Ah, the humble actor. The “thesp”, the “luvvie”, the “artiste”, or whichever dreadfully pretentious or ridiculous label you prefer to use. We are a strange breed. Spending our days trapped inside a black box, shouting words that aren’t our own, sinking bottles of Evian like it’s going out of fashion, and sometimes even passing bamboo in total synchronicity to the person on your left in order to feel a greater sense of unity. We come alive at night (and maybe Thursday and Saturday afternoons as well), practise tongue twisters, dress up, and often are forced into sitting in circles and playing banal games with bean bags. Why do we put ourselves through all this? Why, you may ask, do we choose to live this odd, frustrating, and frequently uncertain lifestyle? Well, because it’s wonderful…most of the time. It is. Honestly. It’s hardly ever dull (exceptions to this rule could include technical runs, sitting around in cold rehearsal rooms and on film sets, and learning lines), it is nearly always challenging and stimulating, and it can be exciting, fascinating, joyous even. Quite simply, the majority of actors wouldn’t (or couldn’t, as many claim) be doing anything else.
Someone asked me recently not only about my experiences of being an actor but also working with actors. I was slightly stumped at first, I must admit. How does one explain this bizarre breed, this congregation of supposed show-offs, this motley crew in wigs, caked in foundation? Then I realised there was too much to say. Far too much. You can very rarely sum-up a group of individuals who are perfectly content to spend their lives pretending to be other people in front of paying customers munching Revels in the dark. Mainly because every actor is different. Markedly different. So, here are twenty-five things you may not know about actors (there are tons more so there is the possibility of a sequel) and let me just say now that in no way do I mean to generalise or suggest that ALL actors are implicated in the following portion of this article. Most of my observations come from personal experience but not all and I would hate the thought of any one taking offence or becoming irritated by sweeping statements and unintentional stereotyping. Who knows? You may even recognize some of the below – either in yourself or fellow/former colleagues.
1. MOST ACTORS ARE INSECURE. Yes, I know. Hardly news. However, I have encountered many, many actors who do not appear to be insecure but as the process goes on, they suddenly surprise you by revealing their vulnerability, awkwardness, and severe lack of self-confidence. More often than not, it is a major reason for the choice of career. Sometimes, the more insecure an actor, the more blisteringly good the performance.
2. EVERY ACTOR IS ON THE SCALE ‘QUIRKY TO PSYCHOTIC’. I have always believed this. Where do you belong? Eccentric? Nervous? Mysterious? Intense? Insane? I have worked with people who fall at various points along this scale and although far from boring, you can find the process a terribly difficult or upsetting one if the balance tips too far in the wrong direction.
3. ACTORS CAN SPEND MORE TIME RESTING THAN WORKING. Yes, sad but true. Recently, an article stated the ratio of actors resting to actors working – I can’t remember exactly what it was but it made for fairly uncomfortable reading. So, if you see “that guy who played a diabetic on ‘Casualty’ last week” helping you use Self-Service in Tesco or an ex-soap star sat next to you in your office, flogging insurance over the telephone, they are most likely to be resting. Well, you’d hope, anyway.
4. NOT ALL ACTORS ARE GAY. Unbelievably, there are still people out there who honestly think all actors are homosexuals. Not that there’s anything offensive in that, obviously, but it’s simply not true and fairly ignorant. What is abhorrent is when someone makes a comment about it in a disparaging way or if their tone veers on sneering or disgusted. I was at a dinner with a family some years back where this dreadful man was remarking upon someone who he’d encountered working in the theatre: “Oh, of course, he’s probably gay. Yes, most likely a poof. Well, they all are, aren’t they? In the “theatre”…” The contempt on his face was notable and my parents quickly shot looks at me as I imagine my expression spoke volumes. I wish I had said something to him – he needed to be put straight (if you’ll excuse the pun). Of course, a great many people who work in our industry are gay. Such stereotyping or mockery, however, is not at all necessary.
5. NOT ALL ACTORS ARE ARROGANT. Sometimes it’s just confidence. Sometimes actors can be very modest souls. Sometimes they have a reason to be arrogant (it would be nice if they weren’t but still…). Yes, sometimes, actors can be extremely arrogant. This can often stem from insecurity (see Number 1) or a response to ego stroking or constant press attention. Most of the people I’ve worked with in the past have been kind, genuine, self-deprecating, and down-to-earth. I have been lucky.
6. AN ACTOR’S DIET CAN BE WORSE THAN A TRUCKER. You have to really strive to stay healthy when you are in this profession. Going to long lunches with agents, producers, or directors, having a few pints on show nights, grabbing packeted sandwiches and family sized bags of Doritos for the rehearsal room, and finally sitting down to a takeaway curry at midnight in your digs – I have been a victim of all these. You must look after your body and wellbeing…you need every ounce of strength!
7. WE ARE NOT ALL “METHOD” ACTORS. Probably the question I get asked the most whenever I tell people I’m an actor is: “Oh, really? Are you one of these “method” actors, then?”, usually accompanied by a snicker or similar exclamation of derision. No, I’m not. I have used certain techniques of “method” before but we don’t all swan around in a jerkin carrying skulls and making sexual advances at our mothers when gearing up to play the Dane. Come closer…I have a confession…*stage whisper*…Sometimes, I just…act. I know. Funny, the clue must be in the name somewhere…! Some actors exclusively use “method” – not necessarily a bad thing at all but beware, it can be a very bizarre, harmful, and dangerous process.
8. A LOT OF ACTORS RARELY/NEVER ATTEND THE THEATRE. Now, I am aware how expensive theatre is these days. There are good deals out there and last-minute tickets/day seats are often available but prices can verge on the ludicrous and even with concessions, it seems many simply cannot shell out for an evening’s entertainment – a great pity, I’m sure you’ll agree. Also, I know some actors who hate going to the theatre or who have lost all pleasure in it – “Oh, it’s a busman’s holiday, isn’t it?! It’s all crap, anyway.” – and whilst I hope I never adopt that attitude, I can understand why it may grow tiresome. The people I am directing this at, however, are those who claim to “adore the theatre” but who never go, protesting they never have the time or the money. I wouldn’t mind but these are the ilk who then think nothing of blowing £50 on a night out drinking themselves into oblivion. Which is fine. We’ve all done it, I’m sure. Just don’t tell me you are fond of the theatre…because it is clearly an exaggeration. A piece of advice: if you’re a younger actor, beg, borrow, steal a ticket to the theatre – by going, you will not only learn a great deal but most probably end up falling in love with it too.
9. ACTORS ARE NOT ALWAYS PRETENTIOUS. A simple one, really. There are regular, down-to-earth, genuine, and unassuming actors out there who simply get on with the job in hand. Now there’s a newsflash for you…
10. ACTING IS RARELY GLAMOROUS. I know. Apologies to any of you under the illusion that the opposite was true. Of course, actors often have taxis or private cars sent for them on filming days, stay in swanky hotels, and the champagne still flows at lunches, after show parties, in dressing rooms, and at film premieres. However, if your idea of glamorous is: rat-infested, dank dressing rooms; sat around in the freezing cold for 6 hours shooting one scene; staying in a poky spare bedroom in a widow’s house near Skegness; leafleting strangers in the street wearing a moose costume; getting up at 6 am to travel around Dorset in a clapped-out van, performing road safety role plays in village schools; or even dressing up as a lemon to promote a new energy drink…then…I suppose it is glamorous. I’n not saying there is anything at all wrong with the above list (apart from the vermin, of course) but acting is a job. It’s not all red carpets and chauffeurs. Don’t be told otherwise.
11. YES, WE DO PLAY ‘DRAMA GAMES’…SOMETIMES. OK, I feel a rant coming on…so I’ll choke down the ritalin and take deep breaths. For the record: I HATE drama games. Despise them. There’s something about being asked to pass the energy around the circle in a game of “ZIP! ZAP! BOING!” or learn each others’ names in a really “fun and memorable way” that makes me feel quite bilious. I have been forced to “enjoy” drama games all of my life and now dread them with a passion – luckily, I find I don’t come across them much any more. Exercises, I like. Yes. I find some merit in those because if there’s a clear goal or learning experience which will help with focus, technique, character, ensemble, or confidence, then it will benefit me in the long run. I know there will be a great deal of actors who love drama games but if you’re like me and a workshop leader gets out a small bean bag, run for your life…
12. ACTORS OFTEN MAKE GOOD DIRECTORS. It has been my experience that directors who are/have been actors often understand actors and the nature of acting a lot more and can therefore communicate with their company in a different way. I will often direct an actor as I would want to be directed but primarily, I expect actors to be scared, anxious, embarrassed, and frustrated during the rehearsal process and find I am better equipped and prepared to deal with any such problems. There have been times when directors have simply dismissed actors’ worries or questions, almost refusing to comprehend why they cannot just get on with the task in hand. Whilst actors can severely overreact on occasion, it is not always as clear-cut as directors believe. One of the downsides of actors directing can be when they think they are not getting through to a cast member and get up to “show” them just how it’s done…never do this…it is a cardinal sin…and sadly, one which I think I have been guilty of in the past…
13. A LARGE NUMBER OF ACTORS CLAIM NEVER TO READ REVIEWS – AND SOME ARE TELLING THE TRUTH! Ooh, here comes the hypocrisy…yes, I know I write reviews in my spare time but funnily enough, I hardly ever search for or read reviews of productions I am in…and I am being truthful here. Yes, there have been times when I have roused early for a brisk walk to the newsagents but this is extremely rare. Reviews can be exceptionally problematic. To me, any comments are “water off a duck’s back”, whether good or bad, but there are many actors who take the poor notices to heart and the ecstatic ones even further. Most actors I meet claim to never ever read reviews…and some are not lying, I’m sure…I don’t care either way. It’s those actors who believe they are everything, that they matter more than anything else, who search day and night and then proceed to shout quotes from the rooftops when some of the company are actively trying to avoid them. Reviews can also be potentially damaging. I have found myself in situations when actors have suddenly changed speech, volume, intonation, and even action on stage without warning because of criticisms they read in the paper and now cannot seem to ignore – both glowing and damning. They are not important. They are one person’s opinion. They are insignificant. If you can’t take the reviews, do NOT read them. You know who you are. Those with enough disposable income to buy 85 copies of The Guardian.
14. ACTORS ARE PEOPLE…I KNOW?! SHOCKING, HUH?! We are human beings. Like you. It is OK to admire a particular actor, especially for their work, and go and see them in a play three times because they are so electric on stage. Go and meet them, get their autograph, and if you want, ask for a photo with them. Write to them. Ask them advice. Watch their films on a loop. That is all healthy…well, sort of. Try not to obsess over them, though. Or treat them like Gods. Or superhumans. They are people. Hard to remember sometimes.
15. COMPETITIVENESS IS RIFE AMONG ACTORS. I used to love it when an actor would go up to another and enthusiastically congratulate them for getting a role…especially when I knew they were eaten up with jealousy. There’s a real sense of competitiveness in acting – even though you have to accept that sometimes people are either stronger actors than you or they are more suitable for certain parts – and why not? A bit of healthy competition never hurt anyone. And it mainly healthy. I think. Auditions are notoriously bad. Actors will sit there and chatter away (often in a sickly sweet tone that could bring about a diabetic coma), dropping in acting jobs they’ve had as subtly as starting a nuclear war, and sizing each other up, wishing their new friend “all the best, hun!” or something similar as they disappear into the audition room. Indeed, if there is an audition or decent opportunity arises, I will make sure I mention it to no-one, as less competition can only be a good thing. Often the nature of the job, I’m afraid…
16. ACTORS HAVE A TENDENCY TO ABBREVIATE. An odd one but nonetheless true. A relatively new actor recently asked me why we abbreviate everything. For example: ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ becomes ‘Shrew’, ‘Hedda Gabler’ becomes ‘Hedda’, ‘proscenium arch’ becomes ‘pros arch’, the ‘Casting Director’ becomes ‘CD’, the ‘Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’ becomes ‘BOVTS’, and I’ve heard ‘The National Theatre’ called ‘National’, ‘NT’, and hilariously, ‘The Nash’. Is it so we can talk in a sort of code? Is it just habit? Is it pretention? Who can tell? AllI know is it’s v. irritating etc.
17. ACTORS’ EARNINGS ARE RARELY WHAT PEOPLE EXPECT. “Christ, you must be minted!” – I’ve heard said this a few times to myself and other actors. Most actors struggle to make a living – that is the truth of it. Working in the theatre is often the worst in terms of wages but hard to turn down if it’s what you especially love to do. On the whole, film and TV pays considerably more (depending on the size of your role, budget etc) but even then it may only just cover rent, bills, food and other expenses. Don’t get me wrong, some high-profile actors earn ridiculously large sums of money but you must graft hard in this profession in order to live comfortably. If you love it as much as you say you do, you will do anything to survive in the business.
18. THE ACTING WORLD CAN BE HUGELY INCESTUOUS. I don’t know whether it’s insecurity, extroverted behaviour, confidence, or too much booze at the after show parties, but actors have been (to quote the Bard) “making the beast with two backs” probably ever since Thespis himself stepped out on to the stage for the first time. It is not uncommon for actors to get close during a production – especially if it’s going on tour – and particularly actors who are romantic leads or who have intimate scenes on stage. A lack of inhibitions does not help matters and actors love to flirt…after all, talent is a huge turn-on. Even if it’s just a cheeky snog at the cast party, actors are sometimes so incestuous that you can interconnect many of your former colleagues by their conquests! We’re not all like that, of course…well, not any more…
19. ACTING IS A DANGEROUS PROFESSION. Oh yes…scoff all you like…but it can be as dangerous as swimming with piranhas. Well, almost. An actor slit his own throat in 2008 when a prop knife was switched with a real blade in Vienna during a performance of Schiller’s ‘Mary Stuart’. That is an extreme case, granted, but trust me when I say that injuries are a regular occurrence. On a film or TV set, you may be required to do a stunt that goes wrong (if you’re not using a stunt double – who of course, mostly bear more serious injuries) but more often than not, it’s as simple as falling down a flight of stairs, twisting your ankle, or getting hit by falling props or set (if you’re working with animals, too, they can be problematic). On stage, I’ve seen sets collapse, actors fall awkwardly, people accidentally get punched in fight scenes, cuts from glasses and wood, and concussion from various mishaps or ill-judged timing. I’ve heard stories about prop guns misfiring, broken limbs from actors falling off stage, paper cuts, and severe bruises from overly physical productions (especially farces). A few years ago, I was in a dress rehearsal of Ionesco’s absurdist comedy, ‘Rhinoceros’ and was charging around the stage in my boxers whilst transforming into a rhino (as you do). Running at the door, I suddenly felt a twinge in my toe and thought I had merely stubbed it but when I saw blood stains all over the stage, realised it was more serious. Turns out I had pulled a nail clean out of the wooden rostra with my toe and now there was a small hole through which blood was pouring. Luckily, I managed to get through the opening night without too many problems – my toe was strapped up and I wore three pairs of socks – but this was largely thanks to “Doctor Theatre. Without the adrenalin on stage, I could only hobble uselessly around and could barely walk for the first few days. You don’t realise until it happens to you that the acting world has its fair share of victims. Lights fall from rigs, techies slip off ladders, dancers dive head first into the orchestra pit. But – as the old adage goes – the show must go on…if you’re not in A&E, that is…
20. SOMETIMES ACTORS HAVE TO DO THE STRANGEST THINGS.
Have a deep and meaningful snog, pretend to have sex, whack a stranger with a huge inflatable hammer, strip down to your boxers, prowl around like a tiger, rhyme every sentence, get an asymmetrical haircut, wear a gimp mask, disembowel a man, give birth, try and cry realistically 23 times over. Just a few examples of what an actor may be called on to do – some on your first day too! I had to pretend to have sex with a girl I only vaguely knew once within 30 seconds of our meeting at rehearsal a few years back. So, without any guidance from the director, we threw the scripts over our shoulders and just went for it. A while later, when we ascended from the floor, sweaty and dishevelled, she lookecd at me and said: “Hmm. Maybe stick your tongue right down my throat this time. And shall we try another position?”…and so we did. It wasn’t embarrassing. Mainly because we didn’t make it embarrassing. We were professional about it. However, looking back on some of the things I have had to do in the past do seem ridiculous or strange now – but even more so to those who are not in the profession or realise what it can entail. It is a job, yes. However, it is not a regular job. If you can’t deal with that, then maybe you should be heading in another direction.
21. ACTORS OFTEN END UP IN RELATIONSHIPS/MARRIAGE. This smacks of laziness, you may think? I don’t really agree, as there are many benefits to a relationship with another actor. The chief one being that you can empathise with each other and understand certain situations – working late, going on tour, needing peace and quiet to work on a script and so on. It can be a shock for an individual who knows nothing about the profession as it can mean an unpredictable schedule and bizarre lifestyle. Actors have a shared passion, common interests, are attracted by ambition and talent, and quite often similar traits and personalities and as I’ve discussed before, can find themselves working so closely together that romantic sparks can be created fairly rapidly. You could even choose to work with your partner/spouse if you so wished – at least this means that you can see each other, especially on tour (I’m thinking of Timothy West and Prunella Scales; Isla Blair and Julian Glover; Tristan Sturrock and Katy Carmichael; Judi Dench and Michael Williams…). Of course, there are huge downsides: jealousy at watching your partner having to be intimate with another actor, spending too much time working and living together, never seeing your partner, a clash of personalities, jealousy if one partner gets a big break, the awkwardness of giving each other “notes” after a performance, and never being able to stop talking ‘shop’. If you’re interested in a marriage that has lasted in the acting profession, look at West and Scales’ book ‘SO YOU WANT TO BE AN ACTOR’ – a very valuable resource to own as a performer starting out.
22. ACTORS DO NOT STAY FRIENDS WITH EVERYONE THEY WORK WITH. Simple. You nearly always think you will (when you first start acting, anyway) and even offer promises to keep in touch or go for dinner or a drink sometime. There are times when you honour that and times you don’t. There are actors who you work with – and it’s a pleasant experience – but who you never see again. That is often the way it is. Don’t feel bad about it and don’t get too disappointed if a colleague doesn’t text you the next day after the show has closed. Of course, there are some whose friendships last a lifetime…they are the real deal.
23. NOT ALL ACTORS GO TO DRAMA SCHOOL. Not saying much on this, you’ll be glad to hear! I wrote an article on this very subject a few months ago – if you haven’t read it, here it is: https://flaneur.me.uk/07/jumping-into-the-unknown-becoming-an-actor-without-drama-school-training/. Basically, if you didn’t know, lots of actors don’t go to drama school and guess what? Yes, got it in one! They’re still successful! They still get work! Some are even more talented than those who have trained! Fascinating, isn’t it? And you don’t have to pay £12,000 for the privilege, either…
24. SOME ACTORS LOVE TO BE STRESSED.
You may think this is an odd choice but I’ve found that actors are more stressed than most other people I’ve met. Well, I hear actors cry, we have hard jobs! It can be an exceptionally stressful profession to be in from time to time, I grant you. Oh yes. I’ve had my fair share of breakdowns to prove it. However, I’ve realised recently that actors can actually enjoy being stressed. Madness? Not quite. For one, it makes them feel important, like they are doing an incredibly difficult, strenuous, emotionally and physically draining job: “God, sorry, I’m…yes, yes, I’m fine, thanks darling, I’m just a little…you know? It’s all quite overwhelming but…I’ll be OK…I’ll just grab some water *takes deep breath and soldiers on*”. I’ve seen this all before. Christ, I think I’ve done it all before. It’s great to inform someone you’ve had a stressful day – not only will you get sympathy (possibly) but it confirms to them that acting is not just “mucking around in funny clothes” (as I’ve heard it described before) and actually a lot more than they realise. You can also seem like a martyr for carrying on regardless of how much pressure you felt you were under and ever the consummate pro. In addition, there are the few who use stress as a way of snapping at others and exercising their power, brutality, and bitchiness, to whoever happens to be in the firing line. “Sorry, I’m just being honest, you know? I’ve always been like that, I say what I think. Take me or leave me.” – is the general line used by actors who have just been insulting, curt, overly nasty, or cutting to another member of the company. This is often followed – sometimes hours after – with a huge hug and an apology as “I’m just really stressed at the moment, babe, you know? Well, we all are, aren’t we?”. (I must note here that I have worked with actors who are brutally honest when it has been welcome!). I, personally, cannot deal with stress. I shake with bottled up nerves and often collapse when stress levels reach an unbearable high – I have always tried to keep myself calm, non-confrontational, and tactful. However, even I like to moan that the day in a rehearsal room has been exhausting…occasionally, I get a back rub and a cuppa…only very occasionally, though…
25. SOME CRAP ACTORS WILL GET AHEAD. I’m sure we all have our idea of what ‘crap’ is and which actors could be labelled thus. For instance, I’m not keen on Nicolas Cage, Daniel Radcliffe, Michelle Collins, or Adam Sandler. However, whoever we believe does not cut the mustard (and some make for more persuasive cases than others, whether famous actors, those we’ve seen but don’t recognize, friends, or former colleagues), the sad and unfair truth is that a lot of these people make the grade and get a big break. I have always said that I am not in the profession for “fame” and I would stick by that through anything. I would rather be acting in small Fringe venues or touring the country in an ensemble-led drama than “be famous” but it can be disheartening to see wooden or unsuitable actors in wonderful and high-profile roles when they are not really up to it. Learn from this. If you are happy with your work and can look back and say you are proud of what you are doing, does it really matter? And unfortunately, there is probably someone out there who thinks you are crap…it’s all personal taste and you must try not to turn bitter. You get out what you put in – so put in everything you’ve got!
Bloody hell, this is far longer than I expected. If you waded through this article unscathed and without resorting to alcohol or oxygen, I congratulate you. There may be another 25 eventually…when I’ve had a rest, when I have another 2 months spare to write them, and more importantly, when I’ve thought of them…