When You Get What You Want, But Not What You Need

Actress and writer Nadia Alexander on plumbing the depths in her new movie, The Dark, allowed her to finally access the happiness within her.

Oh, yes, you read that title correctly: I did in fact steal a line from that Coldplay song that you probably looked out the rain-speckled window of a bus and had a nice cry to in the mid 2000s, but now (thanks to endless overuse), sorely wish to never be reminded of it henceforth. For that, I apologize – but I assure you that I do not steal aimlessly. Not only do I find music to be the auditory equivalent of ice cream for the troubled soul, but also, over the past 13 years, I have yet to find a better phrase that more perfectly summarizes my own feelings around the struggle to find inner happiness.

For a long time, being in a state of steady, consistent happiness was not exactly something I threw on my resume. Truthfully, I’m not sure that many professionals in my field do. Being an actor/writer/artist/person-who-attempts-to-exchange-the-inner-workings-of-their-soul-for-goods-and-services is one of those tricky occupations where merit, social niceties and momentum can mean next to nothing from one day to the next. You can work hard, be professional, and build your resume with steady employment, only to trip up on a bad year and go home with nothing but a basket-full of rejections to plop down on the kitchen table as a centerpiece reminder of your “failure” in the eyes of the industry. And for the highly ambitious (where my fellow Slytherins at?), it is not a profession that often lends itself to clear checkpoints for success. As such, finding happiness and satisfaction within one’s career can feel a bit like being punished by the Greek gods to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it tumble back down just as you’re about to reach the top. (Ooh — that’s a really good idea for a story. Someone write that down.)

Of course, every meditation app, guru blogger and self-help book will tell you that you’re not supposed to put your happiness at the top of the hill. You’re supposed to let go of expectations, live in the now, and find happiness within the perpetual blue sky of your mind. That way, even if gravity sends your rock rolling back down, smashing your toes along the way, you won’t really be bothered. (When you add in the privilege spectrum, this can become a totally different discussion, as this discourse on happiness is a privilege in and of itself — see: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.) Needless to say, all of this is easier said than done. I count myself amongst the biggest proponents of the belief that you cannot put your happiness on the other side of something — but, for a very long time, I also happened to be one of the biggest perpetrators of doing that very thing anyway. The truth is, no matter how many times we repeat such a mantra, sometimes we need a real-life experience to show us the tricky ways in which our mind stands in its own way when it comes to being happy.

For me, that experience came in the form of a film entitled The Dark, in which I play another of my beloved antihero roles (as I mentioned in my first Talkhouse piece). The film centers almost entirely around an undead teenager named Mina who, after years of killing (and eating) victims in the woods where she was once murdered, is forced to reexamine her homicidal ways when she stumbles upon a blind, abused young boy named Alex. Their friendship and Mina’s growth throughout the film illuminate the harrowing effects of abuse on young people and how the real monsters aren’t the ones covered in blood and scars. The Dark comes out in select theaters and on VOD from October 26, almost exactly two years to the day since I flew to Canada to begin a six-week journey through the wintery woods in a little town called Parry Sound.

But, of course, the journey didn’t start there. It began two months prior to that, in mid-August 2016, when I first received the audition material for Mina. In one small paragraph of a character description, before even opening the script, I was sold. Mina was one of the most distinctive, compelling characters I had ever had the chance to audition for. She was dark, intense, explosive – a monster and a girl and a nightmare and a fantasy, all rolled into one. By the time I reached the final page of the script, I was obsessed. I knew I had to do everything in my power to score the role.

Nadia Alexander in The Dark

It just so happened that the man sitting in the audition room with the power to give me that role, director Justin P. Lange, has the greatest poker face of all time (seriously, if he weren’t such a great director, I’d tell him to take over Vegas). His stoicism in the face of my audition left me — as the kids say — shook. Here I was, giving it my all — wrestling a chair on the ground, screaming at an imaginary blind child (the chair was my stand-in for the eventual actor playing Alex, Toby Nichols) — and Justin looked almost bored. Uninterested. Uncompelled. I left the room feeling heartbroken and confused. I couldn’t understand how my unbridled passion for the project didn’t immediately result in Justin lifting me up in his arms and declaring me to be the zombie of his dreams. I barely made it to the elevator before I started crying. I went home and told my mom I was quitting acting — I was tired of the endless rejection. Tired of contorting my body and mind to fit the idea of what someone else wanted. Tired of being miserable every time an audition didn’t work out just as I had imagined.

Then I got the call.

The job was mine, and I took it all back — how could I quit after such a wonderful opportunity came to fruition? After I had scored my first ever sole lead role where I would carry the entire film? But, curiously, I only allowed myself to feel a sliver of joy. Sure, it was nice that I booked the job, but I couldn’t really be happy until I fully prepared for the role. I plunged myself into character research and analysis, crafting a massive character bible outlining everything from Mina’s favorite color to the intricate emotional arc of each and every scene. When I finished the bible, yeah, I was proud, but I told myself I couldn’t really be happy until I got on set and nailed every single take.

I’m guessing you’re seeing a pattern by now. I was pushing my happiness further and further away and into ever more absurd and impossible-to-reach territory. By the time we were actually filming, I had put such distance between my happiness and my mind that I wasn’t even sure what my end goal was. I was endlessly critical of my performance, constantly admonishing myself. I told myself that if I slipped up even once, I’d destroy the entire film and sink the hopes of the whole cast and crew ever achieving success. That intense pressure I put on myself would, at times, spill over — particularly when Justin and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on how a scene should unfold. My pent-up frustration with myself for not nailing it would morph into anger at Justin for not understanding why it needed to be just so. Thankfully, he was endlessly patient and allowed me to take out my vexation on him more than once when tensions got high. When we wrapped each night, I’d try to put Mina to bed and go back to my hotel room, only to remember that everyone Nadia cared about was 600 miles away. We were both girls isolated in the frosty woods. I couldn’t even be happy that I had survived the day, because loneliness was always waiting for me at the other end.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Nadia Alexander and Toby Nichols in The Dark

I soon began to realize that my experience on The Dark was a bigger metaphor for how I had learned to handle my career — I was constantly placing my happiness on the other side of a goal that was often entirely out of my control. When my career would hit slow patches, I plunged myself into pits of despair as punishment for not doing well enough by the industry’s impossible standards of stardom. Then, during the times I was doing well, I’d find ways to feel unworthy of the success, pressuring and criticizing myself all the way through for still not being “good enough.” I started to talk to others and realized that I wasn’t necessarily alone in this bizarre cycle — so many of us have fallen prey to happiness being just out of our reach, or unfairly deeming ourselves undeserving of it.

Thankfully, there are tools out there to help us discover how to break these cycles, we just have to give ourselves permission to seek them out. For me, I started meditating twice daily. I got a therapist and stopped treating my inner demons like they were a fun seasoning on the meal that made my acting career taste good. I slowly loosened my grip on a lot of really damaging patterns of thought and action. I learned to say “no” when things weren’t good for me, even if they were perceived as markers of success — and throughout it all, I discovered that not all change is bad and that growing doesn’t have to be painful. I’d been afraid for so long that if I stopped beating up on myself, my work would atrophy, but — plot twist — my work got a whole lot easier when I let go of the self-hatred! Not only that, but the happier I was for myself, the happier I could be for those around me. And, as the cherry on top, The Dark even turned out pretty darn good, too. I’m glad to say I now count Justin P. Lange as a very dear friend. Of the entire experience, probably the greatest happiness I feel is when I yank his chain by sending him GIFs of grandpas dancing at family barbecues with the caption, “I see what you got up to this weekend!”

Nadia Alexander today, in happy mode

The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all for being happy. Everyone’s path to happiness is different. No two paths are identical. The path may be treacherous. The path may be circuitous. But the only thing I know for sure is that it is a path. It’s not a person, or a place, or a goal, or a singular experience. It’s a journey. And however that journey unfolds is deeply personal. I’ve learned in the past two years that understanding oneself and what makes one happy is not always easy. But it is possible. So find what works for you. Be unabashed in your pursuit of inner happiness. Find the lights that will guide you home. Find the flame that will ignite your bones. And who knows … it just might Fix You.

Told you — Coldplay really does say it best.

Nadia Alexander is a writer and actress, with a career spanning almost two decades. She is best known for her work in film and television, including Blame, for which she won Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Golden Globe-nominated series The Sinner. She is currently cowriting a miniseries set up at the studio MakeReady and can be seen in the Netflix series Seven Seconds. Upcoming films include The Dark (premiering at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival) and Boarding School (to be released later this year by Momentum Pictures). She is a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and an alumna of the Macaulay Honors College, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude with degrees in Physics and Psychology.