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In Search of (Multi-Hyphenate) Excellence: Sam Jaeger, Actor-Director-Writer-Producer

In Search of (Multi-Hyphenate) Excellence: Sam Jaeger, Actor-Director-Writer-Producer

No matter how successful your business, you probably wake up every day worrying about where your next customer, contract, or gig

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No matter how successful your business, you probably wake up every day worrying about where your next customer, contract, or gig will come from.

That’s why so many successful people in general are multi-hyphenates: Great at multiple things, tapping expertise gained in one domain to fuel excellence in others.

Perfect example? Actor-director-producer-writer Sam Jaeger. Sam is best known for starring roles in Parenthood, Why Women Kill, The Politician, The Handmaid’s Tale…

But he also wrote, produced, directed, and acted in his own movie (along with his wife Amber), Take Me Home. He’s directed movies, television, and music videos.

And you can add one more hyphen: He’s a really nice guy who instantly cracked my “Top 5 People I Would Love to Grab a Beer With” list.

Seemingly all successful actors, especially those who enjoy long careers, have developed skills in a variety of pursuits. How did you?

It starts with realizing no one will give you the skills. And that there is no one template for success in our industry.

Although there is one through-line: People who work constantly not only have a great work ethic… but they’re also enjoyable to work with. Our industry is known for stories of people who may be less than pleasant to spend time with. (Laughs.) Reputations are very important, here and everywhere, and it’s really easy to get a bad one. So it starts with maintaining a level of professionalism in all walks of the industry.

As for gaining the tools? I picked things up along the way. Being an observer is incredibly important — that’s one of the things I love about being a storyteller.

Several actors have told me part of their success stems from constantly studying other people’s mannerisms, behaviors, etc

That’s certainly important, but what matters more is looking for ways you can help other people.

As an actor, I’ve learned to look for what the director needs in a scene. Lots of it is little things, like knowing know I need to turn on a certain line of dialogue to provide a good reveal of a costar.

Actors are sometimes known for being too focused on their characters… and not enough on the overall picture. Learning to direct has helped me as an actor to think more broadly. And to think about what other people need, too.

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Because ultimately, everything comes down to this: What does the story need?

While you referred to me as a multi-hyphenate, I don’t view myself as an actor, or director… I prefer “storyteller,” because that keeps the focus where it should be.

Gaining skills often means getting people to put you in positions to learn and develop those skills. How did you work yourself into a position where people will say, “I trust you to do this, and this, and this…”? 

You’re right: It’s hard to offer proof you can do something if no one will give you the chance to prove it. 

And even then, it’s tough. Finding financing for a project is still a mystery to me. (Laughs.)

For me, the one thing I have to offer is that I have an earnest desire to tell stories. And I think that translates. When you have a passion for a story… that’s what people buy into. If you’re passionate and articulate about your vision… that goes a really long way.

Also, having written and directed and produced has given me a better sense of the need to balance money with art. I’ve read numerous stories where people had almost no constraints in terms of resources — sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t.

Limits are actually there to help us: To help us be more creative, to help us solve problems…

One example is the video I directed for Bootstraps. We only had Alexandra (Daddario) for one day, so we found a neighbor who looked like her that we could shoot from the back. We found a doorway that looked like the entrance to a church. Instead of worrying about what we didn’t have, we found creative ways to use what we did have to make the end result look much bigger. 

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Limits don’t have to be limits: They can be opportunities.

Speaking of limits: How do you decide what to do… and just as importantly, what not to do?

I definitely try to balance what I work on. If I repeat myself, I’ll get bored and do worse work. (Laughs.)

Really, it’s a simple checklist. Is it creatively fulfilling? Will I feel hallenged? Are good people involved? Will it put me in the poor house? (Laughs.)

My wife and I know the game. Some jobs you take because it’s a good project with good people that may pay dividends in the long run. Money is important, but it’s not always about the money.

And of course whether I think I can help make a story as riveting as possible.

That’s the job. Doing something for purely selfish reasons never works. Doing something because you think you can help tell a great story? While you might fail… at least your heart was in the right place.

As an actor who has also written and directed, do you offer suggestions and feedback… or do you just stay in your lane?

If what you’re asking is whether it’s hard to balance a desire to make the end result as great as possible with the need to be part of a team… the answer is yes.

Take a show like Parenthood. Three years into a seies, actors can get fairly rigid about what they portray. I waasa talking with a director who was frustrated by actors who complained about certain scenes, or questioned the purpose of certain scenes… and his response was, “I have no problem with you having issues with a scene. But if you do, come up with soemthing else. If you know there’s a problem… help figure out the solution.”

That’s what I try to do. I try to help identify and solve problems. I try to identify and offer ways to make something even better. 

If all you do is complain and point out what you think are problems… you won’t last very long.

Feedback is great, but when you’re ating or directring or writing… how do you evaluate your performance?

I do feel I’m a better actor than I was five years ago, partly because I was inspired to take a page from my friend Jonathan Majors. Jonathan is the lead in an HBO show, he’s in the next Spike Lee movie… he puts so much into his work.

Through him I realized I wasn’t doing as much homework as I should.

My goal is to do so much work that I know the story’s world in a way that I’m completely confident in the choices I’ve made — and also confident enough to make changes. To know it well enough that I’ve found an answer… but if someone comes to me with a different perspective, I’m flexible enough to change.

And I know the the background, the material, the accents, etc. well enough that if someone presents me with something new, I’m not only willing but capable of adapting.

You have a great answer, but you’re open to finding an even better answer.

And that all comes down to staying rooted in the purpose of the story.

When you stay true to the themes of the story, you remove yourself — and your ego — from the equation. 

I’m directing a feature I wrote next year. I could direct and act, or just direct, or just act… but the answer lies in answering one question: “What is best for the story? What is the best way to help this story resonate?” 

That’s what matters most. What I might want to do is certainly important… but ultimately, the right answer will be the approach that best tells the story.

Decades into your career, how do you define “success”?

It’s funny: I thought I would have a career that you if you do one great thing, it will automatically lead to another… it’s that’s not remotely true. (Laughs.)

Every year I have to prove myself to people who don’t know my work. Or who don’t know me in a certain light. Making peace with that aspect of the business is a big part of it. That, and perseverance. 

And overcoming the indignity of constantly having to prove yourself. (Laughs.)

But to answer your question, the key is to feel a sense of accomplishment based on my own criteria. Unlike theater, where you get the thrill of an audience reaction, often we’re working in bubbles.

So it’s important to constantly assess where you are in your career, and to follow your own definitions of success, both professional and personal.

That way you’ll always be there to give yourself a pat on the back, especially when no one else will. (Laughs.)

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

This article is from Inc.com

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