Success & Suicide – The Black Business of Acting

Since moustachioed Russian dude Constantin Stanislavski wrote in ‘An Actor Prepares’ of slathering chocolate on his face so that he could more fully embody the role of Othello, actors have felt encouraged to take themselves and their work very seriously. I mean, they must have taken it seriously before – you sort of have to be serious about the willing madness that is getting up and asking people to watch you do anything, let alone expecting them to think you’re good at it – but Stan really gave them the sort of visceral actor’s language to explain to non-actors how hard and serious it all is.

For most people with the burning ambition acting never amounts to more than an unpaid hobby, but for a ‘lucky’ few acting is a profession. It’s been a profession for thousands of years. The Greeks, if you embrace the more colourful imagery, had to shout to be heard above the din of mass vomiting and fornication in the amphitheatres, Shakespeare’s all-male players spittled their falsetto over the groundlings while pretending to be women, and Catherine Tate was paid to be allowed to pretend to be an actress – swaggering on stage with actual actor David Tennant and gurning over some of the most beautiful words ever written.

It’s a baffling business. But then so is oil, and the stock market, and prostitution. And teaching.

I very briefly wanted to go to drama school once. Until I studied Stanislavski and realised I had none of the crazy drive you need to be an actor. More than that, I just didn’t want to whack chocolate on my face and try to make words sound like they weren’t written first. I discovered I would much rather write the words. So I did a writing degree. I don’t quite know how I found my way back to making acting one of my professions, especially the one from which I’ve earned the most. It’s fun, but I don’t take it seriously. I think of the words first, and then the considerations of performance are a sort of by-product in bringing the words to life. Perhaps it’s merely a more healthy thing for my psychology to attach itself to than the full-blown desire to ‘act’ that a lot of my good actor friends have.

My reticence to connect with acting over writing – writing being something that can always be yours, and acting something that is only ever yours while someone is happy to give it to you – is partly why I was so moved by the death of the actor Paul Bhattacharjee recently. The fact he had likely committed suicide as a result of being made bankrupt made me sad not only that so many people take their lives because of the ugliness of money, but sad that an actor with regular work, in high status productions like Bond films and west-end plays, had come to find himself in such a pickle. If the successful ones are struggling to make ends meet, how on earth are the less successful ones getting by? If the seemingly happy ones ain’t happy, how are the other poor bastards doing? (And is there more to the occasionally-tickled issue of actors likely having something a bit wrong with them in the first place?)

Did Paul Bhattacharjee know when he was taking his bow as the highly desired male role of Benedick in the RSC production of Much Ado last year that a mere twelve months later he would literally find himself at rock bottom? Was it pride that drove him to it? The dichotomy between the outward appearance of the carefree, glamorous life of a respected working actor and the shame of a man who finds himself discredited and reduced? Did he feel like a fool? It seems a common thing for those who stumble their way to bankruptcy to be less worried about where the next few pennies are coming from, about the sudden lack of things, than they are about how they might look to people who find out. The aesthetics of debt. Pride. It was certainly a major factor in my father’s suicide.

This is naturally just my reflection on possibilities. I know nothing of Paul Battacharjee’s life. Tales of debt and suicide strike their own chords in me; the reverberations may well be wrong.

Battacharjee’s death has inspired many responses from other actors, those that knew him in life and those who did not; written ruminations not just about the sadness of his end, but about the precarious world of acting itself. His suicide has inspired actors to speak out; their own words, their own stories. Even those who are happy to admit that it can be a profession for idiots, eternal children and egotists, and that while in the employ of a production you are one of the luckiest fools on earth, even those are saying it’s fucking hard to be an actor and that to set about doing it with any focus on longevity you have to be a bit of a masochist.

I suppose it would be easy for non-actors to think that actors moaning about how ‘tough’ it is need to get a bloody grip because they could be swilling their hands about in sewage or sweeping an offal floor for a living.

But the truth is, all living is hard. The thing that demands the greater proportion of our waking time – our job, whatever that may be – is hard at some point. Humans are naturally set to struggle with it. Existing is a serious business. We weren’t born to do jobs – we’ve made them up as we go along out of necessity; supply and demand burgeoning in tandem with our precocious, vainglorious evolution. And time niggles us like a cattle-prod reminder that we haven’t got long left. That is why actors think acting is serious. That is why writers think writing is serious. Why shopkeepers and bankers and nail technicians think what they do is serious. Anything to which we give our time, our lives, and perhaps even more particularly our passion, is serious. Because we don’t get much time and it goes bloody quickly and even the most hopeful of us don’t know if we’re given any more at the end, and some of us are even driven to cut it short.

Being human, more so than a member of a man-made profession, is the hardest part. And a role for which we are never really amply prepared.


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.