Voice Acting and the Myth of Rejection

As a voice actor, you may sometimes find yourself carrying the weight of rejection as a necessary price of admission. This burden results from unreturned phone calls, auditions you didn’t book, agents who’ve said no or a teacher who says, “You’re really improving but there’s still work to do.” It’s exacerbated by observing other actors booking gigs while you’re waiting to catch a break, or watching a great TV spot whiz by, only to recall that you auditioned for it?! It can be a difficult pill to swallow. After all, you too have bills to pay, family obligations, and a host of unexpected “stuff” coming at you at the speed of life. At a certain point, without the encouragement or affirmation of an actual booking, all this crap gets lumped into one bad feeling we tend to call rejection. Marilyn Monroe summed it up this way: “Sometimes I feel my whole life has been one big rejection.”

The bizarre aspect of the rejection phenomenon is that no one is actually being rejected in the process of auditioning. Casting is a process of selection, not rejection. To illuminate the point, imagine that you are attending the Oscars and are given the opportunity to choose an outfit from the Armani collection. Every outfit is exquisitely designed but you can only choose one. To make the best choice you must consider the type of event, the season, your body type, and the accessories to be worn with the outfit. When your criteria are satisfied you select the outfit and you’re on your way. It’s not that you’ve rejected the other outfits. They were all amazing. You selected the one that accommodated your needs. The casting process is the same. From a group of fine actors only one can be selected for each role. Selection is the art of casting. Rejection, on the other hand, is something actors invent for reasons we will try to explain. Of course, we must first put aside the obvious situations where an actor shows up intoxicated, late, inappropriately dressed, or in a foul mood. These actors are and must be rejected, in the truest sense of the term, before a selection process can begin. 

If, as we assert, there is selection without rejection, why then is rejection one of the most commonly discussed issues among actors? “Actors search for rejection. If they don’t get it they reject themselves,” is how Charlie Chaplin once put it. There must be a perfectly rational, psychological reason that actors embrace rejection as part of the craft. And when you consider how painful rejection can be (triggering childhood trauma, depression, self-loathing and the likes), you have to surmise that that reason is a very powerful one. From a psychological standpoint we learned that the actor embraces rejection, however painful, because there’s a payoff that makes it seem worth the trouble. In the case of rejection, the actor can wear it like a badge of honor for having fought the good fight. That leads to public admiration. The actor, by bearing the pain and torture of rejection, becomes a martyr for his art. That’s a very noble stance, but it doesn’t lead to bookings. If anything it leads to lowered expectations. One can imagine actors walking into auditions not expecting to be chosen but simply to submit to a ritual lashing. Why not put on a hair shirt and call it a day?

When any of us, actor or not, is not selected for a job or opportunitywedesire, we are left with the muddle of our own thoughts as to why not. Being left with your own thoughts is not a good place to be for long periods of time. We are far too brutal on ourselves. In two minutes we can go from contemplating what we could have done better to a total condemnation of a universe that has conspired to keep us from happiness. “Why does God hate me?” is what one actor friend exclaimed after being placed on hold for a national TV spot, given a recording date, and then released without explanation. That he blamed God is a prime example of how far our own minds will spiral out of control—triggering negative life experiences having nothing to do with the audition. The casting folks know nothing of your past hurts or current needs. They consider only what shows up at the audition. So, what actors refer to as rejection is actually a simple case of not being selected for the part. And yet, it can lead to very deep, dark feelings which are then misplaced under the umbrella of “rejection.” “That, in a nutshell, is the paradox of rejection. It isn’t intended as personal, but it’s impossible not to experience it that way,” says Dennis Palumbo, a psychotherapist who was once a screenwriter pounding the Hollywood pavement without success. 

Granted, the audition process is hard on the actor because the act itself is very personal. If the actor were unable to close the deal on selling a car or vacuum cleaner it wouldn’t be quite so dramatic. Even if he’s a mediocre salesperson, he can at least place some of the blame on the attributes of the product: It doesn’t function properly, doesn’t come in enough colors, cost too much money, etc. As a voice actor, however, the actor is the product and the salesperson. He’s naked with no place to hide. That’s a very courageous challenge to take on but it’s the actor who willingly signs up for each day he goes back out there. The good news is that by looking carefully and honestly at the casting process, the actor will find it easier not to take it personally. The actor will find it far more useful to direct his energy toward constructive endeavors like expanding his performance repertoire through practice and training and taking care of his emotional wellbeing. Talent, preparation, and the love of the craft are the only remedies for the vagaries of the casting process. Wallowing in misplaced ideas of rejection is an unwitting choice, a pitfall, and the stuff of cautionary tales.

The myth of rejection is a diabolical creature, cloaked in a hero’s armor. When under its spell, the actor would prefer to wear the armor of the hero rather than escape the spell of rejection. The actor does not want to give up the notion of rejection because it would mean giving up the admiration he receives for standing tall in the face of it. He can’t wait to run toward the front line where the bullets are flying and then bemoan the harsh reality of his plight. And like the soldier of war, the voice actor wears his scars like a badge of honor because the payoff is admiration. Admiration is quite possibly the most desired status in the human experience. But alas, “Admiration for a quality or an art can be so strong that it deters us from striving to possess it.” ―Friedrich Nietzsche

Admiration is a temporary high—an addiction that blinds the actor from the truest pursuit of the art. And yet admiration, as is the case with any powerful narcotic, is not easily given up. Some voice actors hold on to it for its own sake, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of their own demise.

“Until I become famous, at least I shall be admired for taking the slings and arrows required to become so.” —Unknown

What is the actor then to make of rejection? First and foremost, that it is myth, a wayward concept that has lost sight of the true rule of casting which is selection. Keep in mind that what we hold out to be rejected rarely has anything to do with what actually happens in an audition and everything to do with the personal meaning we ascribe to what happens. Secondly, true rejection is a well-documented and understood phenomenon. Find a qualified therapist to help you deal with it. Negative feelings can drive the mind toward self-destruction, anxiety, and physical sickness. It is not a state that you want to engender in yourself or hold out as honorable.

Inspired by this story? Check out our voiceover audition listings

Joan Baker is the author of “Secrets of Voiceover Success,” and the winner of multiple Promax and Telly awards for commercial and documentary voiceover performances. She is an actor, voice actor, and teacher. Baker trains individuals and groups in the craft of voice acting and VO career management. She has written trade articles for Backstage, Adweek, Multichannel and Broadcast & Cable.

Rudy Gaskins, is an Emmy Award-winning creative director and branding expert. He launched Push Creative Advertising in 2001, after holding executive roles at Court TV and Food Network. His accounts span American Express, Tribeca Film Festival, Lexus and BET. Rudy has written, produced and directed hundreds of commercials, promos, and marketing campaigns and has directed documentaries for PBS.

Joan Baker and Rudy Gaskins are the co-founders of That’s Voiceover!, an annual career expo, and the creators of the newly formed Society of Voice Arts and Sciences and the Voice Arts Awards.

Follow them on Twitter: @JoanTheVoice and @RGaskins1, and like them on Facebook: Rudy Gaskins At Large  and Joan Baker Live.