My Hollywood Dreams Were Coming True, But I Still Felt Empty

Read this reflective narrative about finding peace after leaving Hollywood.

Tanner had a real shot at making it in Hollywood — he landed a top agent who worked with actors on SNL and major movies — but he couldn’t escape the restlessness he was feeling. When the COVID-19 shutdown gave him space to reflect on his life, he found himself leaving his dreams behind for something better. 

“God, get me out of here. Please.” 

I prayed those words again and again for months. Los Angeles was no longer shiny and new. I was stagnant and heading nowhere. 

Five years ago, I moved to LA after booking a sizable role in a highly anticipated studio comedy. I landed one of the top agents, a guy other actors spend decades just trying to grab a coffee with. 

I remember sitting down in his office. “You want a latte or anything?” he asked. He waved his assistant in: “Get him whatever he wants. I’ll just have a small black coffee.” I didn’t know if I would have to pay, so I ordered the cheapest thing I could think of. I kicked myself later for being silly. 

“You’ll be on SNL. A regular in studio comedies. A name,” he told me as I looked up at the movie stars’ faces that adorned his walls. I heard everything short of, “Ya gonna be a stah, kiddo!” It was everything I dreamed about since I was 5 years old.

Red carpets, late night shows, parties in the Hills — it was all happening. Inside of me, however, all that was happening was a growing emptiness. The more I filled myself with “fun,” the emptier I felt. It was fun, don’t get me wrong — which was why it was easy to think that I just needed more “fun” to feel better. Consequently, the gap between the feelings of “fun” and “fulfilled” only grew wider.

There was one party in particular in which I was out with some new friends — one of whom was a cast member on SNL. We found ourselves on the balcony of a mansion, drinks in hand; the city lights spread below us. “I’m so jealous you got to be in that film, man!” my friend blurted in between sips. “Wait, what?” I replied. “I’m jealous of you! You’re on SNL! He hid behind his cup: “Nah, dude. Trust me, we’d all rather be in your shoes.” 

His words floored me. They confirmed the restlessness I had been shoving aside. Standing right in front of me was someone whose footsteps I desperately tried to follow, who seemingly had everything I was working toward. Turns out he was trying to follow in my footsteps. I didn’t even think I had footsteps to follow! 

We stood there in silence, both antsy in our own shoes and slowly realizing that a pair from someone else wasn’t going to fit well, either. 

Five years later, I was serving tables. SNL didn’t happen. Nor did the studio comedies. Everyone in the group I originally moved to LA with now had their own TV show or slew of acclaimed films. I was excited for them, but I was worried for myself. 

Facing the reality of surviving on tips, I grew anxious of what this would mean for my future. “No one wants to marry a waiter,” I thought, especially not when everyone else in my circle was able to “make it” in Hollywood.

I wanted to prove my worth, so I worked. Hard. I worked a full-time job until 4 p.m., and then sprinted to my next shift at 5. I slumped home around midnight and tried to write screenplays with whatever energy remained. I ate the minimum, went out rarely, and saved as much as I could. It was a cycle: wake, work, rest — rinse and repeat. 

The joy I felt for my acting craft dampened with every audition. I couldn’t complete any screenplays, and my work schedule wouldn’t allow for me to develop a meaningful relationship. Hollywood morphed from a glamorous, historical paradise to a dirty, overpopulated inferno. 

The more I stressed about my career, the farther away God felt. The farther away God felt, the more I stressed about my desires for a family, which only made me stress more about my career. It was an inescapable spiral.

Before L.A., I always defined myself simply as a son of God — that was the rock-bottom layer to my identity. But the longer I stayed in LA, the more I defined myself by what I thought others would find worthy. I was constantly asking myself, Who else can I be for them? How else can I prove my worth to this person? What else could I do for that person to love me? Nothing worked. My unfulfillment couldn’t even be masked by “fun” anymore. 

Then COVID-19 struck and the world flipped upside-down. During the lockdown, I actually had time to connect with a Bible study group. I found time for prayer and spent more time in silence than I had in years. I heard my heart again — I heard Him speaking there. My grip on needing to be an actor loosened. I explored other career options. I grew more generous to my roommates. To deal with writer’s block with my screenplays, I started and finished writing two books about faith, which put things in perspective and grounded me. As my soul awakened from its groggy nap, I felt inspired again.

I realized I was more interested in sharing my faith than writing another screenplay. I set out for jobs that would enable me to do just that — share my faith. An opportunity to join a campus ministry program arrived and the more I thought about it, the more it excited me. 

I’m now a campus minister in another state. Could I have stayed in Hollywood and still found real happiness? Absolutely. Do I sometimes question my decision and have moments when I mourn the things I had in LA? Absolutely. I’m not all of a sudden walking around in bliss. 

But I do have moments when I feel fully like myself, and moments when that feels like enough. Contrary to what Hollywood preached, the more I fade into the background, the more I can care for others and share that love God has for each of us. 

It took the biggest successes and failures of my life to fully understand God’s desire for me — to be satisfied in Him and in Him alone. And I’ve found that God is trustworthy. He’s given me a taste of the satisfaction He promises us each time I sit in prayer and take the leap to put my life in His hands. The more I live out of my faith in His providing love, the more I experience the fulfillment I searched for all those years in Hollywood. 

To the extent that I focus on His will is the extent to which I feel peace. My restless heart is starting to rest. 

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