The First Time: Ty Burrell: The First Time I Met With an Agent. It Was Messy.


I graduated from Southern Oregon and was promptly greeted by an offer to be given a leg up in Los Angeles by a casting director who was a friend of the family. To which I nervously replied, “No thank you, I’m much more interested in really digging into this as an art form and seeing how many layers I can pull back on myself, you know?”

So off to grad school I went. I spent three incredible years at Penn State, working very, very hard and accidentally doing what I’d said I was doing it for in the first place, which was convenient. I did actually dig very deeply into theater and very deeply into acting. After graduation, I discovered, to my horror, that I had no more options to put off the real world. “Really? There’s no Ph.D. in acting? No acting think tank? No heavily funded acting research focused on one day finding the cure for blinking?”

With no vaguely legitimate excuses for avoiding the day-to-day terror of auditioning for one’s sustenance, I promptly lost myself in another person and moved to New York to be near her. One day, she mentioned that she could get me a meeting with her agent. She, being an actress and a functioning mammal, had not been running from her inevitable future. She had embraced it and had been auditioning for years.

I was stuck between a rock and an aneurysm. If I’d said no, she would have lost respect for me. If I’d said yes, I’d have to take the meeting. Cycling through every possible excuse in my brain and, coming up with none, I went.

On that spectacular fall morning, I walked into the agency’s office, just off Times Square, with a bounce in my step reserved for people pretending to be relaxed. It wasn’t Creative Artists Agency, but it wasn’t “Broadway Danny Rose,” either. It was a legitimate agency, and I was intimidated.

My friend’s agent sat me down and offered me a bottle of water. Now, I had heard legend of this “bottled water” offered in industry meetings, but to have it in my sweaty hands was a different thing all together.

Taking swift swigs to cover my tremors, I laughed at whatever was coming out of his mouth. Then, after what was either an anecdote or a series of numbers and honks, I felt the mood shift. He was going to tell me something important. I leaned in, smiling.

“Ty,” he started.

“Yes,” I nodded.

“Ty, I think your features are too big to get work in television or film. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Um, no, they haven’t,” I said, still smiling.

“You could maybe get work in theater, but you’re going to need to shave your arms.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re going to need to shave your arms. They’re pretty hairy.”

I smiled bigger. “O.K.!” I said.

“Why don’t you shave your arms and get new head shots, and we’ll talk after that, sound good?”

“Sounds great!” I said.

“Thanks for coming by,” he said.

“No, Thank YOU.” I shook his hand, walked out into Times Square and soiled myself.

I stood there for a surprisingly long time before I realized what had happened. My ears were ringing from the shock of the meeting. Yet I didn’t move. I watched all the people of the world cross back and forth in front of me.

Strangely, I felt the energy of the city as if for the first time. I had been running from this moment for years — a deeply personal rejection from the one thing I loved and could do — knowing we were going to meet down the road. I spotted the golden arches across Times Square the way I imagine immigrants spotted the Statue of Liberty.

There I threw my underwear in the garbage. I now had no underwear and, bizarrely, none of the anxiety I had felt mere moments before.

It was as if I had taken the worst of the business, swallowed it, digested it, discharged it and thrown it away. I walked out of the bathroom, past the huddled masses at the tables, into Times Square and the new world.

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