Lessons From My Stint in Acting

I went through a quarter-life crisis back in 2013. 

On the surface, I had everything anyone can ask for: good health, a cush job, a great girl, a tight-knit group of friends, a loving family, etc.

However, I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. Like there was more out there for me.

I tried my hand at acting as a way to fill that void. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I was trying to make it as the next Token Brown Guy.

?A Little Background:


I took four or five different acting classes over the course of 18 months.

In that time I performed in 2 original plays, went on a handful of auditions, and even landed a role as an extra on a hit CBS show, Madam President. 

I had a really good relationship with my classmates and instructor, but the longer I tried to “make it”, the more clear it became to me that acting wasn’t going to be the thing to fill my void. 

I do, however, want to share a few stories from that experience that still have a profound effect on me today. 

?Zig When Everyone is Zagging


I’m not sure why, but my acting teacher, Josh, took a liking to me early on. He sent me on auditions I had no business going to.

This one time he set me up for an audition for the role of “Date #1 - Male”. 

The studio was in Chelsea, NYC. I had to leave work early to get there on time. When I arrived, there were about 15 guys and 15 girls in the waiting room. 

The casting director put us in groups of 3 and handed everyone a 3-page script. We had 20 minutes to practice the scene with our partners before auditions began. Not only that, we were all going to do the scene in front of each other.

There were 3 roles:

  1. Female
  2. Male
  3. Waiter / Waitress

It seemed like all the other actors were trying to optimize for one thing: get “off-book” in 20 minutes. Many couples weren’t even practicing together. Instead, they sat alone covering their ears with their hands to block out the noise to try and remember the script better.

I was so nervous and my two female partners didn’t seem much more confident than me. 

I excused myself to call my teacher. I quickly told him the situation and asked, “how can we stand out?”

He said, “You need to add a twist. Everyone’s reading the same exact words. If you want to stand out you have to read the words differently.”

I ran back to my partners and we all tried to come up with ideas. The best I could come up with was adding a stutter or a physical tick. No one felt confident enough to pull it off.

At the last second, one of my partners had a much better idea. She suggested we pretend the waitress was an ex-girlfriend of mine where things ended really badly. My date would sense tension, but wouldn’t understand why. What an imagination!!!

It was a wild idea but we ran with it. AND IT WORKED!

My date and I started the scene super casually. When the waiter made her way to our table to take our order, things got awkward fast. 

I started by using the script as a menu to block my face. Then I tried to give my order while looking in the opposite direction. We were building up to making eye contact, but I was trying my best to delay it. 

All the while, my date didn’t know why the waiter and I were acting so weird.

There was a struggle in the scene that wasn’t immediately clear to the audience.

The casting director commended us for the unique take on the script. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the part, but it was incredibly fun to zig when everyone was zagging. 

?Give People A Chance To Support You


For the longest time, I tried so hard not to tell anyone I was taking acting classes. On one hand, I didn’t want to get made fun of. On the other hand, I just didn’t think anyone would understand.

Then I ended up taking a course that culminated in an original play to be performed on a stage just off of Broadway.

In order to book the stage, we had to guarantee 100 seats. Since there were about 8 cast members in the play, each of us had to sell 10-15 tickets to friends and family.

At the time, less than 5 people knew I was acting. Dia, one of my sisters, and maybe 3 friends. The thought of asking people to come to see me in a play was paralyzing. I made up this crazy story in my head about what they’ll think about me. 

It didn’t matter. I had to get over it. I made a commitment to my castmates upon entering that course and I didn’t want to let them down. 

I emailed a link to buy tickets for the show to about 20 people. I expected half of them to delete the email, but I couldn’t be more wrong. Of the entire cast, I probably had the most support in the audience for each of the plays I performed in. 

I was blown away by two things: 

  1. How wrong I was to be afraid of sharing my experience
  2. How much people are willing to support you for going after your dreams

?Loving the Process


I all but decided to give up on my acting dreams the day I played a role as an extra in Madam President. 

I spent most of that day sitting at a dinner table with 7 other people. When the cameras weren’t rolling, we all got to talking and learned a lot about each other. 

From what I remember, only 1 guy at my table was a full-time actor. He would scour the city to work as an extra on a different set every day.

The other 6 people at my table had a “real job” and took the day off to “try something fun”.

I found myself in the middle of the spectrum. I wasn’t dedicated enough to the craft to go full-time, but I wanted this to be more than “something fun”.

That day, however, was anything but fun.

  • I had to wake up incredibly early to arrive on set around sunrise
  • It took 8+ hours to shoot a scene that ended up being about 5 minutes of screen-time in the finished episode.
  • Extras were treated like a herd of sheep
  • The pay was incredibly low (per diem was $85 pre-tax)

Making it as an actor isn’t so different than making it in anything else. You have to pay your dues. 

The full-time actor at my table was clearly excited about being on set as an extra day in and day out. 

His eyes lit up as he told us “behind the scenes” stories from our favorite television shows at the time. Everyone could tell he had a passion for acting and entertainment.

I simply didn’t share his enthusiasm about the process, which was perfectly fine. This taught me having a results-oriented goal (getting rich and famous), is typically a dead-end unless you can enjoy the process along the way.

I should have written that kid’s name down. I can’t help but wonder if he ever made it.

?...And Cut


Although I didn’t “make it” as an actor, I don’t regret that experience one bit. 

I came away with a lot of cool stories and practical skills.

I’m less afraid of speaking in public, which really paid off with the handful of speeches I’ve made over the years. 

I’m less afraid of putting myself out there, as you can tell by this newsletter. 

Finally, I’m less concerned with the haunting invisible script of “what will they say?” Life’s too short to get caught up in the opinion of others. Just go do what’s best for you and the people you love.



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Sunny Shakhawala

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