By Hunter Lee Hughes
Every now and then, a young actor will ask me, “If I invest time and resources into creating my own projects, will I enhance my acting career…or sacrifice it?”
After some hard-earned life lessons, my advice to actors looking to advance their own careers by making their own creative content is this: don’t do it.
My advice to actors looking to create content because something primal within you is demanding you pursue a story: do it.
To illuminate the difference, I’d like to offer into evidence the course my own creative life as it expanded from actor to hyphenate.
As a young actor living in a small studio apartment in Koreatown that I rented for $550-a-month (including utilities), I’d booked a number of student/indie films, then a pivotal role in a pilot presentation for the guys who previously produced Unsolved Mysteries and had a string of successful plays, including my favorite role up til then – the role of Jimmy in the 25th anniversary production of A PRAYER FOR MY DAUGHTER by Thomas Babe, directed by Emmy award-winner Dorothy Lyman. In those days, major reviewers actually attended theatre in Los Angeles and I’d gotten some great notices, which lead to being signed by agents and managers and new rooms, new opportunities. I was training in the Ivana Chubbuck studio, where I’d eventually make my way into her master class. I was determined to make it as an openly gay actor from the outset, which presented significant challenges in that era, but still, my future as an actor looked very bright indeed.
I also had a habit of falling in and out of love – mostly in – and not always with the Good Housekeeping steady candidate for romantic partnership.
To my surprise, one particularly difficult break-up upended my ability to function properly. My youthful joie de vivre dissipated and I became something approaching a shut-in. At the time, I was doing script coverage for Paramount Classics as a day job, along with occasional cater waiter gigs, which I’d recently started to turn down. After struggling to get out of bed one afternoon, I realized I had overdue books. I grabbed them and wandered into my local library. I planned to drop the books and go, but an image caught my attention. The magnified wing of a monarch butterfly on the front cover of “Four Wings and a Prayer” by Sue Halpern made an immediate impression. I checked out the book and learned that monarch butterflies – with a wingspan of three inches – migrate thousands of miles, sometimes traveling as much as 40 miles per day. The paradox of this extremely fragile yet fortuitous creature was, for me, the spiritual parable I needed to renew my life’s purpose. I began to understand my own experience as a migrant, from Houston to Los Angeles. Their journey became an allegory for coming into one’s own, against great odds and for a purpose you may not understand, but pursue nonetheless. Suddenly, I was moving around town again, to coffee shops to write, then to meetings with potential directors, then to appointments with artistic directors of theaters. Then, rehearsals. To condense a two-year process into a sentence, the result was Fate of the Monarchs, a multi-media one-man show and my first venture into writing, producing and performing original material.
So, I started my career as a content creator not out of any sort of savvy career planning, but out of a need to keep getting out of bed.
That experience was followed by the writing of another play. After that came a darkly comic short film, a comedy internet television series and, finally, a feature film. I don’t have enough space here to go into details, but I can assure you that my reasons for pursuing each of these projects all sparked with some moment of crisis or inspiration, mirroring the inception of Fate of the Monarchs.
And yet some point, I noticed that – outside my own material – I was spending significantly less time acting, rather than more.
I sometimes wondered if I was sabotaging my acting career by allocating so much time to these productions. But I always resisted that conclusion by reminding myself that this was eventually a road to more roles, more opportunities and bigger platforms. After all, I was writing interesting, three-dimensional characters and delivering in the performance. I wasn’t sacrificing anything. I was just experiencing delayed gratification.
Or maybe it was a time management problem, I’d sometimes beat myself up. I always seemed to underestimate timelines. The first short film I wrote and produced, I expected to take maybe 9-12 months. It took two years. I thought the comedy internet series would take maybe a year. It also took two years. Seeing that pattern, I adjusted my thinking when it came to directing my first feature film. This time, I was resigned to the fact that the process would take two years. It took five.
If I’m honest with myself, auditioning during this period became more difficult because of my split focus, not just because I was expending time and energy in new arenas, but also because those new pursuits were incredibly challenging. On the writing front, I had serious support in the business, having served as a story analyst for so long and then landing a gig as the writing assistant to Mardik Martin, who basically paid me $20/hour to absorb the craft of screenwriting. I felt like a natural developing and refining material. And those screenwriting skills served me well as I began developing as a director. But then…there’s producing.
If there’s one aspect of content creation that almost all actors underestimate…it’s how much time, effort and skill it requires to produce material. In this act of willful naiveté, I was no different. And I wasn’t some wallflower with dreams of roses that thought producing was easy. I knew it would be hard. But to quote Debra Winger from Terms of Endearment, “As hard as you think it is, you end up wishing it was that easy.”
To make something exist that’s currently only an idea on paper…and see that real human beings build the sets, light it, shoot it…is really hard. It is really, really hard. I can’t stress this enough – it’s so difficult. And all your efforts to make all that happen inevitably cost you stress. I don’t care how much you meditate and do yoga, if you’re producing a movie, especially for the first time, you’re going to be super stressed out. And as a producer…I was jumping into the indie film deep end of the ocean…with a storm brewing.
Producing required me to develop new skills – sometimes very boring skills – that felt like the antithesis to my previous life as a young actor. I had to deal with SAG-AFTRA contracts and negotiate pay rates with collaborators. I had to learn legal language. I couldn’t always afford someone to read the contracts for me. I had to pay the bills. Balance the books. I had to learn more details about the equipment and the perspectives of the entire crew. As a young actor, I’d focused on just a few individuals: the casting director, the director, my fellow actors and the producers. More days on set as a director-producer brought inevitable interpersonal conflicts, too. And that required me to develop a more diplomatic approach to solve problems and make the team happy. Life as a young actor never felt diplomatic. It was more expressive, experiential. As a producer, I had to worry about people’s safety. And make sure we hired stunt people and took precautions. I had too woo investors. Learn how to design a pitchdeck and how the waterfall of proceeds works with independent films. I had to learn about codecs and digital editing and back-ups. And how much they cost. I felt so much cooler as a young actor. As an actor-producer, to get my content off the ground, I had to crowdfund and promote and persuade. I had to share on my Facebook feed. A LOT. As a young actor, I didn’t even believe in social media and did not participate. As a young actor, in a professional context, I was just focused on developing a character, then persuading you to hire me or persuading you to see the character the way I did. As a producer, I had to find a way to persuade just about everybody to do just about everything for our projects since funds were never free-flowing.
Jumping from that producer mindset back to the mindset of an actor is incredibly difficult, at least for me. I still booked a gig here and there, but much less frequently.
Now that my feature is wrapping up and I’m re-entering in full force the acting game, I can’t help but wonder…would I have been further along if I’d never bothered to create content at all? If I spent all that time and energy over a decade only on training, working out, auditioning and acting jobs?
The truthful answer is: I believe I would have booked more roles on a conventional actor’s path had I not transitioned to creating content.
At first, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Because it forces me to confront the reality that the projects I’ve built haven’t necessarily led to an avalanche of new acting opportunities. In fact, it required a sacrifice of some jobs and some opportunities and, very likely, significant jobs and significant opportunities. I had choices to make. And I made them.
But maybe, I made a mistake.
But that’s when I remember…that I didn’t pursue the projects I did just to benefit my career. In the back of my mind – and at times the forefront of my mind – I certainly hoped they would. But, deeper than that, I pursued them because I needed to get out of bed. And each of them emerged from an intense desire to explore and make sense out of something that was previously unsettled in my mind or heart. Synchronicity and perhaps, fate, played a role, with subtle clues arising to meet moments on the brink. Repeated cycles of breaking up, not only with lovers, but with ideas and expectations, continued to provide urgency to explore human behavior in creative projects. Now, for better or worse, those projects stand as the real body of my work as a creative professional. In many ways, that work has not (yet) brought me to the level of professional achievement for which I aspire. But they got me out of bed. And a side benefit – they got me to not only see the burdens of others, but to bear responsibility and duty to other artists….and the audiences we serve.
So, as for my own journey as a content creator, I stand by it. But I don’t advise it, at least not for actors simply seeking career advancement.
I only advise it for human beings, seeking to understand themselves and the fragile yet fortuitous creatures that surround them.
Hunter Lee Hughes is an award-winning actor-filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles. His first venture into content creation was the acclaimed multi-media one-man show Fate of the Monarchs. He went on to write the play The Sermons of John Bradley, the dark comedy short film Winner Takes All, the comedy web television series Dumbass Filmmakers! and, most recently, the feature film Guys Reading Poems. He also spent five years as the writer’s assistant to legendary screenwriter Mardik Martin and eight years as a story analyst for Paramount Classics/Vantage.
Audit his final class of the year at StoryAtlas on Sunday, November 19th at 7 p.m. Register here for a free ticket.