Why a 'Successful' Actor Left Hollywood

As an actor, Lisa Jakub appeared in films such as "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Independence Day." Lisa Jakub

I was standing in the front hallway of the house I bought when I was 15 years old. I was wearing a fancy dress and shoes I couldn't walk in and my makeup had been applied by a friend, an Emmy-nominated makeup artist, because I never learned how. I was going to a big party and I should have been there already. It was the premiere of Independence Day, a movie I was in. Will Smith was going to be there, as were Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crystal and Sharon Stone.

I was supposed to be there, too, but instead I was clutching the handle of my front door, blurry-eyed and weak-kneed. I was having a panic attack.

There was clearly a problem.

For years, I assumed the problem was me. After all, I was living the dream, wasn't I? I was a working actor in Los Angeles. What had begun as one of those unreal-sounding encounters--a 4-year-old shopping in a farmer's market with her parents is "discovered"--had somehow turned into an 18-year Hollywood career. That random and mildly creepy moment snowballed into more than 40 movies and TV shows. I had ended up with a career, a house, an identity, a life.

So why was I sweating and shaking and swearing--unable to enjoy being the young, fun, ever-so-slightly famous "successful" person I appeared to be? Why did I want to sit at home and read a book? Why was I daydreaming about a job in an office? A job where I packed a lunch that was occasionally stolen from the shared fridge while I sat with a cardigan slung across the back of my rolling chair to cut the overly air conditioned chill? Why was I dreaming of the suburban nightmare?

I had been a working actor for a decade by the time I was hired to play Robin Williams's eldest daughter in a movie we all feared might just be a bad Tootsie rip-off. The film turned out to be better than that, and it changed much in my life. Leaving my house became more challenging: There was attempted incognito photography, hugs from people who didn't know when to let go, and an assertion of ownership that made me feel more like a hired dancing monkey than an awkward, introverted, lonely 15-year-old.

And then there was the pretty factor. Being a brunette, I was placed in the Hollywood hierarchy as "ethnic." Because of my unaltered breasts, I was categorized as "athletic" and destined to be the friend, tomboy or Joan of Arc. More than once, producers shook their heads, scratched their goatees and sighed, saying: "You're a good actor, Lisa, just not pretty enough."

I would smile and chirp, "Well, thanks for your time!" and wonder how I was not a prostitute. But when I mused aloud about getting out, everyone said I was crazy. I had been working so hard since I was a pre-schooler to get here: Was I just going to leave this career? I couldn't disappoint producers, directors, moviegoers, and everyone who was dying to be famous by just throwing it all away. So, I let momentum carry my life, assuming that if I wasn't happy, it must be my fault. I must not be wired for contentment, I thought, I must have the soul of a depressed artist.

There were some good things about my job, of course. I enjoyed the travel and the intense bond that is created on set. But by the time I was 22, the downsides were obliterating the perks. I hadn't gone down the route of drugs and alcohol like some of my other cohorts. I chose the good girl version of simple self-loathing in the midst of my suffocating misery.

I feared that if I quit and was stripped of the title of actor, there would be nothing left of me. I'd collapse like a puppet when someone cut the strings. But even greater was my fear of staying. I saw myself becoming a caged animal, trapped in a life I didn't want, pacing and foaming at the mouth and making ill-advised life choices that resulted in a clichéd headline.

So, I left.

I moved to a small town in Virginia. I went to college. I worked at a radio station and did communications for a non-profit. I learned how to fill out a timecard and make vegetable stir fry for dinner. I collected quarters for the dryer. I learned what normal life looked like. And it was beautiful.

When people said, "You look like that girl from Mrs. Doubtfire," I would say, "Yeah, I get that a lot…" and try to tiptoe out of the room. Eventually, I embraced my true passion in life: writing. And now I sit in my office with a cardigan on the back of my rolling chair and do the authentic work I was always meant to do. I never wear high heels and those impressive paychecks with all the zeros don't show up anymore. Actually, the zeros have just advanced to the front, because I've been known to get a residual check for $0.41.

But I'm happy. In doing this work, I've learned to be grateful for everything that has ever happened. I don't hide from it anymore. Everyone has a story; mine just happens to be the story of living a dream by leaving Hollywood, rather than getting into it. It's unusual and sometimes people look at me like I'm strange, but I embrace my weird.I think back to that girl who was clutching that front door and dreading the big premiere. It's hard to believe that was me. She was afraid, so she did the safe thing and told herself lies:

You are an idiot if you don't want to live this life.

You can't fail everyone's expectations of you.

You're not capable of doing anything else.

You're too far into this, you're not allowed to change your mind.

Everyone is miserable in their job.

She went to that fancy party, walked in those uncomfortable shoes and lied to the world. She faked her life.

But eventually that girl woke up and stopped putting other people's definition of success above her own. She started writing the script for her own life.

And that's the happy ending she always wanted.

Lisa Jakub is a writer, speaker and retired actor. Her memoir, You Look Like That Girl, is available now and she is working on her next book. She lives in Virginia with her husband, Jeremy, and their rescue dog, Grace.