Actors: Portrait of a Showmance

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s convenient perception of actors being self-absorbed needy coxcombs, but I feel I should tell you that some of them can actually be…the opposite of wank. I spent last week recording a BBC series called Walk On The Wild Side (comedy voiceovers to funny footage gleaned from the BBC’s wildlife footage), and I got to work with some of the loveliest dudes in the business. Like, some proper darlings, darlings.

The week got off to a laborious start however after I politely declined a car to pick me up from the station. I always feel funny being driven in a swish black car by a man in a suit – it makes me feel like I’m a colonial slave-owner named Miss Mabel in an undiscovered bootleg Dylan song about privilege and evil, so I usually say no and get the tube – wishing the TV companies would merely issue an Oyster card as one of the perks. Perhaps with a jaunty plastic cover, maximum. But I learnt my lesson this week as I ran late for the first day’s work and got sandwiched between two men on the central line who were both clearly sweating out a decade of bad late night curries right into my face. I sprang out of the carriage at Tottenham Court Road and spent the whole of my trot to Soho trying to keep my oesophagus from bursting out of my nostrils like a serpent of bile and woe. I turned up huffing, puffing, sweaty and stressed, lamenting my ridiculous decision not to have slaves.

Thank goodness the day got easier or it might have become something like work. I read the paper, ate a croissant, Brummied it up as a speed-dating chimp, had some tea, was a penguin for a bit, had some sushi, squealed as a meerkat, and wondered what to have for lunch the next day while having another sit down.

A lot of people take the piddle out of actors being all ‘luvvy’, and that’s because they are. And I think I know why. Because actors get to spend a lot of time sitting. In make-up chairs, in trailers, in studio slob-out areas waiting for their next scene, (and, less illustriously, at home waiting for their agent to call). And when they’re sitting they chat incessantly – at first out of graciousness, then out of curiosity, then out of genuine care for their temporary colleagues. Tot up the hours spent chit-chatting and pretty soon they have shared a lot of stuff – their heritage, their dreams, their eccentricities, the dull details of their domestics. Compound with that the time spent on scenes – the concentrated moments of creating something, and the ‘at ease’ moments in between characterisation where you giggle or muse the process, all the while exposing different glinting shards of something which is you, but not you – all that bonds you quicker than any other initiation period in any other job. Being paid to act is a validation of all your confidences and a reminder of all your insecurities, and an invitation to a thousand unrecognised pulses of the psyche along the way; it’s only natural you should cling to your companions while doing it. By the end of the second day you’re kissing everyone goodbye, calling people darling, and faux-weeping if someone has to leave early. There has been a genuine bond forged in the fires of fleeting creative industry. It’s not Love, but it’s Luv. Or a term I heard only recently – a ‘showmance’.

One of the best things about acting is having the wherewithal to fully embrace just how ludicrous a job it is, and how ludicrous you are for wanting to do it. It is a foolish, childish, unimportant profession compared to 97.3% of others (clinically proven), and if you don’t retain a high level of awareness about it that’s when you’re at risk of turning into one of those total nobs whom everyone hates. Working in comedy in particular, thank fuck, keeps you hyper aware while ‘acting like a dick’ of the pitfalls of actually ‘being a dick’.

Let’s spell this out: I spent a week doing things like gargling water while humming Lady Gaga as a seal, singing Sweet Caroline badly as a bird of paradise, and finding just the right sort of lisp for a simpleton goat. I got driven to and from work, was bought breakfast and lunch, sat around with some lovely funny people, watched Come Dine With Me, and did a few voices in between. Now I’m pretty sure that’s not a proper job. I feel immensely guilty about it actually; I might not let them pay me. In fact, I might pay them.

No matter how peachy that all is, it’s sometimes quite easy to fall into nonchalance about it. Even astronauts must get bored. Even Buzz Aldrin must have huffed at the moon and wished he was at home eating cereal. No matter how grounded or humble actors remain while on a job, how lucky they remember to feel, how aware they are of the fact they might never work again if fortune (or casting director) decides to look them up and down and too-casually say “nah”, how utterly replaceable they are – the simple fact is they are being utterly spoilt in the meantime (in the nice comfy budgets of Tellyland at least) and the sulky teen that resides somewhere in us all is being coaxed to the surface. “These organic digestives are completely devoid of any taste.”, “My driver insisted on talking to me this morning when I was really busy trying to finish a tweet.”, “I can’t believe they forgot my wasabi!”

One afternoon, after a tough five minutes for us actors exploring the dynamic of a shoal of exuberant fish, Jude Law strolled past us in our corridor-cum-teenagers’ pit and reminded me that even though we were spoilt enough to be waiting for Wagamama lunches to be lovingly placed on our laps, we were amoebas next to him. Dirty, ugly, poor ones. He floated through wearing garbs of cloth not spun on this earth, and we all fell silent. I glanced at my script. I was about to play a slightly confused wildebeest. Jude was probably going to re-do a line for a movie in which he played God – but, like, an extra hot version of God, with extra powers – like – hot but edgy award-winning ones. Even while remembering how fun this was, how lucky I am, I felt for one small moment like I would never achieve anything. Because I was not, nor would ever be Jude Law, and not just because I don’t have testicles. The hierarchy present in acting, as in all industries, flexed itself right there in front of me.

But then I remembered it didn’t matter. Because this was all playing. This job is silly. And playing God for Warner Brothers is just as silly as playing an amnesiac goldfish for the BBC, is as silly as playing the back-end of a pantomime horse, is as silly as rushing home from your office job to play an ‘urban’ Puck in bad am-dram Shakespeare, is as silly as playing Doctors & Nurses in a Wendy house. At its truest core, acting has no hierarchy. We are all just children, playing games.

I’ll be back on the tube next week, squished into the armpit of a tramp, trying not to puke, and I’ll try to remember to feel just as lucky as when I’m waiting for sushi, with a car outside to take me back home.

Maybe the tramp will have an Oscar tucked in his coat; forgotten, tarnished, but his.

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