I have been living the death of my career and it’s been quite the ride.
So many people have wilfully misunderstood what I have been trying to write about here. And it needs clarifying. The entertainment industry is geared towards mediocrity. It is not an industry that celebrates exceptional talent. It is an industry that often cares more about a six pack and a pretty plastic face than it does about talent. It is an industry that is relentlessly geared towards making exceptionally talented people fail, and the mediocre rise to wealth and stardom.
Within all this I have tried to be an actor. All I came to want is to be a working actor and I couldn’t even achieve that. And many factors were responsible for that. My own passivity when dealing with the realities of needing to network and create relationships that might lead to work, has definitely been one of my biggest failings. I could have worked harder at that.
I also am angry at myself for naively believing, for much longer than I should have, that the work you do matters. It doesn’t. Especially if you are an actor. And that is a reality that has galled me, causing a lot of pain. Because on the one hand you are told to develop your talents, take on any work and grow your skills; on the other side is an industry set up to not care about your skills, your growth, your talents, developed over years and years of being a participant in the industry. If you are not the flavour of the moment; if you don’t represent what the industry is looking for at any given moment – no matter the excellent work you do – you will be failed by the industry.
I HAVE NOT FAILED. I have achieved so much and done some incredible work. BUT.
I HAVE BEEN FAILED.
AND I CANNOT BE THE ONLY ONE.
In these blogs I have bemoaned the entertainment industry that should be about reflecting the world in all its shapes and colours; but is so dehumanising in its practises to those who wish to be IN the industry, that all it achieves is a crushing of talent and spirit. A vast and awful wastage of talent and skills.
I always and will forever wonder if there is another way this industry could be set up that would reward people for their talents and would lead to less wastage. I don’t know. But I do think about that everyday. I recognise that so many other industries are not set up this way and I often wonder how many people truly understand the costs of deciding to be in this entertainment industry. I didn’t understand the costs until way into my forties.
I have been trying to warn readers of this blog how they might be failed by those in power in this industry. I still care so much about this industry, what gifts it can bestow on the individual. And it’s not like there aren’t any. There are plenty of gifts. But there are so many lies too. And I have been trying to tell you about the lies as I have experienced them.
Gifts and lies. It’s what this industry is about. Gifts and lies. The gifts keep you dreaming; the lies crush them.
So I am three weeks away from ending a show. I am seven weeks away from starting a whole new journey. I am about to plunge into the unknown, not as an actor, but a new profession. The ending is in sight. I feel relief, sadness, impatience. Letting go is not easy. It hurts. But the hurt in staying in this industry was overwhelming everything else.
I am aware that most of my blogs about the industry have been weighted towards the negative. It’s been very therapeutic finally getting to spill the bile, that otherwise, would stay locked inside. And I do feel that my work on that front is not done. There is more to say.
However, this time round, I’d like to examine the positives. So come sit with me a while on the riverbank of dreams and let’s watch the dragonflies skip across the water. Let’s hear that brook bubble. Let’s get our hot and tired feet wet in the cooling water. And let’s think of the good. In fact let us think bigger. What is the purpose of art?
I know, through my lived experience, that everyone engages with art. Art cuts through swathes of labels that we use to define the world: educated/uneducated; sick/healthy; powerful/powerless; rich/poor. I was a kid who grew up feeling very much alone – in many aspects of life. When my real interest in theatre was born, it was at a time of personal upheaval and confusion and silence. There was so much I couldn’t say. I had to be the polite, Catholic boy, well-mannered and respectful at all times when I wanted to bellow my indignities, when I wanted my true feelings known. I couldn’t. I was gagged.
Theatre, being on stage, ah now there, there I could speak. Not my words, but close to my words; I could hide behind the makeup and in plain sight of everyone I could say my piece and be safe. Then you find a community of like-minded people and suddenly you know that you are not alone.
Art, working on a play, writing, they are all a kind of reaching out to others, taking their hand, creating a glue that bonds and says: I am human too; I have lived; I see you. So I can stand in front of a Seurat painting and be connected with him, long since dead, and feel and see his view of the world. I watch a Shakespeare play and some voice speaks from 400 years ago and it means something to me today. Shakespeare reaches forward and speaks to me now and I reach back and think of his time, his life. It an open ended dialogue across the centuries. There is something powerful in that. His art says, I lived once, this is how I saw the world. All I have to do in 2021 is listen and learn about humanity. What was true then is true now.
I think that is the power in this art form. It keeps the conversation flowing and we live and we learn some more and we put it into our art and speak of all the things that it means to be alive. All the possible reasons and meanings of this little moment in time we call; MY LIFE knowing that those who were brave enough to create art say back to us: THIS WAS MY LIFE.
I always wanted to be part of that conversation. To speak my truth and see what it would lead to. I think any artist is trying to do that. To find meaning and communicate what they found and see if it resonates in the heart of humanity. This never goes away for me. And I see now that is why I am so angry at times with this industry – because for the most superficial reasons a whole series of gatekeepers choose randomly the peoples whose voices will be heard. And deny others theirs.
But this is a good post, a happy post. I feel lucky sometimes to be a part of the conversation and I am learning day by day that I have to be much braver to say my truth. No matter what people think. I am getting there. These little chapter blogs I write are so meaningless but they are also part of my communication with you, dear reader. What I have said you can say back. What I say you can all fundamentally disagree with but at least this magical form of conversation is happening. We aren’t standing dumb in our lives. We are not voiceless.
The moment I love the most in a show? You’ve been called to stage. You’re standing in the dark in the wings. There is that nervous flutter in your chest. Your palms may be sweating. There is a flurry of activity from crew. And the audience is chatting away and you can hear the buzz like a million bees. Then the lights begin to dim and the audience hushes themselves slowly, and backstage every conversation stops. Heads and hearts turn towards the stage. Then there is a moment of silence. And darkness. In the air expectation, anxiety, focus. The ride is about to begin. The cue light turns green. And you take one step towards the stage…..
When I was young I never once thought of the consequences of my choice of career. I was oblivious. Time was infinite, choices unlimited and an entire life ahead of me that was going to be filled with a succesful acting career. Just as I never thought of the consequences of a pack of cigarettes a day habit I had back then (I now have an asthma pump) I didn’t much think of the consquences of choosing acting as my choice of profession.
Today I am thinking about those consequences. And a part of me feels the humiliation. The burden of hopes and lies that you tell yourself and your fellow actors tell each other just to keep going another day in an industry designed to humiliate the actor. I read twitter feeds of actors reassuring themselves and others that ‘your time will come, keep at it’ when the reality is that for most of us time does come but not in the way you expect.
Time ‘comes’ so quickly and you wake up mid-forties wondering how you let yourself believe all the lies. Time marches forward and you miss your siblings’ wedding because you are cast in a show that you cannot get out of. Time marches forward and your father is dying and your mother has to loan you the money to fly home because you haven’t had an acting job in ages. Time marches forward and your mother starts displaying signs of dementia and you cannot help financially, that Covid too has destroyed an already fragile work load, and you are left mid forties wondering about the delusion that you had that kept you working in an industry that promises no reward for your talents.
Designed to keep you in the humiliating position of having no power to change anything.
We constantly bemoan the fact that we have no power; coupled with the consequences of the lives we lead becoming very real as we get older. But the industry is like the donkey and the carrot. It dangles the carrot and kicks you at the same time. “Maybe, maybe, maybe this is my break,” is the dangling carrot whilst the donkey kicks at your knees making you crawl through shit to be recognised; to be seen; to get an audition; to pay your rent and bills; to get that agent; to get that headshot session you can’t afford; to get that casting director to recognise you; to buy that equipment for self tapes you ALSO cannot afford; to get that director to employ you even though you hate their work; to go to that class; to get that review that mentions your name; to get those teeth whitened; to lose that belly fat; the plastic surgery to appear young; to submit to a rapist; to keeping quiet when a director humiliates you; to keeping quiet, period.
But the carrot dangles with a very real possibility you will never have it in your hands. And, like today, it smacks of ritual humiliation.
It’s so commonplace we shrug our shoulders. And as reality hits me this morning I wonder is there not a better way this profession can be run? I often look at the names of actors listed in the cast at the beginning of a play script and I wonder what happened to the actors whose names I don’t know. Where did they go? Did they also wake up or did they hold onto the dream until the bitter end?
Surely there is and should be a solution to allowing people their creativity and respect and freedom from humiliation? Perhaps we need, in this country, the INTERMITTENCE DU SPECTICAL system they have in France. Where artists are allowed to be artists and receive support which equates to being valued by society as well as dealing with the reality of a precarious BUT ESSENTIAL profession. We are an essential profession – I wonder how society would have fared in the Covid pandemic without Netlix and Prime and books and podcasts and music etc etc etc?
But you would never know we are essential – the way we are often treated. The way the industry is designed to treat us.
There seems to be an eternal paradox in this industry. And it is this: how do we ever speak truth to power when the imbalance of power is fixed into the system that constantly wishes to maintain that imbalance?
We have a movement when truth is spoken and the sexual predators, the power hungry, the bullying of our industry are confronted and brought down only to discover, in the very next breath, that there was another bully, another sexual predator, another person enabling themselves by the power imbalances in this industry and being enabled by all those under them. They too saw the awful behaviour and looked away; said nothing; excused it.
I have a fight going on in my head about certain people that I have worked with, powerful people, who bullied, traumatised, silenced me again and again. The fight is with myself for allowing it to happen and not calling it out, or calling it out too late. Or calling it out and watching them suffer no consequences. They get off scot free. But the actor never gets off scot free. Ever.
The fight is that I have suffered the consequences of speaking up. You feel like you become the problem because no one actually asks for your side of the story. They all just look away. You are left bereft of a voice and you scream the story into the void in your head and you try and rise above the noise but sometimes there is only noise. Deafening. “LOOK WHAT YOU DID! WHY DID YOU SAY THAT? EVERYONE ELSE ENJOYED THAT PLAY. THAT EXPERIENCE. WHY DIDN’T YOU? WHY DID YOU HAVE TO SPOIL IT? WHY COULDN’T YOU KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!? WHY DID YOU KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT?”
Once, when I called out a director and technical team for dropping two heavy cycloramas too close to all the actors on stage, I became the scapegoat of the directors rage. She humiliated me with awful notes in front of the entire cast, notes I never understood and when I asked to have rehearsals on the scene to work the notes in question, I was ignored four times by the stage manager, the assistant director and the director. So each night I had to go on stage and humiliate myself in front of an audience because I didn’t know what I was doing in that scene. The director flies home, the stage manager sits in her anonymous box, but the spotlight was on me, the actor. And night after night that scene would hurtle towards me and I would sweat and shake and know that, because I stood up to power, I was to be humiliated every night.
I was humiliated once by an artistic director. I had just done a major role as an understudy in the Shakespearean canon. It was a brutal, challenging role, but I worked so damned hard on it trying to prove to myself that I could do it. Prove to my family that all the sacrifices were worth it. Prove to all those that loved and supported me that this choice, to be an actor, was worth it. It was the artistic directors play. I was a triumph. I was overwhelmed by the standing ovation I received. I had put every ounce of what I learned over twenty years into that role. The artistic director comes to my dressing room afterwards and the first thing he said to me was: “Well you couldn’t do that every night…” Not one word of congratulation, of support. Just that.
I wanted to spit in his face and tell him to fuck off. I wanted to ask him if that’s all he could say when I was exhausted, had worked my butt off to also prove to him that I was worthy of a place at his illustrious theatre company? I was emotionally fragile from the piece and the euphoria of pride stopped the pain that day. And I made some joke agreeing with him because…he was in power over me and I had none. I was to grovel for a job with him over and over in the succeeding years even though I have nothing but contempt for him. But he can offer me work. No one else can. And when I think of those words and the inadequacy of them, the way he dismissed everything I had worked for, to humiliate me in front of my peers in the dressing room, I should have known then that I would never be taken seriously.
Actors are replaceable. And there is the power struggle’s foundation. As an actor you are just the tool that when blunt can be discarded and another take your place. And within that, silence is born. It’s why it is so hard and takes so much time for predators, bullies and their ilk to be unearthed. We actors know the price we pay. It’s that we’ll never work again.
But it always amazes me how it is the small moments that add up to years of pain and confusion. These examples I have given seem so small in comparison with the stories of sexual abuse, rape and humiliation that I have read in the papers of the world. But a bully starts somewhere, and a predator is enabled by so many people excusing or turning away and remaining silent throughout years of escalating putrid behaviour. And those in power remain untouched.
Only recently in theatre history an executive producer stood down from a well known show that he was producing in the West End (he is American) because his bad behaviour came to light. And no one asked, not one person stood up and asked the UK producer if she knew of his awful behaviour and let it happen anyway because they were producing a show together. Because the only truthful answer to that question would be: “Yes, I did know, but I never cared enough until he was caught and called out. Then I cared. And severed the relationship.” The hypocrisy. We all know the awful behaviour of people, it’s a surprisingly small profession in that way. And once again, the UK producer of that show got no scrutiny, no questions on facts she must have known. And there are no consequences for her. None.
These moments of speaking out is a mingled relief and fear. Fear for the consequences, relief for the story, finally being told and not parading itself constantly through my tired mind. But the consequences for an actor are manifold. Careers smashed, confidence undermined, creativity sullied. Look at Ashley Judd, a fine actress whose career floundered because of HW.
When we speak truth to power there is nothing but consequences for actors. I wonder when the tables will really turn…
As an actor have you ever gone back into a rehearsal room after an extended period of not working and felt that all your skills are rusty as hell? Intincts are out of step with what you want to produce? Your voice feels weak, or raspy? You have an unexercised, sluggish mind, body and voice? You sit down at your first table read of the play you’ve been cast in, open your mouth to start reading and feel as if you are the biggest fake and are about to be found out? This in turn leads to those voices in your head to pipe up in louder, urgent and vociferous criticisms of your every move? And on the last page you are left wrung out, convinced that the producers and directors are about to recast your role with someone infinitely more suited to the role?
Ah…the joys of the first day of rehearsals…
As we slowly come out of lockdown and have some dates to move towards when theatres will open I have been thinking of this hyper-critical phenomenon that almost every actor goes through on the first day of rehearsals. This phenomenon happened whenever there had been a large gap between my acting jobs. And I am obviously thinking of this in relation to how so many actors have been without work for almost a year now.
The 16th March marks the day I lost my job on the West End, the day SOLT closed all theatres in London. It was a surreal day. And it’s strange to think that we are approaching the one year anniversary of an entire industry being shut down. Not all theatres were able to open in the brief moments that lockdowns eased. And soon we will have many actors going back to work and I wonder how this year off will have affected them.
When I was working constantly in the good three years between 2016 to 2018 I really noticed a significant difference in my acting skills. Daily voice and body warm ups led to my voice feeling stronger and more confident. My body was ready to accept any challenge. I am not the most confident mover but when dances came up in the shows they were easier to do with all the practice. Acting daily, in show after show, with only one day off a week, honed instincts and also made you look out for a plethora of solutions because you couldn’t keep on doing the same thing over and over again. Practising my skills everyday made me recall how I felt after drama school. Intense classes and working all the time over an equally intense year, being consumed by the work of an actor, led to a feeling that I was ready for anything. You feel that your whole being serves you and is ready to be used.
It’s not an easy feeling to maintain. Once drama school ended, once that amazing period of work ended it was difficult for me to keep my skills honed. No matter what exercises I did there was always the feeling that the work was what helped deepen my skills. Not the sometimes dipping into exercise but the constant relentless work of performing. And I wonder, now, how this period of little to no work will affect actors as we slowly enter rehearsal rooms again.
I still feel that there is a difference between actors of a generation that grew up in the repertory theatre system. They practised there skills daily, weekly, in a season by rehearsing new plays every week. At night they performed the play rehearsed the previous week. This system gave us so many well respected actors. This rarely happens any more and I wonder if these large gaps that so many actors have between jobs creates a profession of actors trying to reconnect with rusty skills rather than dealing with the work of the play itself? I know that there are many skills workshops offered and these do help to an extent. But like I said, just my opinion, but for me it is the WORK that deepens and hones your skills. Nothing can replace working.
I am thinking of all those creatives going back into rehearsals soon. I wish you a fast tune-up of your skills, I wish you a critisicm free first read through, I wish you only joy as you get back to the craft of acting. The practice does make perfect.
And I know that that first moment back in a rehearsal room will be…well…
I am always trying to educate myself, always trying to examine my own prejudices and failings in the hope that I will learn and become a more rounded human being. I sometimes get it wrong but I try. And I use one emotion to do this: empathy.
There is, to me, an alarming argument that I have a huge problem with that keeps rearing it’s head and it’s bringing into question all that we do as performers, as artists and it is making me nervous for the future craft of acting and the industry itself.
A year ago, a young, straight, actor friend of mine called me up in a complete state of anxiety. He was offered an audition. And I was confused. That’s great! Why the anxiety? The audition was for a gay role and he was deeply concerned about the trend to call out straight people for playing gay roles. He was truly anxious and battled to accept the audition (we weren’t even talking about accepting the role) BUT AN AUDITION. He wanted to know what I thought.
I asked him one simple question: What is acting? And I have been thinking about this question in relation to this new pernicious argument that is slowly gaining traction and power in social media and it’s starting to have a profound effect on people’s perceptions of the industry.
My answer to this question is that acting is empathy. It’s a process of empathetic connection whereby, through rehearsals, you do all your research, you learn your lines, you ask questions about this person and the world they live in, you argue and push your director and yourself to always dig deeper. Then you stand up and learn how to move that character, speak in that character’s voice. Intelligent actors know that all this is crucial to well rounded, truthful portrayals of a character. Theatre previews test this each night with a new audience while you rehearse more in the day questioning what you learnt from the audience. And then you are ready to say, ‘This is it, this is my portrayal of this character, I can do no more, for now’ on press night, when the show transforms from pure exploration to the business of doing it the same for each performance. It is a lot of work. And it involves pockets of self doubt and angst and joyful discovery.
There is always more to learn, but as an actor you learn as you live. As you live, you gain more experience that teaches you about life. You learn too, about people who are “other” to you, and you start to see empathy as the key to some understanding. Not complete understanding – IT CAN NEVER BE COMPLETE, but some.
At the end of rehearsals I often feel that all my work wasn’t enough. I have learnt over the years that this is a good feeling. I am one very limited human being so how can I know everything and get it right all the time? You can only use what you have in that moment. After ten more years of living I would probably be able to deepen that character in ways I can’t imagine now. This applies to plays themselves, to writers, to directors to filmmakers. We are limited human beings telling limited stories and we will always get something wrong.
For my straight friend, I told him that it doesn’t matter that he is not gay BUT if he does get the role that he approaches it with the correct empathy and openness to learn about the gay experience. That he must do his research on the struggles of liberation. That is acting. Acting immediately implies NOT REAL, BUT REAL ENOUGH.
The argument, for example, that only gay actors should play gay roles is dangerous and limiting. It expands to plays, novels or any artwork. It expands to interpretations of plays, it expands to subject matters. All are now being policed by some vociferous voices on social media platforms that politicise and petition and their main argument is that IF YOU HAVEN’T LIVED IT HOW DARE YOU TRY AND MAKE ART OUT OF IT. The fact that we are limited human beings is now being seen as the perfect tool to use to attack artists. Reputations are smeared, work disappears or is so heavily criticised that the vociferous voices become de facto directors of the work, getting them edited to their viewpoint. And audiences turn away in fear that they might be smeared with the same brush. When did we become like this? When did we stop celebrating the limited nature of art? When did we start demanding that lived experience is the only way to make art and stepping outside of that, needs to be policed?
A friend of mine, a white Australian woman has just written a novel, a novel that took months and months of struggle to complete. Her main character is a mixed race, Chinese/European male. She has been told because she has chosen that type, and because she isn’t that, no publisher will touch it. She has even given the novel to a mixed race Chinese/European friend and asked his opinion. The friend loved it and was grateful for the representation but publishers are too scared to engage in case of criticism. And the point my friend made is powerful: Am I only allowed to write from a white, middle class woman’s perspective now?
In acting, I will portray your life because that is my profession. I am human and I hope that my skills will mean that I approach your life experience with as much empathy and respect as possible knowing it will be incomplete. I am not a murderer but I have played murderers. Can only a murderer truly understand what it is like to kill someone? Yes. But I am human and I will use my empathy to understand that, at times, I too have wanted to kill someone. I know that rage. I have felt it. I am human just like that murderer. We are linked by emotional states that we all understand. Where we diverge is action.
I am worried that this argument is so loud and is being confused with the very real need to see greater representation of minorities, ethnic and sexual, and the commonly forgotten plethoras of human experience. That change is needed is to me unquestionable. And I hope the industry continues to create opportunities for these forgotten or ignored voices. It’s part of the reason I write this blog. Change and Learn.
But when the loud voices shout: NOT GOOD ENOUGH! HOW DARE YOU! And change an artwork based on a visceral, offence reaction they then create an atmosphere where we are too scared to create anything. It creates a limited discussion in which we shut down empathy and learn nothing about ourselves and each other.
Here is my empathy for the loud vociferous voices: It must be so frustrating living a limited life in some way that when an art work comes along that seems to trivialise or is not encompassing enough of how difficult your life is then you will react viscerally. I am old enough to have seen the representations of gay people in TV and films as mainly negative, and I shouted alone because back then there was no such thing as social media. It hurts and you want better. Queer as Folk was the first time I saw something bordering on my reality and it was flawed but perfect at the same time. But it doesn’t excuse the way we are so easily offended and then turning that into active hate that shuts down artworks and shames the people trying to make it.
The very definition of an actor would become mute and the craft of acting would become pointless. There would be no craft. If I can only play myself what is the point? I PLAY THE ROLE OF MYSELF IN EVERY WAKING MOMENT OF MY LIFE. I do not want my limited self to be the only thing I can understand. I don’t want my limited self to be the only part I can play. I want to empathise. And I find it insulting that I cannot or shouldn’t empathise with someone else’s life or viewpoint, that somehow my empathy, as deficient as it is, is still not enough…that dangerous slope we have all been sliding on for the last four years in politics.
And deficiency is inevitable. Isn’t it?
We need to start embracing deficiency more, not as something that limits infinitely but only as a stage on the process of learning. The implication of the vociferous voices is that we should always get it right. I know my limited self and I know I make mistakes. How dare someone tell me that my art is not good enough because I can’t know what it’s really like? Well that is the human experience isn’t it? I am born into this body, this mind, this experience. I am a walking subjective machine. But the only tool I have to understand you is….
And if you deny the acting profession or the plethora of artists the right to ‘informed empathy’ what is the point of this industry?
To be an actor there is a process of necessary delusion that must take place. You could call it, hope.
It is part of the make-up of the actor’s personality and it is vital that it exists.
And the delusion goes like this: in order to survive in this industry I need to believe that I have a fighting chance of success (however you quantify that) no matter how the odds are stacked against me. I need to believe that I have something to give, that an audience is waiting for me, wanting ME to give it, not the many other actors in the queue with me… just little old me. You need to hope that you are something special, that somehow you will stand out. That you will be noticed and that you will become one of the 1% of actors that work regularly.
This is how we live our lives – completely and utterly subjectively. Everyone does. But it’s so important to re-examine that delusion from time to time so that you can keep grounded in reality. Because when reality hits it can be brutal.
In 2014 I had a mini breakdown. I have dealt with it. But it was centred around the idea of failure. That I was then a 39 year old actor that was doing good work now and again and not really reaping any security from it. Noticing too, parents getting frailer and I was unable to contribute anything to their lives because I was barely holding mine together; realising there were so many places in the world I wanted to travel to but never had the financial security to plan a holiday. Once those odd, wonderful, fulfilling acting jobs ended it would be back to the cycle of temp jobs, Job Seekers Allowance, and perhaps a loan or two from a despairing mother. Personally, I was desperately lonely and was also seeking some kind of secure relationship that would help me weather the storm of insecurity that is the actor’s life. Loneliness, failure and time were relentlessly moving forward together.
Being an actor can be a lonely experience.
When I looked around at that time, all my friends and colleagues in my temp jobs had houses, had families, had connections. In 2014 a lot of things came to a head: it felt like I was floating from acting job to temp job to acting job whilst staying in a flat I couldn’t afford because I couldn’t afford to move out of it – a cycle of economic poverty that is almost a guaranteed aspect of an actor’s life. And I felt so small. I was also unproven. I hadn’t had a lead in so long that I wondered if I could do it. Did I have the technique, the goods, the stamina to deliver a lead? A theatre company I tried to start failed, due to lack of funding. No theatre company I ever wrote to replied to any of my letters. No casting director that I ever approached communicated beyond the standard, “Let us know when you are in something.” And when I was in something they would still not come and see my work because I lived and worked mainly outside London. It was like screaming into a void that sucked all sound into itself and I was left, silent and voiceless.
So the breakdown came because reality kept trying to assert itself, pushing my hopeful delusion to one side.
Then I got an opportunity to audition for a huge company. And then a director that I had worked with many times wrote a letter to the Artistic Director of that huge company. I was offered an audition with that Artistic director. And for six months I never heard a thing. And then I got an offer that led to three other offers with this large company. Suddenly my life changed. I was connected. I was seen. I had a contract lasting years. I flew out of economic poverty and I thought that this was me finally receiving the rewards for all that necessary delusion. This was success. I had finally achieved it. I was a working actor. Not a famous one, not in huge roles. But I was in guaranteed work for years. And the delusion felt right and real as I had become the 1%.
In that company I had one huge understudy role. An epic piece of theatre, an equally epic character. I learnt so much and I pushed and I worked harder than I have ever worked for one experience of performing it in an understudy run. One day. One moment. I have never been so ready for a performance in my life…..and I smashed it. Standing ovation. My family was there, colleagues from the past that I respected and loved and they all saw what I had sacrificed, all that I had worked for, all the money family had spent on my drama education come to fruition. It was one of the best days of my life.
But the actual roles that I performed ever day for years? Side lines. Forgettable. Scenery pieces. And I still tried to delude myself that even those roles would matter. And they do to your bank account but not to that throbbing creative heart and soul that lives inside each actor. The roles were soul destroying and all the good roles I had were all understudy roles. I never got to go on stage once for any of my understudy parts. This sounds ungrateful. It isn’t. I loved this too…why?…because I was working!!!
BUT then came the awful realisation and I finally saw why the delusion can be so uniquely dangerous. I was there in the huge company, I was working, I was earning great money, and still, nothing was changing. I watched time after time as younger actors got all the leads. My huge understudy role did not make anyone sit up and say, ” WE MUST USE THIS PERSON MORE!” No, it was praise and love for my work and then no real opportunities in casting came to pass. I was back in that feeling of 2014, but, even worse this time, because I had thought that I had proved myself with the understudy role. In 2014 I hadn’t even had that opportunity.
And all the gatekeepers looked away, disinterested.
And I had to come to terms with that delusion that said that I was going to be different, the delusion that said that I had a fighting chance at a successful acting career. And realise that I wasn’t and that I didn’t. That the people who saw my work still didn’t care. That no matter what work I did, incredible or not, I would still be relegated to the small roles by the people in power. And that’s when the delusion become dangerous. The difference between the delusion and reality hurts like a bitch. When it continues to whisper at you, against all the evidence, that your work matters. Most of the time, to the people in power, it doesn’t. And you find yourself back at the beginning looking for temp work, looking for other ways to pay the bills.
It doesn’t take away what I got from the work. I was immeasurably changed doing that role, and the audience loved it and my family sometimes still talks about it. My colleagues I respect saw what I could do. I even got my first fan letter. BUT IT DIDN’T HELP MY ACTING CAREER ONE IOTA. And so you have to kill your delusions and face reality. Something about me is stopping the breakthrough, some outside judgement too is being put on me by others that I cannot know or grapple with. That is for them to decide. I cannot change that.
So when I started putting the delusion away that I have lived with all my acting life I started to really see that I had power all along. I could kick myself for not really knowing this before. If I am a creative, I don’t need other people to tell me that, to give me permission. And so I have started that new journey of putting the delusions aside and facing a new reality in which I choose when I will work. Choose what projects to work on and also explore the depths and breadths of new ways of creativity and communication.
This is the only way forward. I will always be an actor. But I have very few delusions left. This life is fucking hard. No one can understand how hard unless they too have this burning desire to be a creative, an actor, a writer. Pick your creative profession.
But being a failed actor and being failed has opened me up to being more creative than I ever was before. Ever since that understudy run I know I am capable. More than capable.
The art of xenophobia is that it comes in subtle forms that you can sometimes miss completely. And subtle enough that sometimes you are left questioning whether or not you were a victim of it at all. Our industry is not immune to xenophobia. Our entertainment industry, in the art it creates, is supposed to represent humanity but it is too often peopled and policed by practitioners who themselves fall into selling narrow, often stereotypical images of racial otherness and whose behaviour therefore smacks of xenophobia. And in so doing, selling the human beings short that wish to contribute to the rich cultural heritage of the U.K.
Finally, last year, the actor’s union, Equity UK, endorsed the formation of a new group within its structure called N.U.K.B.A. – Non U.K. Born Actors. They have started tweeting under the hashtag: WeAreBritainToo. I have closely followed their emergence since last year October and this year 2021, they will start campaigning for better visability, better casting choices, better acceptance of actors from foreign countries into major film and tv productions.
The fact that NUKBA even exists is a testament to the industry having a problem with subtle but impactful forms of xenophobia. In the inaugural meeting of NUKBA an actor told the story of a time when a casting director told them to just “go back home”. Apparently there were gasps from the assembled group of actors but also many nodding their heads. This was behaviour normalised across audition and work spaces in the British film, tv and theatre industry. Apparently this off-hand xenophobia has been experienced by many in the NUKBA group. Story after story told the sad tale of artistic marginalisation of actors born outside the UK for a variety of reasons but all coming down to a single factor – they were not born here and therefore what they have to offer is not British enough and therefore has no place in the arts created in this society.
This story above resonated with me. Many years ago when I was first studying drama and full of all the ambition and hope of youth, I was able to meet a British actor that I looked up to. I knew that I had a British passport as my grandparents and father were from the UK. I knew that I wanted to study in the UK at some point but when I met this actor I asked if they had any advice for someone like me, starting out in the industry. I remember the reply clearly, “STAY WHERE YOU ARE.” Their answer took me by surprise. I wondered then and now if it was his way of warning me off coming into an over subscribed industry or if it was blatant xenophobia.
Another thing happened that really baffled me once. I have excellent skills in received pronunciation as I have used it every time that I have done a classic play and I have performed in MANY classical plays. I was contacted by my agent one day informing me of a possible audition but the casting director was wondering if I could do an RP accent. Because the origin of my birth is not the U.K. they were concerned to put me in front of a major streaming service producing a period piece set in England. I sent off my voice tape with my RP accent on it. My agent got in touch to compliment me on my excellent RP accent. And then…nothing. I didn’t even get an audition. The only factor that I could overtly point to was the country of my birth on my Spotlight CV. And here is a classic example of the subtleness of it. I can think it’s xenophobia. But I am acutely aware that it may have had nothing to do with my birth country at all. There may have been other factors involved. But you start to doubt yourself. And there is often nothing that you can put your finger on and say, “Yes! That! That was xenophobia!”
But then you realise that you are not alone. You start to hear stories from the NUKBA group, you start talking to foreign national friends and acquaintances and you start to see that it’s not just something you are making up in your head. Many foreigners residing in this country deal with an ever increasing insular Britain. You only need to look to the success of the Leave campaigns to find a thinly veiled xenophobia and racism lurking under the surface of society in the UK. Speaking to many foreign nationals they do not paint a forgiving picture of Britain as it is today. I had to look no further than a British family member telling me she voted for Brexit because she wanted stricter immigration controls. To me. An immigrant, standing in front of her.
We all have different stories about how and why the United Kingdom has become our home and yet we still don’t see many foreigners being portrayed in our media. Foreigners make up a small but significant percentange of U.K. society but we are not represented to that degree in any form of media in this country. Many of the NUKBA members reported a staggering amount of typecasting based on their accents and looks. Once again the narrow margins of casting creates an industry where an actor with an accent or a slightly darker skin is going to be sidelined as the ‘terrorist threat’ his entire career even if he originally comes from Italy or Spain. This is demeaning and offensive but it doesn’t surprise me as this is part of the denial of many actor’s artistic worth. That the gatekeepers continually play into these xenophobic and racist tropes does not surprise me either – but what does disturb me is that we are often the hypocrites by claiming we represent humanity in our art. No we dont. Not until there is some equalising and understanding of the worth of all artists who choose to call the U.K. their home.
Perhaps this is why we need something like NUKBA. And it will be interesting to see what the group achieves by starting to address and shake up the perceived notion that anyone born outside this country has nothing of any artistic worth to give to this country.
Of this industry, I ask: When are we going to start moving away from these tropes that seem to entrench xenophobic mindsets? When are we going to start addressing proper, rounded representation of the depth of U.K. society? When are we going to stop excluding actors from parts and meaningful roles and therefore productive creatives lives just because they weren’t born here?
Sometimes it feels like there is only failure or closure or your dreams being trampled on.
So sometimes you have to find the strength to keep going all by yourself.
So you come to the white page and are unable to articlate anything clearly. And that’s ok.
Because there are days when defeat must just bloody be.
And sometimes the impossibility of what you want to achieve gets mixed up with how you feel you are a failure.
And sometimes the bitterness comes because everyone else seems to be living their best life.
And sometimes you know that that is not true but today it feels true. As if everything you want is always out of your reach.
And sometimes it’s all so overwhelming that you dont even know where to start so you seek out teachers to show you a path and the path is scary.
And sometimes you feel like it’s all going to be ok and sometimes not.
Someday you are so sure that others will listen when you have something to say and somedays it’s like screaming into the abyss and the sound of your voice is eaten by the void. So do you have one?
And it’s all blank paper and sometimes you wonder why you want to even fill it. What is the story of your own desire? Why do you even want to say anything.
Sometimes it feels like no one is listening and why should they? Sometimes you want to hide in the white spaces where there are no words and sometimes you want to hide behind the black squiggles on the screen.
Sometimes it feels like crises. Everything shut again. Theatres close in London. And a terrible part of you thinks…well what did they expect? This isn’t over. So a part of you is glad and a part of you is horrified that it’s happened again.
But that, sometimes, feels so far away. That life. And you wonder: where did it go? And you look around and want to blame.
And sometimes you just want to be still.
Sometimes you just want to stop the fight. Stop. Go back to the places where all the mistakes were made and unmake them. Perhaps then your life would not be so tarnished.
But this tarnished thing is mine. And sometimes I love it. And sometims I hate it.
In his Masterclass, Aaron Sorkin, writer of A Few Good Men and The West Wing relates a story of how Steven Spielberg approached him to write a script for a movie in the early nineties. The movie’s theme was to be set around the travel to and human occupation of Mars. Sorkin goes on to relate that he learnt that the project was in the works because NASA had approached Steven Spielberg.
NASA felt they had the science to get human beings to Mars. They had the science too to start a human colony there. What they DIDN’T have was 25 billion dollars and humanity’s desire to make this a reality. No one wanted to give the money and, at the time, there wasn’t a desire from humanity to explore Mars. So what was the solution? NASA turned to the one industry that they knew could influence human beings to start caring about a human expedition to Mars – the film industry. And they turned to one of the practitioners whose movies are steeped in the mythology of extra-terrestrials and space travel. But not only that…one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
They understood that a fictional film could CREATE the desire in the audience that would eventually lead to pressure on investors, leading to NASA securing its funding for this brave new adventure. This is fascinating because it shows that even NASA scientists grasped the power of story, of fiction, to change people’s minds to create a new reality to make their Mars project happen. Even though the script and film were never made, the occupation of Mars has crept closer, incrementally, towards a waking reality since then, with films like The Martian and the Rover expeditions sending back photos from the surface of the planet. All this has excited people’s imaginations about the possibilities of Mars occupation.
This got me thinking about the power of the images that we send out into the world. If NASA understands the power of those images why do we, in the industry, so often wield it unthinkingly? And it IS powerful. Only today I have read a blog where the author describes the way she used the power and strength of a fictional character in a movie to help her overcome a troubled relationship with her father. And then I came across a Twitter feed criticising David Fincher’s new film MANK for it’s erasure of any woman over 50 years old. Apparently the lead character’s wife was the same age as him in life but played by a much younger 35 year old actor when she should have been a 50 year old one.
For years I have seen actresses from Meryl Streep to Viola Davis bemoan the fact that no one is writing for women over 50 years old in the industry. These are women of exceptional talent that are struggling to survive in an industry that wants to erase them from our cinema screens. Someone controls the narratives that appear on our screens. And it has to be those in power.
I have spent my life analysing films and TV. I am acutely aware of how what we see and watch influences our behaviours or beliefs in real life. But it is so subtle that we often miss it, transforming into something people don’t even realise – a manipulation. When was the last time you saw a bald, overweight person in a lead role, who was a rounded human character and wasn’t just the side-kick to be laughed at or made fun of? Now, of course, they do happen. There are examples of films with overweight leads but they are very few and far between. But I often find myself cringing at the dubious situations involving overweight people in films and TV. It creates a licence that extends into real life. The dehumanisation or utter erasure of overweight characters in film and TV creates a culture where anyone overweight is dehumanised or erased in life. And suddenly they don’t get represented in film and TV. The actor’s careers are entirely thwarted or held in a holding pen of stereotypes which they have to pander to in order to work. Overweight people in workplaces are often overlooked for promotion or don’t even get the job.
Watch any TV programme and the next time you see an overweight person really look and see what the writers, directors, producers, allow that person to be. They will be the character to distrust, they might be the villain, they might be the loveable, unsexed side-kick friend, they might be the character laughed at lovingly or sneered at for having food in their hands. If they show a human impulse like lust or desire they will be dismissed and slapped down through scorn or laughter. And they will rarely be the lead. No matter how much we might love them. That programme is adding to the mythology that you should hate or distrust or scorn overweight people. And you just have to pick up any celebrity twitter feed to see the many many people feel entitled enough to comment on someones weight and often in nasty, vitriolic ways creating that culture of fat shaming. And this has consequences on people’s lives. It’s as if we say to overweight people – what you bring to the table, what you have inside creatively is not as valued as someone who is thin.
In my own life I have seen directors moon over the lead with the six pack and utterly dismiss an overweight actor – barely speaking to them in rehearsals. I have watched an actor, who was thought of as the perfectly crafted man, get lead after lead, which means he thrives artistically whilst at the same time his narcissism and substantial drug and gambling habit makes him a nightmare to work with. I have watched a director and a movement director laugh behind their hands at the effort of an overweight actor in a difficult dance in a play. What did the producers do? They looked away and hired these people again and again denying anyone who is ‘other’ a place at the table of artistic spoils.
This creates, in the industry, a culture whereby a casting director or agent can tell an actor, to their face, that they will never be cast in a film or TV series unless they lose weight, unless of course, they are happy for all the work they get to be geared towards being laughed at or just that bit part – that sideline no one cares about. Worse yet, they get told, by an agent, that their size makes them immensely cast-able because they are a deviance from the norm. But if they have a smidge more ambition than the size and shape of their body then they have to be the ‘correct’ weight or they won’t/can’t be taken seriously as an actor. THEY HAVE TO CONFORM TO WORK. The ecstatic headlines proclaim Rebel Wilson’s immense weight loss or they flutter with vaporous joy at Adele’s transformation. This is just one example of our power to create a narrative in the real world – manipulating audiences’ minds. You could extend this to the handling of gay characters, women over 50, trans actors, the old, the disabled – the list goes on.
We are usually the first industry to claim that we are representing humanity. We are also usually the first industry to defend against racism, against homophobia, transphobia based on a natural empathy that I feel all artists have. But being part of this industry is not a guarantee of that empathy or understanding. It is still grabbling with its shallow representation of humanity in the media it creates and this has an effect. I try to imagine what it must have been like for a trans person to finally see some representation of themselves in the TV show, POSE. It must have been an enlivening and hopeful moment. We feel part of the world through our art. The images we send into the world hurt or heal.
Fiction has the power to keep people sane in a pandemic and it has the power to change viewpoints and educate. It has the power to create desire to send humanity to Mars. But it also has the power to keep slapping a type of person down so that we hardly ever see them, and when we do see them, we are also manipulating into thinking about them in limited and stereotypical ways.
And next time you watch anything pay attention to what that fictional world is telling you to think about the plethora of human beings around you.