A fellow Twitterer asked me recently how acting could be brave. I had been tweeting about Dominic West’s ‘brave’ performance as Fred West. Of course, I tweeted my interlocuter back explaining that, in this instance, I meant brave as in: not taking easy options, daring to fail, exciting, unusual – bravura, if you like.
I was talking about the kind of creative risk-taking that means you dare to fail – that you ignore easy, obvious choices and dare to try something that might be wonderful but, equally, may mean that you fall flat on your face. When struck by appalling catastrophe, perhaps you choose to laugh (which many people do in life) or allow yourself to erupt into enormous, surprising, emotion or stay anchored, unmoving, still and cold, or that you make your role as murderer a charismatic charmer.
But the conversation got me thinking – can acting be brave in the sense of real risk taking, facing real dangers, staying to see something out when all the senses are screaming that the only course of action is to run.
It’s easy to scoff at the idea of this sort of bravery applying to actors. After all, they’re luvvies aren’t they? Taking easy money for an easy life? Part of a transient throwaway celebrity culture to fill give-away newspapers and reality television. Brando said towards the end of his life that it wasn’t a job for a grown-up man to be doing. And of course, for this job they do, actors have to keep a child-like part of themselves alive and in the rehearsal room grown-up actors play childish games…
But most actors have to be masochists in order to deal with the inexplicable terrors, night-sweats, the dries, facing an audience and the constant humiliation of rejection. They are among the poorest part of the population because of the lack of jobs within an overcrowded profession. And yet these are intelligent people, often with good qualifications in other fields, who could be pursuing different careers with better prospects. So why do they do it?
For actors keep fighting for work. And yet when they do work, or even audition for work, they have to cope with an adrenalin rush. Sometimes this is so strong that it gets in their way. They often have to deal with severe nerves and stage fright. Mid-career, many top actors suffer such debilitating performance nerves that they cannot work for a time. Some actors are so afraid before a show that they are physically sick.
But, on the other hand, actors must to some extent, enjoy the risk taking, the adrenalin rush and the elation that follows. Under this surge of adrenalin they live only in the moment. And this living totally in the here and now is a powerful drug because it stops time. In performance they must summon enormous mental focus and concentration, in the same way that other professions like racing drivers, stunt pilots or even soldiers have to do in order to survive.
Of course, objectively, the actor is not in danger. Unless a disastrous stunt is required, the actor is unlikely to lose a life – or to save one. And yet how many non-actors would happily face that audience or that camera. In most surveys asking people to name their greatest fears, public speaking usually turns up in the first three terrors. For, on some subtle level, standing in front of an audience and speaking is a deeply exposing act. To stand alone with strangers’ eyes on you, strangers with an expectation of your talents that you are afraid of failing to fulfil, takes a form of bravery.
And this act of performance may not save lives, but it must, in some deep-seated way be needed by humankind. Magic, ritual, theatre, dance, song and storytelling has always been with us. Every society has had its shamans, seers and entertainers. And whilst, in a democracy, they are often held in little esteem, in dictatorships they are feared, imprisoned and even executed. Because they imbue words with power and bring ideas – sometimes dangerous ideas – to life.
So we are indeed indebted to the perseverance, childishness – and yes – the bravery of actors.