AMU Editor's Pick Original Veterans

Veterans and Media – Painful (yet valuable) Lessons I Learned When I Started My Entertainment Career

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By Jennifer Marshall
Contributor, AMU Edge

Since I started working as an actress in Los Angeles in 2013, I have experienced highs and lows like no other career. It’s a rollercoaster and not for the faint of heart. Looking back at all the successes and heartbreaks, I created a list of the top five lessons that have stuck with me. If you are a veteran looking toward an entertainment career, perhaps these lessons may help you.

1) The value of hard work

Forgive my cynical chuckle. I naively thought that hard work would culminate in forward movement in the entertainment world. Sadly, in television and film, busting your tail doesn’t always yield results. You may outwork the other aspiring actors around you, but do you have connections? Money? Talent? The “it” factor? Charisma? Are you inherently interesting to watch and to talk to? The industry is full of people who fit this mold and just trying to stay afloat at times can be draining.

2) The power of connections cannot be underestimated

I always love reading the stories of actors with a famous family linage claiming that they got a role solely based on their audition and that “no one knew” who they were. That’s nonsense. Even when actors change their names (Nicholas Cage, for example), directors, producers and casting directors still know who they are and simply having them attached to a project can bring in money, investors, or other “name actors.”

In some cases, having those family connections can get you in the room to audition, even if your experience and schooling don’t warrant it. For some reason, rather than acknowledging this privilege and being thankful for it, we have to pretend that nepotism doesn’t exist and that Hollywood is simply merit-based.

3) You have to be impossibly beautiful and thin to succeed

Boy, did I buy into this one! Before auditioning regularly, I thought that a “Hollywood look” was essential for working. In reality, there are far more “regular looking” people than there are ingenues, heartthrobs, etc. Generally, the leads and the love interests are super gorgeous and most others are average to above-average attractiveness. Some of the most interesting actors currently working are those who favor everyday people – Steve Buscemi, Mahershala Ali, Ann Dowd, John Carroll Lynch, Dale Dickey, Greta Lee, and Samira Wiley.

People move to Los Angeles or New York, buy into this long-standing myth and start transforming themselves. Weight loss, veneers, hair transplants, cosmetic surgery, etc. I’ve been to castings where half of the waiting room looked like the same person! Long hair, perfect teeth, engorged lips, tiny waists, borderline emaciated frozen Botoxed faces. Some of the most attractive aspiring actors and actresses I know don’t work, and it’s interesting to wonder if they would have had they not chosen to transform themselves into someone else.

4) Being a military veteran would have inherent value in entertainment

I couldn’t have been more wrong. It had the opposite effect—for the most part, many people in the business had a preconceived notion as to what a veteran was. Our motivation, our politics, our hobbies, our values. We can be perceived as machines and out of touch with our emotions. Interestingly, because of how I look, people were surprised to learn I had served most of the time. People here had an image in their mind of what we looked like and how we carried ourselves, and I wasn’t it.

Eventually, being former military did work out in my favor as casting realized that we inherently bring something different to the table in an audition. From the way we stand to how we walk, to the cadence in speaking. It’s ingrained in us starting in boot camp and many of us leave the service with an essence that is hard for an actor to replicate in such a short amount of time.

5) The best actor always books the job

Cue maniacal laughter. Not true. Sadly, I didn’t learn this until I had been in Los Angeles for about three years. There are a plethora of reasons actors audition and don’t book a role and 99% of the time, you’ll never know. It could be because you are taller than the lead, the producer has a friend, someone owes someone a favor, is too pretty, is too ugly, and is too thin or too heavy. You might look like the director’s ex-wife.

Stop thinking it’s about some deficiency when in reality it has zero to do with you. The only way to gauge progress in this game is if casting offices continue to bring you in. If they do, you have fans who are advocating for you to book. Then it’s just up to producers and the network to give the green light.

To be frank, “pulling back the curtain” on things that happen in the entertainment industry is frowned upon. I offer my candor because although I work in the field, I don’t feel like I’m part of it. I enjoy my work, am professional and happy to be there, but my heart remains with my family and veteran community. I am thankful that my identity was formed years before entering Hollywood, as that has helped me maintain my sanity and positive mental state.

Hopefully, if you are contemplating a career shift, my knowledge and advice might save you some time, money and heartache. Just know what exactly you are getting into before you jump.

Jennifer Marshall is a proud Navy veteran and vocal advocate for the military veteran community. You may know her as the host of Mysteries Decoded on the CW (yes, she really is a licensed Private Investigator), or as Max's mom on Netflix's hit, Stranger Things. Other shows she's appeared on include NCIS, Hawaii Five-0, and Nickelodeon's Game Shakers, to name a few.

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