiences having nothing to do with the audition. The casting folks know nothing of your past hurts or current needs. They consider only what shows up at the audition. So, what actors refer to as rejection is actually a simple case of not being seen to meet the casting director’s criteria. And yet, it can lead to very deep, dark feelings which are then misplaced under the umbrella of “ejection. “That, in a nutshell, is the paradox of rejection. It isn’t intended as personal, but it’s impossible not to experience it that way,” says Dennis Palumbo, a psychotherapist who was once a screenwriter pounding the Hollywood pavement without success. Palumbo, was describing his own trap. It is not impossible to accept the truth for what it is.
Granted, the audition process is hard on the actor because the act itself is very personal. If the actor were unable to close the deal on selling a car or vacuum cleaner it wouldn’t be quite so dramatic. Even if he’s a mediocre salesperson, he can at least place some of the blame on the attributes of the product: It doesn’t function properly, doesn’t come in enough colors, costs too much money, etc. As a voice actor, however, the actor is both the product and the salesperson. They’re naked with no place to hide. That’s a very courageous challenge to take on, and it’s up to the actor to be realistic about the odds if they are to go out there day after day with a joyful attitude. The good news is that by looking carefully and honestly at the casting process, the actor will find it easier not to take it personally. The actor will find it far more useful to direct his energy toward constructive endeavors like expanding his performance repertoire through practice and training and taking special care to nurture their emotional wellbeing. Talent, preparation, and the love of the craft are the only remedies for the vagaries of the casting process. Wallowing in misplaced ideas of rejection is an unwitting choice, a pitfall, and the stuff of cautionary tales.
The myth of rejection is a diabolical spell, cloaked in a hero’s armor. When under its spell, the actor prefers to wear the armor of the hero rather than escape the spell. The actor does not want to give up the notion of rejection because it would mean giving up the admiration he receives for standing tall in the face of it. He can’t wait to run toward the front line where the bullets are flying and then bemoan the harsh reality of his plight. And like the soldier of war, the voice actor wears these scars proudly because the payoff is admiration. Admiration is quite possibly the most desired status in the human experience. But alas, “Admiration for a quality or an art can be so strong that it deters us from striving to possess it.” ―Friedrich Nietzsche
Admiration is a temporary high—an addiction that blinds the actor from the truest pursuit of the art. And yet admiration, as is the case with any powerful narcotic, is not easily given up. Some voice actors hold on to it for its own sake, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of their own demise.
“Until I become famous, at least I shall be admired for taking the slings and arrows required to become so.” —Unknown
What is the actor then to make of rejection? First and foremost, that it is a myth, a wayward concept that is out of touch with the actual process of casting. Keep in mind that what we hold out to be a rejection rarely has anything to do with what happens in an audition and everything to do with the personal meaning we assign to it. Secondly, true rejection is a well-documented and understood phenomenon. Find a qualified therapist to help you deal with it. Negative feelings can drive the mind toward self-destruction, anxiety, and physical sickness. It is not a state that you want to engender in yourself or hold out as honorable.