Acting, a meritocracy? Oh, Mr Cumberbatch…


There’s a lot of discussion in the air at the moment about the supposed predominance of actors from public school backgrounds, prompted by the release of ‘Riot Club’, the film adaptation of Laura Wade’s play ‘Posh’. This is a fascinating subject which is, of course, merely one aspect of a much wider debate about privilege and access in UK society, but as a side-issue, I was very struck by this quote from an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch in the Daily Mail in April this year:

‘My parents wanted the best for me. I wasn’t sent to the school my dad went to. I’m not a hereditary peer. One of the best things about being an actor is that it’s a meritocracy.’

Now, make no mistake, I admire Benedict Cumberbatch very much. He is a fine actor and a great asset to the profession. But acting a meritocracy? I’m really not sure he’s got this right.

Larry or Vinnie?


Acting could indeed be considered a meritocracy if the most talented actors were always the most successful. The problem with this notion is that we immediately start to run into problems. Most importantly, how do we define who is the ‘best’? The question of talent is purely subjective – one man’s Larry Olivier is another man’s Vinnie Jones.

Of course, many of our most successful actors (i.e. the busiest, the best paid, winners of the most awards) would be deemed talented in anyone’s books. But most actors could point to contemporaries who haven’t achieved the level of success we thought they deserved – people who we considered the most accomplished actors at drama school, for example, yet who slipped through the net or didn’t move on to the career heights we expected for them. At the same time, we could name many more who have become successful, but whose achievements are harder to explain. And perhaps, in our most private moments, we might even admit to ourselves that there are actors more deserving of success than we are, but who never got a break.

Because I’m worth it

Success in acting is dependent on many variables, most of which have nothing at all to do with talent, but which instead are quite superficial. Looks, voice, physical presence – all these accidents of birth can have far more to do with whether an audience wants to watch us or not than the subtlety or effectiveness of our performances. This is without even touching on the question of luck, that great leveller to whose random and arbitrary whims we are all subject.

Let’s imagine that we have a scene of emotional intensity that needs performing, and two actors ready to perform it: one slightly ‘better’ than the other – a little more skilful with the text, say, a touch more sensitive in gesture and expression. Depressing to say, it isn’t necessarily the finer actor who would get the popular vote. At some point, the choice comes down to which actor we would most like to look at while the scene is happening. This can be because we find them sexy or scary, because they have a warm and comforting voice, or simply that they are closer in appearance to the character description – whatever the reason, audiences (and more importantly to those of us in the business, casting directors) are drawn to actors for so many intangible reasons, that the concept of a meritocracy within this peculiar profession of ours is pretty much meaningless. Does one actor really merit success because of how they look or sound?


It is rather like claiming that the pop charts are a meritocracy – to which I can only respond by citing the UK Singles chart for the 4th of March 1967: at Number 2, the Beatles with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane’, and Number 1, Engelbert Humperdinck with ‘Release Me’. I mean, honestly.

Sorry Benedict.

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