John Gielgud’s extraordinary 80-year career encompassed every possible style and form the acting world could offer, from the romantic Edwardian stage tradition in his earliest days as Romeo, Hamlet and Richard II, through the avant-garde at the Royal Court and the National in plays like ‘Home’ and ‘No Man’s Land’, to his fine cinema work in films such as ‘The Charge Of The Light Brigade’, ‘Providence’ and ‘The Elephant Man’. Gielgud was a magnificent actor, his work always subtle, intelligent and human.
What do you want in life? Actors are often told how lucky we are to really know what we want to do, when so many people drift through life without a proper sense of direction or purpose. But knowing ‘I want to be an actor’ is only the beginning of the journey – once you have taken that first step, there are many more possible paths to take.
In fact, in the past I have looked at other actors and envied the purity and precision of their ambition. I remember reading an article about Elliot Cowan, which described how he had emailed Dominic Dromgoole from a holiday on the beach with a list of the leading parts he wanted to play. More recently I read an interview with Richard Armitage, who said he had made the decision to head for Hollywood and work in films so that when he returned to London he could have some clout in theatre. These actors clearly have a strong sense, not only of what they want to do in the profession, but also of their ability to achieve it. Where do you get that clarity of vision, that level of self-confidence?
In my first ever theatre job back in 1998, I remember propping up the bar with the director, who said, ‘I expect you want to play Hamlet at the RSC, don’t you?’ and thinking, ‘No, not really.’ But I had no strong idea of the parts I did want to play. Whenever the question came up, ‘What is your dream part?’, my mind would go blank. I had a vague thought that I might like to have a crack at Richard II, and a wistful dream of playing Jaques in ‘As You Like It’, but nothing really concrete beyond that.
My problem was, I was prone to drift. I was in love with acting, with being an actor, and so I was happy just to be on set, or on stage – no matter what the part – because it meant I was really doing it. But I couldn’t summon up a crystal-clear image of myself bestriding the profession, Colossus-like, Faustus one minute, Prince Hal the next. I expected the profession to find me, to recognise the full weight of my genius and to show me what work I should be doing. Of course, the profession doesn’t care. It doesn’t notice. If you don’t clearly tell it what you want, show it what you can do, it will pass you by. It is very happy for you to drift, making no demands. There are plenty of others who do know what they want.
But is self-determination really possible? Can you, Noel Edmonds-like, place a Cosmic Order for a lead at the Donmar? I’m not sure any actor can really have a career plan and confidently expect to carry it out – surely a hefty spadeful of luck is involved somewhere. Plenty of talented actors could email artistic directors with long lists of roles they would like to play, and be met with blank rejection, and the streets of Los Angeles are littered with the dried-out husks of British actors who dreamt of cinematic immortality followed by a triumphant homecoming.
So, if you aren’t able to choose the parts you want to play, at the very least, you can decide what you really don’t want. Acting is a difficult enough profession to pick – low pay, high unemployment etc. – so why accept acting work you don’t enjoy? You could just choose a conventional job and make some real money instead. If you are going to make all these sacrifices to be an actor, then for your own sake, you need to be sure that you are pursuing the right work.
I think it is possible to point your career in a particular direction, be it classical theatre, musical comedy or art-house films, and be purist about it, rejecting anything that doesn’t meet the criteria. Of course, you might not work much, but at least you’ll have more direction than if you drift.