A little over a year ago, The New York Times published a profile of the Midland School, a small private school in Los Olivos, California. Midland is a fairly ordinary school in that it boasts an excellent college prep curriculum, and prides itself on sending students to Harvard, Stanford, and other prestigious universities. It’s fairly unordinary in just about every other way. It’s nearly devoid of WiFi, running water, or electricity, and students regularly chop firewood all day just to earn a hot shower at night.
It’s also my alma mater.
Hearing that surprises most people, as it still feels somewhat surreal to me. As a pre-teen, I was like anybody else, enjoying life with my friends, getting into my first batches of adolescent trouble before entering those formidable, formative four years of high school. But at the same time, I was raised in a class that afforded me the opportunity to (and practical expectation) attend one of the prestigious boarding schools in the Condor League. While other people I knew sent their children to Thatcher, Tate, Ojai, Villanova, Laguna Blanca, or Robert Louis Stevenson, I was drawn to the one that many considered a joke: Midland. Freshmen at other Condor League schools got their own horses, Midland students got a whole lot of dirt and life lessons. I wasn’t particularly lured by Midland’s austere values necessarily, I just had a chip the size of Texas and was so damn stubborn that I just wanted to do something different. Really, I couldn’t fully understand the reasons for wanting to go to Midland but in retrospect it really just came down to adolescent contrarianism.
But the more I think about my reasoning for attending Midland in the first place, I’m drawn to some words written by my father for a previous blog:
“Because of the community we live in, where people and things can be larger than life and reality takes place in that rarefied air at the top, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about what a person should be. We live in a time that puts a tremendous emphasis on material things and instant gratification. But you must never lose sight of what it means to carry real values with you in life.”
I was indeed in rarefied air, but my father ensured that I at least subconsciously had some idea of the values I wanted to pursue in my own life. Yes, I griped and doubted and cursed myself while I was chopping firewood for hours on end at Midland, but it wasn’t all in vain.
Midland’s mission rests on cornerstones of self-reliance, simplicity, and a responsibility to one’s community and environment. It teaches its students to approach the world with an openness, resilience, and willingness to work for everything, because the work you put in is where the true value of anything resides. Reading the Times article, all these memories came flooding back and I was reminded of the strength of Midland’s creed and its effect on my own world view. It made me a participant. But, and you probably saw this coming, it also occurred to me that the lessons I learned at Midland can apply perfectly to the aspiring actors, writers, and filmmakers I meet every day.
As I often do when I’ve been inspired, I thought I’d share some of what I took with me from school in the hopes it may resonate with you.
1. WHAT YOU WANT VS WHAT YOU NEED
Mick Jagger may have talked to you about this before, but I’m here to drive home the point!
At Midland, the students grow produce, care for livestock, and power the Academy through solar installations that are revamped and upgraded every year. Taking this agency and responsibility not just in your education, but in your home, you learn at a young age what it is that you need in life, and the work that goes into getting it. If you feel tired in the morning and hit that snooze button one too many times, tough shit, you’re not eating. Put off your studying so now you’re late to gather firewood, well, all of your peers don’t have hot water and they’re mighty pissed at you. You learn quickly what you need when you’re mutually invested in a community.
Every day, I meet people looking for a way into the entertainment industry. They say the need a career in acting — so long as they can eat out for every lunch. So long as they can work three days a week. So long as they can have an in-unit washer and dryer and get invited to all the parties.
Sure, it sounds glamorous, and with hard work and a little luck, the day will come when those things may all be possible. Maybe not the three days a week — despite reputation, this industry doesn’t really take a lot of days off. But in the beginning of your career, you’ll have to make choices. First of all: Is success in entertainment something you really need? And does that need trump the need for some of the basic luxuries you may already have?
Think about it, because a lot of people take for granted the lavishness of their present life. We always stereotype the struggling actor as a barista at a Silver Lake coffee shop. We say this critically, judgmentally. But those struggling actors get to work face to face with people all day, they can wear what they want to work, they’re involved in a community, they have close friends… sure, you’ll get all of those things when you’re at the top of the industry, but you might have to sacrifice all of them to get there. Too often I see actors get a little bit of success, start down the road towards fame, and then realize, “this sucks, why am I doing this?” Passion must be paramount, and if it’s just something you want, you’ll probably never get there.
It’s a tough choice, and there’s no shame in choosing between want and need. We do it literally all the time. However, we don’t always think of it in terms of our careers, so I urge you to take a step back and think: What is it that you want, and what is it that you need?
2. THE IMPORTANCE OF PERSISTENCE
When you need something, and you achieve it, the sense of reward of having earned it yourself is greater than had it just been handed to you. You’ve almost definitely experienced this in your life, and if you haven’t then maybe you need to get out more. At Midland, I was so determined to live by this virtue that I was extremely careful to not let anyone know who my father was. I thought if they knew I was the son of one of Hollywood’s biggest producers, they’d assume I had never had to work for anything, that my work ethic was innately less than theirs and my tutelage at Midland was just a gimmick. I wanted to be on the same playing field, so I went great lengths to ensure nobody knew that I came from money and fame.
One year, after a holiday break, Greyhound was on strike so I didn’t have a way back to school. My father was out of town and I didn’t have anybody else who could drive me. So he called me a limo. Reluctantly, I got in the dang thing and drove up to school, but once we arrived at the long, remote dirt road that ultimately led to Midland, I asked the limo driver to stop. Figueroa Mountain Road is one of those paths that grandparents are referring to when they say they used to walk ten miles uphill in both directions to get to school. Okay, it’s not ten miles, but it is unpaved, rocky, and about 300 yards of sharp incline that you most certainly don’t want to walk when you’ve got a trunk full of your semester’s clothes, books, and minutiae. But I was determined that nobody see the limo, so I scratched and I clawed and I sweated and I made that walk. Of course, when I finally got to the mess hall, there was a New York Sunday Times with my father’s face on it sitting on the head table. You may have deduced that there aren’t a whole lot of Medavoy’s in the world — and that’s exactly what my peers did, too.
However, therein lies the lesson. After my peers found out about my upbringing, it didn’t matter as long as I was still busting my ass in the grunt work. I still showed up on time, put in the effort, and contributed everywhere I could. Because it’s the work that matters, not the background. That applies doubly in the world of acting. You have to do the grunt work yourself to get your career started. Networking, making your own opportunities, being proud of your contemporaries’ achievements, honing your craft to a near obsessive degree… that’s how you do it. And then, ultimately, you get the greatest satisfaction in knowing you did it.
3. HELP OTHERS, OTHERS HELP YOU
Midland always attempted to make the curriculum a microcosm of real life, and that principle may have been most magnified in the emphasis on communal responsibility. One student collecting firewood determines if everyone gets to have a hot shower at night. If not just your own hot shower, but everyone’s is dependent on you, you better damn well do your job. That may seem like an extreme example, but it is an exact reflection of life. If you don’t pull your weight in your job — regardless of what your job is — others will suffer. At Midland, the group could give offending students demerits. In life, coworkers give negative performance reviews, or an offending employee is simply let go. There are consequences when you coast, and when you dismiss the value of others.
In Hollywood, for actors, the importance of networking and building relationships really can’t be overstated. It has almost become cliched, honestly, but you really need to be constantly on your game, looking for opportunities not just to help yourself, but to help others. If you go out of your way to help people, they remember, and they will want to actively help you in the future. It’s human nature to want to return favors. On the flip side, if you screw over people on the way up, they might just be the ones waving goodbye to you on your way down.
That is to say, don’t be the person pushing your headshot or your script at every networking event. Don’t tell someone to check you out, offer to check them out. Take an interest in other people’s work, because that simple gesture will be enough for them to think you’re somebody worth paying attention to, as well. That last point leads me into this heading…
4. THE ADVANTAGE OF GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Yes, believe it or not, simply being a decent human being who takes an interest in others is actually going against the grain. But I’ve made that point, and I believe you’re a good enough person to know the benefit of reciprocity.
The biggest takeaway for me from the Times article was the simple reminder that I went to Midland. It’s such an unorthodox school that most teenagers would scoff at the idea of going. Teens today would have to give up their cell phones, stray from their families and friends, and start pulling their weight to meet even their most basic needs. Midland has an outstanding track record of college acceptances and alumni, but try telling that to a 13-year old who is still best friends with everyone in his kindergarten class. But for me, and I think for many people, it was extremely valuable to just do something different.
The standard path isn’t always the best one. People come to Hollywood with lofty dreams, a ton of confidence, and a completely preconceived notion of how their career will go. They almost always underestimate the number of checkpoints they’ll need to pass to get there, and they almost always are so rigid in their dreams that they forget to try new things. Today more than ever, there is no standard success story or a single way to make a career in film or TV. If presented with the opportunity to do a movie for YouTube Red, do it. If you can voice a video game character, do it. Every path is valid, even if one’s less traveled. Especially if one’s less traveled!
The ultimate point I can leave you with is this: Take an interest in the rewards of hard work, and don’t be like everybody else.