Shut Up & Take Care of Yourself. (For My Captain & All My Other Fallen Heroes)

Oh, Captain. My Captain. You were more than an idol, more than a hero. You inspired me. You taught me. You helped me grow into the person I am today.

Carpe Diem. Tom Shulman may have written the words, but you made me believe them. You were Mr. Keating to me, that magical once in a lifetime teacher who opens students’ eyes to new wonders and makes them believe they deserve to stand up for themselves. The teacher who makes you fight for what’s right, the teacher that allows/forces you to think for yourself, not to follow the herd. Oh me, oh life.

I am so grateful for the many excellent teachers I have learned from in all areas of study and on my lifelong journey as an actor. There are so many to thank, including but not limited to, – from childhood: Sharp, Klein, Stewart, Head; from college: Lank, Lutz, T., O’Connor, McCrory, Flauto, Snow; and adulthood: Johnson, Green, Hill, Kloss, Cackowski, Grace, Skov, and so, so many more. However, the person I most want to thank right now, in this moment, is a teacher I only had for two weeks at a gifted and talented summer camp in 1989. Dr. Marti Runnels taught my Theatre Arts class at Texas Tech’s “Shake Hands With Your Future” camp that year. One evening, he took our class on a field trip to the movies to see Dead Poet’s Society – a moment that would greatly impact the course of my entire life.

It was a magical time, the summer camp, the class, the movie. At barely 14 years old, I was overflowing with all the stereotypical teenage doubt, insecurity, desperation and fear that plagues most people during puberty. What I didn’t know at the time was my genetic predisposition to mental illness. I didn’t know that my angst wasn’t something I would grow out of, that I would continue to battle my depression for the rest of my life and that bi-polar disorder would strike hard in my family resulting in a catastrophic loss. All I knew then was that movie got me. It got to me, it spoke to me, it understood me and expressed everything I was feeling and wanted to be. Carpe Diem. Make your life extraordinary. My best friend from home, whom I was already deeply involved in a community theater teen troupe with, was also in the camp and at that movie with me. From the moment we saw that wisp of smoke and Neil’s father cried, “My boy, my boy!”, she and I were sobbing and did not stop for about three or four hours. I left that theater saying, “I will never give up. No one will ever stop me from being an actor. Never.”

The next day before Theatre class, my best friend and I organized the rest of the class to thank Marti for the outing. We arrived early and were all seated at our desks. When he walked in the room, we all stood up, and one at a time stepped onto our desks to speak those words, “Oh Captain, my Captain.” It was AWESOME! Just like it was the only thing Todd could do to express himself to Mr. Keating, this was the only way I could sum up how moved, inspired and grateful I was. Thank you, Dr. Runnels. Thank you. 

And this is why, “Oh Captain, My Captain,” was the first and only response I had to the news of Robin Williams’ suicide. This is why losing him hurts so much and feels like I really lost someone I knew and loved, who loved me in return. He’s part of me becoming me. Carpe Diem became a national catchphrase for the early 90’s and a concept that burrowed its way deeply into my psyche. This became my motto, my mantra and the fuel for my adventurous spirit. That Christmas of 1989 I received a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words. I still have it. See what remains of it in action HERE, just one example of how Carpe Diem and The Captain have impacted my life and my work today. 

I meant what I said leaving Dead Poet’s Society: nothing or no one would ever keep me from being an actor. Unlike Neil, I have extremely supportive and nurturing parents who never deterred me from my dream. (Thanks again Mops & Pops!) That was one obstacle I didn’t have. But there’s nothing easy about this carer path and, at 14, I was already hearing from directors that what I couldn’t be was a fat actress. Except for the one time I got to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (thank you, Mr. Sharp), I was basically told I could never be the leading lady unless I was thin. From a mole, to a rat, to a tugboat, I spent my teen years as our company’s go to “character actor,” very often crossing gender. This was disheartening then, as it is now, but I’m not complaining. (Nothing and no one will stop me!) I would’ve played anything, as long as I got cast, as long as I got to act. Ah, the heady days of the 80’s and 90’s, getting high on the smell of greasepaint and spirit gum.

All my life, through rejections, heartbreaks, starving artist poverty and the worst of all, losing my brother, performing has been my safety net. The stage is my home, my church and my security blanket. Like the Captain himself said to Marc Maron in 2010, “The only sanity clause…, the idea is going on stage is the one salvation.” Yes, Captain. You know. When I am performing, there is no depression. Well, in the darkest times, it is at very least held at bay. It may linger or lurk, but it cannot consume me. The stage is a salve for open wounds,(see Healing Improv by my dear friend Bart Sumner) a place to be free and a chance to live. It’s not about getting to be someone else, it’s about getting to be ME. Getting laughs is also a drug. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it’s more addictive than crack. 

Actors. I know it’s rough, I know you’re in pain, I know you’re struggling and starving (sometimes literally). I’ve been there, I am there. It’s time to shut up that ugly voice of doubt inside you. Shut up and take care of yourself. We actors are often sensitive and emotional, which leads to self-criticism, which leads to self-destruction. I have lost too many heroes and idols and far too many of them were taken by drugs or mental illness. One in four adults struggles with some form of mental illness. There is no shame in admitting that you’re human. Go to therapy. I love therapy. It has saved my life more than once. I firmly believe that every person on this planet would benefit from counseling, and especially actors. (We love to talk about ourselves, right? Kidding. Or, am I?;) ) Get help. Take the medication that is prescribed to you, as prescribed. Do not abuse that medication. Take care of yourself mentally and physically. 

So many heroes are gone, but recently I met someone who is a new kind of hero. LA Connection, the improv theater where I perform and teach, provides improv shows for summer camps, birthday parties and other events. A few months ago, we were hired to perform for a 90th birthday party. The party was held at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement community in Woodland Hills, a beautiful residential facility for seniors from all aspects of the entertainment industry. One guest and fellow resident at this party was Connie Sawyer, a spitfire old gal who may reside at an assisted living facility but is far from retired. At 101 years, Connie is the oldest living and WORKING member of SAG/AFTRA. Her credits begin in 1954 and continue up to today. They include classic TV such as The Jackie Gleason Show, Bonanza, The Donna Reed Show and The Andy Griffith Show. More recently she worked on ER, Dumb & Dumber, Pineapple Express, The Office, How I Met Your Mother and many, many more. Many of her characters for the last twenty years are simply listed as “Old Lady,” Elderly Lady” or even “Oldest Woman in the World,” which she played on an episode of New Girl that just aired in March. Most recently, she has appeared in a recurring role on Ray Donovan (which aired two weeks ago!) and plays a lead in a just completed short called Entanglement about a love triangle at a retirement home. She will turn 102 in November.

Our short form improv shows generally involve a good deal of audience participation, but particularly when we do these private ones we get guests up on stage with us as much possible. We are used to the challenges of doing kids parties. An event where the median age of the audience was around 90 offered an altogether different set of challenges. Here came Connie to the rescue. Her friends essentially volunteered her for every piece that required an audience member on stage, which she was more than happy to oblige. And she blew me away. She was quick, spry, witty and funny. Oh, and that old lady was dirty! We usually try to keep these type of shows PG, but, hey, if Connie’s gonna bring up some kinky sex stuff, then all bets are off. Connie Sawyer is not a star or a household name, but she is the kind of actor I want to be. She works. 

She has inspired me now to take care of myself even more. I want to still be working at 102 years old. I do a good job of managing my mental health and now my physical health must receive the same priority. I’m not planning on a dramatic weight loss, but I do need to be more mindful of my blood pressure and other concerns. I get regular blood tests and while I am not at risk for diabetes, my cholesterol is higher than ideal. I will take better care of myself. 

There have been many public figures whose passing felt like a big loss (partial list below), but I have never wept so much or so hard for someone I didn’t actually know as I have for My Captain. It has been a rough few days, and obviously, the whole country and much of the world feels this loss too. We’re all trying to understand why and how and what could have been done. In the end though, there will never be a satisfactory answer and there will never be anything we could have done differently. It was up to him. He gave us so much, more than we knew to ask for, more than we could have imagined and probably more than we deserved. He gave and he gave. We took and took, and maybe the one thing we could have done differently was to give something back. Celebrities often talk about “giving back” charitably, which The Captain did a thousandfold. When they “give back”, we take yet again, but what do they get? I’m not talking money, awards, accolades or even gratitude. If only we could give them back what they give to us, emotionally and spiritually. The work an actor does must be whole-hearted giving, like Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. You have to share yourself with your fellow actors and with the audience. Truly great, one-of-a-millennium actors, like The Captain, give everything of themselves, everything. He gave his whole heart, his whole mind, his whole soul, his very life, so that we could learn from his genius. He gave everything and what he didn’t do was save enough for himself. Mr. Keating taught me to fight for myself, no matter how hard the battle, and that is the lesson I will also take away from this wrenching awfulness. Even in death, he teaches.  

I will continue to mourn, but I will take care of myself. I will seize the day.

You made my life extraordinary. Be at peace, Oh Captain, My Captain.

A Partial List of Other Heroes I Have Lost Too Soon

  • Gilda Radner
  • River Phoenix
  • Phil Hartman
  • Chris Farley
  • Heath Ledger
  • Brittany Murphy
  • Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Worst Breakdowns of the Week

BLOODY BRIDE

STRIKING. A knockout. Think of Megan Fox, Amber Heard, or Sharon Stone when she was young. TRAUMATIZED woman, who endures Stockholm Syndrome although a FIGHTER. She finally SNAPS when forced to marry a crazy psychopath at a wedding filled with corpses. She tries to escape over a road of glass and nails before hiding in a chicken coop, where the farmer KILLS her, then marries her corpse.

Wardrobe: WEDDING DRESS, must fit a size 6. Will try on at audition to make sure. Wardrobe has already been purchased.
Rate: $100 cash, meal, copy within two weeks of shoot, EXPOSURE (circulating film festivals)

ROSE

LEAD Any ethnicity female, 35-40, tall (6ft min), thin. An obsessive loving mother to an 11 yrs old boy. Will go to any length to protect her mentally challenged boy both physically and emotionally from people around him. Blinded by her love for her son, her questionable acts call upon a bad omen on their family of two. She has to go beyond life and death to be with her son and to right the wrongs done to her family. This role requires topless and full back nudity for a sexual and physical (pushing and hitting) abuse scene. Credit, meals, reel material…NUDITY REQUIRED:  TOPLESS & FULL BACK during sexual and physical abuse scenes; GUARANTEED PAY OF $100 PER DAY ON DAYS WHEN ACTRESS IS REQUIRED TO BE NUDE AND $75 ON ALL OTHER DAYS.

 

 CODY ]
 – Age 19 to 30, all ethnicities, very attractive, in great swimsuit model shape. Gorgeous dumb blonde who uses the dumb blonde approach to get what she wants.

Shut Up & Admit You Have a Problem

  • Heart racing.
  • Uncontrollable, excessive sweating.
  • Nausea.
  • Obsessive thoughts.
  • Fast & repetitive speech.
  • Talking to people who aren’t there.
  • Mood swings from the highest high to the lowest low.

What is happening?!? Symptoms of addiction? A psychiatric crisis? Or, is it…? Oh, yeah, wait. That’s just an actor before, during and after that “Big Break” audition.

Why would anyone knowingly, voluntarily put themselves through such torture? Because we have a problem.

“Hi, I’m Lita and I’m an actor.”

“Hi Lita.”

Recently, I had the amazing fortune of being flown out of town to shoot a commercial. I got put up in a luxurious hotel, driven everywhere I needed to go, had my meals paid for, worked less than 5 hours and will get paid well enough that I won’t have to worry about rent for at least 6 months. Yes! Life is good. I’m an actor!

So, why was it that less than 48 hours after returning from this euphoric trip I was feeling cranky, restless, anxious and scared? One word: Withdrawal. I got a real good taste of the real good stuff and I wanted more. I was crashing and I needed another fix. The anxiety flew away and the euphoria returned as soon as I got my next audition notice. I am an acting addict.

I don’t know if I can pinpoint exactly when I first became aware of my problem, but, I know now and knowing is half the battle. It makes perfect sense. Why else do they say, “She’s caught the acting bug,” if it isn’t a disease? Where did that notion of acting being an illness you can catch even originate? Someone (maybe a Barrymore) recognized that once it really gets a hold of you, it’s got you for life. Be careful, it can consume and destroy you. I believe the far too common substance abuse problems that have taken far too many great talents may be an ill-advised self-medicating of the underlying acting addiction. Manage your illness one day at a time.

I’m honestly not being facetious when I call what I have an addiction. Acting has made me feel brilliant, loved, ecstatic, out of my body, on top of the world and given me a sense of community. Acting has also made me feel small, used, worthless, severely depressed, isolated, desperate and anchor-less. I have put every spare dime I can scrape together back into it at every juncture and lived below the national poverty level for most of my adult life. I prioritize it above everything. I have been saved by it and I have suffered for it. No matter how many heartbreaks, disappointments, near successes, failures, insults, ego punches and tears, I cannot stop. I will not give it up.

I tried to quit four or five years ago. That lasted about six hours. I can’t even remember now what the final straw was, but I was done. I couldn’t take this city anymore and I was sick of making myself vulnerable just to get rejected. I was heartbroken, scared, in doubt, broke and feeling sorry for myself. It felt like rock bottom, or so I thought. I announced to my boyfriend, “I’m quitting. I can’t do this anymore. It hurts too much. It’s too hard.” Then I buried my head under the covers and cried. And cried. And cried. For six hours. I cried. THAT was rock bottom.

Finally, I stopped crying and reached out for a lifeline. Thank God for Facebook. I miraculously saw that a friend had posted something to the effect of, “Having auditions for original web-series until 5:00. Come on down!” It was 3:45 or so. My boyfriend was already on his way to work and I don’t drive (more on that another time) but the audition was close enough that if I could get out the door in 15 minutes, public transportation could get me there. I posted that I was coming and jumped up to wash my face.

Running, puffing, panting, sweating, I literally made it there at 4:55. My friend was happy to let me catch my breath before I read. I did my thing and they laughed, a lot. I kinda nailed it. The next day, my friend called with an offer. I accepted. I was back.

The truth is, it wouldn’t have mattered if she offered me the part or not. I was back on the metaphorical crack as soon as I saw the word “audition.” I was suffering from self-doubt and a perceived drought of opportunity in my six hours of hellish sobriety. I don’t just “Like” acting, I cannot be happy without it. It’s not all that important what people think of what I do, what matters is that I do it. My pathetic attempt to convince myself I could quit was a turning point. I was able to face and embrace my addiction for the first time. I realized I could never again let my self-worth be defined by whether or not I was getting auditions or booking jobs. I know I’m good enough, smart enough and doggone it, people like me. That doesn’t change because they chose someone taller, smaller, blonder, tanner or any of the other myriad factors that go into casting.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

I knew I couldn’t quit, so I had to learn to focus on the things that I can control. Fighting windmills just leaves you broken. I learned to manage my expectations, set realistic and specific goals and remember how much I enjoy every chance I get to perform. I LOVE to act and I finally started loving auditioning. If the only acting I get to do in a given day or week is 30 seconds of walking across a room and smiling at the camera, then that is still better than nothing. I’m going to enjoy those 30 seconds and do my best. When I leave that room, I will also do my best to leave the walk and smile behind too, not criticizing myself, my work or the project. In many ways, I had to learn to care less. Confidence and ease will book a job. Fear and anxiety will not.

Shut up and admit you have a problem. The truth will set you free.

Here are just a few of the side effects and/or causes of Acting Addiction. If you’ve experienced any of these (pro or con), you may be an addict. Don’t worry you are not alone. Go take a class, you’ll feel much better.

  • PROS of ACTING
  • feelings of euphoria
  • builds self esteem & confidence
  • interest in and feeling strongly connected to others, quickly forming strong emotional relationships
  • feelings of empathy & compassion toward others
  • ability to analyze and access one’s emotions
  • increased adrenaline
  • great pay
  • opportunity for travel & new experiences
  • being treated like royalty
  • CONS of ACTING
  • delusions of grandeur
  • breaks down self esteem & confidence
  • fear, anxiety, self-doubt
  • panic attacks, heart palpitations
  • selfishness, self-absorption, narcissism
  • toxic relationships
  • loneliness & withdrawal when a project ends
  • feelings of envy & hatred toward others
  • hypersensitivity to criticism or perceived slights
  • emotional outbursts
  • little to NO pay
  • getting stuck in dead end “survival” jobs that suck the very soul out of you
  • being treated like an extra, aka “background”, aka “breathing furniture”

Read more of the Shut Up & Act! Blog by Lita Lopez