Back to Where it Began: Actor Ginnifer Goodwin '96 Visits Her Alma Mater
On November 24, 2008, actor Ginnifer Goodwin '96 visited her alma mater Lausanne Collegiate School, where she was recognized by the class of 2009 with the school's Chair of Ideas award. Following is a transcript of Goodwinn's speech to Lausanne's seventh through twelfth graders:
I have no idea how one becomes an actor. I was never going to be anything else for any single moment for as long as I can remember. My life has been the luckiest of domino effects: a sort of series of miraculous experience after miraculous experience that began (and continues to this day) with something I think is really rather easy: I just think, eat, sleep and live acting 24 hours a day. It is not my identity, and I enjoy plenty of other things, and certainly the “movie star” part of the job is grueling, but whether it is a role or the chasing of a role, the acting part is something at which I simply work . . . without rest. Now I may not know how one becomes an actor, but the one thing I do know about my becoming an actor - and this is something I fear you students are not going to like to hear - is that there is absolutely positively no way I would be where I am if I had not attended excellent schools and worked my butt off every single day and night and weekend of my education. Something your parents are not going to like to hear is that I don’t believe in back-up plans because I believe back-up plans are a means to this end: we back up. So my path to acting had no back-up plan. My path was this: when I graduated from Lausanne, I did not have the grades to get into my dream acting conservatory (and you had better believe the best acting conservatories require the best grade point averages). I had done well in school, but I hadn’t tried quite hard enough. I spent an entire year at a liberal arts college studying math and history and English and everything else so that I could get my liberal arts GPA up enough to audition for my dream school, Boston University’s acting conservatory. And I did. And out of 1,000 eligible auditioners, I was one of the 100 accepted. And I found out when I got there that I knew nothing about acting. I was inspired by this realization and preceded to obsess for four more years. The standard acting school schedule at Boston University’s acting conservatory is this: Mondays I attended every type of theatre class you can imagine from early morning until dinnertime. Tuesday through Saturday I would attend these classes plus rehearsals from early morning til eleven at night. Sunday was my only day off. In the summers, and sometimes even during various school year semesters, I studied at more dream schools in England. And to prepare me for the competition and daily rejection most people in most other fields will never feel, 80 of my 100 classmates were “cut,” or kicked out, over the years. I graduated with 20.
Now I’m sure you’re asking yourself how I attribute my career to this education. Well aside from the tools and skills and techniques I would never have gained in any other way . . . aside from the life experience and performance experience and preparation for a profession in the arts . . . I was one of a couple of students who was signed by agents before I graduated from school. Agents, managers, studio executives and casting directors all attended performances at my school because I went to a conservatory with that good of a reputation. During my senior year, I was flying to New York during the day for professional auditions while keeping my grades up and flying back to Boston for my nighttime play rehearsals. I was working by the time I was 1 month out of school. Now my agents thought I was crazy because I was reluctant to act in any project in which I didn’t believe and yes, that reluctance and seemingly delusional faith in my own path has led to my going broke a couple of times, but following my heart and being true to my dreams makes me happy- it’s as simple as that - so I only took those parts I adored. I read a lot of scripts right out of school, but the first thing with which I fell in love was a project called Mona Lisa Smile. I remember, in fact, sitting in a Starbucks in Times Square reading it for the first time and crying my eyes out. An audition was arranged and I called my mother to tell her about this, my first big movie audition, with a director of whom I was a big fan and of course, there was Julia Roberts producing and starring. My mother told me I’d get it. I told her, “Mom that’s really sweet but things don’t work that way.” I mean really, as an actor I am a professional auditioner. This might have been my first big movie audition, but truly, I am still to this day rejected on a daily basis for almost every single thing for which I audition. I am sometimes up against hundreds of people and I’m too tall, too short, too brunette, not pretty enough, too pretty, too character-y, not famous enough, too famous, or generally not right and not good enough. None of this is personal. Anyway, the chances of my ever working, statistically, are slim to none.
But back to Mona Lisa Smile: I remember sitting in a sort of waiting room with movie stars and here I was, professionally “a nobody.” I auditioned my heart out again and again (for sometimes we audition for 3 days, sometimes we audition for months), and I was told this by director Mike Newell, at what ended up being the end of my process, “You do not have enough experience and your performance is too theatrical.” (By this he meant I had not honed my screen techniques, which are very different from stage techniques.) But then he said, “I am going to give you this role because of where you went to school. Because I know that you could not have graduated from such a place if you were not capable of what will be asked of you.” My costars ended up being Julia, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It was one of the best times of my life. And I think the lesson learned is: Listen to your mom.
Work begets work and though I’d assumed I’d start out in theatre, I acted in various film projects that led to a move to Los Angeles. And I can’t lie: acting on a movie set is, categorically, perhaps the most invigorating, exciting, challenging, glorious experience on this planet. I think its only equal is the experience of falling in love. But I think you’ll be surprised at how this machine works. Being famous- a lot of folks can get famous- is entirely different from being a successful actor. You probably read magazines every week with photographs of famous people shopping and partying and honestly, if they were working they wouldn’t have time to do those things. I run an actual corporation, just like every other working actor (which I will tell you about in a few minutes). If I am on a set, I will probably work 16 hours a day. My TV show Big Love is run much like a film set, so I’ll give you a day in the life of an HBO polygamist: on a Monday, I will probably get up and drive to work at 3:45 in the morning. The stage is an hour outside of LA and I get myself there. I spend an hour and half in hair and makeup, trying to make it look like I don’t have my hair done or any makeup on. I run about 5 pages worth of lines with my costars. I will film for 14 hours, which means I will do a couple of scenes, never in order, as many times as you can imagine and from every angle. I will drive myself home happily exhausted and turn around the next morning to do the same thing all over again. By Friday, I will probably have to stay at work until the wee hours of Saturday morning to get done anything we had to put aside during the week. Needless to say, I also have to work to stay healthy and well rested so I can keep up and do my best. I cannot imagine a more divine schedule, but ask anyone who visits me on set and she will tell you she was bored to tears. Everyone will also tell you that I sometimes miss Thanksgiving and Christmas and like a doctor on call, I sometimes have to leave family vacations.
Now on days when I don’t work, I audition or do extensive research for an upcoming role. A movie could take a month to film. It could take 6. When my jobs are over and I’m unemployed, I panic about money and my future just like everyone else, and wait a year or so for my project to be released if it gets released at all. I spend my days doing exactly what you would do with your free time. With some exceptions:
An integral part of my career’s projection is publicity. When you are flipping through those magazines and looking at photographs of us actors on red carpets or watching us on entertainment news programs behind microphones, we have spent many hours leading up to that moment traveling, having our hair, makeup and nails done and trying to prepare ourselves for questions we don’t know are coming. We spend hours being tailored into dresses we NEVER own because we could never afford them (and just so you know, they always smell really bad because some model not allowed to wear deodorant wore it down a catwalk and we aren’t allowed to launder the clothes). But we do these things - we schmooze and we interview, and we try to be in the right place in the right time - partly because we want you to see us in magazines and on TV and we hope we can inspire you to go see our work. The more you watch us, the more we get to work. So this is part of my job.
And guess what? The more you want to buy what we’re wearing and look the way we look and live the way we live, the more you buy the magazines. Which is why the magazines exist. I hope that you know we are all selling you something. Every time you are watching your favorite show, girls, or looking through these magazines and you think, “I wish I had hair that long and luscious,” know that actress wishes she did, too. Her hair isn’t real. It’s full of extensions. She is wearing fake eyelashes. If it’s a still photo, she has probably been stretched in Photoshop to look skinnier and taller, because your insecurity leads you to buy magazines and products. The magazines know that you will keep going back to look - to compare yourself to whoever he or she is- to see if you are skinny enough and wearing and using the “right” things, because again your insecurity sells magazines and products. None of it is real. We are all smoke and mirrors. (Why am I telling you this? Because I hope to help arm you - even the littlest bit- against unrealistic expectations. We actors cannot even live up to the images we project. We play characters called movie stars.) Now, there are the actually anorexic boys and girls. But Hollywood did not make them that way. Magazines exploit illnesses and those illnesses are encouraged by something removed from what we’re up to making movies out there in California. There are some sick boys and girls who feel out of control of their careers, their talents, their lovers . . . and they are finding a sad relief in something they can control: the food they put in their mouths. They are something wholly separate from what I’m talking about. So please don’t get confused about, again, what we’re selling you. We are airbrushed and shaded, our clothes are pinned til we can’t breathe, we’re corseted and we’re tricking you. We will spend 8 hours shooting a one-page fashion magazine feature trying to get you to buy us: to think we’re beautiful enough to want to watch us and buy US. And we have a lot of fun along the way.
I am living my dream and outside of all the normal healthy real life dramas, every single day in my life is awesome. And a lot of people work with me - and work very hard- to make it that way. Nothing I have thus far described has been accomplished without a lot of help.
[edited for publication]