Here’s a nice little story for you. When George Lazenby heard that Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were looking for a new actor to play James Bond, he didn’t hang about. He bought the same watch as 007, had his hair cut by the same barber as Cubby Broccoli, bought a Savile Row suit that Sean Connery had forgotten to collect from his tailor, and then blagged his way into an audition. Lazenby believed he could get the part, and sure enough, he got it.
I, too, once believed I would become the next James Bond, and I kitted myself out in much the same way – the right gun, the right haircut – I even had the bow tie. All right, I was 10 years old, but the level of determination was identical.
Somehow it didn’t work out for me, or at least, it hasn’t yet… But back then I certainly thought it could, or at least I could conceive of no impediment to stop it happening. In those happy days I had no notion of casting – that I might be seen as a specific ‘type’. For years, as I leapt about my bedroom practising my super-spy moves, I assumed that whatever parts I hankered after (Dr Who, Luke Skywalker, Colt Seavers from The Fall Guy), the world would cheerfully allow me to play. What I didn’t realise, of course, was that at the same time there were hundreds of other little actors all nursing the same ambitions.
Now there is nothing unusual about a 10-year-old having unrealistic expectations. Children down the years have dreamed of being explorers, footballers, astronauts, and this is only right and proper. After all, what did I know of the real world, my head filled as it was with nothing but Monster Munch and the theme song to ‘For Your Eyes Only’? But sooner or later the scales fell from my eyes and I was hit with a cold realisation that there was no automatic route to my dream destination. Sure, I made it into the acting profession, but gradually my aspirations were tempered by experience. I left drama school and my agent cast me out into the profession to see if anyone bit. I was certainly nibbled a little, but the really big fish swam on by. And so I learned to set my sights lower.
Mine is a familiar story. Many actors eventually come to accept that life won’t all be artistic satisfaction and hefty paycheques, and so we recalibrate our attitude to the profession and our place in the ranking.
But is this the only way? If I had held onto those childhood ambitions more tightly, might I have got further by now? After all, acting is so precarious, is it really any better to have a realistic attitude? If you put a limit on your ambitions, perhaps that means you also limit your imagination. Maybe it is actually the dreamers, the ones who keep their expectations unreasonably high, who reach the heights. Maybe the dreamers make better actors, because they are freer – they place no lid on what they think they can achieve in an audition, in a scene, in their career. If you admit no obstacle, don’t accept or acknowledge the existence of obstacles, maybe when you meet resistance it doesn’t have such a damaging or limiting effect on your career. If, as William Goldman puts it, ‘nobody knows anything’, why believe someone who says you can’t do something?
I once worked with a very famous actress. She’d had a successful career in films and TV in the States, and had by this point settled comfortably into the role of Grande Dame of the theatre. But she told me about the time in the early 70s when her career had been flagging and the parts she had been playing had begun to shrink. So, she said, ‘I simply decided to become a star. It was as though my whole being underwent a cellular change’. Her career took off and it was Name-Above-The-Title all the way. At least, that’s how she remembered it. This degree of self-determination is mightily impressive, although of course it probably helped that she was tremendously beautiful. But is it really possible? Could I just change my mind overnight, decide to be a leading man and actually achieve it? Is it really as simple as that?
The flip-side of this attitude is the cliché of the pushy actor. Perhaps all those big stars have got where they are because they’re just horrendous, egocentric bullies. An inflated sense of entitlement can lead to a disregard for others, and I’m sure we can all bring examples to mind of badly-behaved actors – mentioning no Batmen, of course…
But it must be true that the monkey who gets the banana is the one who climbs the tree, and not the one who stays on the ground playing with his tail. Or, to put it another way, if you want to reach the stars, you have a far greater chance of getting there if you make the leap, than you do if you stay on the ground. Obsess too much, allow thoughts of failure – or fear of success – to hold you back, and very soon, a whole career has flown by.
I might not actually get to play James Bond (or Colt Seavers, for that matter) but I have slowly learned that if I adopt a positive, optimistic attitude to the profession, and don’t allow myself to be put off when things don’t go my way, then I often find myself being led in a more interesting direction.
Ask yourself: ‘What would George Lazenby do?’