How to Be a British Actor

It's like normal acting, but you have to make sure that you fail in a pompous way.

Me strutting my stuff in A Comedy of Errors at the Tabard Theatre.

If Hollywood is a graveyard then most of the people in the graves are actors. Still, maybe you want to find your way there and maybe you want to do it in a confused, slightly pompous way. In which case you’re going to have to be a British actor, with all the talking crap about the stage, bitterness and eventual failure that implies. Here are some top tips on how to go about it, and I should know, because I was one, in a very half-hearted kind of way. You can see photographic proof of this dotted through the article.

Use the Word “Truth”
“Well, it was fine but there wasn’t a lot of truth in it,” is something I’ve heard more than one director say about a play whose success they were jealous of. At some point, if you say your lines in a particular way, truth will be revealed. An undeniable, sparkling gem of veracity like “The war in Iraq was George Bush’s fault” or “We are all doomed to die” will not only slap the audience in the face, it will cause crepuscular rays to come bursting through the roof of the auditorium and then, and only then, will you know that the gods of Hollywood have earmarked you as one of their own.

Talk About “Motivation”
One old actor I worked with used “motivation” as an excuse every time she forgot her lines. “Darling, it’s just not very clear,” she’d intone grandly, following a 30-second silence of stretching and struggling for her words. “I feel off-focus here, where’s the truth?” This would set off a long, meandering conversation about purpose, direction and, yes, motivation. Everyone was so terrified she’d drop her lines during the actual show that no one wanted to freak her out by saying: “Hey, you know what would remind you of what your motivation is? The words in your script.”

But then, hardly anyone would think to do that anyway, 'cos most actors recognise that being uncharitable to colleagues struggling to remember lines will backfire on them when they inevitably forget their own lines.

Getting lost in a hall of mirrors in the Dalston Superstars Christmas special.

Complain About Not Working
The phone isn’t ringing. All the castings you’ve been to featured the phrase “think Mackenzie Crook” in the breakdown. You’ve had enough of watching scratched DVDs in the middle of the day, thinking about all the parts you could have played in the scratched DVD film, telling yourself: “I’d be a great Rob Roy, why should it matter that I can’t do a Scottish accent and am allergic to tartan?” So you talk to all the other actors you know and complain about it. If any of them are working you zone out, a jealous rage building inside you until you are forced to hang up. If they are not working you recognise yourself in their pathetic tales of making soup in the middle of a weekday or going to the corner shop “just to get out of the house for a bit”. You recognise yourself and you hate them for it. Your rage builds and you hang up (and possibly yourself).

Complain About Working
When you are working it is your duty to complain about what hard work it is, so that everyone knows you are a big success. If you are doing a film call it a “ridiculous charade” and talk about how you can’t wait to get back to your true love, the theatre. If you are doing a play tell everyone that it’s great but that, of course, the money is awful and you’re just going to have to take the lucrative O2 commercial you’ve been offered. Not because you want to, but because you have to.

Post Facebook status updates saying things like (this is not made up): “Another shoot, another crawling into bed past midnight... I need hugs. And a bloody driver”! You’ll get responses like (again, not made up): “Are we supposed to feel sorry for you because you're working”?! You then tell them that of course they’re meant to feel sorry for you and that, babes, it's hard putting in the big shifts. You tell them that knowing full well that you're competing against them in the game of Acting and that, at the moment, you are winning and winning good.

Playing a chauffeur in Four Walls, the Hoxton Bar & Grill.

Go to Hollywood
You’ve conquered the stages and screens of your poor, rain-sodden island. Those creaking West End boards have groaned beneath your feet. Either that, or you’re pretty and you’ve been in a teen Brit flick where drama school kids adopt unconvincing sink estate accents/ Skins. Whatever, it’s time to go to where Harvey Weinstein lives. Tell all your friends you’re “taking meetings” in LA, doing the rounds, listening to execs telling you they “love your accent”, that you’re a “goofy Jude Law” or a “kind of alternative Keira Knightley”.

Pretend you’re not being patronised. Try to avoid looking at the 75 actors who look exactly like you sitting in the waiting room for their five-minute meeting at a C-list studio. Try not to think about what you’d have to do in order to kill every single one of them. Tell friends and family at home it all went very well, that you’ve been pencilled in for a number of projects and that you’ll probably have to move to California permanently even though, you know, it is all rather silly. Stay in Hollywood and work in a bar until you are deported.

Be Weird About Not Going to Hollywood
What happens if you go there and no one cares that you were in a number of well respected BBC dramas? What if Harvey Weinstein didn’t come and see you playing Edmund opposite Ian McKellen in King Lear? To avoid disappointment, simply refuse to go to Hollywood and suggest that anyone who goes is superficial/ not actually a proper actor. Talk about how you don’t understand Americans. Fly off the handle when anyone talks about a British actor doing well in the US. Sink into a sullen rage whenever you see a poster for a blockbuster. Develop a hatred of America that goes beyond California and leads you to the obsessive study of Harold Pinter’s late-era poetry and the recorded output of NOFX at their most viscerally political. Not my President!

Obey Orders    
Stand there. Say that line. Look over here. Do it in an Armenian accent. Put the costume on. No, not that costume, the other one – yes, the giant mouse costume. You have no agency as an actor. You say the lines you are given and you say them in the way the director wants you to whilst moving in the directions he wants. If, as happened to me, you find yourself doing a Shakespeare play dressed as a schoolboy, you have to suck it up in order to get your money alongside that sweet performance buzz. You start out thinking you are engaging in a natural, creative pursuit and you soon realise that you are a great big, dumb pawn being moved around a board by great big, dumb humans. You dreamt of being Jack Lemmon but you didn’t realise Jack Lemmon had to do whatever the fuck he was told.

Find a Second Job    
That commercial you did for an online dating website isn’t going to sustain you forever and you’re not going to get that part ahead of Emma Stone, despite the producer saying he “really liked what you did” in the audition. Get a job in telesales as a temp; it’s the only place where your “performance experience” might conceivably be thought of as an advantage. Do something that lets you go to auditions when you get them. Realise that no job that allows you to leave it in order to get another job is worth doing. Try and find something slightly more interesting to do. Freelance journalism is always worth a shot as it features many of the same, sweetly familiar indignities you’ve come to associate with acting.

On set for an apple juice commercial. I didn't make the final cut, but the juice tasted great.

Watch As That Second Job Becomes Your Life
Miss auditions in order to attend marketing meetings at the company you now work for. Tell yourself the audition wasn’t worth it – after all, spending two years in New Zealand being an Elf would be a real drag, much better to maximise your performance at work and wait for something really good to come up. Suddenly you realise that two years have gone by without you doing a single bit of acting. People in your office have stopped referring to you as “the actor”. No one asks if you’ve been to any auditions lately. You are in middle management, and any chance you had of getting out is gone.     

Become Consumed by Regret
Obsessively monitor the careers of actors you know. Talk about how you could have done just as well as the successful ones if only you hadn’t quit. Toy with the idea of doing community theatre. Spend hours looking at mementos from the films and plays you did. Smash mirrors. Belittle others when they talk about their achievements. Tell the same story about having dinner with Kevin Spacey over and over again. Suggest that if you’d only blown him you would have been famous. Sit in a chair for hours, staring at nothing. Smile wryly, as you realise that you have arrived at your own "truth".

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