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Where Are We Now? (or ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Career?’) – part one

 

tower house

LAMDA at Tower House

I first moved to London in 1995, when I won a place on the Three-Year Acting course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). During those next three years, I got to know West London pretty well. Earls Court, High Street Kensington, Hammersmith – my fellow students and I owned those mean streets. We strode down Chiswick High Road in our baggy dance trousers and character shoes, talking too loudly about David Mamet and Alexander Technique, confident in the belief that in just a couple of years, we would be far too famous to get around without security and a smoked-glass Range Rover.

But there was one place we got to know better than anywhere else. From our first audition to the very last performance, all the most significant events of our time at LAMDA took place at the MacOwan Theatre. If I walked through those doors today – the scene of so many pivotal moments in our young lives – I could still confidently give you a comprehensive tour of the place.

Macowan theatre

LAMDA’s MacOwan Theatre

Except, of course, I couldn’t. The MacOwan Theatre no longer exists. LAMDA moved from Earls Court to its current location in Baron’s Court in 2003, and finally sold the MacOwan in 2011. The bulldozers moved in, and now its place has been taken by the usual block of West London luxury flats (Logan House). Which no actor could ever hope to afford.

When I read about this a few months ago, it set off a little chain reaction of nostalgic explosions in my mind, so it seemed like a good time to track down my fellow Old LAMDArians, and try to find out what we all feel about our time there – and the years since.

Hair LAMDA 1998

LAMDA class of 1998 in ‘Hair’

As is inevitable with any year group, we have scattered far and wide in the years since we graduated – Wales, Mallorca, New York and – yes – LA. A few still cling on in London, while many have succumbed to the verdant charms of The Regions. There were 29 of us when we left LAMDA in 1998 – now, a quick survey of Spotlight shows that 15 have kept up our subscriptions. Not too bad a showing, I suppose, but I wanted to dig a little deeper to understand the forces that have either kept us in the profession, or driven us out. So, I sent off a list of questions.

Not everyone responded, but in the end I heard back from more than half – 15 in total, and they were all very honest and frank – on the promise of anonymity.

I started at the very beginning, and asked why they had wanted to act in the first place…

LAMDA word cloud

When we started at LAMDA, we ranged in age from 18 to 26 – some fresh from school, some straight from University. I was 23.

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Your author at LAMDA in ‘Hair’

I look back on our LAMDA years with great fondness. I felt I was at the centre of everything I wanted to be part of, and I spent those three years feeling stimulated and challenged. Inevitably, when I asked my friends what their own feelings are about that time, it elicited a range of responses, some very positive:

– It was the first time that I really learned ‘how to learn’.
– I met some wonderful people who have stayed in my life for a long time.
– I was as happy as a pig in shit. Sooooo happy to be there. One of the most profound and rich experiences of my life.

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Some of the LAMDA class of 1998

Some less so:

– I found it quite tough… I found their methods for the most part to be very undermining.
– I don’t think I was rated particularly highly by the staff, and as such often felt somewhat overlooked and neglected at times.
It certainly seemed to be the case that the squeaky wheels got the most attention.

Some felt they hadn’t taken full advantage of their time at LAMDA:

– I didn’t make the most of it. I was very young – first time away from home.
– I could have gotten so much more out of it if I hadn’t let my self-doubt and lack of confidence get in the way.
– I do regret not making more of the opportunity.

I asked what they valued most about the training they received:

– The opportunity to work continuously on productions for a year is something outside of the RSC or NT you rarely have the opportunity to do.
– LAMDA allowed me to love what I do. In a messy, imperfect but deeply passionate way they put me on the track to my profession.

– It was a celebration of one’s idiosyncrasies.
– The cleverness of people. The humour. The importance and value of work. As Colin Cook said (this is my working mantra to this day) ‘Work is your armour’. And above all I think – my friends. It doesn’t matter where we are or where we go – I would do anything for any of those people that I shared those three years with.

LAMDA 1998 2

More of the class of 1998…

This is a view I share. It seemed to me that LAMDA encouraged us to be ourselves – we had all heard about the schools that ‘break you down to build you up again’, and LAMDA didn’t feel like that at all to me. But others disagree:–

– I don’t feel I was ever encouraged to keep the quirks that I entered with.
– I do not honestly know whether the whole “take you apart to put you back together” approach is now being over-exaggerated in my memory, but I did find it quite tough at times, and not particularly productive.

I asked what they felt the training lacked:

– Screen acting for a start.
– Vocal technique

– Weirdly, lack of acting classes.
– I can think of two teachers that had their favourites. It was frustrating to watch them fawn!
– I don’t think it lacked anything, actually. Like, how much more could we have actually done in three years?

LAMDA 1998 1

The rest of the class of 1998.

It seems that much has changed since we left the Academy. Our screen acting training felt cursory at best, although I did learn that it was best not to volunteer to smoke in a scene, unless you wanted to work your way through a whole pack. These days, to quote from the current LAMDA prospectus:

‘All students who graduate from LAMDA’s BA (Hons) Professional Acting leave with a professionally-shot show reel and a voice reel.’

It’s very important to bear in mind that this was all nearly 20 years ago. LAMDA is a different school now, with a different Principal, mostly different teaching staff and in a completely different location. It still calls itself LAMDA, but much like Trigger’s broom, all the significant parts have changed…

 

Even the qualification you graduate with is different: the three-year acting course is now a BA (Hons) degree course, whereas we left with a diploma. In a perverse way, I’m rather glad it was that way round, as it gave our training a kind of rarity, a refinement if you like, whereas a degree just seems rather everyday. And I already had one anyway, for all the good it ever did me. But I am aware that the ‘employment landscape’, as we must call it, has altered a lot since those bygone days, and a BA degree must help when the graduates are propelled blinking into the light of the Real World. Because there is a big difference between the idealised world of a drama training and the harsh realities of an actor’s life.

I asked if they felt prepared for an acting career by the time we graduated – and perhaps unsurprisingly, most did not:

-No I didn’t feel prepared
-NO NO NO NO NO. It does not teach you how to survive as an unemployed actor, how to see yourself as a product
– I question now if I would have done better not to have pursued what I was already doing.
-Definitely not! We spent 3 years in a bubble.
-Noooooooooo!
-yes and no..because it destroyed my confidence… but i learnt a lot of tools that then helped me to be able to direct
– business wise no. As an artist, yes. I wasn’t – but that was to do with me.

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Pages from an ancient artefact: our LAMDA Prospectus

There is a distinction here, to be sure. Those of us who were lucky enough to land work straight away were able to apply all the skills that were fresh in our minds. I went straight into a nice TV job, and despite my sketchy experience in front of a camera, I felt very comfortable and understood what was required of me. But I was pretty clueless about how to generate work.

– I was prepared for the jobs I got eventually – yes. There is only so much they can do at drama school – after that it comes down to practical experience.
-for an acting career, yes. For the non-acting part, no.
-Well, no. But I think that’s more to do with where I was, personally, Not because of anything that they hadn’t done.
-Yes, apart from the business side
-In many ways, yes.
-On the whole, yes.

We were part of a different generation to today’s drama school graduates, with no significant social media element to our lives; the internet played a much smaller role, and we didn’t even all have mobile phones yet. Some of us had pagers, for heaven’s sake. Off we went into the world, clutching our A-Z’s.

London-A-Z

Significantly, almost all of my respondents did not feel supported by LAMDA after graduation:

– No.
– Not at all.
– No. Once you leave you are on your own. They are happy to bask in the glory of actors who do well and have a glittering career, but for all the thousands of unemployed actors that they helped produce there is nothing.
– Honestly no. I think they were interested in the people who got famous quickly and could be used to raise funds. Sorry that’s cynical but that’s how it felt.
-Not really, no.
-No. There was kindness and love, but not enough rigour.

Although others felt differently:

– Yes I do. I worked in the reception there for a while and I helped around for a bit of extra cash – they were very good to me like that.
– I haven’t had any support, but I haven’t been in contact, so it’s just as much my fault. In my first year after leaving they supported me by giving me temp secretary work.
– Not really … but then, I never asked for support. I’m sure they would have been there had I asked.
– I did not feel that it was the school’s role to support me once I had graduated.

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Another groovy scene from ‘Hair’.

Inevitably, this raises the question of just how much responsibility institutions like LAMDA have to their students once they have completed training. No drama school can predict which student is going to ‘make it’ – as William Goldman’s useful maxim goes, ‘Nobody knows anything’ – but they could confidently surmise that a good half of any yearly intake will never make a living in the profession.

At no point do I remember any staff member sitting us down and saying, ‘Most of you will never work’. Of course, it would have been a bummer of positively cosmic proportions if they had. But maybe it would have been a necessary reality check.

Actors have often proposed a cull of their own number – I imagine Benedict Cumberbatch and Olivia Coleman on the rooftops of Wardour Street, armed with high-velocity rifles, picking off the weakest:

cumberbatch gunolivia coleman

But should Ben and Liv train their sights on the institutions, rather than their fellow thesps? One of my respondents thought so:

‘I feel they have a responsibility not to churn out so many actors in a market that cannot cater for them.’

Mind you, success as an actor is so random that perhaps the only sensible attitude is a scattershot one – throw out as many young hopefuls as you can, in the hope that at least a few will stick.

This being the case, drama schools surely have a duty of care to the students they send out into an unforgiving profession.

It does seem that colleges are doing much more these days to incorporate an element of career counselling – RADA has what it calls its ‘Buddy’ scheme, where graduates are paired up with alumni who are established in the profession to offer guidance and support, and I spoke recently to Rodney Cottier, Head of Drama School at LAMDA, who told me about their own new Mentor scheme, which will be launched at the end of June 2017, and which, like RADA’s initiative, will offer support for its students, ‘for the last 6 months of their training, and the first 6 months when they’re out there. It is the beginning and we have received funding for it from the Genesis Foundation, so hopefully this will really work.’

rodney cottier

Rodney Cottier

The Academy also has an industry liaison in the form of casting director, Laura Dickens, who is responsible for the final year professional preparation, as well as its own ‘Buddy’ system, although unlike RADA’s, this one is for new students rather than graduates. Rodney explained:

‘When people are offered a place, they are buddied up with somebody who is already at LAMDA so they can pick their brains – ask them any questions before they arrive, rather than feeling completely terrified on day one. So we’re servicing both ends…’

I think we would have benefited from this sort of scheme; ideally, it would stretch beyond the first six months and further into a career. It’s so easy to feel alone and powerless in this job.

Of course, as Rodney points out, ultimately most of the responsibility to develop a career lies with the individual:

‘There are a lot of things you cannot prepare people for – I occasionally have to throw in the statistics when somebody is late for yet another voice class.’

LAMDA 1998 Emma Bernbach Richard Morrison Joanna Van Kampen Sandra Paternostro Ayesha Mirza Gregory De Polnay

A LAMDA voice class with Gregory De Polnay

But no matter how well-prepared you may be, Real Life has a way of complicating things, as we will see in Part Two

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To Take Arms Against A Sea Of Mobiles

cumberbatch hamlet

Once again, tonight at 7.15pm, the lights will go down and a certain Mr Cumberbatch will begin to intone the most famous words in theatrical history.

I haven’t landed a ticket for ‘Hamlet’, sadly, although plenty have (I’m looking at you, Naomi); the rest of us are awaiting the critical verdict in a couple of weeks’ time. But then, maybe we don’t need to wait – ‘Hamlet’ may be sold out, but it sounds like the whole thing will be up on YouTube soon.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s new show is the latest victim of the entertainment world’s most virulent blight: the unauthorised use of the mobile phone.

The theatre can offer many examples of device-based bad behaviour, and we frequently hear about actors stopping the show to complain.

Richard Griffiths in ‘The History Boys’ at the National

history boys richard griffiths

Kevin Spacey in ‘Clarence Darrow’ at the Old Vic

clarence darrow kevin spacey

and, famously, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in ‘A Steady Rain’ on Broadway were filmed (in character) berating an audience member whose phone rang repeatedly:

And, like most actors these days, I have many of my own stories to tell.

me and julian in the woman in black

I spent a year in The Woman In Black in the West End, and we often had great hordes of school parties in the audience. Their theatre etiquette might not have been as fully-formed as the average play-goer, and we would often be troubled by phones going off, people texting, playing games and so on. I remember delivering one of my many direct-address speeches and seeing the ghostly blue face of a girl in the front row of the dress circle, illuminated in the dark by the screen of her smart phone. I was particularly proud of this speech, and I became infuriated that here was I, giving my all, and this child wasn’t paying the slightest attention. I delivered the entire speech to her – or rather, at her – determined to get her to look up, even just for a moment. But she gave me not so much as a flicker. Eventually I realised that there were a few hundred others who actually were listening to the speech and left her to her Angry Birds.

But the really modern problem – and Benedict’s main gripe – is not simply phones ringing in the auditorium, people actually taking the call or even the freak event of a dolt mounting the stage to try and charge his ‘device’ from a dummy plug socket:

The main event these days is the audience trying film the show. The Cumberbatch ‘Hamlet’ has been plagued in preview by super-fans attempting to record the proceedings, with the result that, when the actors look out into the darkness, they have been greeted with lots of little red dots winking back at them. Benedict himself paid a visit to his gaggle of stage-door Johnnies in an attempt to halt this sort of thing:

Of course, this isn’t just a theatre problem. The world of live music has become completely au fait with this troubling phenomenon over the past few years, and at any gig you choose to attend, a hefty chunk of the crowd will be holding their iPhones or Samsungs aloft, determined to capture every precious moment in perfect HD – wobbly, poorly-framed HD with bad sound.

cameras at a gig

Why is this? Have we become so wedded to screens that we can’t really experience anything, unless it is safely contained within a frame? Perhaps a live experience is just too unpredictable – after all, who knows what emotions might be stirred up in us if we surrender to the moment completely? At least when we watch it on the train later on there‘s no danger of our being surprised by anything.

Perhaps we should just accept that the creaking old tradition of live performance will have to adapt to survive. Maybe, when we visit the theatre in the future, we should expect our neighbour to be watching the whole thing on a screen the size of a packet of fags.

But then, maybe not. Last year’s hottest ticket – someone who had hardly been near a stage in 35 years – had other ideas.

Kate Bush

When Kate Bush announced her ‘Before The Dawn’ shows in Hammersmith, she made a specific request of her fans:

“It would mean a great deal to me if you would please refrain from taking photos or filming during the shows. I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras. I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.”

I was delightfully lucky enough to be able to score a pair of tickets to the second night – cue unflattering photographic evidence of myself with my pal Lisa (from outside the venue):

Me and Lisa at Kate

and I don’t remember seeing a single phone, iPad or camera all night. But I know I shall never forget that extraordinary moment when Kate shimmied onto the stage, her backing singers conga-ing behind her. Or the thrill of recognition as the first chord of ‘Running Up That Hill’ began to grow. Or the breathtaking coup-de-theatre when her blackbird finally took flight. Those moments were all the more powerful because they were shared by everyone there, as they happened. That can’t be captured by a little electronic box.

As Kate Bush knows, performance, at its purest and most affecting, is about the artist communing with the audience. ‘Hamlet’ is the ultimate example – with those soliloquies, the Dane isn’t just talking to himself, he is asking for our help, our counsel. You can’t do that if your audience is just waiting to watch it when they get home.

cumberbatch hamlet 2

In Praise Of… Jeremy Brett

Jeremy Brett

Everywhere you look these days, there’s another Sherlock Holmes. Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, Rupert Everett, Robert Downey Jnr; Hugh Laurie’s House was merely Holmes by a slightly-different name – even Ian McKellen is jumping aboard later this year as a superannuated Sherlock.

But to me, and many others of my vintage, there can only be one true Holmes – Jeremy Brett. This magnificent actor played the great detective from 1984 to 1994 for Granada television, and in the 41 wonderful episodes he made (those production values – oh to be in the 80s again…), Brett’s performance remains a high water mark of British television acting.

Across those episodes, Jeremy Brett took a character who, by that time, had become almost a comic cliché, and transformed him into a vulnerable, flawed and utterly compelling human being. In doing so, he set the template for Sherlocks to come.

Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes with violin

Brett, a very experienced classical stage actor, incorporated an entirely appropriate theatricality into his performance, which, blended with a skilful understanding of screen acting, enabled him to create an eccentric, even frightening Holmes.

With a beautiful, acrobatic voice and a bird-like, almost mechanical physicality, it was a bold characterisation that seemed to capture the otherness of Holmes – constantly moving, throwing himself to the ground to examine a clue; mercurial and unpredictable. Brett seemed to be out of his own time – not a product of the late 20th century, but a living, breathing Victorian.

His casting is a prime example of the perfect actor for a role, someone who so embodies a part as to become, in a way, indistinguishable from it. This caused some problems for Brett – he felt trapped in the part and referred to Holmes as ‘You Know Who’. But for the viewer it was thrilling to watch.

When I think of Holmes, as I often do, it is Brett who comes to mind, in the same way that Tom Baker will always be Dr Who to me. I tip my deerstalker to Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone, but Jeremy Brett will always take the crown.

Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass

Who’s The Greatest?

Generics

So, Wolf Hall! Very exciting, beautifully made, completely unmissable television after only one episode. It does make me feel even more guilty when I see the novel sitting on my shelf staring at me, saying ‘Why haven’t you read me yet?’, but still, what an achievement. Stunning design, locations, costumes; the script is thrillingly good. And as for the acting – Mark Rylance seems, on the evidence of the first part, to be delivering an era-defining performance. He shows us the warmth of the father and husband, the guile of the politician, the smoothness of the courtier.

Watching something as skilful as Rylance’s Cromwell, surely we can feel confident that we are witnessing truly great acting – a performance which will be remembered and studied for years – and that most observers would agree with that assessment.

Of course, each generation likes to crown its theatrical royalty – to bestow the mantle of ‘Great Acting’ – but, like every other art form, acting is subject to changing tastes and fashions. The years roll by, and sooner or later, what seemed cutting edge and the absolute pinnacle of theatrical perfection, when viewed with fresh eyes starts to look a bit – well, dated. What was once considered bold and exciting looks rather stagey and over the top, and the most tasteful, restrained performance suddenly seems mumbly and mannered.

felicity_jones_shine_in_the_theory_of_everything_2014-t3Alec+Baldwin+Julianne+Moore+Film+Still+Alice+MFafVUuZ-fZleddie redmayneBenedict_Cumberbatch_and_Keira_Knightley_in_first_trailer_for_The_Imitation_Game545d2acfc2dcfcdc402d3869_selma-oyelowo

We are now deep in awards season, an odd time when one actor is rated over another and officially designated The Best. Will it be Felicity Jones or Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch? Often the choice of winner can be very divisive, with people becoming outraged that their own personal favourite has been overlooked – this year’s Oscar nominations being a case in point, as David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King failed to make the list. And looking back over past winners, can we really say that Tom Hanks in ‘Philadelphia’ was better than Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘In The Name of the Father’, or Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Remains of the Day’? Frances McDormand is wonderful in ‘Fargo’, but what about Brenda Blethyn in ‘Secrets and Lies’ or Emily Watson in ‘Breaking the Waves’?

marchlaughton

But more pertinently, would some of those past winners still be rated so highly today? Fredric March is wonderful in 1931’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, but I have a feeling his performance might seem a little too ripe for modern tastes. Similarly with Charles Laughton in ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ from 1933. It’s quite a conundrum. How can we communicate the effect a performance had on us, once tastes have changed? Can we ever really talk meaningfully about ‘Great Acting’?

laurence_olivier_gallery_new_8Richard Burton

Theatregoers in the 20th century spoke in awe of Laurence Olivier, renowned as the finest actor of his generation. But when you view his film work – the only real record we have of his acting – it seems rather strident, a little blunt and mechanical. Was this really the best acting of its time? In the 1950s, Richard Burton tore through the theatrical establishment with a series of electrifying performances at the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and established himself as the most exciting new actor for decades. But anyone looking at his screen work now might be hard pressed to locate this mercurial talent. There are flashes of it in ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ or ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?’, and his later work has a wounded poignancy as hard living took its toll, but for much of the time he seems insincere, uncommitted, distracted even. There is a theatricality too, which these days we would probably judge as far too artificial.
But talk to anyone who saw these actors on stage, and they would give a very different account. There is something so much more powerful about being in the same room as someone, sharing the moment, being held by the spell of a performance, and it’s very hard to communicate these feelings after the event.

the-shining-jack_nicholson

As for screen acting, our current tastes are for underplaying, subtlety and above all, naturalism.
I wonder if we’re missing something. Jack Nicholson in the documentary ‘Making The Shining’ talks of his conversations with Stanley Kubrick about realism in acting. “They just keep seeing one fashion of unreal after the other that passes as real and you, you know, you go mad with realism and then you come up against someone like Stanley who says, “Yeah, it’s real but it’s not interesting.”

maggie s

A case in point can be found in the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations, where, amongst the host of brilliant performances from the leading lights of the British acting world, was a piece of footage from their 1964 production of ‘Hay Fever’, featuring Maggie Smith and Anthony Nicholls. Despite being 50 years old, and having been shot in a dark TV studio, it was still completely scintillating. Maggie Smith’s performance as Myra Arundel was, even in that brief excerpt, perhaps the most brilliant scene of the evening. Theatrical, stylised, but captivating – and most importantly, hilarious:

Does ‘Great Acting’ even really exist? Acting is such an ephemeral art. John Gielgud used to talk of his wish to capture some of his past performances, so he could wake in the night and regard them dispassionately as they sat on the mantelpiece. But perhaps Gielgud himself is the ultimate example of an actor who was able to work across different mediums with equal skill and success.

gielgud-between-charge

Contemporary theatregoers would swoon over his Golden Voice and romantic early performances, and he could have become a relic of the post-Edwardian West End theatre tradition. But he was able to jettison that part of himself and embrace the avant-garde, working with Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court and Pinter and Peter Hall at the National. A whole new audience fell for him. He then slipped effortlessly into film, deploying an acting style that we can still appreciate today – an understatement and hesitancy – indeed, a distinct lack of theatricality from this great Knight of the stage. Watch him as Lord Raglan in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and see what I mean.

But this is just my opinion. Someone else will no doubt watch Gielgud and think, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’
So perhaps a term like ‘Great Acting’ is too subjective to ever really mean anything. The appreciation of acting, as with all creative work, will always be a matter of taste.

I still think Mark Rylance is great, though.

Staying In or Coming Out…

Can you be gay and happy in Hollywood?

HI_copy

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.

Valentino, Rudolph (Son of the Sheik, The)_0211134_0000022a0_23aa_Louise_Brooks_smallElizabeth_Taylor_Richard_Burtonaniston

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.

matt-bomer

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’.

50planet_of_the_apes

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.

cumb

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.

Interview With The Director… Joe Harmston – part 3

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Chris Naylor: Can you remember particular performances that inspired you?

Joe Harmston: Lots of things. I went to the National just endlessly, and the RSC in the Eighties, so for about ten years I saw everything that was on. I remember seeing a lot of things at the Cottesloe – things like ‘Lark Rise To Candleford’, ‘The Mysteries’, and actors who had a wild but also playful energy, people like Jack Shepherd, and Brian Glover –

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CN: Real people.

JH: Real people, and very, very exciting. No tricks, no fuss, no pretence about what they were doing; it was really simple. And then I remember seeing Ian McKellen’s show for London Lighthouse, ‘Acting Shakespeare’.

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CN: I didn’t know about that.

JH: Yeah, it must have been ‘87, ‘88 something like that, at the Playhouse – he had this show raising money for AIDS research, and it was just him.

CN: Was it like Gielgud’s ‘Ages of Man’?

JH: Yes, but it was a bit more anarchic than that. At the beginning of the second act, I remember the house lights were on, and we were all chatting away, and a lot of people didn’t notice, but he just walked on and stood in the middle of the stage and he just gazed at his hand, and very, very slowly just raised it, and suddenly he literally had the audience in the palm of his hand. And it was just a wonderful moment.

I remember directing and producing a gala for John Gielgud’s centenary at the Gielgud theatre, and my cast was Paul Scofield – bizarrely, I was the last person to direct him – and Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, and Ian Richardson – I mean, it was just everybody who had ever worked with Gielgud. And Scofield was on doing ‘I’ll burn my books’, Prospero’s last speech, it was just unbelievable. And he came off and said, ‘Any notes?’

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But while he was doing his bit, I remember Judi was crouching there, Ian Richardson peering over her, and Ian McKellen down the side and everybody was just watching him. Then somebody did a bit of chat in between, and Judi and Ian and Ian were all sort of pissing about and giggling and gossiping about people, and then Judi heard her cue, kicked her shoes off and just turned round, stepped on stage and was Titania. I think all the actors that I really love, they could be, you know, swigging on a bottle of beer, or having a gossip about somebody, and turn 180 degrees and step on stage and be Macbeth or Titania –

CN: – and their concentration would 100 per cent.

JH: And it would be utterly real. I’m always dubious about actors who turn up two hours before the performance and start warming up and say, ‘you can’t talk to me until I‘ve done this’, because acting is about real people.

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This is a terrible confession, because you know, he’s so popular – but I can’t bear Simon Russell Beale. I never believe anything he does. I can never believe that this man has ever got on a bus, wiped his arse, had a cold, f***ed anybody, gone to Tesco’s to buy some milk, and therefore I don’t care. Technically wonderful actor but I just don’t connect with him. I love actors to be messy, to be human, to be real, to be vulnerable, and dangerous and frightening and fearful and I think sadly now our fixation is with actors who are sort of superhuman in some way, I mean Benedict Cumberbatch is a kind of uber-human –

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CN: – and Tom Hiddleston.

JH: Something very interesting has happened in the period that I’ve been going to and working in the theatre. I‘m an old-fashioned, unreconstructed lefty with working class parents, who fell in love with the theatre because it was about people, and seemed to be dealing with issues. It was messy and exciting and human, and it was about communication. And the people who were part of the word I fell in love with were all kind of ‘working class heroes’. I mean, it was Jack Shepard and it was Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney. Actually it went too far – you know, you had to have a father who was coal miner in order to play a part on stage, whether in fact it was Caesar or a coalminer. Now we’re going through this much more patrician thing, where the only people who can play any part, whether it’s Caesar or a coalminer, have been to Eton. And casting directors I know stop going to drama schools, they go to Eton or Lancing.

CN: How do you think that affects casting? I can remember being very inspired when I was at school, by going up to Stratford – we saw loads of shows, and the one that really struck me was Gerard Murphy playing Doctor Faustus. It was incredible, a really visceral performance, but nobody knows who he is – nobody had heard of him; at the time he was an RSC actor, I guess.

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JH: I remember seeing Gerard in Henry IV parts 1&2 at the Barbican – they were the shows that opened the Barbican – and I thought he was just stunning. And interestingly, he was playing Hal, and his Henry IV, his father was Patrick Stewart, and then Patrick Stewart was the solid dependable actor to play those slightly dull parts. And very good. But you looked then and thought that Gerard was the person who was going to be… I mean he was, God, electric.

CN: I remember him crawling up, trying to get away, and being pulled down this wrought iron ladder back to Hell; it was extraordinary. But now, would you cast somebody from the ranks, an RSC regular, or would you cast Jude Law?

JH: Or Daniel Radcliffe. Simon Russell Beale, if you were at the National.

CN: But do you feel – as a director – that you have pressure on you from producers?

JH: Oh, endless, endless. I mean the first question that anybody ever asks is, ‘Who’s in it?’ and that means which of the 12 acceptable people are in it, and that‘s it.

CN: Are you aware of projects being constructed around somebody?

JH: Oh yeah. I mean look at the Mamet play with Lindsay Lohan.

CN: I wonder if audiences feel the same. Maybe I’m being completely naïve but I would have thought that audiences go to the theatre because they want to see the story that the play is about. Do you think that’s true?

JH: Well, I think some of the audience do. I think these days, particularly in the West End we’re in a period of sort of cultural materialism in a sense, that people have this idea that the next big show is a thing to acquire. Which I suppose is not a new thing, you know, ‘Have you seen O’Toole’s Hamlet?’ – I mean that’s always been there, but it’s back with a vengeance now.

CN: Thank you Joe.