'Gotham' actor Drew Powell explains the secret to Hollywood success

CNBC's Jon Fortt and Drew Powell.

There's something hulking and sinister about him on screen that just makes the bad-guy thing work.

As Butch Gilzean in Fox's hit series "Gotham", actor Drew Powell represents one of the old-time brutal criminals who pave the way for the super villains of Batman's prime to take over.

"Gotham," the series that functions as Batman backstory, tees up the second half of its third season this week (1/16, FOX, 8 p.m. Eastern). In light of the occasion, Powell sat down with Fortt Knox to share his own backstory.

It's worth paying attention. For kids with visions of stardom, Hollywood dreams rank up there near hoop dreams in the unlikely category. There are only so many hit shows on TV, and so many recurring roles. So how did Powell make it?

There's not a formula, exactly, but there are a few lessons for anyone pursuing a passion that has long odds.

Mark your progress

Drew packed up his car two weeks after college graduation and headed out to L.A. He knew as well as anyone the clichés about waiters (and now Uber drivers) with screen ambitions. So he took a pragmatic approach to his journey as an actor.

"I promised myself that every June I would take stock in where I was. If I had moved forward, I would give myself another year. If I had stayed the same, I would give myself another six months. And that was how I needed my brain to work," the actor said.

"Like, this isn't an open-ended thing. Because I saw a lot of people, when I got to L.A., that were like, these older people that had been just trying to fight it out their whole lives and had given up a lot of happiness to try and do this thing," Powell added.

He was determined not to do that. That said, he was willing to make some major moves—and take big risks—for the right opportunities.

Promote yourself

Drew Powell in the “Wrath of the Villains: Transference” season finale episode of GOTHAM.
Photo: Jeff Neumann | FOX

It would be great if talent alone were enough to land your dream job. In acting, as in other fields, it often isn't.

Powell worked to find the right balance between introducing himself to the right people and talking shop, and giving people the right amount of space.

"Somebody told me early on about the Nashville Handshake," Powell told Fortt Knox.

"They used to say back then, you'd shake hands and they'd have a cassette tape in their hand—their demo. I was always very wary of being overtly in-your-face," he said.

"But no one else is going to promote you like you can. I know [for] a lot of my actor friends, that was the hardest part for them. That was the past that either kind of derailed their career, or they just weren't willing to put themselves out there."

Imagine the list

Here's something you may already know: Not everyone in Hollywood is nice.

That's not a rule. Powell says many of the actors he has worked with, like his current co-stars on Gotham, have their egos in check and get along amazingly. But the trappings of TV and movies can tempt you to feel entitled.

One conversation he had helped put things in perspective.

"I was with a producer one time who pulled out her iPhone and had a list of every actor she had ever worked with, and whether they were good or bad, and specific reasons, things they did. Like, she kept notes," Powell said.

"It was a long list, and there were a lot of well-known names on there. … She could say, 'This person was great.' Or, 'This person screamed at me because they didn't have M&Ms at the craft service table.'"

Even outside of Hollywood, there's a lesson here: People aren't necessarily screaming for M&Ms, but they can all leave an impression that can either open the door to the next opportunity—or slam it shut.

Fortt Knox, hosted by CNBC anchor Jon Fortt, is a podcast about rich ideas and interviews with powerful people.

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