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.
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.