Staying True to Standards in the Acting World

I recently received a lovely email from a young actor/actress in the UK, wanting more advice and information about being a Christian actor, especially when you’re still in your teens and you want to “fit in.” Although I’ve tried to answer many of these questions in my previous posts: Being a Christian in the Acting Game (Parts 1 and 2) -- I always feel there’s a need to repeat and update. Here is a summary of Jo’s beautifully written and thoughtful email:

I have a topic and also a future post that would be very interesting for all Christian actors I'm sure; to know how far to go at college in your drama class and everything you might do involving drama. At school it's really hard to stand up and say 'I don't wanna do that' like, swear, for example. And what if it's a really awful play that doesn't hold any moral themes? What if you HAVE to play a character that you feel uncomfortable playing? by 'have to', I mean like at either college or university, all the students decide together? Is it just me, or do you feel the odd one out?

The other big issue is of course taking the Lord's name in vain, which is becoming so common these days in modern scripts. What would you say in stead? Will directors start to find you really annoying, if you have standards?

We see all the time, actors (especially actress's) having to drop their standards so low! and how discouraged do we feel, when we see actors that claim to be Christians, and then play parts that are blasphemous, involve explicit language and are sexually immoral? I know we all have to stand up for what we believe in, but don't you just find it so hard sometimes, when all you are trying to do is feel accepted just so you might have just one friend?

I would appreciate some response. I feel I'm going through this stage right now, being a 17 year old with not many friends, I have been at my school for a year now and I still feel the new one! I absolutely love acting and I want to use it for God's glory... But I don't know if I really feel ready right now to stand up and out!”

First off, I want to thank Jo for this sincere email. School can be so hard, and I’m so sorry that you’re having a hard time making friends at your new school, and fitting in. I feel your pain totally, and I always felt that way too. My heart goes out to you.

Something I’m noticing that’s becoming a common theme on this site is the “What if?” question. I mention that here at the beginning of this post, because the inherent message is, “I’m scared.” As actors and artists, we can think of a million trillion different reasons why we don’t want to, can not, will not, should not, might not -- be in a play or movie, get started in a career, get an agent, move to another city to pursue our dreams, start an acting group of our own, take an acting class, or just plain, call ourselves actors.

“I’m too fat, too thin, too short, too ugly, too old – too Christian, too worried, too lost, too broke, too, too, too.” I need to listen to my own advice too because I’ve been using the “I’m too fat” thing for the last ten years. I need to get over that myself. Maybe writing this will help me in the process.

That being said, it’s so important to remember this: God made you perfectly and planted a seed of hope and longing and talent within your heart and soul (and body, with all its imperfections!) – to be an actor. Did he not? And since He is perfect, in every way, we must listen to this voice. This longing to act is not only your intuition, but your “calling” from your higher power. Maybe your gut says, “I LOVE TO ACT!” but your brain says, “WARNING!” Maybe this warning is actually not God, but fear, and maybe that fear is guided by the dark forces out there, and not by the light. Keep in mind too that fear is normal. You are not a failure and you are not stupid just to be afraid. Trying to act, no matter what your reasons are, is just a very scary thing. So don’t be too down on yourself no matter who you are if you’re afraid. Admitting your fears is the first step toward conquering them.

Although I’m not a “traditional” Christian, and am more liberal than most, I DO consider myself to be Born Again. And I do believe in the stories and lessons of the Bible. What if all those stories of people in the Bible being asked to do something that terrified them (think Noah building the Arc, or David, a young shepherd being called to be a King; or even the early Disciples, like John or Peter or Paul, being asked to spread the word and messages of Jesus while being mistreated, ousted from normal society, living for years in exile, or in prison; or even with the terror of being faced with being fed to the lions!) – what if all these beautiful believers gave into their fears? If they had, we would have never heard their good news. Remember, even courageous people are afraid. It’s what they decide to do with that fear that makes them heroes.

If you feel “called” by God to act, that is -- it’s in your heart and soul, and it’s not just because you want to be rich and famous (that’s a whole other kind of motivation that we’ll talk about in another post) – what if you decide to view that calling as coming from God, and God alone? What if you have faith that this is good for you and the world, and that God will guide you in the right direction?

Looking at acting from that context will take the “dark fears” out of your heart, and give you the strength to act YOUR way, in plays, films, scenes that YOU chose, that you feel right about. In this day and age when so many people are so lost, and don’t have faith, and they plunge willy-nilly into jobs and choices without any type of moral compass, it can be hard to stand tall on your convictions, especially when you’re in your teens and you want to fit in. I suggest that you “yell it to the rafters!” what you believe and stand for. And who cares what other people think. I think that your courage to stand up for what you believe will ultimately win you friends, and may even win a few souls in the process – especially if your school acquaintances see how joyful you are as a person and how kindly you treat others.

That may be an unrealistic view-point when you just want to be cool, and fit in, be popular, etc… I do understand that. If you’re not comfortable having people know about your faith, then you can more quietly and subtly express it by the choices you make in your acting career.

Following, I’ve broken up Jo’s email into several points and try to answer each one to the best of my ability. As always, remember I’m just one person. I really don’t have every answer, but maybe my age and experience can help you a bit.

1. As an actor, how do you decide if you will play a part you don’t believe in morally?

Honestly, you do not have to perform a part you don’t believe in, EVER. If you have a teacher or a class that is picking out plays or scenes that you think are just morally horrendous, then that’s probably not the best class – especially if you’re still a teen. That being said, always keep in mind that almost all theater and film writing has some type of redeeming plot or story line, otherwise, we wouldn’t want to watch or read them. Dramatic writing needs a villain or else it wouldn’t be dramatic. Sometimes, that villain might be literally a bad person; other times, the villain might be a bad or evil concept (say, War, Societal Greed, Racism, or Poverty).

A single scene taken out of context from a bigger work may be full of violence, murder, even sexually explicit acts or language. Usually, those scenes are written for dramatic effect. They are included in a larger piece as a way to show “the bad guys” or antagonists.

Real life (and even religious books like the Bible, the Torah, or even the Koran) is full of people who are lost, do bad things, hurt others, or use bad language. It’s my opinion that these people aren’t inherently bad or evil, they were just raised the wrong way, or faced difficult circumstances that caused them to act badly -- and they need to learn the error of their ways. Good theater and film writing explores those “bad guys” and usually has them learn a lesson through the story where either they get killed (and get their just deserts), go to jail, or lose everything. More typically, these “bad guys” change and learn from their mistakes, and become good by the end of the story. That is called, “Redemption.” Basic story lines from most films, books, and plays have such a redemptive quality—or lesson learned and told. The bad guys are put into the story to show the juxtaposition to the good guys, and to prove that their choices aren’t the right ones to make. So ultimately, an immoral scene may in fact, be promoting morality. Does that make sense?

If you truly want to be a working actor, at some point you will have to look at these types of “bad” immoral scenes, characters, and roles, as part of a bigger whole, and decide whether or not you will have to play them. As an acting coach, I always tell actors to play the “bad guy” with the belief that he is not loved and is seeking love, even when he is acting horribly. Think of a “bad guy” as a fallen angel that needs help.

In that sense, just because you “play” an immoral part, doesn’t mean that YOU are immoral. Even the Bible is full of “bad guys” and immoral acts – put there to show what we could or might become without faith. Also they are put in the Bible to show us how easy it is to go down that slippery slope and become amoral. Remember, even Jesus never judged “bad guys” – he was there to forgive them, love them, help them find redemption, he wanted to help everyone change and grow and live their lives with love and forgiveness.

As for nudity, there is no reason why any girl or boy should have to get “naked” in a scene if they don’t feel right about it. I certainly would never perform a nude scene. I had to once, and I kept on my undergarments and the scene worked fine. That’s a line I don’t think any performer should have to cross if they’re uncomfortable with it. Worse case scenario, you won’t be in that play or film, and they’ll cast someone else. Best case scenario, you won’t be doing something that makes you feel used or uncomfortable. And if it’s for a school performance, the director should not expect you to get naked. That’s a decision for adults only, not someone in their teens.

You will have to set your own limits and boundaries for what types of roles you are, or are not, willing to play. If the scene just seems offensive or badly written, or just seems downright gratuitous, then don’t do it. I personally have never taken a part in a play or film that I think shows violence just for the sake of violence. I won’t even go to films like that (unless they have a bigger message like Avatar). I don’t like that at all, and I think it’s lazy writing on the writer’s part, to include guns, sex, or violence just to seem cool or edgy.

2. Taking the Lord’s name in vain. Can you use a substitution, or will directors start to find you really annoying, if you have standards?

This is a difficult topic. Again, if you don’t feel comfortable with doing this, then tell your director or teacher, and don’t do it. If you have a private meeting with them about your own boundaries, they should respect them. If you are absolutely the only person right for this one part, then again, I would look at the character in reference to the whole.

Then I think any type of language this character uses should go ahead and be performed. But only if it shows a side of the person which in turn, shows the audience that this person needs help, or is lost, or doesn’t have a proper education, or family upbringing. You must put it all in context. Do you think Jesus, or Mother Teresa, would have shunned people who cursed or used bad language? No. They would have tried to help them learn and grow and have faith and change their ways to the right path of kindness, patience, righteousness and courage. For example, if you’re playing a drug dealer who curses, maybe that’s just how that person would talk, and maybe the part shows that this person is lost and needs help. Always put every scene in its redemptive context to the whole.

Slang, cursing, cussing, and other forms of “bad language” are often used in theater as a way to very quickly show the audience something about that character. It was the writer’s choice to write that character that way, and it’s really the actor’s duty to perform that role as written. If you really really want to be a working actor, then you must get more comfortable with using language that may to you, seem offensive. I truly feel that if the over all story has a redemptive and moral message, then you can be certain that using certain curse words will not in any way be considered offensive to your higher power. Not to speak for God, but it is my belief that he understands that you are an actor, doing your job, to show people how to care about others, and make better choices, and how to love. Using his name in vain in context to a particular part is in no way going against your belief. After all, you are an actor, and not that actual person.

All to say that, yes, you will actually drive your director or casting agent or agent crazy if you keep turning down parts because of the language. If you are to be truly successful you will have to make some concessions in this arena, otherwise, there are always a hundred other actors out there who will happily take that part. Again, this has to be YOUR choice, and you must make it for the right reasons, and not out of fear. And if you still find it too hard to do certain parts, then maybe you should become a writer or director, and write instead of act. That’s always great too, and we need more faith-based writer/directors out there!

Many people are more devout than others, and it’s all about what makes you feel good. In some denominations, you can’t even sing or dance, let alone be an actor who might curse in a scene. So in this case, you will have to search your heart about why you are acting, the ultimate message of the play or script, and what story you are really trying to tell. At some point, you will begin to realize why certain parts are written certain ways, and you won’t feel so personally offended when you are playing them.

As far as using substitutions for words in scripts, I should think that it would be absolutely fine in an acting class situation. If your teacher disagrees, then get a new teacher. But for a public performance of a written piece, or for a filmed version, you must follow the words exactly as they are written. Again, you should never ever have to do something that goes against your values if it makes you feel bad. Most teachers will understand. As far as your fellow students, well, that may be another story. And quite frankly, that’s their problem. Let their opinions of you and your standards slide away as you know in your heart that you are staying true to your standards!

3. How do you act in a scene or play with explicit language or sexuality when you feel it’s immoral to do so.

I think I answered this above. Again, if you put it into the context of the entire play, you may realize why it’s included. Usually, sexuality and language of a certain type is included to prove a point: it may not always be for bad reasons either. It may be showing intimacy between two main characters (nudity), or anger toward an abusive father (language), or to develop a character so we know them better. If your faith considers any type of nudity a real sin, then maybe acting is not for you. But always remember that even though you may not personally agree with the morals of the characters in the story, you may ultimately be supporting a larger message or story for the entire play or film.

4. How do you stay true to your standards and morals, while still fitting in and not standing out.

This is probably the hardest question or concern I’ve ever received since starting this website several years ago.

I almost don’t know where to start, but believe me, I can totally relate. The reason I relate is that my movie, ZENITH, was initially meant to be a mainstream documentary about a group of farmers who put on a passion play about Easter in the middle of a Kansas wheat field. After I completed my film, I got rejected by many film festivals because they thought I edited it in a “too Christian” way. Since it was a film about a real group of people who belong to a tiny Presbyterian church, and the whole community of farmers and ranchers who also went to their local churches (Baptist, Nazarene, Brethren, Quakers, Methodist, and on and on) – and since it was about them putting on an Easter play, how in the world was I supposed to make this film “less Christian?” I mean, every scene was them acting out the story of Jesus! It was so frustrating!

I never really intended to be thought of as a Christian Filmmaker. But here I am. I won the equivalent of “the Christian Oscar” at the Movieguide Awards, televised on PAX, and was nominated for the biggest Religion in Media award out there, called, “The Templeton Epiphany Prize.” The only people who accepted my film were church people, church goers, and faith-based media folks! But when I tried to get my film shown at a Promise Keepers convention, they said it wasn’t “Christian enough!” So you can imagine my dilemma. It was very strange, but also, showed me for the first time how much I do have a strong faith, and to put my energy and efforts toward those types of stories. So for some, it was too Christian, for others, it wasn’t Christian enough. This goes to show you that you just can’t take your cue from others. You have to do what’s in your heart.

So I was never really publically accepted into the “cool indie film scene” like the ones at the Sundance Film Festival, or in LA. That being said, my film did end up showing on NBC television, and went out on Easter Sunday, nationwide! So there’s a story too – ultimately -- of how staying true to your heart and your own message, can end up being very positive. As a result, I’ve accepted my label of “Christian Filmmaker” with pride, and I continue to encourage other people (of all strong faiths!) to make art, original scripts, films, etc.. that have morally encouraging and uplifting themes. (Despite the fact that I truly feel that I don’t fit in anywhere.)

So see? You are not alone. I also feel sometimes like a fish out of water. I think that’s so true of so many people of faith, especially if you don’t adhere precisely to one type of denomination or another, and especially if you chose not to play politics with your art. I was never really “trying” to fit in, I was just trying to show “the TRUTH” of the story I was filming – that people in this small town got a lot from their faith and their church-life. If people can’t handle that truth, that’s their problem, not mine.

This may not directly answer your question, but I hope it inspires you to go for it, no matter what IT might be. Go for what you feel TRUE to. If your heart feels sick, then whatever you’re doing is not right. That’s God speaking to you.

As a teenager, this is so much harder, I know. But believe me, adults will totally respect your views, and it may even help to open doors (like it did for me) if you stay true to your beliefs. But you may not fit in for a while with other teenagers. And sadly, you may just have to learn to have the courage to feel that it’s okay to not fit in. Hang in there!

And if you absolutely find that you cannot act in a particular scene just because it’s so offensive to you and your beliefs, then don’t do it. In such cases, write your own scene, your own way, write your own film scripts, create a “Christian Acting Group” of your own, from your church or your friends, and do your performances outside of the school setting if you have to.

5. Is it possible to use acting for God’s glory?

YES, YES, YES, YES! I actually think that all acting and all artistic pursuits are for His glory. Art is a direct reflection of God, of the truth. You have a creative spark because you are close to God, and through God, you will continue to create. God and creation are one and the same. Go to my suggested reading list on this site, and I highly recommend reading: The Artists Way, by Julia Cameron. She taught me that my creative talents come directly from God, and the more I connect to my creativity, the more close I get to God, and that through my creative acts (like writing this blog) – I become more divine, more whole, more full of his grace and blessings.

God’s glory is reflected metaphorically and symbolically through everything we do and every choice we make. Maybe God put you into the acting world so that you could meet people and tell them your testimony, and inspired others to believe as well? Maybe the whole acting calling is even more than your own career. I tell myself that all the time during those down times when I’m not working on a film or acting in a play. I’ve used creative things like this blog, and like teaching, and through my film, ZENITH, as a way to share my love of God, and try to share the way my faith has changed and inspired my life. And through this, I make no money, get no fame or recognition, spend hours at the computer breaking my back, ha ha! And yet I do it anyway. I do it for my love of Art, Acting, and my love of God; as well as my love of my fellow actors and artists who may need some help and inspiration.

I hope this helps, and keep on acting! You’ll find your way. Just asking these questions shows me that you have courage!

About Kirsten Tretbar

Kirsten Tretbar is an acting teacher, filmmaker, and former actress. She received her MFA in Acting from USC in Los Angeles, where she acted professionally for many years.

Los Angeles + Kansas City