People have always needed fantasy lives – often we daydream about an imagined version of ourselves, imbued with all the attributes we would most like to have – more beautiful, bolder, less bound by convention. These days those fantasies can be played out in the virtual world, in the form of an online avatar: we might have a Second Life persona, for example – a square-jawed gladiator wielding his sword against his lizard overlords, or a voluptuous dominatrix keeping her minions in thrall – which enables us to play out scenarios and situations that we could never experience in reality, and to express emotions we might otherwise suppress or contain.
I’ve often wondered if actors fulfil the same role in some way. I don’t just mean on stage – although there is much vicarious pleasure to be found in watching one character exert power over another – but maybe we should accept that what we represent off-stage is almost as important. Perhaps in a sense we also serve as avatars for those who walk a more conventional path.
Actors have always had a reputation for being outsiders – doing outrageous things in public, surviving without money, enjoying our work for its own sake – and while that has meant we have faced a fair amount of prejudice and discrimination over the years, it has also lent us an attractive air of mystery and glamour that still persists to this day. Viewed from the outside, actors can seem to represent everything we wish we could do in life, if only we had the nerve. People can fantasise safely about the life of a strolling player without having to risk their own security. Most actors will have met people who wish they had done what we have – who feel they missed the chance to seize control of their destiny and follow their dreams. Just the other day I had a phone call from a woman who had what I would consider a thoroughly worthwhile job, working for a charity. She asked me what I did for a living, and when I told her, she wistfully said how wonderful it must be to have a creative job and not be stuck behind a desk on the phone all day.
Of course, the reality of pursuing an acting career doesn’t always live up to the fantasy. But at some level, I think people need us to preserve that dream version. A few years ago I visited a school to assess a performance for the National Theatre’s Connections scheme. It happened to come at a time when I was out of work and feeling thoroughly fed up with the whole acting business. Just before the show, the headmaster came over accompanied by a young man on crutches. He introduced this chap as the school’s best actor, who had broken his leg and so couldn’t appear in the play I was about to see. Apparently he wanted to be an actor and was very keen to learn what it was like from a real professional. Now, at that precise point in time, my honest response would have been:
‘It’s a total nightmare. Don’t waste your time. You’ll probably never make it.’
But as he gazed up at me, wide-eyed, I knew there was only one possible answer:
‘It’s the best job in the world.’
He was utterly delighted, and perhaps more surprisingly, so was his headmaster. Maybe I should have been honest, and saved him (or his parents) £30,000 in drama school fees. But he needed me to reinforce his dream, just as I would have done at this age – and anyway, if he does pursue the career, he will find out the reality for himself. Besides, a few weeks later I was working again and I remembered that acting truly was the best job in the world.
And do you know who that young man turned out to be?
No, neither do I. At least, not yet…
I think the dream version of an acting career is just as important as the reality, and even though we know what a harsh profession it can be, I’m sure most actors still carry that dream with them. Who knows, maybe both versions are the truth.
Send in the clowns
There is another side to this, of course, which comes when people want an actor to be the fall guy, so they feel justified in choosing a less action-packed, more conventional existence. They need us to be ridiculous, reckless clowns.
My partner’s uncle finds the very fact of my being an actor endlessly hilarious:
‘You don’t make any money at all? That’s wonderful! Ha ha ha!’
– while a fellow worker at my day job is determined to see the negative side and smother me with sympathy even when I don’t seek it:
‘Are you out of work again Chris?’
‘Yes, but I’m used to that by now Billy.’
‘But it’s such a hard life though, isn’t it? Always unemployed, never having any security…’
‘Oh, it goes with the territory Billy.’
‘But you must find it so tough Chris.’
‘No, really…’ etc etc.
These days, of course, few actors could really be described as vagabonds or outlaws. We all have rent and council tax to pay; many of us have children to support. Acting has become a respectable, middle-class profession. But in spite of this, there is still an aura of ‘otherness’ around the actor’s life, and I think it is justified: we aren’t motivated by money, we are continually seeking to test ourselves and we live with the constant threat of ridicule. But maybe, in order to function and stay productive, a structured society needs someone to take the role of the licenced fool – and if we won’t do it, who will?