Take a long-term view of your career — Louise McCarthy

Headshot of actress Louise McCarthy smiling to camera against a black background
Louise McCarthy

Scottish BAFTA award winner Louise McCarthy is an all-singing, all-dancing actor and writer who has wowed in the West End; trodden the boards in productions at the National Theatre in Scotland and elsewhere; appeared on CBBC, BBC and ITV; and even popped up in The Witch’s Bogey! We are delighted that she is sharing her insights, top tips and mantras on focussing, adapting, and being bold!

Taking a long-term view of your career can be very daunting, but it’s the right thing to do.

I remember worrying about never achieving my goals, or what would happen if halfway through my career I suddenly decided my goals were wrong for me and I wanted to change them. I realised quite quickly though that having long-term goals allowed me to maintain a positive mindset and most importantly focus. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I love a good saying and this one:

Follow One Course Until Success

has been invaluable. I have always set myself a course by giving myself long-term goals. And I don’t mind telling you that they haven’t always come off, but that’s not the point. See, setting yourself goals in the first place will give you ‘career clarity’. You’ll feel more organised and more in control of your progress.

I have always taken time to write down one or two main things that I want for my career, and how I think I can get it. It’s a great way to find clarity when navigating the sometimes muddy waters of this industry. And one or two things is enough, because you don’t want to be exhausting yourself by trying to be — or do — too much.

Focusing your energies will allow you to deliver better quality results and avoid the risk of diluting your ambitions.

Three people in a group, smiling to camera. The man in the middle, dressed in a 70s stage outfit, has his arms around the shoulders of the girl in costume on the left and the girl in costume on the right, who is Louise.
Louise (right) and her West End co-stars

The two things I put on my wee wish list in the early days after I was in the West End were: 

  1. a serious role in a play (not a musical), and
  2. a main character in a TV show in Scotland (any genre).

The reason I was so specific was because I felt I had created a name for myself in London already, and I wanted to do the same in my hometown. I also wanted a varied CV and to not be typecast as a musical theatre performer as I knew I had other strings to my bow. I believed deep down that if I stayed in town and ‘show hopped’ in the musical theatre world it would be much more difficult further down the line to try and cross over. I knew that if I straddled both worlds early enough I would be seen as an actress who could sing, and not a singer who could act. For some reason, a singer who could act wasn’t seen to be as impressive or taken as seriously as an actress who could sing, even though they are effectively the same thing. At this time in the performing arts world, the idea that someone could do both wasn’t truly believed by industry professionals in the casting seat. It was very much a ‘stay in your lane’ industry at that time. However a shift was starting to happen, and I knew that before long the fashion of theatre would start to favour really good actors who could sing as opposed to really good singers who could act. 

My goals were both aspirational and strategic. This combination, I think, is the key to getting what you want.

Also timing here for me was everything. I knew that if I moved to straight acting early on in my career then musical theatre wouldn’t define me. That’s not to say I didn’t, or don’t, want to do musicals but what I wanted ultimately was both. I would also be taken more seriously as an actress if I did an acting gig early, as those in a casting position would presume I was an actress first and foremost (which, by the way, we all are – or should I say, should be – even if we are musical theatre trained).

Acting, I believe, is the most important discipline. If you can’t act then you can’t be believed; and if no one believes what you are doing in whatever discipline you are performing, then you will not be authentic or true to the role.

Another change I made was to take musical theatre off my CV for this reason. At this time in the industry, there was a bit of snobbery in the straight acting world about musical theatre performers, and so with musical theatre on my CV I just knew I wouldn’t get a look in. After removing this I was then seen for straight acting roles, and bagged my first play with NTS (National Theatre of Scotland). The ball was now rolling. Off the back of that I was then seen by my industry as an actress, and so TV auditions started to come in and I was able now to get a few jobs here and there in TV. This, along with straight theatre, would bulk out my CV. Once this was achieved I then slipped the musical theatre credits back in, and I was then in a position to go for both.

Louise, sitting on a stool, wearing a 50s-stle leopard print dress with net skirt, does her make up using a handheld mirror. Well lit room with chandelier, possibly on stage.
Focus on yourself

The last benefit of focusing is that you bring back all your attention to yourself and what you are doing. You don’t fall into the ugly trap of comparing yourself and your progress with others — and that’s so much more healthy for you, body and mind.

For me, focusing on what I wanted in the long term turned out to be life changing. I learnt how to self motivate, take responsibility for my future and accept that the greatest influence on whether I succeeded or failed was me.

So if we have a focus, is it ever right to change direction? Here’s another saying I have for that:

What you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabout.

Life is about change. Not good change, not bad change, just change. It’s how you deal with it that makes it good or bad. What you wanted, or thought you wanted, at 21 may well be different when you are 31. Some people know who they are and what they want from an early age, and others evolve their understanding as they grow. So never worry about changing direction, because every new direction brings you new experiences and knowledge which is something every performer needs. And besides, sometimes your original plan won’t work and that takes us on to my next saying:

Insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.

Louise, in a gold sports jacket, looks back over her shoulder at the camera and smiles, winking. The caption below says Yer Granny.
Louise as Marissa in Yer Granny

If we were working towards being a MySpace sensation in 2008 just as Facebook and YouTube began blowing it out of the water, we’d have been sensible to switch tactic. The same is true now if we want to be a TikTok star but discover that we hate being in front of an iPhone camera.

If what you’re doing isn’t working, if you’re not moving towards achieving your goals or find that you can’t achieve them for one reason or another, then adapt.

As humans we love patterns and routine, and I have found many times in my life that when I want to be in a different position, I get nowhere if I keep doing the same things. This is the definition of madness and I have honestly learnt the hard way.

A very recent lesson, and probably one I am still learning, is a behavioural pattern for me. I constantly think that everyone else must know better than little old me. However, I have discovered that by keeping on believing this, I dilute my own voice and then ultimately my work suffers.

A good example recently, as I’m still working to fix this part of myself, is when I try to explain my vision in a creative setting, I sometimes can’t find the words to relay the concept.

A cast in retro costume poses in character for a photo. Louise is seated on the front row, on the left, clad in flares, a yellow shirt and tank top. 4 people stand behind her and two next to her on the sofa.
When I dilute my voice, my work ultimately suffers

When I can’t get the other person to understand it, I convince myself that it was probably a rotten idea (and what the hell do I know anyway?) However, when I talk less about it and just go and put it together — either on paper, or just go for it and film my idea — then I find it can work. Ultimately I need to make it, then show it and not just talk about it as that’s not always my strongest way to showcase ideas. Sometimes when you put it down in another form, you can communicate it better, and you show yourself and others that it does work (and you’re not crazy!) By doing this you will realise that you can create, and people will get it. I have to physically do it to let them see it.

Now, if I really want something to move faster, or if I want to shift my goals, I know that I ultimately have to make daily changes that steer me in the direction I want to go.

I also have to be prepared to make tough choices – even ones that sometimes go against everything I stand for as an actor. There is great advantage in agreeing to the right projects. Sometimes we say yes to a project for practical reasons (like the need for some quick cash) and sometimes we say yes to projects that will help us learn, develop and connect with others. However, we also have to learn the power of NO. This is sometimes the only power we have as performers and it can be scary, not least because of the inevitable FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). However sometimes by saying yes to absolutely everything we overburden ourselves, and we lose sight of our dreams and visions for the future. The word “no” can be an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It takes a lot of courage to say it, but setting limits can set you free. So be brave, because:

Shy weans get nae sweeties!

(Translation for non Scots: Shy children tend to not get as much cake!)

While I wouldn’t encourage performers to act in any way entitled, we have to be bold in order to seek out the information and connections that allow us to achieve our goals.

Two white women dressed in overalls and wearing headscarves, are facing the camera and laughing. The one one the left has a cigarette in her hand, the one on the right is Louise. The copy underneath says: Number 1 in the Ents 24 2017 Rising Comedy List
Louise, right, with her The Dolls co-star

Never be shy to ask people who are in the positions you would like to be in how they got there. I have found that people generally love to talk about themselves, and so reaching out to a casting director or an actor who is further ahead in the game than you can prove to be invaluable. By doing this I have avoided pitfalls that others didn’t, and saved a ton of time whilst gaining invaluable knowledge and experience.

When putting together a team to work with it’s tempting to surround ourselves with big names when we can, or to take fruit from the low hanging branches because it is easier. But I would urge actors to take the time and energy required to gather a team of people around them that they trust, and who respect them and their talent. Above all, make sure that everyone in your team is driving in the same direction.

Don’t waste time. Sometimes we find ourselves hitting a rich seam of work in an area of the industry that doesn’t align with our ultimate dreams. That is fine, provided you don’t let your real dreams fall by the wayside. Say, for example that you want to work in TV but have had a lot of successful theatre auditions. I would suggest you absolutely continue your great work in theatre, but redouble your efforts to pursue your television ambitions too.

You are always in charge of your own destiny so push yourself and do the work required to make new connections in your areas of interest.

And, of course, it’s fine to have more than one area of interest. I have managed to keep my hand in theatre projects as well as television. This is because I am careful about my choices, and I don’t overload myself by trying to do it all at once. I would recommend regularly checking in with yourself to be sure that your schedule is not at risk of getting too cluttered. Keep your mind and your vision clear and avoid running yourself ragged trying to be all things to all people. Remember, most successful actors succeed in the thing they are best at; they succeed at being THEMSELVES, which is as much as to say:

Be yourself; everyone else is taken.

As actors, we are tempted to believe that we can play every part, and do every job in every sector of our industry. I have learned from my own experiences that that isn’t really the case, and I have often felt overwhelmed and confused about who I am as an actor and what I bring to the table as a result.

Louise and her male co-star sit on a picnic blanket on grass in front of a lake and mountains, it is a sunny day and they gaze at each other
lt is so important to fully understand who you are

Every part you will ever play will always have elements of YOU in it. There is no getting away from that. You can never fully hide yourself. We all possess a different presence, energy and look. A lot of these aspects are hard to mask, even if you are the most amazing actor in the world. Eddie Redmayne gave a fantastic chameleonic performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything but he was still, at the heart of things, Eddie Redmayne and as Eddie Redmayne he gave a very different interpretation of the role than Paul Bettany might have given, for example. Our qualities as performers are unique and they usually determine where we sit in the casting world. For this reason, it is so important to fully understand who you are and what you bring to the table.

By truly knowing yourself you will be able to set career goals that are both authentic and achievable. That is not to say that you shouldn’t dream big, but be honest about it and ultimately be true to yourself.

The industry, in many ways, is the most authentic it has ever been. People no longer really accept non-authentic accents for parts, especially on TV. They want the real deal. So call it typecasting or call it skill-specific work, but ultimately you have to realise that your unique selling point is doing YOU – and the good news is that nobody does it better!

By way of a slight contradiction, I do believe that actors can play a vast array of roles but, as per my Eddie Redmayne example, we can only play them in our own unique way and this tells us something really important about the casting process.

Louise, dressed in dungarees, and two other women sit alongside each other on a sofa. The one in the middle has a book open and they are all lauging at something in the book.
We can only play roles in our own unique way

If a casting panel doesn’t take you for a role, you must realise that it has NOTHING to do with your talent and everything to do with THEIR particular vision for the part, and whether you fit into that small box. Sometimes you’re just not what they are looking for. No problem and we move on. Paul Bettany never got to play Stephen Hawking but he’s done just fine all the same.

I should be clear that this is purely by way of an example – I don’t know if Paul Bettany even auditioned for the part, so to be fair let’s look at a different example. Consider the role of Hamlet. If we say that the role of Hamlet requires an actor to convey the elements of melancholy, bitterness and cynicism, then must we also say that if you can play all of these qualities convincingly then you can play Hamlet? The answer I believe is yes, but only in your own unique way — and if that’s not the way a casting director wants it, then the part is going to someone else – Paul Bettany perhaps. The point is that there is very little you can change about that: you can only be your version of Hamlet. This world is all subjective, and so if your goal is to play Hamlet you must keep focusing on that, because you might one day be another casting director’s perfect Hamlet.

This brings me back to the importance of maintaining your long-term career goals, because without focus (as well as a lot of resilience and a true understanding of how casting works) it is all too easy to lose faith in ourselves. There will be knock-backs in any career, but you have to take the rough with the smooth and keep going forwards. It’s all about believing in yourself, and I know that sometimes that is hard, but a good technique is:

Sell yourself to yourself.

Three women sit close together, grinning with delight and holding a BAFTA award. Louise is on the right, wearing a green floral dress.
Louise and co-stars won a BAFTA

We are in an age where people can create their own work, and so there is tremendous opportunity to really be self-motivated and push your career forward. As an actor you have to start thinking of yourself as a product. That’s not a diminishment of your humanity, it’s a celebration of that uniqueness we have been talking about. Since you are unique, no one else can know you or market you like you can, BUT if you have no forward planning or no long-term goals for yourself as a product then, more likely than not, you will stay stuck on the shelf. So:

  • be positive,
  • be productive and
  • be driven.

One good trick to try is to imagine how you would sell yourself to yourself. If you’re a happy buyer you’ll find it much easier to make others come on board.

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind

To conclude: sometimes the smallest step, taken in the right direction, can end up being the biggest step of your life.

Okay, I’m kidding on a bit. You’re clearly not an astronaut, you’re an actor — but if you want to fulfil your dreams then you’ll have to take that leap at some point. So go on, tiptoe if you must but take those steps today!