Is acting today just too tough?
21 February 2014
THE GUARDIAN. Tuesday 23 July 2013
Paul Bhattacharjee and Cory Monteith deaths: is acting today just too tough?
'Anxiety is your daily companion' … Meera Syal and the late Paul Bhattacharjee in Much Ado About Nothing. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Paul Bhattacharjee was a supremely gifted performer, liked and respected in equal measure. That's no small achievement in itself – but he also seemed as secure as any individual can be in the precarious business of acting. When his body was discovered near cliffs in East Sussex last week, having disappeared during rehearsals for a new play at the Royal Court, the news sent shockwaves through the acting profession.
It has been a cruel month. Cory Monteith, star of Glee, was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room after a suspected drink and drugs overdose, while the body of another British actor, Richard Gent, who disappeared last year and who once lived a few doors from me, was located in woods in Barnet, London.
Bhattarcharjee had it all – or so it seemed. Only last year, he starred as Benedick in the RSC's acclaimed Much Ado About Nothing, and had enjoyed success in several movies, including Casino Royale, as well as an extended run in EastEnders – often regarded as the acme of any jobbing actor's aspirations once raw ambition yields to more practical concerns (profile, regular money, a measure of job security).
Bhattacharjee's death may be related to the fact that HM Revenue & Customs had just declared him bankrupt. Whether this is the sole issue may never be known but, even so, it cuts to one of the main anxieties stalking jobbing actors: the daily grind of keeping body and mind intact.
People often ask me what the essential difference is between professional actors and amateurs. Their presumption is invariably that it's to do with talent. But in fact the only defining difference is whether you have the stomach for the lifestyle – one in which rejection, disappointment and despair are part of your daily routine. The statistic is often trotted out that 92% of the profession is out of work at any one time. Yet, as the case of Bhattacharjee suggests, even if you're in the 8%, it's harder than ever to make ends meet. Theatre has never been particularly well-paid (unless you're prepared to walk the treadmill of a long West End run), and the glory days of TV repeat fees are long gone, a victim of the multi-channel era in which traditional contracts have been shredded into a thousand bespoke arrangements and sub-clauses.
Michael Simkins and Sara Crowe in Less Than Kind by Terence Rattigan. Simkins writes of 'the daily grind of keeping body and mind intact'. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
Even if you get a nice part in a drama, cash-strapped producers will do their best to cram all your scenes into a few short days rather than allow the more leisurely schedule that once was common, even if it means shooting absurdly out of sequence. So they can hire you for less time and pay you less money. A friend told me that, despite securing 15 separate TV roles in the previous 12 months, they'd totalled less than £12,000 in earnings. Two decades ago, he would have made double or triple that – enough to see him through the fallow times.
The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it's unfair, but that it's merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it. What's more, with no qualifications or tests to assess how good (or bad) you are, the only benchmark is success.
Anxiety is thus your daily companion: you can't escape the drudgery of comparing yourself with your peers unless you stay indoors with the curtains closed and the TV unplugged. You either hack it or change your occupation, freeing yourself from what Stephen Fry called "that most corrosive of emotions, self-pity". The old gag says it takes 100 actors to change a lightbulb – one to change it and 99 to say: "I could have done that." It would be funny if it weren't so accurate.
And that's the problem. Despite the undoubted camaraderie, the laughs, the jollies and the sense of tribalism that attends any acting project, the profession remains a notoriously lonely one. Friendships are intense but brief; when the gig ends or the curtain runs down, you can soon find yourself back home staring at your mobile and wondering if any of it really happened. Memories are short, time moves on, fame is transitory. Look at the number of stars who were once regular guests on Mavis Nicholson's show, all of whom are now nothing more than clues in old Puzzler books. Who's Mavis Nicholson? Exactly.
Other, more tangible factors can undermine an actor's self-esteem. Losing your hair, your looks or your memory are not confined to acting, but in no other profession are the consequences so rapidly manifest. For women, ageing can be especially brutal. Female roles have always been at a relative premium, and with looks and sex appeal nowadays given such importance, it's harder than ever.
Georgina Hale, one of the most ubiquitous faces in theatre and TV in the 1960s and 70s, summed it up in 2002, when she said: "Once I reached 51, my life changed. The people you've worked for have retired or died. Four years ago, I tried to change my agent, and 11 turned me down. One told me they didn't take actresses over 45 because it was too depressing to talk to them on the telephone. I had a period when I found myself wondering if I'd actually [acted in] all those things, or whether it was somebody else."
So why do it? The answer is that it's a drug – and once it gets in your system, it's difficult to break the habit. In any case, despite the withering odds, if you're an actor, you're a dreamer. As David Mamet put it: "Narrative always wins out over statistics."
My favourite illustration of this is the story of a circus parade passing through a small town. At the rear is an elderly man whose job is to shovel the shit from the animals into a bag, for which he earns barely £100 a week. A spectator asks why he doesn't jack it in and do something more worthwhile. Baffled, he replies: "What – and give up showbusiness?"