Monthly Archives: November 2014

Staying In or Coming Out…

Can you be gay and happy in Hollywood?

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There was a time, now long lost in a mist of theatrical dry ice, when audiences had a taste for ham. They liked their acting big, artificial, transporting – theatrical, if you will. A leading actor might play Hamlet on Monday, Caliban on Wednesday and Lear on Friday, and he would achieve his transformations with greasepaint, false noses and an elastic array of voices and walks. If you were an actor-manager like Henry Irving you would seize the best part and attack it with gusto, and deliver a full-blooded, barnstorming performance.

A century or so on, there is really no place for that sort of thing. The arrival of cinema and the more sophisticated, subtle playwriting of the twentieth century combined to narrow the scope of our drama and bring about an appetite for a more naturalistic style of acting. These days we look to our actors for truth. We like our phrases broken and halting, our gestures restrained and our dialogue overlapping to the point of incomprehensibility.

And this appetite for candour extends to the real lives of actors. We want to know what goes on back stage – where they live, how they live, and, most importantly, with whom. A leading actor’s job description seems to require total disclosure.

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Of course, things have been like this since the golden days of Valentino and Louise Brooks. It picked up pace when the first paparazzi chased Burton and Taylor through Rome in the 60s, and now we have arrived at the point where most tabloids and celebrity magazines feel at liberty to invent wild, contradictory fantasies about Jennifer Aniston on a daily basis.
We are used to celebrities being fodder for gossip columns. We want our stars to live more interesting lives than ours – more torrid, more dramatic; and ideally they should be as close to their on-screen personae as possible – the strong, silent type, the ditzy-unlucky-in-love-girl-next-door – but things becomes more complicated when this attitude starts to infect the casting process.

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If you want someone to play a smouldering sex symbol, it seems that they must smoulder in real life too. Witness Bret Easton Ellis’s remarks when it was suggested that gay actor Matt Bomer should play the lead role in Fifty Shades of Grey. He claimed it ‘demands a man who is genuinely into women’.

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There are holes in this argument for all to see, but basically Ellis’s point can be countered by the fact that what actors are doing in films is acting. Jamie Dornan may well be heterosexual, but that doesn’t mean he’s really attracted to Dakota Johnson, and since it is not a porn film, the actors won’t really be having sex. So it doesn’t matter if Dornan fancies Johnson or not, or she him, as they will be pretending that they do. All actors do – all the time – is pretend. They pretend to be sad when they are happy, to be English when they are American, they even pretend to be apes when they are humans. This is their job. And usually, audiences are happy to accept this. We suspend our disbelief because we are following the story.

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But the gay/straight conundrum won’t seem to shift. Producers and casting directors still seem unwilling to cast gay actors in straight leading (i.e. romantic) roles. This has had drastic consequences for gay actors for decades. When Hollywood, television – even the apparently liberal world of the theatre – run scared of casting openly gay actors in those roles, even if the actor fits the part perfectly, the consequence has been that many of those actors choose to conceal their sexuality so they can continue to work. This point was raised by Benedict Cumberbatch in a recent interview with OUT magazine:

“I think if you’re going to sell yourself as a leading man in Hollywood,” he says, “to say ‘I’m gay,’ sadly, is still a huge obstacle. We all know actors who are [gay] who don’t want to talk about it or bring it up, or who deny it. I don’t really know what they do to deal with it.”

And this is my biggest concern – just how do they deal with it?

I struggled for a long time with whether to come out or not, and it wasn’t until drama school that I felt ready to be honest about it. But once I did, I felt much bolder in my acting, as well as in the rest of my life. Of course an audience need never know the details of our off-stage lives – and frankly they are usually less interesting than those we play out on stage or screen. But I think we need to have access to our real selves in order to empathise with a character: if a script asks an actor to play a love scene, most of us will draw on our own experiences to help us. Perhaps we might substitute a real lover from our own life for the other actor in the scene, and summon up the feeling of being in love. But how much harder must it be to show those feelings if we have always kept our sexuality in check, and never really expressed our true selves?

If acting is about telling the truth of human existence, then it must benefit your acting to be truthful to yourself – and conversely, surely your acting must suffer if you are living a lie.

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So why stay in the closet? Who makes that decision? I think we tend to imagine a Svengali-like agent or manager telling his client to hide the truth for the sake of his career – to attend the premiere with a girl on his arm or dodge the relationship question in interviews, and clearly some pressure must be exerted from on high, at producer-level at least. Witness the complicated case of Luke Evans, who was very open about being gay a decade ago as a stage actor in London, then became much more cagey once his Hollywood profile was rising and he had publicists steering his interviews. Happily, he now seems willing to discuss it again, as in this recent interview.

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Evans is a member of a small but significant group, including Ezra Miller and Neil Patrick Harris, who are openly gay but are still being cast in straight leading roles, and which is hopefully a sign of a more positive attitude in the future. But they are still very much a courageous minority. As Bret Easton Ellis said: ‘Hollywood is the most homophobic place in the entire world.’

But what if it comes from the actor him/herself? Inevitably all this homophobia must be internalised at some level.

Ultimately there is a choice to be made, between leading a successful career, and living a happy, open life. Which is more important? I can remember the fear of my sexuality being found out, of giving myself away. But that was 20-something years ago. I can’t imagine still carrying those fears with me now, and certainly not in the job I love.

Singing The Unsung #2 – Emily Raymond

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I’d like to highlight the work of a fine actress, Emily Raymond, who I have just seen in Carl Grose’s wildly entertaining ‘Grand Guignol’ at Southwark Playhouse.

The play is a delirious and blood-soaked homage to the French theatrical tradition of graphic horror plays, and takes us backstage to explore the creation of these bloody thrillers. Emily Raymond plays the theatre’s stunningly glamorous queen of gore, Paula Maxa – ‘the most assassinated woman in the world’. It is a ripe and very funny performance, and gives Emily the opportunity to showcase a truly magnificent, full-throated scream, to rival even the great Fay Wray.

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She also demonstrates a skilful handling of Grose’s heightened language and a very physically adept comic sensibility, even when the most appalling things are happening to her – eye-gougings, throttling, reanimation etc.

It was only after the show that I remembered working (very briefly) with Emily on an episode of ‘Tales From The Old Bailey’ for the BBC, in which she gave a beautifully poised and dignified performance as Emmeline Pankhurst, a world away from the hysterical excesses of ‘Grand Guignol’. She is clearly an actress of great versatility.

‘Grand Guignol’ runs at the Southwark Playhouse until November 22nd.
http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/the-large/grand-guignol/

A Privileged Position?

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Next Sunday there will be a big toff-shaped gap in the television schedules – ‘Downton Abbey’ has come to an end. But all those upper-class types released back into the wild should have no problem finding their next gig. It seems there is a healthy appetite at the moment for posh actors playing posh characters in posh stories.

There has been a lot of debate about whether this means that acting itself has become – well, posher too. Ben Stephenson, the BBC’s Controller of Drama Commissioning, noted that ‘acting has become a very middle-class profession’, and Sir Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Arts Council England, says that public school-educated actors are ‘out of all proportion’ to those from less privileged backgrounds.

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On the other hand, Edward Kemp, Principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, disputes this, pointing out in The Independent recently that ’36 per cent of last year’s intake of students at RADA came from families earning less than £25,000.’ He makes the claim that ‘there is absolutely no evidence that people from poor backgrounds aren’t coming to drama school.’ This is despite RADA charging fees at the upper limit, i.e. £9,000 a year. Mr Kemp also notes that his school is receiving more applications from ‘working-class’ students than at the start of the century.

To this I say: Fine – students from varied backgrounds may somehow find the money to pay their way through three years at drama school, but what happens next? I would be surprised, to put it mildly, if those students from low-earning families were able to cope on an actor’s salary.

Obviously actors need to be supported when they start out, and many colleges offer generous bursaries to help less well-off students, but the real problems can begin when those students are thrust out into a harsh profession. I would suggest that this is when actors really need help.

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It is increasingly expensive to embark on a career in the theatre. Many drama schools are based in London, the most expensive city in the UK, and we are told that we must stay here once we graduate in order to develop our careers. But the reality of attempting to survive on an actor’s wage can be absolutely prohibitive to many people contemplating a life in the theatre. I graduated from LAMDA in 1998, in a class of 29 people. Sixteen years later, probably less than a third of us are still pursuing acting in earnest. This is no great surprise; I’m sure the story is the same with every graduating year from every drama school. And things weren’t so pricey in my day, sonny.

The average monthly rent (note I don’t say mortgage repayment) for a one-bed flat in London is £1211 (January 20114 figures), whereas, according to the most recent Equity survey from December 2013, more than 56 per cent of its members earned less than £10,000 a year. This is officially classed as below the poverty line. Once you factor in utility bills, council tax, food, travel – it isn’t very surprising that many actors are forced to give up after just a few years. Faced with these obstacles, acting can start to look like an expensive hobby.

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So who can afford to act? While I’m sure there are some actors lucky enough to go from job to job, peppering meaty stage roles with a bit of lucrative film and TV work, and paying their way from acting alone, I would respectfully suggest that this is not the norm. Most actors have gaps between roles which have to be filled with ‘day jobs’, and unfortunately the temptation to start relying on those jobs and say goodbye to acting can be all too powerful, especially if you want to start a family, save to buy a house, or just go on holiday once in a while – you know, normal stuff.

Some might say this is theatrical Darwinism at work, and that those who choose to step aside don’t have the necessary resilience, commitment or, dare I say, talent to succeed. But I’m not sure this is the whole truth. Far too many seriously talented people are lost to the profession because they simply can’t afford to support themselves.

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In recent years, however, I have noticed that many of the younger actors I have worked with seem not to be struggling that much. Indeed many own flats and cars. These are actors in their early twenties who can afford to buy property in London and, at the same time, are somehow able to take low-paid jobs in one of the lowest paid professions there is. And afford to buy lunch every day from Pret or Whole Foods – if I’m working in the theatre I survive on a packed lunch of a ham sandwich, a yoghurt and – my one concession to fine dining – one of those lovely Bonne Maman madeleines. Well, it can’t all be self-denial, can it?

On one recent theatre job I was thrilled to find that I could walk to work (40 minutes each way) thus saving myself nearly £30 a week in bus fares. But I still struggled to find any spare cash after paying the rent and bills. I have generally attempted to be pure in my approach to acting, never signing on the dotted line for a permanent ‘proper’ job, always ready to drop any other work as soon as acting comes up, always ready to say yes to anything, even in the face of red bills and a burgeoning overdraft. The result of this is that whenever I get an acting job, the over-riding emotion I often feel is not joy, but relief, much like the drowning man who manages at last to haul himself onto the life raft. But I wonder if it’s different for those Pret-munching young actors. Many of them are privately-educated and come from well-off middle-class backgrounds, so just don’t feel the same petty money worries.

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Now this is not a class war; I am not saying that working-class actors are better than upper-class ones. John Gielgud is my hero, and you couldn’t get posher than him. And anyway, I sit squarely in the very middle of the middle-class. No, this is about money, as it always is. It’s a simple fact that those who are able to afford an actor’s life are the ones whose careers will last longest. This could be because they work a lot, or perhaps they just don’t mind sacrificing everything else for their art. But more and more these days, it seems to be because they either have money already, or they are subsidised by their families. Lucky for them, but not so lucky for an art form that is meant to be about representing all facets of society.

Of course, the acting profession has never had enough work to sustain the number of people who want to be part of it; it’s always a minority of each graduating year that is able to maintain a career for life. But now that we have a higher number of drama graduates joining the profession than ever before, it does beg the question – do drama schools and the wider industry bear some greater responsibility to the acting community? Shouldn’t there be a more established mid-career support structure in place?

Of course we mustn’t go blindly into the profession, expecting money and fame to be drawn to us by the inexorable magnetic tractor beam of our talent. Just to be able to act for a living, even some of the time, is a privilege in itself. But after three years of very expensive training it sometimes seems as though the business is happy to leave us to the vagaries of fate. There is often so much clamour to identify the hot young talents, to be known as the school that produced the big new stars or the casting director that discovered them, that if you are an actor who doesn’t fit into that category, as most of us don’t, you are left to fend for yourself.

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Actors are the lifeblood of the entertainment industry. Surely those parts of the business which feed off that blood supply should feel obligated to do what they can to keep it flowing.

 

How Do I Look?

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So Renée Zellweger doesn’t look like Renée Zellweger anymore. This discovery has prompted shock, outrage and consternation around the world – how dare this woman attempt to change her appearance? In the Guardian last week, Viv Groskop wrote:

‘There was plenty of proof that cinema audiences liked the way she looked, whether older or younger, fatter or thinner. They just liked her. They didn’t want her to look like someone else.’

But what if Renée Zellweger doesn’t know what Renée Zellweger is supposed to look like?

One of the most difficult things I have found in the years since I graduated from drama school has been to understand what my casting is. In a way, it could be in an actor’s best interests not to find out – self-awareness is just a short step from its destructive evil twin, self-consciousness, and that’s a sure route to disaster on stage.

However, we clearly do need to have some concept of the way we are perceived on stage or film. But what if our casting is not what we imagined it to be? Should we embrace it, or try to change it? Rebel, or go with the flow?

 
I’ve probably carried in my head a number of different imagined versions of myself over the years, from the romantic leading man to the distinguished diplomat type. But really I have no clear idea of how I am viewed by the casting directors of the world (if at all, that is) – although, as the years roll on and I start to look as if a whole murder of crows has trampled across my face, I have a dim sense that my casting is changing.

When I left drama school, I was rather smooth and blank-looking, rather Philip Franks-y or Martin Jarvis-y:

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Now I look like this:

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I have wavy hair, but only in the sense of the old joke, i.e. it is waving goodbye… There are now solid grey patches at my temples, which I occasionally attack with Just For Men in order, I tell myself, to give my hair a uniform colour instead of looking like Spiderman’s editor –

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– though it’s probably just vanity and the fear of ageing. But along with my once-luxuriant hair, I might also be losing the rather bland blankness of my younger days, and perhaps gaining a bit of much-needed character in my face. Certainly the parts I am up for these days have a bit more meat to them than some of the ‘juve lead’ parts of my 20s.

 
Of course, some actors are able accurately to zero in on their casting, and then stick as closely to it as possible: some will maintain a particular hairstyle, or visit the gym religiously to preserve an athletic physique; there are resolutely bearded actors –

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– available for all bearded parts, and I cherish the memory of the old lady whose Spotlight photo (in ‘Older Character’) showed her whispering conspiratorially into a telephone receiver – clearly targeting all those Agatha Christie-esque ‘village gossip’ roles.

But if you do fit into a clear casting bracket, there can be danger lying in wait if you try to break out: recently, a friend told me the story of an actor who, having been quite overweight, decided to slim down – for the sake of his health – and was told by his agent that she couldn’t represent him anymore, as he’d destroyed his casting. A case of the Zellwegers, perhaps?

 

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Acting is one of only a handful of professions where we are almost entirely judged on our appearance. A friend of mine is a careers officer, who often talks to young people interested in becoming actors. He marvels at the fact that a casting director can legitimately search for a blowsy blonde barmaid-type (to pick a supremely clichéd example) and very specifically insist that the candidate must be blonde and, well, blowsy… It is hardly surprising that actors feel self-conscious and paranoid about their appearance – and for women in particular, it must add an extra level of stress into an already near-impossible profession. Of course, men are far from immune to this paranoia – there are many examples these days of male actors whose hair somehow gets thicker as they get older – but maybe evolution has taken a new turn…

Choosing to intervene, through plastic surgery or radical makeover, can certainly be hard for an audience to accept – not to mention the casting departments of this world, and the tabloid press. The likes of Mail Online and Perez Hilton thrive on tales of celebrities who have destroyed their looks – and careers – apparently in an attempt to recapture the lost beauty of their young selves.

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But assuming the job of the actor is to tell stories about real people – at least, most of the time – then surely we need actors who actually look like real people. If we allow nature to take its course – if we can resist the lure of the surgeon’s knife or Botox needle, as Julia Roberts says she has vowed to do – then perhaps it might even benefit our careers. We might find ourselves passing into a different, more rewarding casting bracket.

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Increasingly, it seems that writers are becoming interested in telling stories with older central characters. The thought that we might become more castable as we age must be one of the strongest incentives for staying in the game – and all the experience and road miles we clock up as we progress through this arduous career could lend us a true beauty that can never be found in a cosmetic surgeon’s clinic.