Anyone trying to make their way in Hollywood knows just how tough it is to “make it” in the industry. But what does it truly mean to “make it” as an actor?
John Ross Bowie, best known for his roles in Speechless and The Big Bang Theory, tackles this question in his brand-new memoir.
Titled No Job for a Man, Bowie's memoir takes an honest look at what it means to pursue a career in the arts in America. From growing up in New York City in the 80s to joining a punk-rock band called Egghead to traveling to L.A. to start a career in Hollywood with his wife, Jamie, Bowie's memoir is filled with authentic humor and powerful insight.
Bowie joined us to discuss No Job for a Man in detail. In the interview, he talks about the origin of the memoir's title, his journey overcoming stage fright, and what he hopes readers will take away from his book.
Beginning the Writing Process
Maya Capasso: What inspired you to write a memoir?
John Ross Bowie: I'm going to give you a horrible, cynical answer: An agent approached me and said, “Hey, would you like to write a memoir?” And I said, “Okay.” But then it took on a life of its own. It went from being a fun little shallow recollection of some acting anecdotes to this examination of my dad, our generational differences, and how he and I each approached work.
It's all in the title. My dad would say a little too frequently that acting was no job for a man. And that once I had that title, I realized that this book is about jobs. What is a job for a man, and how do you define something like that? And that gave me a sharper focus on what to write.
The Early Years
MC: Much of your memoir is focused on your father and his impact on how you grew up and who you became. What was it like to have a Michael Scott-like man, as you describe him, as a father?
JRB: Wow. What a question. Ask that to anybody, man. I mean, wow. What was it like? In hindsight, it was fascinating. My dad was a bit of a drinker. He had intense mood swings sometimes, but he had this incredible passion and love for theater, movies, and TV. I think deep down, he wanted to pursue a career in them himself. But he didn't for myriad reasons. Maybe he was too scared. Maybe he thought it's a very inconsistent way to make a living, which is completely understandable.
I think he had a lot of resentment, not just towards me, but towards life in general because he wasn't able to pursue something he really loved. But he instilled this passion in me. He instilled this interest in me, and he's a huge reason why I do what I do. It was an interesting paradox growing up with Bruce Bowie.
The Teenage Years
MC: In your memoir, you talk about your journey discovering punk music as a teenager and how that helped you discover your individuality. Could you talk more about that experience and how that led to the creation of Egghead?
JRB: The thing about punk rock, particularly the punk rock I was listening to in the eighties during the Reagan era, is that it was very much about questioning everything. It was about not believing the official story. And sometimes, it went into some looney-tune conspiracy corners. But that general instinct is, “Hang on, is the official narrative correct?”
The idea of the American Dream is that you're supposed to have a house in the suburbs. That we're just supposed to be working for other people and seeking out a modest living with whatever table scraps they throw us. The more intensely radical bands I was listening to, like D.O.A. or Dead Kennedys, questioned everything. Around 10th grade, I was like, “My God, they're questioning my dad!” [John laughs.] It was an intense revelation for me.
The other aspect of punk that was so influential was the occasional amateurishness of all of it. The Dead Kennedys were phenomenal musicians. They had chops for days. But there were a lot of bands that clearly started recording before they fully had an understanding of their instruments. And that was interesting and fun too.
For better or for worse, it influenced the way I approached acting. I was booking stuff before I took a formal scene study class. There are actors out there who will not like to hear that, and I understand. I'd be angry too. But there was a sense in punk rock of getting up and doing things even before you were entirely sure what you were doing. I found that inspiring.
MC: As I read your memoir, I was compelled by your dread of entering adulthood and cynicism around the concept of the American Dream. How has your perspective on the American Dream shifted throughout your lifetime?
JRB: I don't know that it's exclusively American, but the general idea of wanting your kids to do better than you did is the whole thing in a nutshell. Deep down, my dad wanted me to have a better life than he did, no question.
I certainly want that for my kids. I'm not going to set them up with a trust fund because I want them to know the pain of working retail. But the whole American Dream deal is that every generation should do a little better than the last one and do so with their parents' encouragement.
MC: Can you talk a bit about how you overcame your stage fright?
JRB: I've realized the stage fright I had as a kid was part of a generalized anxiety disorder that has popped in and out of my life for years. When I was younger, and that grew more acute in junior high and high school, I was terrified of looking stupid. Terrified of exposing myself this way. Deep down, I wanted attention but had no way of going about it.
It was a strange place to be because there was this push-pull between wanting to get up there and being terrified of doing so. Now, the good news is that I still wanted to be involved with theater. I worked for the stage crew in high school, which was great. And I feel terrific about having done that. I got a chance to build sets, run lights, and do things that many actors don't.
When it came time to get over my stage fright, I was still in denial about wanting to be an actor. I was on an educational track to becoming a high school teacher. I had this very strangely good idea that college radio would be the thing to help me get over a fear of public speaking because I could talk to thousands of people who I couldn't see. I went to a college with a huge radio station. I auditioned, and I got in my sophomore year.
The college radio station became a huge thing for me. I met lifelong friends and gradually got over this fear of public speaking. So when it was time to student teach, I was still scared, but I was not incapacitated. It was such a good idea. I still can't believe I came up with it! [John laughs]. That took some foresight that I didn't know I had in me at 19.
MC: Throughout your memoir, you talk about some low moments in your life, like when you worked as a copywriter. What did that experience teach you?
JRB: It was less of a low moment professionally than it was emotionally. I didn't like the company I was working for. I didn't believe in the work they were doing. But the thing about copywriting is it's almost like writing poetry. You have to focus on the importance of each word.
You have a finite space to get your idea across or your massive consulting firm's ideas across. I'm glad I'm not doing that anymore, but I'm grateful that I had the chance to write dynamic pros about what the firm could do for the utility industry. There is value in that. All writing is good practice.
MC: How has your wife's role in your life impacted your acting career?
JRB: The thing about Jamie and I is that we are both in this business for life. She's transitioned into more of a writing track of late after years of acting and having a career very similar to mine. The interesting thing, especially in the first couple of years we were here, is that there's absolutely no way I could have moved out without her. But then, once we got here, I stepped into a flurry of work, and she had a bit of a lull. So I don't know that we would've been able to stay without me.
It's been nice back and forth for a few years there where one of us works steadily and the other has some downtime. Now that we have kids, it's a blessing because somebody's got to get these brats to school! [John laughs].
There has been a very nice push-pull in terms of how money has come into the house. There have been times when I was swamped, and she's been the head parent. But right now, she's working five days a week writing on Grey's Anatomy. So I'm the first responder right now. We are each others' biggest fans. We believe in each other and help each other through the lulls.
I know a lot of people who are in this business who married outside of this business, and they make it work. Personally, I love having someone who understands the vagaries of this industry in a way where I can come home and say, “Oh God, that weird executive was on set today. You know, the one I'm talking about?” or “I just had an audition with blank. And he does that thing where he reads the line with you. Oh God, I hate it when he does that.” Having that shared frame of reference is incredibly valuable to me.
Mental Health Matters
MC: What do you hope readers will take away from your memoir?
JRB: I hope readers will realize there's no one set way to have a career, particularly not in this line of work. There's also a great deal of talk in the book about mental health and my encounters with mental health issues. I hope people find kinship in that.
Anytime I read somebody who is writing very frankly about mental illness, I feel a sense of camaraderie, and it calms me somewhat to know that someone else is going through this. I hope this memoir is another example that people can look to and say, “Oh, I'm not completely crazy. Other people feel like this.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.