You might have read my EW Community interview with Marcus Scribner, who plays Andre Jr. on black-ish. Now, you can read how he honed his talent with my interview with his acting coach and CEO of Hollywood’s Sterling Studio, Constance Tillotson.
As you read below, you’ll see how Tillotson became one of the industry’s best acting coaches, her method of teaching, and some advice she has for those wanting to get in the acting business. At the end of the article, you’ll know why she believes that “cultivating the mindset of mastery” is best approach not only to acting, but to all aspects of life.
How did you get started in the coaching business?
I knew since I was little that I was an actor…It was something that was so big inside me that I never shared it. I never talked about it, I never did plays, anything. It was kind of like this big secret and that I wouldn’t have anyone who would understand it. It seemed so truthful, yet I didn’t want it to ever go away, you know? That if I pursued it and it wasn’t it, I would not feel whole. It was that big.
…I grew up, became a stockbroker, [and] one day I realized that I just have to do this thing. I moved to Newport Beach, Los Angeles, got into great acting classes, and started acting and I was in movies and television, but the feeling of [longing] was still there.
I thought, “Why is this feeling still here? This quest, this calling that is unanswered?” I kept putting it out the universe, “What is my life’s purpose? What am I supposed to be doing? What is my highest calling?”
…One time, one of my friends, who is an actor I did a play with, he coached young actors and he had an acting class and he always wanted me to come in and teach, which I had zero desire to do. I always said, ‘No.’ Then, one day, after years, he called me – he needed to go out of town and he really needed help. So I went in that day and it was just going to be for two hours and the second I walked in and saw their faces, it’s like my whole life flashed before me. Every choice I’d made, every choice, every struggle, led me to that moment and that was exactly what I was supposed to be doing with my life.
A quote from your page states, “My classes are not easy. If this dissuades you, then so will everything else about this business.” I think this is a very important statement. Why do you think this is important for students to know?
Because, you have to. If you want to do this, you’ve gotta do it because you can’t do anything else. You have to have such a calling to do this that any obstacle that’s faced, you have to rise above it. Those that have a real mastery in acting, it’s just like a great athlete; you can’t help but continuously better yourself and better your craft.
You know, I never see any rejection in this business. I only see opportunity. I know that every single audition an actor goes on is to help them. It’s not about that job. It’s about having the gratitude that you had the opportunity to work that day. You go in, and you prepare your work always better than how you prepared for an audition the day before, and you always rise to the occasion and you keep doing that. Eventually, you’ll be ready in advance when that right role comes to you.
So, it’s really difficult—if it wasn’t difficult then everyone would be doing it. But if you love it, then the difficulties are invigorating and they’re challenging and you understand and accept the level that you’re at so you can keep rising and forcing yourself to go to a higher level…and it’s non-stop education…I’ll say that if you can handle my classes, when you start working, it feels like a day in the park. It’s so much easier to be on set than it is in my classes.
The amount of detail and care you put in your classes shows, what with Marcus getting an NAACP Image Award nomination and this is first big TV role. And you have other students who have been in The Walking Dead, Spring Breakers, Hot in Cleveland, and others.
Yeah…they don’t have the luxury of 30 years under their belt or even 10 or 15 years under their belt before they go in and audition for a job with well-known actors who are playing their father; for instance with Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne, who are playing Marcus’ father and grandfather.
Marcus started my classes when he was seven years old, and he was diligent in the classes for seven years prior to booking black-ish. He really has a mastery of the craft and the understanding of a sophisticated improv that’s mandatory, especially now for film and television. It’s different improv than what you seen on sketch comedy… It’s very difficult. So I teach my actors at a very young age that they have to be able to walk in a room with the knowledge that they have something to make that fellow actor a better actor. I call us a tribe; we’re all there for each other, and we’re all there to be the best we possibly can be so we can bring out the best in the other actor.
…When Marcus walked into that room with Anthony Anderson, his intention was that everyone in that room, including Anthony Anderson, would believe that he was [Anderson’s] son when he left that room. People always say “You have to have confidence.” You can’t make that a conscious decision, to have confidence. Confidence is a byproduct of knowing your value and your worth and what you’re bringing to the table. That comes from hard work and being able to accumulate those tools and having the right mindset.
It’s not about going to take the role. It’s about [asking] what am I going to give to this role as a storyteller to honor this story that this writer took years to write and these producers took years to try to fund and all the experience of the actors and director who are already a part of this project? What can I now bring to the table to make the story even grander? That’s even the mindset of the little [child actors]. That’s why they work at a young age out of my studio.
That idea of instilling in the students that they have something to offer is something that’s really important. While there are many great teachers, there are a lot that don’t reinvest in the kids they teach, which is really upsetting. Every teacher should build up their students’ self-esteem like that.
Thank you! It always blows me away because I’ve had many successful actors who have been or are currently in my studio, but I also have people in my studio who just love what we do in there because it makes them more whole as human beings to go out and get what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives. So, it always just blows me away.
I got a beautiful email one day from someone who had been in my class for years but was never really pursuing acting…He said ‘I wanted to let you know that I just got into Yale and my whole letter that I wrote for my college application had to do with what I learned in your studio and how I grew up in your studio that gave me the clarity about what I’m supposed to do with my life.’ I get those letters from parents of kids who were in my studio years ago and how they’re turning out as individuals and it’s always just makes my day sunny and bright when I hear stories like that. We are really honest in there. We don’t judge and we talk about who we are as human beings and we understand the dynamics of human behavior.
What would be your advice to prospective students?
“My advice would be to know why you want to do this…Let go, to be in the present, and go in letting go of control and set your intention about what you want out of the class…Every person that leaves my class leaves a more evolved human being…just go in with an open heart and open mind and courage to take a step closer to your own mastery.