Michael Cyril Creighton ’01 has come a long way since his mother dropped him off at Emerson College and he worried about his inability to do his own laundry.
Over the past decade and a half, the actor/writer has appeared on stages and screens, large and small. He’s appeared off-Broadway (Stage Kiss, The Vietnamization of NJ), on Network shows (30 Rock and Louie), on Web series (Orange Is the New Black, Horace & Pete), on HBO’s critically acclaimed High Maintenance, and in the Academy Award-winning film Spotlight. He’s even written and starred in his own web series, Jack in a Box, winner of a Writers Guild Award and a NY Television Festival prize for Best Web Series.
Last fall, The New Yorker profiled Creighton, praising his “gift for expressing the tension between the desire to connect and the desire to protect oneself.”
Creighton returned to his alma mater on Monday, February 6, to talk to Performing Arts students in the Greene Theater about things they should know if they plan to be actors or writers.
“You should know that coming from Emerson is preparing you in ways you’re not even aware of,” he told the students.
Here’s some of his advice:
Create your own opportunities
For eight years, Creighton had a day job in the box office of Playwrights Horizons, a New York theater company. At night, he worked on the stage crew, he said, learning about theater from an entirely different perspective.
“People I have worked with as an office person, I have ended up working with as an actor later down the line,” he told the students.
When he turned 30, Creighton said, he was frustrated that he still didn’t have any TV or film credits. Sick of waiting for people to give him roles, he decided to write his own web series—about a frustrated actor who works in a theater box office.
He would film in the the mornings, before his work shift started. As Jack in a Box got going, he began writing parts for people he wanted to work with and asking them if they’d be in his series, and “no one said ‘no.’
“I can track the beginning of my professional career to creating that work,” Creighton said. “If you can write your own material in order to keep yourself busy and performing, do it, because it shows people what you can do.”
Don’t just be an actor, be a human
A student asked Creighton if she should immediately start looking for work after graduation or if she can afford to take some time and travel.
“I don’t regret a lot of things,” Creighton told her. “What I do regret is for my 20s and some of my early 30s, I’d be like, ‘No, I can’t go on vacation. What if I get another audition?’ So dumb.”
It’s important to have a full personal life, he said, because you might “find happiness” as a performer five times a year, but all those other times, you’ll need something else to keep you buoyed.
“My number one advice is [to] have a full life outside this business,” he said. “It’s the only way you will survive, because it’s very dark sometimes, and you need people around you who will support you and lift you up.”
Being well-rounded is also important for the work itself, he said. He told students to read books about things other than acting, keep informed about the world and current events, and cultivate interests outside the theater.
On his last meeting with a casting director, “we honestly didn’t talk about acting or what I’ve done at all. We talked about politics, Peruvian pottery…kids. You need to be a human being.”
Don’t be a jerk
Creighton kept coming back to this one.
“How you treat people at 21 is going to follow you well into your 50s,” he said. “Being a nice person in this business, and being a respectful person, is so incredibly important.”
Later, when talking about all the different career paths the students would end up taking, he stressed again the importance of treating others the way you want to be treated. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it could have long-lasting effects.
“You could be sitting in the room right now with a [future] network executive, and you could be testing for a pilot, and she could think ‘She was so awful to me in college,’” he said.
Take control of the roles
Typecasting is real and hard to fight against, he said. The trick is to “find the variety within the type.”
After finding himself being cast multiple times as the “nasty shopkeeper” type, Creighton said he felt like he needed to show people his softer, gentler side.
So when he was asked to write an episode of High Maintenance when it was a web series, with a role for himself, he saw his chance.
“I wrote that story about an awkward agoraphobic who…only orders weed because he has a crush on the [dealer],” he said.
But if typecasting is real, so is selling yourself short because you think there’s no way you’ll get a role.
Five months after quitting his office job at Playwrights Horizons, Creighton went in to audition for Kevin in Stage Kiss, a role that had previously been played by a tall, svelte actor. The 5-foot-8, self-described “chubby” Creighton was surprised when they said they’d see him for it and was sure they wouldn’t cast him.
He got the role, where he was seen by a woman he had never met who later recommended him for the part of Joe Crowley in Spotlight.
“She recommended me based on a play I had done, which I almost didn’t go for because I thought it would go to a skinny guy,” he said.
Which comes back to one more piece of advice from Creighton:
In acting, and in life, “stop trying to be what you think people want you to be,” he said.
Not every acting student will end up an actor: “It’s O.K. to decide it’s not for you after a while. It’s not O.K. to just give up because it’s hard.”
Casting directors are not the enemy: “Some are tougher than others, some are warmer than others, but what I have found is they all want you to succeed…That being said, they do not make the decisions. At all times, there are at least three people above them who make the decisions. Create a fan of them, because then they’ll fight for you.”
Sometimes you have to work jobs you hate because you need to get paid: “I have done some gigs that have been the worst experience of my life, but it paid enough for me to live on for a month.”
Make sure your online presence is authentic and has a point of view, but don’t be gross: “There’s a fine line between self-promotional and totally disgusting.”