Tag Archives: woman in black

When is an actor not an actor?

han solo chewbacca chewie, we're home

‘Chewie, we’re home.’

Those three simple words will have sent a seismic frisson through most film fans of a certain age. I have to admit to feeling a thrill of emotion when I watched the new trailer for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and saw Harrison Ford’s grizzled visage alongside his Wookie sidekick once more. But quite apart from a Seventies’ child’s nostalgia rush, ‘Star Wars’ has another significance for me: I remember coming home after seeing the first film, setting out my chairs in an X-Wing fighter configuration, and playing at being Luke Skywalker. But the important part, at least as far as my future self was concerned, was that I didn’t want to be a pilot for the Rebellion, I wanted to be in ‘Star Wars’. Along with Dr Who (Tom Baker, of course) and James Bond (Roger, naturally), George Lucas’s epic started the ball rolling on my fascination with acting.

Over the following years, like most thespians in waiting, I spent many a happy hour wielding cardboard light sabres and plastic Walther PPKs, hanging off helicopters (or climbing the banisters) and ignoring imaginary cameras everywhere. I even very nearly severely damaged myself leaping down the stairs, trying to recreate that moment in the ‘Starsky and Hutch’ titles where David Soul jumps off a wall onto the roof of his Gran Torino. In other words, I put in years of training. Slowly (and nervously), I started to take my ambition further, and began acting outside the safety of my house – school plays, amateur productions, drama at University, all the way to three years at LAMDA. It’s rather astonishing to think of it now, but I actually made the jump from day-dreaming boy to an actual, professional actor.

Bond, James Bond

I can’t remember the exact moment when I first described myself as an actor; funny really, as it should have been a major milestone, considering all those years of yearning. But I have a feeling there might have been a certain tentativeness to it. Calling yourself a ‘drama student’ is pretty safe and unequivocal – pay the fees and don’t get kicked out, and no one can challenge you. But when you first call yourself an actor, you are opening yourself up to investigation. You are inviting judgement – and more to the point, you need to have concrete proof, which is where it starts getting complicated, because there are some times when it can seem harder to describe yourself as an actor than others. It’s almost as though there is a sliding scale of legitimacy:

actor sliding scale

This can lead to some uncomfortable encounters – at a first-night party, in a taxi, at family events – depending on where you are on the scale at the time. It can be reminiscent of that lovely old Peter Cook joke:

‘I met a man at a party. He said, “I’m writing a novel”. “Oh really?” I said, “Neither am I.”’

In truth, it’s not so much how others see us, but how we see ourselves. All those old jokes and clichés about the ‘resting’ actor can bite deep – after all, ‘to act’ must be the most active verb there is. Can there be such a thing as an inactive actor?

Christopher Naylor Woman In Black

I remember when I was appearing in ‘The Woman In Black’ – 10 months of wonderful, stimulating work. In my final week I was invited to talk to a kids’ drama workshop. The chap who was running the session said, ‘You can hear how Chris’s voice is really resonant and well-exercised because he’s been working so long’. I felt thoroughly legitimate – a proper actor, with plenty of evidence to back it up – after all, my actual face was on the poster. A week later I was unemployed, sitting at home, and someone else’s picture was plastered outside the theatre. Was I still an actor?

But of course I was. Being an actor is about more than your last job, or your next one – it is an identity, even a philosophy. It is a brave choice to devote your life to a job where the work itself is its own reward, especially when there is so much propaganda telling us that we can only validate our existence through the accumulation of money and material goods.

Anyway, I think there comes a point of no return, when you realise that you are so far down the path, it’s too late to turn back. So it is important to brazen it out, and call ourselves actors, even if the closest we’ve come to a job in six months is a couple of castings and a voice class. The title of actor is hard-won prize and we should cherish it.

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What’s My Line?

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I suppose this is what it feels like when an era ends. Michael Gambon has announced that he will not be taking any more stage roles as, at the age of 74, he now struggles to remember his lines:
“It’s a horrible thing to admit but I can’t do it. It breaks my heart. It’s when the script’s in front of me and it takes forever to learn. It’s frightening,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Times. After trying to work with an earpiece, the Great Gambon has decided to restrict himself to screen acting. Of course, he is a magnificent actor in any medium, but it’s a sad thing to realise that we will no longer be able to witness his extraordinary talent in the flesh.

Michael Gambon in 'Volpone'Actor Michael Gambon in The Caretaker

I feel very lucky to have seen Michael Gambon live on a couple of occasions – firstly as a magnificently devilish and operatic ‘Volpone’ at the National Theatre – the mountebank scene in particular sticks in my memory, as his accent took a hilarious, rambling tour around the British Isles – and later as a truly loathsome Davies in ‘The Caretaker’. I’ll always remember his grotesque way of eating, his long, spidery fingers wandering over his food.

One of our favourite clichés as a profession is that, at a post-show discussion with the audience, someone will always ask, ‘How do you learn all those lines?’ Actually, I’ve never been asked that – usually the questions are far more intelligent and probing. But I’ve certainly asked it of myself. How do we do it? And why doesn’t it always work?

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An actor’s memory must be the most important tool in the kit, and losing it is certainly the biggest fear. ‘What if I forget it all?’ must be the main constituent of any actor’s first-night dread, and it is a wobble that can resurface throughout a run. I always breathe a hefty sigh of relief and pat myself heartily on the back when I make it through a whole run of performances without buggering anything significant up.

There are a couple of occasions that shine out from my career like beacons, as a permanent reminder – a memini oblivionem, if you will (‘remember that you must forget’). The first came in an otherwise entirely wonderful production of Stephen Jeffreys’s adaptation of ‘Hard Times’ at the Watermill Theatre in 2001. I had survived the entire run unscathed, practically word-perfect, and then we arrived at the final performance (if memory serves) and I had one of my best friends in the audience. In one of my favourite scenes – a duologue – I inadvertently answered a question with my response to my fellow actor’s subsequent line. The other actor continued and gave me the cue which would have led me back to that line. I remember thinking ‘Well, I can’t say it again,’ and then every thought flew out of my head. My comrade on stage experienced a similar failure of the imagination, and time came to a dead halt. I briefly thought, ‘This is really funny!’, then I remembered that no, it wasn’t, it was actually very serious and I needed to pull myself together. The seconds/minutes/hours flew past and I floundered around, rambling appallingly and toying bizarrely with my glass of fake whisky, before I somehow managed to clamber back into the script, having cut a page and a half of useful plot. Afterwards I staggered off stage into the arms of a kindly fellow cast member, who was no doubt happy it hadn’t happened to him.

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The second time was in ‘Private Lives’ in Oldham, my first job after nearly a year in ‘The Woman In Black’. The Coward play seemed like a breeze in comparison – a smaller part (Victor Prynne, the straight-backed husband), easy dialogue etc. I was dangerously relaxed on the first night – so much so, that in my very first scene with my new bride Amanda, my mind wandered off-piste and I lost my way. I leapt ahead by about 20 lines and, for some reason, decided to call Amanda ‘Sybil’, the name of a character who had yet to appear and who neither of us had even heard of at that point. My Amanda, the very wonderful Jackie Morrison, took the scene in hand and I wobbled squeakily to the end.

These little episodes have come in very useful as admonishments if I ever feel my concentration wavering, but, in a way, I feel slightly more forgiving towards myself as I get older. Performing a play is a numbers game: there will usually be casualties from one quarter or another.

But losing your way for a few lines in the occasional show is a different thing entirely to realising that your memory is failing you permanently. I have worked with many actors who have told me that, somewhere around the age of 60, it starts getting harder to learn a script. Add to this the strange phenomenon that acting seems to get scarier the older you get, rather than less so, and the profession can look like an unfriendly environment to the older actor.

When you are young and self-confident, full of box-fresh invincibility, it’s easier to take the stresses of performance in your stride. But as the years go by, I think you become more aware of the potential pitfalls of stepping on stage – after all, you’ve either fallen into the holes yourself, or observed a poor fellow actor take a tumble. This inevitably erodes your armour to some extent.

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But the truth is that it’s quite unreasonable to expect ourselves to keep going at the same level of intensity for ever. Sadly, a decline in our ability to learn a long script is as inevitable as the decline in a sports player’s ability to run the length of a football pitch. As the sports man is forced to hang up his boots, so the actor must eventually put away his highlighter pen – for those larger parts, at least.

angela

However, this doesn’t have to signal the end of an actor’s career. Although Mr Gambon obviously doesn’t like using an earpiece, these days plenty of other older leading actors don’t seem to mind so much – indeed I recently discovered that Angela Lansbury employed one to play Madame Arcati in ‘Blithe Spirit’ in the West End. It was a vibrant and very funny performance, so it was a bit of a surprise to discover that her lines were being fed to her. But actually it doesn’t diminish her achievement in any way; an earpiece couldn’t have helped her to play in such a physical and inventive way. And of course most people know that Marlon Brando used an earpiece or even cue cards in many of his later film roles – see this extract from ‘Hearts of Darkness’ about the making of ‘Apocalypse Now’:

I think we should really take Mr Gambon’s stage exit as an opportunity to celebrate this extraordinary actor; to say thank you for those remarkable stage performances, and to look forward to many years of work on screen.

The Whites Of Their Eyes

Mayfair's Pollen Estate As Norway's Wealth Fund Buys $576 Million In London Properties

Actors, as a breed, spend a lot of time being observed while pretending to be unobserved. Many of us have perfected the art of utter indifference to our spectator, be it human or mechanical: Michael Caine, in the wonderful BBC masterclass he gave on screen acting, described the film camera as “the most faithful lover, while you, for most of your career, look elsewhere and ignore her.”

When I was a boy, I would nominate a random piece of street furniture to be the camera and attempt to stroll nonchalantly past, aiming to walk as naturally as I could under the post box’s unyielding glare. Once you arrive in the theatre, these skills are eminently transferrable, as most plays are in the Fourth Wall tradition. We will often find ourselves having to gaze wistfully into an imagined middle distance, our minds filled with thoughts of Moscow, or watching in horror as Birnam Wood starts heading our way, while actually looking straight at someone munching through a packet of Revels, checking their Twitter feed or frowning into the programme. It requires the full force of our concentration not to be thrown off-course when someone sneezes, coughs, or indeed, joins in with the play.
Embracing the enemy

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But there are times when the opposite is called for. We will probably all have tussled with a monologue at some point, or thrown out the occasional barbed aside, but this nothing compared with having to spend the whole play talking straight to your audience – actually looking into their eyes and trying to make a connection.
My first significant experience of this came in ‘A Christmas Carol’ for Creation Theatre in Oxford, which involved lengthy passages of Dickensian description and meant we sometimes had to work hard to convey the meaning, especially to an audience of fidgety primary school children. But I have a fond memory of picking a small boy to receive one line: ‘the firm was known as Scrooge and Marley,’ and watching him nod back at me to show he was following the plot.

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A few years later I was lucky enough to land a West End stint in ‘The Woman In Black’, and I found it to be a theatrical education (or re-education) in many ways. Perhaps the most useful lesson was in the great benefits of direct address. As the character ‘The Actor’, you are ostensibly alone on stage for long passages (not counting Spider the invisible dog), unable to acknowledge your fellow performer, and are required to share the narration between you. So essentially you are telling your story directly to the audience. There are many speeches and shorter interjections which have to be played straight out, in particular a long speech at the start of the play, ‘it was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve’. I was thrilled to discover that, once I surrendered myself to the goodwill of the audience and truly told them my story – actually picking out individuals and making eye contact – it became far easier and much less daunting. I felt completely supported. Even when we had an audience consisting of fearsome-seeming schoolchildren, once I began really to talk to them, in a way they became part of the play too – implicit in the action – and shared my journey through the story. After ten months of this, it was rather a shock to the system to return to a Fourth Wall play. In a way, it seems absurd to stand up in front of hundreds of people and ignore them.

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Perhaps the purest direct-address experience can be found with the solo show. I was recently talking to my friend Jonathan Guy Lewis, who tours a very successful show called ‘I Found My Horn’, which, like many solo shows, calls for constant direct address. Jonny told me how liberating it is to open yourself up to the audience – to make yourself vulnerable and invite them in. As Gareth Armstrong puts it in his book ‘So You Want To Do A Solo Show’, “it is in effect a two-hander, with the audience as the other, silent player.”

These days I treasure those moments of pure connection with the audience; psychologically it must be healthier to talk to all those people than ignore them. It’s certainly more polite.