Robin Riker Talks About Her New Book
Surviving Hollywood And Living A Real Life
By Bridget Brady
There’s something magical about a sunny, winter day in L.A. The sun shines, but not with its usual fervor, and the wind blows a little harder, to remind us that the holidays are coming. It was on just such a day that I had the privilege of meeting Robin Riker. I was sitting, waiting in a Starbucks, wondering if I’d recognize her when she came through the door. Then, just like the magical day we were having, a beautiful breath of sunshine came buzzing in, and I knew immediately it was her. With a strange and wondrous sense of somehow knowing each other, we exchanged a warm hello, a quick hug, and nestled in to drink some coffee and share some secrets. We laughed and cried while we spoke. Candid and inspirational, Riker spent more than an hour being transparent, and speaking her truth.
Let’s start by talking about your new book, A Survivor’s Guide to Hollywood. What inspired you to write it?
My husband was a director of photography, and he was invited back to his alma mater to help the senior students with their thesis films. He said, “You can get two-for-one if you bring my wife in to address the theater department.” The night before, I was thinking, “These people have been immersed in drama and theater history. What can I bring to them that isn’t academic?” I realized that some of them would like to make a living as an actor, so what I have to bring is what that really looks like. I went into the dining room of my mother-in-law’s–where we were staying–with my laptop, and the book was born. I wrote the first chapter as it poured forth from me, the night before I went to speak to those students. Once it was started, it kept evolving. It was more than just a talk to aspiring actors of all ages. It became a sharing of my philosophies and my life lessons that I’ve learned over 30 years of being in the business and making my living at it. All the ups and downs, because no matter how famous you are, you spend a lot more time not working, then working. Therein lies the greatest challenge for almost any artist. And it’s not just artists; people from bank tellers to painters have read the book and told me how it applies to them. I have a great deal of success, and lots of people would say I’m a totally successful actor, but it hasn’t been easy.
I would love to hear more about being a “working actor”–what that means to you. Do you have other ways to make your living?
Being a working actor means that you get to work frequently and people may recognize who you are. When I first came to town, I arrived with $45 in my pocket, a proof sheet, and a free place to stay. I’ve been on my own since I was 17, and moved here when I was about 20. In the first five years that I was here, I did do other things. I was a cocktail waitress at The Improv, and working as an actor here and there. But I got enough gigs to feel like I was moving in the direction I would like. I was a bartender … and for 48 hours I was a cocktail waitress at a place called Simply Blues, where I got my first job in television. My boss wasn’t going to let me go on the audition, so I said, “Well, I didn’t come here to be a waitress. Here’s your tray.” I took a gamble that I would have neither job, but I did get the job, so that was nice. Since I started working, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve done five television series and hundreds of episodes of other television shows. I went through phases where people would come up to me and say, “You’re famous aren’t you?” and I say, [laughing] “Well, apparently not, because if I were, you wouldn’t have to ask.” As I said, I got lucky because I got those jobs, but there were lots of times between those jobs. You go for months and months and months without a job sometimes.
But you haven’t had a business, or a side job, or a day job, or something to sustain you while you work on your craft, since those first five years here. What do you think about that?
I think I’m damn lucky. Listen, my book is all about surviving. Whatever you need to do to survive is fabulous. For a while there, cocktailing and bartending is what I did to survive and stay in the game. Lots of people do lots of things, and it’s good. The thing is to outlast all the poor bastards who say, “I can’t do this anymore.” That’s what I think about it, do whatever you need to do.
Talk to me about luck. I agree with you that this industry is not a “meritocracy.” This industry seems to have almost nothing to do with talent.
Amen, sister, that’s how it is. Look around you and see the people who are working all the time, but don’t move you that much when they’re doing what they’re doing. But they’re in the loop. Look at how badly behaved some people are. They made some people money, so they’re given the opportunity to make some more people money. Talent really doesn’t have anything to do with it. There are so many wonderful things that have nothing to do with show business that we should be giving our attention to while we’re here. We focus on the next thing/project over which we have no bloody control! In the course of my career, I’ve been told I’m too young, too old, too tall, too short, too fat, too thin, too pretty, and not pretty enough. They can’t all be true. The reason we don’t get jobs has so little to do with our talent. It’s not a statement on your ability that you don’t get the job–hardly ever.
Assuming that talent has nothing–or almost nothing–to do with making it in the business, how do aspiring actors and artists keep going? How does someone keep going when they know that their talent isn’t really doing anything for them? Does this bring us back to our luck conversation?
Well that’s the surviving part, isn’t it? In the great scheme of Hollywood talent, or lack thereof, it’s important to have talent, because if you get lucky, and you get up to bat, then your talent can serve you. If you have talent, it’s a precious commodity. If you get to use it–wahoo! People are drawn to that. Here’s the thing: What we don’t do often enough in life–and this applies across the board–is we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the things we do every day. Of course booking a job and getting paid for it is what you want, but you have to count everything you do towards achieving that goal as an achievement onto itself. Then you can feel like you’re making progress in between the time you’re getting up to bat. … That’s how you sustain. Every time you get together to read a play with your fellow actors, every time you go to the gym, every time you follow up with an agent, even if they haven’t called you back yet–that’s moving forward.
Tell me why you so value working onstage.
Nothing compares to being onstage. Everything is happening right now. It’s live, it’s dangerous, and there’s no net. Your talent comes through there. Shooting TV and movies is fun, but it’s nothing like performing on stage. It’s just not the same. And, it’s what actors in Hollywood have come to do: They’ve come to act. So while you’re waiting and auditioning and doing your thing for the television or movie gig, work on the stage. You’ll be doing the thing you came to Hollywood to do. You’re performing your craft. Your soul feels so fulfilled. It’s unbeatable, and it sustains you for months afterward. The metric of Hollywood is so skewed, it’s so superficial. Some people care more about the handbag you’re carrying or the car you drive than who you are, and that’s why it’s so important to surround yourself by your “entourage.”
What are you working on now?
There’s a play we did a couple of years ago called Cannibals: In Hollywood No One Can Hear You Scream that I’m working on getting Off-Broadway and to web series. It’s very funny, and I’m really excited about that! It’s about how in Hollywood promises are made and just as easily broken, how no one has any ethics and they’ll say whatever they need to say to get the thing they need. That’s my big project right now.
In your book, you talk about giving up. How does one know when they’re choosing something different, or when they’re giving up on their dream?
That’s a really good question. My quick answer is the feeling in your spirit. When I divorced my first husband, the feeling that I was doing the right thing was so overwhelming that I had no doubt about my choice. I felt free, I felt as though everything was ahead of me again. It’s all about the ratio of effort to reward.
But especially when it comes to acting, don’t you think that the ratio of effort to reward is almost always out of balance? Unless you become famous, it looks like the effort is always greater than the reward.
This is another reason why I wrote the book. Sustaining yourself, living your real life as opposed to your “reel life” is paramount. It’s hugely important. Even the most famous person spends more time not working than they do working. You have to live your life. You have to find joy in your day-to-day existence. It’s present if you just open your eyes, if you find the little miracles. Another thing I say in the book is “the audition is the job.” If you get the booking, that’s extra-specially delicious, but the audition is the job. As long as you keep getting up to bat, you have a chance. If an agent is still sending you out, they still believe in you. If you have an audition, you just went to the office–you just worked. Going back to your question about choosing to give up, choosing to quit is actually very empowering. One should also consider giving themselves a time limit.
I’ve heard that advice before.
I gave myself a time limit, but then didn’t really do that … I started getting payoffs here and there, and every payoff extended my time frame just a little bit more.
So do you still think it’s empowering to set a deadline?
I think it’s a good idea because then you have something against which to measure your progress, and you can change your timeline. It’s our life. We don’t have any set point for the end of it; we don’t know when it can be.
I love that you talk about even when you’re famous, you spend more time not working than working. I think a lot of aspiring actors, artists, singers, and musicians have this idea that when they’re working or famous, they’ll be working and happy all the time.
Right! Because you have to live the life between the efforts to get a particular job because that is your life. This whole thing is your life. Every minute is our life. We need to understand that when you find a parking place right in front when you’re late, that’s a little miracle. When you’re out with friends and the bartender buys you a round, that’s lucky. We get so self-absorbed in Hollywood, and we need to look outside ourselves a little bit more. I think it’s really important to surround yourself by a group of people who support what you want to do–not an “entourage,” but an “en-courage”. If you can get out of yourself, which is a real challenge for Hollywood, you see much more readily what’s available to you. A beautiful day, a nice time with a friend … we don’t give ourselves permission for that. I’m not saying this is easy to do. Positive thinking, giving yourself credit for what you do, complimenting strangers, exercising the muscle of positive thinking ... if you do it often enough, your whole outlook will change.
So where is the balance between being authentic and being positive?
I think we become more authentic as we do more authentic things. It is authentic to smile and say, “Thank you.” You’ve exercised the muscle a little bit there. You can see yourself as an agent for good in the world. It would be lovely to entertain millions of people and win an Academy Award, but it’s more immediate to entertain Mrs. Lefkowicz at the deli by telling her she has a lovely sweater. If you feel like you don’t have, then give something. Give the thing you want. That just made me cry. Give the thing you want to get. It’s not about “you;” it’s about “us.” We’re human beings, and we forget to “be.” Some things can’t be achieved; they need to be received.
Where is the balance between fully accepting where we are and going after the things we want?
I think that if you focus on the things you don’t have, you’re going to continue not having it. You may not get the thing you want, but you keep looking. I don’t know if you accept what you don’t have; you have to keep swingin’ … and you connect, maybe. Then keeping the thing is the issue. And the most important thing to keep is your peace of mind. There is always someone on the ladder ahead of you … but you’re in front of someone behind you. You have to accept where you are on the ladder, but it’s not resignation. I would say instead of “acceptance,” it’s “allowing for.” Right now, I have to allow for the fact that I’m not a regular on a TV series … so I’m not going to go out and pay cash for a new car … but I could have that thing tomorrow. Everything is possibility. There’s always possibility.
As our interview ended, I walked back outside into the sun with an immense feeling of gratitude for my great luck to have spent this time with Robin, sincerely hoping that our paths would cross many times again.