Buddha in Hollywood: Why Actors Should Meditate, Part Two
I have a pet theory. I call it the Perfect Storm Hypothesis, and it submits that many film and television actors, struggling and successful ones alike, limped out to Hollywood from painful family backgrounds, that they still struggle with unmet early mirroring needs, and that the entertainment industry is about the worst place on Earth for them to address all of this.
My theory goes like this:
THE PERFECT STORM HYPOTHESIS
Proposition A: A lot of actors long to feel seen. Maybe not all of us, maybe not most of us, but a lot of us.
Proposition B: People with a deep longing to feel seen were probably raised by parents who didn’t attune to them very well.
Proposition C: Children who were made to feel invisible by their caregivers probably don’t know how to regulate their emotions very well.
Proposition D: Some of those children come out to Hollywood. They are eighteen, they are twenty-two, they are thirty, but they are children.
Proposition E: Hollywood is about the most dangerous place imaginable for someone of this description (barring, you know, Saudi Arabia or North Korea or whatever).
So, let’s recap. Thus far, we have an emotionally shaky kid lighting out for California in her 2014 Prius. She’s off to get her needs met, off to find a world that loves her, off to become a star. Her big eyes glint crimson as the setting sun ignites the 10 Freeway, and she presses on, heading ever west.
Upon arriving in Hollywood, she is burning with hope. Her skin dances like ocean spray as she glides past the old Tower Records building. As she beholds for the first time the faded blue street signs of Sunset Boulevard, she knows she is finally home.
The next thing that happens, slowly, like the onset of some insidious disease, is a grim discovery: The warm, redemptive idyl she envisioned is not to be. Rather, she has steered her ship into an anarchic asteroid field that could not be more ill-suited for her fragile profile. The tattooed boys in the bars on Sunset are as cold and frustrating as the thin-lipped casting directors at Sony and Paramount. And even if, by some staggering series of lucky events, her career takes off, her true dilemma will likely remain unchanged, because commercial success was never the medicine for what ails her. Until she understands that Hollywood can never fill the dark well inside her, until she learns to relate to it with skill and compassion, this town will break her again and again. It will spin her around over and over. It’s the bite that fits the wound.
I can’t verify what percentage of real-world cases match this narrative. I freely admit that the story I just told is my own, just lightly disguised (I cleverly altered my pronouns, you see, and also it was a 1974 Mustang II, not a Prius). I don’t mean to project my pain onto you, my reader, and if you don’t recognize yourself in what I’ve just described, I’m glad for you.
But I doubt that the stereotype of the haunted, addicted actor is merely apocryphal. The sheer volume of famous anecdotes is overwhelming (Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, James Belushi, Robert Downey Jr, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael K. Williams, and so on, endlessly).
The plural of anecdote is not evidence, of course, but I do suspect a self-selecting mechanism at work: Hungry ghosts tend to come to Hollywood. Add this a priori vulnerability to the stomach-turning rollercoaster at the heart of every actor’s life, and there we have it. We’ve arrived: The Perfect Storm. Or as U2 put it: “Achtung, Baby.”
For a nasty case in point, we need only return to 2005 and the Third Street Promenade (read Part One of this article so you’ll know what I’m talking about!). Not five minutes after I listened to The Big Voicemail, I plunked down on a bench beside a lovely fountain. A big metal brontosaurus spit out a steady archway of water, and I looked at him seriously for awhile. Then, as if spellbound, I slid my trusty slider phone open once again, and made exactly one call. I share this unproud moment not for the sake of prurience, but in the interest, if you will, of science. Whom did I dial at this turning point in my life? My mother? “Guess what!” My long-time manager, Bradley? A buddy? “Dan Tana’s on me!” Not in this movie.
Let’s say his name was Frankie, and let’s say Frankie lived in Malibu. Frankie of Malibu was a heavily inked devotee of underground hip-hop. The instant one of his beloved rap crews grew popular, he began to despise them. Intimidatingly cool at first, but a sweetheart once you got to know him, he was also a merchant of sorts, a procurer of certain tinctures and powders. He answered the phone sounding like he’d just awoken from a coma.
“Ya, wussup,” came the thin, vaguely irritated rasp.
That didn’t faze me because Frankie always sounded that way, so I told him in lightly coded language just what I was after. “Can you do two balls? I can be there in an hour.”
In case my reader is fortunate enough (or wise enough) not to know how much an eight-ball of cocaine is, it’s a lot. Two eight-balls is more cocaine than any one person should ever buy (granting that no one should really be buying cocaine in the first place).
I’ll reserve my descriptive cookery for more wholesome fare, but suffice it to say that I was neither seen nor heard from for several days. Now that I think of it, there’s nothing to describe, because I have no memory of those days. I can only imagine I spent them in my bedroom, hunched over a mirror like Golem in his cave, Golem, who fawned over his Precious till it destroyed him. What I do remember is how I felt when it was over. It wasn’t quite a man who staggered back out into the world, but a phantom. It took two weeks to recover.
Well, why did I do this grotesque thing to myself? Life was going so well. I did it because it was going so well. I just couldn’t hold the treasure chest of dreams Ethan Reiff had tossed into my arms, overloaded as it was with pearls of possibility and immense golden questions. The damn thing was just too heavy. My parents, for their part, had instructed me all too well on how to make it disappear. So, that’s what I did. I made it disappear into a Golem’s cave of freakish thrills and pearly white dust. I simply opted out of the moment.
Principal photography for “Sleeper Cell” wouldn’t begin for another few weeks, so I hadn’t opted out of the show itself, thank God. It went on to be nominated for three Golden Globes, including Best Ensemble Cast, a cast of which I was a prominent member (my character wasn’t consigned to darkness after all). But I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of actors who turned down stunning opportunities, or failed to show up for work on prestigious sets, because they couldn’t bear the weight of that selfsame treasure chest.
Sad as it is, this carries a graphic lesson about the perils of the actor’s life. “Highs and lows,” a salty old talent agent cautioned me at the beginning of my career. “There are going to be highs and lows.”
“Not for me,” I thought disdainfully. “I’m different. I’m going to surf one glorious wave to Greatness.”
I was a fool, of course, and he was more right than he knew. He assumed an actor’s wins, at least, are moments of unblemished triumph, an uncomplicated counterweight to the struggle. The truth is it’s all hard. I don’t dismiss the possibility of authentic joy and meaning in this business; I’ve known it first-hand, and I know actors who seem truly happy. Still, for many of us, the difficulty is comprehensive; it encompasses success and failure.
So, what’s the point? I’ll say it as plainly as I can: Actors need help regulating their emotions. If we weren’t taught how to do this when we were little, we need to learn how to do it now. It’s hard, but it can be done. And mindfulness meditation, executed in specific ways, is the best strategy I know for learning how to do it. I offer this humble insight as a desideratum to my peers, to the new wave just swelling, to the stars who know stardom doesn’t stitch up the wound, and to those still languishing at the margins. I offer it in the spirit of a prayer. May we be happy. May we be free. May the ups and downs not destroy us.
I love actors, that’s the thing. All true actors are the same. Their souls are lit with the same imbecile hope, and the same reckless fire to play and to be seen. Whatever their reasons for coming here, for seeking access to this ghostly hotel; whatever calls them to malinger outside its mossy, wrought-iron gates; whatever evil-eyed critters lurk in their hearts; whatever happened to them, whatever they’re running from, and whatever becomes of their dreams — I love them, and I understand them.
We deserve to be happy. We deserve to be free.
May we all light a candle in the rollercoaster dark.