The Work Before the Big Break

Annie Truex, an actress in Los Angeles, talks about the obstacles women face in the audition process and how to stay motivated after constant rejections.

Annie Truex (Rebecca Clarke)

Recently, movements such as #OscarsSoWhite and campaigns to reduce the gender gap in Hollywood have highlighted the bleak state of inclusion in the entertainment industry. By analyzing major-studio movies, network television shows, and original streaming-service content from 2014 to 2015, researchers at the University of Southern California have demonstrated how rare it is for women, artists of color, and LGBT workers to be featured on screen or working behind the camera.

Women attempting to break into that industry say their appearance often dictates whether they land a role. Annie Truex, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles, notes how much she’s learned much about the business of entertainment since moving to the city. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Truex about why she pursued acting, how she stays motivated throughout the audition process, and how beauty standards for women in entertainment affect her at work. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: How did you get into acting?

Annie Truex: I did plays growing up, and then I went to a performance high school in Seattle. I never found anything I liked more. Then, I actually went to college thinking I needed to go be an adult. I didn’t get into any theater programs, and so I came into school undeclared and then got a degree in religious studies. But I just couldn’t see myself going into ministry or teaching, so I went back to acting.

Green: What was your transition from college to pursuing acting in Los Angeles like?

Truex: I went to school in Orange County, so I wasn’t far from L.A., and I knew a bunch of film-production majors. I moved here and I worked at Starbucks as a barista for a couple years, while I took classes and figured out how this industry works. I was trying to figure out how to actually make progress while in classes, and working, and auditioning. Eventually, I started nannying instead because the people are nicer [laughs]. I’ve been really lucky to work as much as I do, to find an agent and a manager. I was trying to find out how people were finding auditions. There is this website called “L.A. Casting,” which breaks everything down, and what they’re looking for. I worked backwards like, “Okay, I need a profile, which means I need head shots.” There’s a surprising amount of money in just making commercials, which isn’t as much acting as I would like to do, but it keeps me afloat.

Green: How do you approach commercials differently than movies or television parts?

Truex: I just shot a big Best Buy commercial. It was a national, union, multi-day shoot. I literally just walked from point A to point B. That was it. They’re like, “Great, do it again, and again.” It’s not actually acting, but it’s what you have to do first. You have to get someone to bet on you, before anyone else will take you seriously for a movie. I shot an indie movie about a wedding last summer, called The Big Day. It was a different experience of actually having a character and lines. It was like real acting.

Annie Truex, behind the scenes shooting a commercial (Annie Truex)

Green: What is an average day for you like?

Truex: I consider myself self-employed, so I have to be regimented in my days, so I don’t let everything slip into the abstract tomorrow. I get up, have coffee, go to yoga, come back, work on submissions, and respond to emails. If I have a project that I’ve worked on, I’ll make sure to send an email blast of like, “Hi, I just did this,” or see if I can finagle that into more work. And then I nanny in the evenings. It’s very glamorous.

L.A. is a big city, and it’s a business like anything else. When I booked this commercial it was a really big deal, a step up from picking up a dog from doggy daycare, which is what I was doing when my agent called. There’s life here, but there’s still, “Okay, I’m going to go get the dog, and then I’m going to make sure these kids do their homework.” I like to let everyone think it’s glamorous, but it's not.

Truex: I think it’s having a clear goal. I started reading a book called Grit, and [it talked about] perseverance and single-mindedness. I remind myself that it’s all a means to an end, that I can’t skip this. I’m like, “Okay, this isn’t what I want to do, but it’s going to get me to where I can do what I want to do.”

I think that it’s really easy to get distracted and tied into something else. I’m thinking of friends that are working at Pottery Barn and then all of a sudden they’re a manager at Pottery Barn, and then that’s what they do all the time. Staying oriented is important. I feel like I’m really lucky with my survival job. But it is just that. It’s a job, not a career. It’s how I, in these stretches between acting jobs, pay my bills, and it’s not as soul-crushing as service-industry jobs were for me. I literally have the thought that maybe I’ll just go make candles in Joshua Tree, some days. I’ll just go do something else. Not feeding that fear and insecurity is the most challenging thing.

Green: When you feel like going to make candles instead of going to make commercials, what do you do? And do you impose a time limit on achieving your acting goal?

Truex: I go back to work. I think I’m really lucky that I have a passion, and that I can pursue it. I have to remind myself of that. Someone gave me this great advice, “What if you give yourself a year, and it takes a year and a day?” If it stops making me happy, then I’ll reassess.

Green: What was it like to be on set for The Big Day?

Truex: It was awesome to be on a set of that scale. It was the first movie set I’d been on. In the same vein, you can’t get a movie until you’ve done a movie. I learned a lot from a business standpoint: how to act on set, that certain people don’t like talking to actors, that they shoot things out of order, and how to compose myself for my next movie. I wouldn’t have been ready to do it when I first came to L.A.

There’s more business to the entertainment industry than I ever expected. [People think] you just get a head shot, and someone thinks you’re cute and talented, and then you’re Jennifer Lawrence. You can’t be late; you’ll get fired. You can’t be loud; you’ll be fired. You need training, and then everyone wants to see that you’ve done improv and audition technique.

Green: How have you seen the industry change since you’ve arrived in L.A.?

Truex: I have watched trends come and go. Now, every show and commercial is looking for someone who’s “ethnically ambiguous.” That’s the really hot thing. I have a friend who took her mom’s maiden name because she’s half Hispanic, and she looks it, so she took the Hispanic name, as opposed to her dad’s white name, to get more work. I cut my hair to have bangs because it’s quirkier, and quirky is popular right now. Those are the trends that I see, I guess more than changes in the actual industry itself.

Truex: Yeah, that's what it’s like, because it’s manufactured. It’s like, “Oh, there’s outrage, so we'll do something,” but there’s no organic movement of inclusivity. It’s like Master of None. “Oh, we need an Indian guy, do an Indian accent.” Or, “Oh, you’re Hispanic, we need an accent. You can flamenco dance, or whatever.” It gets tropey.

Green: What is it like to be at the will of whatever’s trendy?

Truex: I have acting training, and then sometimes it boils down to, “Oh we already cast someone with red hair.” Then, I’m not going to get a job, because someone might think we’re related. It has nothing to do with skill and it turns into an entirely different beast. It can wear on you.

Green: As a woman in entertainment, how do you think age and beauty intersect into your jobs?

Truex: I don’t quite want anyone to know exactly how old I am. As soon as someone realizes that you’re 30, or whatever, even though you look young, they stop believing that you could play 22. Even if you have great skin and a young personality, now they know and they won’t look at you. It’s as grating as the rest of it. It’s as hard as being rejected because they didn’t like you. I have a dimple, and maybe they don't like dimples. I’m pear-shaped and I don’t look like a supermodel, and maybe that’s why they didn't like me. There are more roles for men than women, so their odds are better. And that you can be a chubby guy, and it’s a great look, but there isn't that equivalent for women. You’re either stick thin or plus size. Everyone’s always on some sort of diet. Everyone’s beautiful. The physical piece of it can get surprisingly exhausting.

Green: Part of being an actor is becoming whoever you’re scripted to be. How much of yourself can you bring to any given role, and does that affect how you look at your personal identity?

Truex: You have to be everybody and no one. There’s a school of thought that when you go out for a commercial, or a co-starring role on a show, they’re basically going to cast you, the person. They’re looking at your personality. It’s not until you’re lucky enough, or have been in it long enough to audition for a bigger part in a movie, or a lead in a show, that you actually get to build a character. So for a long time it’s based on who you are, which is not what we’re trained to do as actors, to walk in and hope that they like who I am.

I had a teacher in high school, when we were applying to college, who told me that sometimes you won’t get in because they’re looking for a left-handed tuba player. That has really stuck with me, that just because I wasn’t who they were looking for doesn’t mean that I’m not enough, or that I’m bad at what I do. It just means I’m not what they’re looking for. I’ve obviously had to do some sort of mental gymnastics, because otherwise it’s rough.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with an exotic dancer, a Today show crowd tamer, and a voice of OnStar.