A Strange Sense of Purpose
Thoughts on actors and what they do
A few things have made me think of writing an article. I’m going to begin by listing them all, because I’m a creature of comfort, and need to convince my lazy self that I’m better off writing this than lying in bed, perhaps surreptitiously nibbling on a muffin.
The first thing is a piece of self observation: I get terribly embarrassed telling strangers I’m an actor. It leads to all kinds of awkward questions (do you actually make a living off that?) and my attempts to change the subject result in many awkward silences and empty statements. Very occasionally people mistake my embarrassment for modesty and think it’s adorable, but that’s the absolute best case scenario.
In Australia, I’m not alone in my embarrassment. Most of my colleagues are similarly tactless, and not just the ones out of work. Those successful in film and television are often embarrassed to be recognised in public, I suppose because people recognise them as a character or public figure that is not really them. Actors are made famous when it’s commercially viable to make them so, when they can sell a publication, market a production or market themselves; it is a commercial tool, and therefore there’s nothing very personal about it. Unfortunately, fame’s effectiveness hinges on people thinking there is something personal about it. How awkward to be confronted with this paradox in your everyday life. Poo.
The second thing is that I’ve noticed most acting articles circling the internet concern themselves with the unfairness of the industry and ‘beating the system,’ and I think this reflects the many actors primarily concerned with fulfilling industry needs; determining what ‘type’ they fit into, changing their body image, checking their starmeter on imdb pro. I’m not brave or knowledgeable enough to claim those things are unworthy of consideration, but I’m prepared to wish-washily point out that if those things make up your primary preoccupation as an actor, you’re going to be depressed, because artists need to be artistically satisfied, and there’s nothing artistically satisfying about trying to make the next take look like you have more muscles.
Another obsession among many actors is the degree of their own talent, and that’s a seductive obsession because it sounds like it has so much integrity. The industry loves talking about talent. Sometimes they even call you ‘the talent.’ I think the problem with this is not that the relationship between talent and success is rather tenuous, but that it’s a pretty useless concept for actors altogether; saying someone’s talented is about as tangible as saying they have magic powers. Talent is probably a real thing, but it’s not a useful concept for work. If you see yourself as talented it may boost your confidence, but it might also give you an identity crisis the next time you inevitably pump out a turkey and find your magic powers have abandoned you. Similarly, if you see yourself as un-talented, it may make you work harder but it can also gives you a sense of artistic impotence that is about as much as fun as….well, impotence.
So with all those things in mind, and because they all suggest actors easily lose their sense of purpose, I thought it was time someone wrote an article on what actors actually do, what they offer society, and to what extent that contribution is worthwhile. Here’s my best attempt:
The actor’s job is to play a fictitious character (even if it’s based on a real person, or the script is verbatim, any form of dramatisation makes it partly fictitious) and the great thing about fiction is that it’s not real. Because it’s not real, we invest in fiction in ways we’d never dream of investing in real life, and that is why an actor interpreting a character can offer us insights where a genuine human being in his natural habitat will not.
If you were a psychologist studying a real life version of Walter White, you might say he’s an egomaniac with an extraordinary ability to lie, especially to himself. In real life those are not admirable qualities; but watch Walter White on television, and you find yourself rooting for the monster. Maybe that’s because Breaking Bad is so entertainingly put together, or because Walter White isn’t all bad, but maybe, just maybe, you relate a little to Walt’s lust for power, and the fictitious Walter has seduced you into facing some of the darker aspects of your personality where a real life counterpart would not.
If you were a social commentator examining Ennis Del Mar, you might see him as a product of his time, a homophobe who was never able to come to terms with who he was. But if you watch Brokeback Mountain it’s hard to look at it that coldly; the story is strikingly familiar to anyone who understands self-loathing, has suppressed a sexual attraction (probably most people) or unwillingly fallen in love. Suddenly Ennis’ dilemma, which at first seemed very particular to a specific time and personality type, has become painfully universal.
I felt a bit sick watching 12 Years a Slave, not because of the subject matter but because I empathised a little with the terrible slave owner Edwin Epps. I understood his need for power and control, and his struggle with an attraction to someone he deemed inferior. Michael Fassbender made me see a bit of myself in this monstrous character, and that scared me. I also guiltily identified with the many characters that recognised the injustices and did nothing, for I too am aware of many injustices and do nothing. Most of the time, people watch actors to see themselves; if not themselves as they are, then as they’d like to be, are afraid to be, or as they won’t admit to being.
So that’s what I think actors do. That’s not to say the psychologist, social commentator, or therapists’ point of view is useless; we need those too, probably even more so. But the actor offers an insight that is different. Acting doesn’t save lives, but it is worthwhile, and for my money deserves neither the glorification nor the disrespect it gets in some circles.
But, as those many internet articles make all too clear, the above examples are best case scenarios. The average working actor does not go about revealing new aspects of the human condition to society at large, because that is not the industry priority. If a production’s only objective is to make money, then it is likely the actor’s performance does little more for society than reinforce some stereotypes, possibly to the audiences’ detriment (I say that because I think film and television is a lot like food: If you’ve been healthy for a month there’s no harm in a bit of fast food, and if you’ve had a mentally exhausting day at work there’s no harm in a bit of bad television; but if you eat fast food and watch soaps every day, you’ll get fat and dumb respectively.)
So yes, it’s true the professional world doesn’t always have the actors’ artistic interests at heart. But at least the actor is not alone in this dilemma. It plagues just about anyone who makes a business out of what they love:
It could be a passionate and innovative high school teacher, confined to an education system whose priorities are skewed and political. It might be a wonderful doctor, forced to spend most of his time making sure he doesn’t get sued and bound to a healthcare system that is inherently unfair. Or it could be a politician with a genuine interest in making society a better place but having to deal with…politics.
You might argue that the doctor and politician are at least paid handsomely, whereas the actors’ many months of unemployment entitle him to a higher ratio of artistic satisfaction to professional work overlap. I’ve come up with three sources of comfort:
- Given that your professional and artistic trajectories are not the same, you don’t have to wait for professional work to develop yourself artistically.
- The minute you start working you are part of the industry too, and can squeeze out artistic satisfaction from the worst of turkeys.
- Bad politicians and doctors kill people. We only have our dignity to lose.
Finally, a sad note: having artistic purpose doesn’t mean your work automatically gets better. I looked back on a screen test the other day and thought “all my choices are exactly the same as that other test I did. What use is my artistic integrity if I have the range of a lemon?”
But at least I know what I’m trying to do, and believe that it’s worth doing; so the next time someone asks me what I do, maybe I should answer more decisively. I’m bored of being embarrassed, and as the years roll by fewer people are finding it cute.
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