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The Waiting Game

wanderer

Peaks and troughs. Highs and lows. The acting profession has always been one of extremes. An actor friend of mine told me she’d been drawn to the job because she was ‘an adrenaline junkie’, and I think most of us can relate to that. There’s no thrill to beat a first night – that intoxicating mix of fear and excitement – to show you that you’re truly alive.

As for the highs, an actor’s life is peppered with many moments of joy, big or small, the best of all usually being the phone call from your agent to tell you you’ve got the job. Way back at the start, I will never forget the call that told me I had won a place at LAMDA. And then there’s the thrill of a happy discovery in rehearsal, a perfect show or just the pure exhilaration that comes from playing with other actors.

telephone

In terms of lows, they tend to come from the frustration of not acting. We are all familiar with the agony of unemployment, feeling you have so much to offer and yet not being allowed to join in the game. But there is another, smaller agony, that can sometimes feel even sharper – namely that difficult post-audition period, when you just don’t know if you’ve got the job or not.

This is a period of the purest torture, particularly if you really want the job, and it begins the moment you leave the audition room. Of course, you’re supposed to brush it off immediately, as you trip off to a stylish downtown bar to resume your dizzying social life with not so much as a backwards glance, but it’s not always that easy. It’s rather more usual to begin the Great Calculation. Let’s say you audition on a Tuesday afternoon. You stagger onto the tube afterwards, your head spinning as you replay the details of the meeting. Did you seem interested enough as the director spelt out their vision for the production? How well did you play the scene? How about that one pivotal line – did you hit it just right? And did you manage to leave the room without shoving your foot in your gob, by saying ‘See you soon’, ‘Thanks you’ or ‘Lots of love’? Hopefully, you’ll feel you did the best you could. If so, you can actually relax for a bit now, and maybe enjoy one or two of those glamorous cocktails with your glamorous friends, for one night at least.

cocktails

But the next morning, the beast awakens. Hmm, Wednesday morning, you think. Well, I probably won’t hear anything today, as they’ll still be meeting people. Unless, of course, they really loved me, and want to snap me up as quickly as possible… But Wednesday drifts past, and you don’t worry too much – this is still the phoney war, after all. Shrödinger‘s Acting Job, both alive and dead at the same time.

The next day dawns and your thinking is beginning to change: Thursday, Thursday… they’ve probably finished auditions by now, so they’ll be starting to make decisions. This is where the clock/iPhone watching begins in earnest. Haven’t heard by lunchtime? That’s fine, it’ll probably be this afternoon. An hour’s grace for lunch between 1.00pm and 2.00pm, when you can actually focus on something else for a bit, then it starts again. 5.00pm approaches, 5.30… Well, maybe tomorrow. By this point, you’re starting to entertain the idea that it might not go your way, telling yourself that if you don’t hear on Friday, well then that’s it, you haven’t got it. And sure enough, Friday comes and goes and the phone doesn’t ring.

But then there’s Monday. Maybe they decided to take the weekend to make up their minds…

calendar

It can be absolute agony. Inevitably, some jobs are worse than others, i.e. the ones you really want. And the torture is amplified if it goes to recalls or beyond. I was recently working with two actors, both of whom were in the middle of this situation, and both of whom were throughly miserable about it. One of them said that he felt it was actually making him ill.

There’s nothing to be done, of course. It is simply one of those things about the profession. You leave the room, and you’ve done all you can. They can take as long as they want to make their decisions, and that’s that. All the hours spent speculating about what they must be thinking, attempting to read the runes or to gain some sort of insight into a director’s thought processes is a waste of time. There are many areas of our business in which change is really overdue, but opening up the decision making process is not one.

danny lee wynter

The only thing that can be done is to let every actor know how their audition went, and happily this is an idea that is really starting to gain traction, thanks in great part to the #YesOrNo initiative, spearheaded by the actor Danny Lee Wynter, which is asking for all actors who audition for a role to be told whether or not they have got the job. It has always been one of the most brutal aspects of the profession, the idea that an actor can put their all into preparing for a casting, but once they leave the room, they simply never hear a peep about it again. The #YesOrNo campaign addresses this head-on, and recently received a major boost when both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company committed to giving every actor who auditions for them at least a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer:

rsc tweet yes or no

And gradually, many other theatre companies and casting directors are jumping aboard too.

It might not completely eradicate the post-audition collywobbles, but at least it ensures that an end is in sight.

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The Comeback Kids – # 1: Priyanga Burford

Priyanga Burford by Michael Shelford

Actors are much like sharks. If a shark stops swimming, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and drowns. In the same way, if an actor stops acting, his career dries up.

Except, of course, this is nonsense. Plenty of sharks seem quite happy to laze about on the sea bed while delicious-looking fish swim by, only to resume their sharking activities wholeheartedly when so inclined. Might the same be true of actors? Is it possible to take time out of an acting career – even a few years – and revive it successfully? Could such a hiatus even be beneficial?

I recently had a break of my own to help look after my father, who has dementia, and having returned to the fray I was keen to speak to other actors who have made a similar choice.

Hair LAMDA 1998 - Me and Pri

Priyanga Burford and I were in the same year at LAMDA (class of 1998). Since graduating, Pri and her husband Tom have had two children, Danny and Oscar. After taking time to raise her sons, Pri has made a successful return to the acting world, with TV appearances in shows such as ‘Silent Witness’ and ‘Veep’. Earlier this year she took the lead role of fictional UKIP candidate Deepa Kaur in the Channel 4 spoof documentary ‘UKIP: The First 100 Days’, and appeared in the Sheffield Crucible production of Lucy Prebble’s play ‘The Effect’. She is currently playing Amina Chaudury in the BBC’s series, ‘Press’, written by Mike Bartlett. I wanted to speak to Pri about choosing to step back from acting to raise her family, and her experience of returning to the profession after a long time away.

CN So, how did it work? Were you intending to have children and take a break, or did Danny come along and you just…

PB I didn’t have a plan. We knew we wanted to have children. I think I had a slightly unrealistic idea that it would somehow all fall into place without too much trouble. Because of course, before you have children you can’t know what it’s like – I hadn’t accounted for the physical tiredness and all the rest.

CN How long had you been acting after LAMDA when you had Danny?

PB Four years. I went back far too soon to do things, I really did, I think I went a bit nuts, because your whole life just turns upside down and you become a different person. You have this different identity suddenly as a parent, and there’s this whole other part of you. So I wasn’t ready to go back to work, then when I did, I felt like an alien and it went quite badly.

CN What did you do?

PB I did short film, which I had a very small part in, but even the small part was too much.

CN Did you think there was an element of panic that things were slipping away and that you had to do something?

PB Yes, there was definitely that: if I disappear for five minutes, everyone will forget who I am and I will never be able to act again. And nobody contradicted me, actually, nobody professionally said to me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s fine, go away and be a mum for a bit, and when you’re ready, come back’. My agent certainly didn’t say that – he’s not my agent any more – and I wish he had, because he knew the way I was feeling.

CN Can you remember what his reaction was when you told him you were going to have a child?

PB Well, he was delighted, but I remember him saying to me the first time I went to see him after we got married, ‘Don’t have kids, not yet,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, you’re really running my life here’. So yeah, I know I went back too early, but I’m very glad that I did the little bits I did, even auditioning.

CN What would you audition for?

PB Just little tiny bits of telly – a scene or two in ‘The Bill’ or something like that.

CN And radio?

PB Yeah, that was brilliant – when I was pregnant, I had the contract with the Radio Drama Company to cover me over the time when I was, you know, unfilmable, and I couldn’t be insured.

Priyanga Burford and Fenella Woolgar in Ambassador B on BBC Radio 4

CN Thank God for the BBC, as ever.

PB Exactly. It was just really hard – and I think it’s moments like that when you really say to yourself, ‘How much do I actually want this?’ I remember trying to take a little baby in a pushchair on the tube, up the steps of the underground station, and actually by the time you’ve arrived at the meeting you’re exhausted… The meeting seems like a complete sideshow, and of course it’s what you’re there for. But the big achievement, I started to realise, was actually getting both of us there, getting ready, learning the lines for the meeting, and getting home safely. So I didn’t get a lot of work during that time.

CN So you had in your mind a return to the profession?

PB Yes, if they let me!

CN Because then you had another son…

PB Yes, five years later I had Oscar. And in that interim period again it was just dribs and drabs, so actually most of my thirties has been about having and rearing these two boys, with a bit of acting thrown in.

CN But it’s a good use of your thirties, isn’t it?

PB Yeah, making people, that’s good! But at the time I didn’t see it that way, at the time I did panic. There wasn’t anyone saying to me, ‘No no, it’s fine, people have kids, it’s life’. There was always rather this impression that actors don’t have lives, they don’t have children, relationships – you know, they’re just machines.

CN It’s a strange thing isn’t it, it’s almost like actors are children – that we aren’t suited to a life of adult responsibilities.

PB There’s certainly a part of an artist which is a child, because they need to play and be vulnerable and open, so you need to have those child-like elements, but they need to be encased in an adult, professional framework, and that comes with maturity. That doesn’t mean necessarily age, but perhaps maturity of attitude – you know, I could have been 26 and had a mature attitude, I just didn’t. Actually, half of what you do is maintenance and work creation, keeping your networks going and all that, which is something I learnt from my brother, who’s a freelance journalist. I spoke to him about his life, and realised when he’s not working, when he’s not being paid to write something, the rest of his time is pitching ideas and sniffing around to see what’s out there.

CN Was there a point when you thought I could leave this, I could stop?

PB Yes, I became very angry, very demoralised, and the only place that led me was to more of the same, just feeling worse and worse, angrier and angrier and I had no one to shout at.
I’d fallen into this trap of throwing my hands up and going, ‘Oh well, it’s all just a kind of boys’ club’. I had started to ignore the resources there out there, so I got back in touch with Spotlight and actually read the emails they were sending me. One of the turning points for me was a casting symposium at the BFI with Lucinda Syson and Reg Poerscout-Edgerton.

Lucinda Syson by Sean SmithReg Poerscout-Edgerton

The atmosphere was very professional and I thought, ‘This feels right’ – it’s really good for the soul to go to something like that. I hadn’t realised, after taking time out, how much the industry has changed – they will get people sending their iPhone video stuff in from all over Europe and America and Australia for the same role. So you are competing globally. Just talking to my agent today – in America it’s far less common for people to be in the room; they might sift through 500 tapes from all over the world for a TV series. That was a big eye-opener for me.
I feel like the industry’s progressed a bit; it does demand that when you walk into a room, you’re ready, you’re prepared and you’ve done your homework.

CN It’s a lot more professional.

Shonda Rhimes by Patrick Ecclesine

PB Yes, particularly in America. You hear about someone like Shonda Rhimes, who is a massive showrunner over there for ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ and ‘Scandal’, and she just sacks people. She’s not having any actor shit, any egos; she’ll go, ‘OK, ‘bye then. You’re not doing this to this piece of work’. And I think the more professional our industry gets, the better for everybody. People won’t tolerate that sort of behaviour any more. I suppose I’m harking back quite a few years, but you can’t just turn up pissed, having had a couple of fags and just sort of create.

CN Do you think having taken some time before you returned to the profession – I wonder if that was useful as a sort of recalibration, a re-adjusting of your attitude?

PB Definitely, I’m really glad I had that time, because I see it almost as professional development. I think it’s true of most artists actually, that the richness of your life experience does feed your art, and those years that I was doing other things – life stuff – has meant that I’ve got a very different perspective on what I do.
I used to always feel slightly ashamed of being an actor, that it was a slightly laughable thing to do with one’s life, and actually having taken that time out, spoken to other artists, having time to think about my own attitude to my whole industry and a re-examination of why I’m in this in the first place, I’ve found it really strengthening. And I learnt more about my process.

CN Doing something as important as raising a family, I wonder if that shift in your life allows your perspectives to shift as well? The sort of things we get hung up about, like a bad audition or a bad rehearsal, does it make it easier to deal with those things?

PB I don’t know if it makes it easier, but it certainly stops you from indulging it. It still hurts, but it becomes more like a bad day at work, because you have kids and you realise that you cannot bring it home to them, because why should they have to deal with it? It’s not their problem at all. So it’s still upsetting and frustrating but you have to learn to put that away. You can’t be grumpy and stomp around, and I certainly think that takes you out of yourself in a very healthy way.

CN And maybe it allows you to truly take responsibility for choosing this job – the buck has to stop with us, doesn’t it?

PB Yes, no one’s holding a gun to your head – at the end of the day, you don’t have to do this.

CN As you said, the rewards, maybe not financially, but the rewards from the work are so great.

PB I think that’s why people get so pissed off with actors when they start moaning. Because really, who else gets to follow a passion – or even know what their passion is?

Luvvies - Jeremy Irons

CN I wonder if you come to realisations when you take some time out that you wouldn’t otherwise have come to? So it’s actually a way of appreciating the job more.

PB Yes, and I have more of a sense of who I am as me, rather than just as an actor. There’s a richness that’s happened with life experience and having kids – just getting older – that has built a lot more confidence to be able to walk into a room and do the job, without all the extraneous useless thoughts of, ‘Oh maybe everyone thinks I’m crap, maybe the director’s regretting casting me’. That just really doesn’t happen to me any more. I used to feel very unsure of myself early in my career. After drama school, when you get into a professional context you’re so keen to prove yourself, you’re so acutely aware of the fact that, ‘I can’t piss this director off because they’ll never work with me again’, and actually that takes away from the really important process of trying stuff out and failing. You need to have confidence to be able to say to a director, ‘I really don’t know what I’m doing here, you’re going to have to help me’.

CN Which ties in with the idea of understanding that it’s work – that discipline that you were talking about, being able to balance that play with the serious point of, ‘There’s an opening night’, or someone’s going to say, ‘Action!’ at some point.

PB The more I thought about it as paid work, that’s a really good way of getting over yourself, because you just think, ‘Look, they are paying me to do this, so I’ve just got to shut up and get on with it. No one gives a shit if I’m feeling insecure’. And why should they?

CN I’m sure most productions don’t grind to a halt if an actor can’t do it. There’s always another actor.

PB I’m about go up to Sheffield and do a play called ‘The Effect’ by Lucy Prebble. I haven’t actually done any theatre in 5 years, and that’s because I’ve had to say, ‘No I can’t, because my kids are too young and I just don’t feel like I can leave the family at this point’. There’s something quite empowering about being able to say that – you feel as an actor that you have to say ‘Yes’ to everything.

The Effect poster

CN How are you feeling about it? Will you be attempting to commute in any way?

PB No, I’m going to live up there and they’re coming up for weekends. That’s the other thing, you’ve got to have a partner who gets it, and Tom really does get it. We just work as a big team: ‘Is this going to work?’ – and you try it and see. Professionally I’m a little bit nervous about going back on stage after 5 years, but also it’s a new phase in our family life, it’s the first time I’ve been away away – you know 2 months, it’s a long time.

CN It will be an interesting test to see how you can accommodate everything.

PB And actually I couldn’t do this if I hadn’t done telly at the back end of last year, because theatre wages are still so rubbish, I could not have afforded child care at all. I think that’s another way things have changed; it’s why so many TV actors are on the stage, because how else can you afford to live on theatre wages unless you’ve got money?

CN It’s never easy, is it? It’s never going to be easy, but you have to find a way to make it work, if you want it to.

PB You do, you have to find a way. That’s what I said to my agent – if it’s worth it we’ll find a way. I think the whole thing is about just working bloody hard.

CN And it’s a good way to spend your life, isn’t it? You may as well.

PB You may as well, because there are so many people who hate their jobs, who would give a limb to have my problems. The other thing about taking some time out was the people I met with ‘ordinary jobs’ who really hated them, or going to work was so perfunctory. I have never woken up for a day of my work and felt anything other than really excited about what I was off to do, and I got a true sense of how rare that is and how incredibly fortunate I am.

‘The Effect’, directed by Daniel Evans, opens at Sheffield Studio Theatre on June 25th 2015.

Interview With The Director: Paul Miller – part two

 

Paul Miller 2 - Mark Douet

CN As artistic director you must get a lot of submissions all the time. How do you deal with that? Is there anything you try to do to open your doors more widely, to bring people in?

PM What we’ve done in the last six months is we now put all our casting breakdowns on Spotlight, so anybody can submit things. We’ve done several days of open auditions – both at the offices of Spotlight that were organised by Equity, but we’ve also done our own here, for general meets, not for a particular play. So we feel like we’ve made good strides towards opening it up more. It’s so difficult though, because we are a small team. Just the business of putting plays on is amazingly labour-intensive and time-consuming, and it is always a matter of great anxiety that we cannot respond individually to all the submissions we get, we just don’t have the manpower. If people write in and don’t get a response, all I can say we keep everything very carefully and we do look at everything.

paul slater mail
CN Were you prepared for the level of guilt that all Artistic Directors must have?

PM I think so. The big subsidised companies have more responsibility to take care of people, and by and large tend to be quite good.

CN But it’s a balance, isn’t it? It’s a very desirable location, the Orange Tree, although it’s a very small theatre. In the past Sam [Walters, the previous artistic director] used to do plays with enormous casts, but he would always employ the same actors.

sam walters orange tree
PM He made a positive virtue of working with a sort of informal company, which I think he strongly believed in. I think it’s partly generational: for his generation of directors that was always a dream and a goal – The Company, and I think so much of what he was about was because he remembered the really good aspects of Rep, and he used that energy creatively. That’s partly why the Orange Tree exists at all.

CN There’s been no repeated casting?

PM I think in the seven productions we’ve done so far, I don’t think anybody’s come back, and that’s in part because we’ve had different directors come in, the plays have had different requirements. It’s a rhythmical thing – it seems right at the moment and in due course people will start to come back and the theatre will acquire a personality.

CN It’s an unfair profession, isn’t it, the acting profession? It’s just intrinsically unfair. There are so many people who want to do it, and so few jobs, it can never be a democracy, can it? There’s an element to it where at some level it’s like a fashion show – there are things beyond your control that are the reasons you get cast; things that make you attractive that are unquantifiable.

PM It’s true, there’s an almost feudal aspect to it, sort of like dockers queuing up in the morning to see if they’re picked to work that day.

CN In the ‘50s and ‘60s they used to go to their agents and sit outside – ‘There’s nothing for you today’.

PM Yes, it is a brutal career and that’s why people want to form companies – they do so in order to protect themselves from these sorts of iniquities. That aspect of our trade can be unhealthy and uncreative.

CN And it can’t really be changed can it?

Stratford-RSC-rear-view-with-geesehomerholby
PM Well, like all things there are strengths and weaknesses. I have a friend who I spoke to just yesterday – he’s just done a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, where he was in a new play and two Shakespeares, he’s in the process of writing an adaptation of Homer and he’s going up for a ‘Holby City’. So it’s a snapshot of a British actor’s life, who’s Doing-Quite-Nicely-Thank-You. That is an unimaginable thing for a German actor. A continental European actor doesn’t have that thing where they go from a bit of popular television, to being in Goethe, to then doing a voiceover… They have a company system, it’s all heavily subsidised, and if you are part of those subsidised companies, of which there are many, that’s what you do. And you can often see astonishingly rich, in-depth character acting in companies in Germany as a result. What they don’t have is British actors’ flexibility, pliability, ability to work in very different ways very quickly.
And that is why, in my view, British actors often do very well in America, because of that easy ability to do anything. Which is actually a product of that brutality we’re talking about – it actually produces that as an upside and thus can make American directors love working with British actors, because of that ability to go, ‘Oh, you want me do to it differently? I’ll do it like that’, whereas an American actor struggles. So I suppose there are aspects of the way we work which feel very brutal, but we also have to remember that it produces a certain liveliness which is an asset.

CN And I suppose it helps in auditions, in that you can have a casting in the morning for an advert, and a Strindberg in the afternoon, and you need to be able to turn it on for both.

PM Yes, and by and large people are very skilled at doing that.

Anthony Hopkins Alex be Brabant

CN I’ve done very little screen acting but I love it when I do, because it is so focused. I remember reading about Anthony Hopkins, who of course is the great master of screen acting, and he was talking about being able to marshal his resources so well that he was able to just switch it on; he could focus completely and just turn it on when he needed it.

PM Just the other day, a very experienced senior actress was telling me a story about her daughter, who’s just starting, and had she had done a couple of days filming – she was complaining, ‘Oh, it was terrible, I was waiting for hours and hours, the whole day I was waiting to do my little bit. It’s a disgrace!’ And her mother said, ‘No, the waiting is what you’re paid for – the acting comes for free.’

CN That’s great, I’ve never thought about it like that – the acting is the reward.
I‘ve been thinking about London. It’s an impossibly expensive place to live in. Can you conceive of a time when the media and the theatre will be spread more across the country, or will London always be the centre?

london
PM I think it’s impossible to imagine a situation when we are not, as a country, focused on London. It has such a massive history behind it, and geographically, I feel we are always going to have that with us. I notice that politically now there are these big moves to talk about Northern powerhouses, and I think that’s all great and healthy – there does seems to be a lot going on in Manchester, and I think we will see more of that; with the BBC being stationed in Salford, there’s a sense in which the centre is shifting – but I think London will always be with us. I think the general election result has given us a very vivid X-Ray of a sense in which, politically and socially, culturally, London is forming a giant bubble of its own. One of the reasons that everybody was taken by surprise by the election result is because in London we were all busy talking to ourselves, and not really realising that out there, a whole different thing has been going on. We’re entering this period now where it’s going to be very difficult to work out how the country finds a way of talking to itself.

CN And culturally, creatively, there’s no money to keep you in the profession – are we going to end up with a casting crisis for people in their late 20s and into their 30s?

PM I think there is a lot of burn off, I think that’s exactly what happens. You can see that in the proportion of people who are in Spotlight of a certain age. The people who get burned off are the people who can’t afford to pay rent in London without a stable income.

sheffield theatres
CN Is that something that regional theatres can capitalise on? Do you think there should be a shift away from the capital? You spent a lot of time in Sheffield – did you cast down in London, or did you cast in Sheffield?

PM It must be the case that 90% of Equity is based in London, so inevitably that’s where you end up casting from. There are some people based in Sheffield and they have worked in the Crucible, but it’s difficult. I can never remember the exact rules and numbers about subsistence, but if you’re in Sheffield for instance, you budget because you know you’re going to have to pay subsistence to actors who are by and large London-based, and you still have to pay if they’re Manchester-based, so there‘s no great incentive at a financial level.

CN You have a greater pool of people to cast from in London.

PM All the incentives are for you to look to London.

CN It’s terrible isn’t it – you’re told you have to live in a place that is too expensive to live in, in order to carry on working.

PM And actors face a pressure from their agents, it seems to me, to not leave London – to not go and do a play in Sheffield because you’ll be out of London for two months. ‘Imagine what will happen – if that advert came up, you wouldn’t be able to do it!’

CN I think there is a pressure to shut out parts of your life and experiences you could have had, because you’re frightened to miss the job – don’t go on holiday, don’t have a family; you can’t afford to buy a house because you can’t leave London. You shut yourself off from life experiences which might actually be detrimental to your acting.

PM It’s true, those are all dangers.

circus poster
CN Actors have always been outsiders though, haven’t they?

PM They have. It’s a conundrum, because life should be fairer, it should be better; we are artists who deserve to earn a living. There should be good conditions – you know, bad conditions don’t create good art. And yet we all, one way or another, ran away to join the circus, and having joined the circus, we love complaining about the elephant shit.

CN A suitable ending, I think. Thank you Paul.

How Do I Look?

Rene-Zellweger-then-and-now

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:

chrisnaylor

Now I look like this:

grim1

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 –

spiderman

– 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 –

Brian Blessed

– 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.

Judi Dench

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.

In Defence Of Actors

how d'ye like me

Actors are, as a breed, some of the most socially able, intelligent and inquisitive people you could hope to meet. They are engaged with the world, highly dedicated to their work and constantly testing themselves. Acting is a risky and expensive career choice that requires determination, persistence and a good deal of courage in many areas.

But there is an intriguing dichotomy at work in the way actors are viewed. On one side, those who become famous and rich are idolised, endlessly scrutinised and obsessed over. On the other, the vast majority of the profession who are attempting to maintain a career are often pitied, patronised, or simply disregarded.

But do actors need defending? If so, from whom?

I believe that actors frequently suffer from damaging attitudes both outside and inside the profession. I think that many people view acting with a mixture of amusement and disdain – often underscored with the belief that it is not a serious job. In fact, of course, it is a very serious job, and what’s more, a precarious one with a high probability of failure – very high levels of unemployment and drop-out, and very poor pay. In my opinion, however, it is also a noble and entirely essential profession.

‘Luvvy! Darling! Sweetie!’

So why are actors denigrated? The stereotypical negative attitudes to the profession can be summed up by that dread word: ‘luvvies’. Can there be a more patronising, dismissive term? It implies a sort of emotional incontinence; an indiscriminate spray of superficial sentimental self-indulgence, coupled with a good squirt of self-absorption – they call each other ‘luvvie’ and ‘darling’ because they’re so wrapped up in themselves they can’t even remember anyone’s name.

Actors are often treated like children, as unintellectual and over-emotional, people who don’t really work for a living but just play all day, pretending to be trees and animals and sleeping in until lunchtime. Many times I have told people what I do for a job, and have been met with the amused response, ‘Oh, you’re an ac-TORRR!’ There is a clear element of envy underlying these attitudes. People often say to me ‘you’re so lucky to be doing a job that you love,’ which is certainly true, although it is assumed along with this that, because we have job satisfaction, we don’t really need those things that the rest of society considers essential, such as mortgages, holidays, cars, money and so on.

I think that this attitude is surprisingly pervasive, to the extent that it begins to erode an actor’s self-respect. Even within the industry, we often suffer from discrimation. Actors are easily dismissed for a number of reasons, the principal one being that there are just so many of us and we all want jobs. So we become irritants – the small fly that buzzes around your face. The industry Gatekeepers – directors and casting directors, even our own agents – must dread phone calls from actors, because after the small talk there will always come The Question: ‘Is there anything happening at the moment?’ Here’s a fun game – find the casting director at a first-night party and watch the look of panic in their eyes as you approach. Inevitably they build walls around themselves to hold back the relentless onslaught of desperation.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

The result of all this is that people lose respect for actors. It makes perfect sense, really – when someone seems completely needy and vulnerable it’s hard to respect them. The consequence of this is that we can start to lose respect for ourselves. So an actor’s journey through their career becomes about trying to navigate a way through these hazards – trying to maintain a career while constantly questioning our worth and our choices, and feeling reluctant to approach the ‘gatekeepers’ because we know how unwanted our advances will be. The ultimate result is that many truly talented actors decide that the rewards are no longer worth the effort and step away from the profession.

Now, some actors are ridiculous. Of course they are. They take themselves far too seriously and seem to view the fact of their raised public profile as an invitation to make pronouncements on subjects which they are entirely unqualified to comment on. People are quite rightly scornful of this sort of person. But fundamentally, actors are essential. Most people might not visit the theatre regularly, but nearly everyone watches EastEnders, or Downton Abbey, or listens to The Archers. Millions watch the Harry Potter films, spend hours playing Grand Theft Auto or sitting in front of CBeebies with their children. None of these things could exist without actors. We have always needed stories, in the same way we need music – to help us escape from ourselves for a while, or to help us cope with life – and in order for these stories to be told, we must have storytellers.

Hi Diddle Dee Dee…

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This blog is a very personal attempt to explore the actor’s life – how it feels to progress through a career in theatre: drama school, first agent, first job, dealing with crisis and success.

I will be examining attitudes both outside and inside the profession, sharing my own experiences and talking to fellow actors, directors, casting directors and agents.

I will also be looking for ways to help support actors, and in particular, to encourage mid-career actors to stay in the profession.