I write in my book From Stage to Screen, and in another blog (‘stop thinking, start feeling’), about the emphasis in our education system on analytical skills and a kind of thinking that is unhelpful to actors.
However if I were to suggest that going to school and gaining qualifications is a bad idea for an aspiring actor, I would be doing younger readers a huge disservice. Those of you still trying to figure out if this is the right career for you will already know the acting profession is wildly overcrowded and you’ve probably heard many times the advice to do something else with your life. I’m sorry to have to do this, but I’m going to add my voice to the chorus of others who are saying the same thing: acting is a fantastically hard business and you will almost certainly have a happier life if you decide to do something else.
Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning behavioural economist, observes that people who set themselves the goal, aged 18, of making lots of money, usually do make more money than others and, twenty five years later, they are happier than average. Equally those who say at 18 that money doesn’t matter to them are just as satisfied with life, twenty five years later, regardless of their income: money really doesn’t matter to them very much. Goal-setting, he argues, is very important in determining happiness later in life. But, he goes on to say, “there is one goal that is a bad one. Most people with this goal at age 18 are unhappy at age 45. And this goal is to be a performing artist. Because so few people succeed.”
Eddie Izzard talks about having deliberately failed exams whilst studying accountancy so that he had to make stand-up comedy work. Whilst no one could argue that this was the wrong thing for him to do, it makes me nervous to hear him say it. For every successful stand-up, or actor, there are probably dozens of intelligent but unhappy, embittered, failed entertainers, eking out an existence in some menial job because ‘the acting thing’ didn’t work out and they had no qualifications or other skill to fall back on.
Of course, there may also be a reason that ‘the acting thing’ didn't work out: they didn't apply themselves properly. And just as not succeeding at school might – might - actually have been about laziness, maybe not succeeding as an actor was too. I'm not contesting that it's a brutal, ruthless and savagely unfair profession. But what you hear less often, from the highly successful, is just how damn hard they worked to get where they are. Stories abound of Eddie Izzard spending years doggedly working away, dying on stage night after night, slowly getting better, until finally ‘overnight’ success came to visit. Listen to Michael Macintyre’s Desert Island Discs for a similar tale. Even now, at the height of his success, Eddie Izzard is renowned for his deep professionalism and incredibly thorough preparation. So it is with the great majority of successful actors, stage or screen, who remain successful. They work very hard indeed. Some like to pretend that they don’t, but they do.
If you decide to ignore the voices of doom and pursue a career in acting, make sure you put in the graft. It takes great effort to make it look effortless.
Philip Seymour Hoffman: “When you’re first starting out, you have to act wherever you can. You can't be picky. You really have to act wherever you get a chance to act. And that might even be in an audition … even if you're auditioning for something that you know you're never going to get, or you might have read it and you might not even have liked it … if you get a chance to act in a room that somebody else has paid rent for then you're given a free chance to practise your craft.
Because it's always about the work at the end of the day, everybody knows that. If I show up to work one day and the work I'm doing isn't any good, I'm just a guy who's not acting well. And you're always back to that moment where you have to act as well as you can.”