An actor’s life for me

Each month Joe McGann explores the good – and bad – aspects of the actor’s life…

Trust me, I’m an actor.

As a teenager, when I first expressed my desire to be an actor, the most common response was that I should consider a ‘proper job’ instead. Even now, 40 years later, my reply to the enquiry ‘and what do you do’ most often elicits a response of mild pity, or worse, a horrified, muttering withdrawal of the enquiring party lest they be bored senseless, left with the bill, or suffer some drunken molestation.

I can think of few other professions which suffer such a universal, clichéd and wildly inaccurate reputation. I understand, of course, that clichés don’t evolve without a grain of truth, but my experience is that the huge majority of people in my profession couldn’t be more different and I shall try, in this column, to illustrate that the skillsets (to borrow an HR buzzword) required to make a living in this honourable profession are more deserving of respect than derision, and at the same time, try to give you the skinny on what the job truly entails

hamlet-&-yorickTo begin, let’s deal with the notion of the actor’s over inflated self-obsession. Acting is different from being, say, a musician, artist or writer in that as a general rule, you cannot practice your craft alone.

Learning lines is for the most part a solo grind, but then we need other actors, stage management, directors, wardrobe – and of course an audience. In short, it’s a team game, and I’ve seen otherwise talented people fall away from the profession because they didn’t grasp this simple fact.

In performance, an actor who does not listen to or truthfully communicate with the rest of the cast will pull focus, and so distort any sense of the convention of a believable world onstage; even the greatest of plays will be diminished by such onanism, and at worst it just becomes a bore-fest. To be a working actor one needs good people skills.

Admittedly, this can be tricky. Rehearsal rooms can sometimes be full of attitude, and the clashing of cheekbones can be heard down the street as the insecure and needy try to thrust themselves forward.

And I’m not saying that all successful actors have no ego; it’s certainly true that a healthy sense of self is required in order to play the less showy but integral parts of any script. ‘They also serve who only stand with spears’, you might say.

Even a burning desire to be the best you can be, while admirable in many ways, needs to be tempered with the ability to recognise and execute what is best for the job. If you’re in it solely for yourself, be prepared for bitter disappointment. You’ll not be asked back.

This balanced sense of self is also vital if you’re going to weather the enormous amount of rejection all actors experience. It doesn’t matter to anyone that you believe with all your heart that you were born to play the part or that – in X-Factor parlance – you know that this is the life-changing opportunity you and your Mum have always known would be yours.

Lovely-JoesquareAs an example, I’ve lost more than one job for being too tall to pair with the actress playing opposite me; it’s frustrating but understandable. There’s never going to be the time/money to dig a trench every time they need to fit us both into a two-shot.

We learn to accept it, process the disappointment, and prepare ourselves for the next opportunity. These constant lessons in life promote a healthy pragmatism and keep us away from the all-too-common modern notion that simply by wanting something enough, we will cause its manifestation.

The people in my profession who have learned these lessons are among the most well rounded and capable people I know, and so vastly different from the clichéd view of the actor as to be the polar opposite.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I’m rarely happier than in the company of others in my profession, playing make believe, which for 35 years has been my proper job, my education and, more than once, my salvation. Which is another story.

Pass me my fedora and cane, and I’ll see you next issue.