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.