There are many things that drive us into being actors: love of words, the magic of our first theatre visit, our drama teacher at school, seeing ourselves mirrored on screen, the spell-binding movie star on the first film we slipped into under-age. It’s often, also, a need to be loved; a way of escaping our not so exciting lives; a feeling of wanting to be someone; of making a mark; of leaving something behind us. Or fame.
Fame – what is it exactly?
There are very few actors who reach international stardom. Even for them, there are many places they can pass through unnoticed. And if they are noticed, it can become an annoyance, a hindrance, a chain. It is recognition but not necessarily recognition of their work. Many actors famous in their own countries will be unknown elsewhere. Actors famous in theatre may be treated carelessly by film producers who have never heard of them. Very few actors are famous for long. Either they grow out of their beauty or tastes change, or others come up behind them to take their roles. And death wipes most memories of them pretty soon. Those theatre bills from the past or the shadows that flit across the television screens in old Christmas offerings mean little to a younger generation. A handful of icons may live on in the minds of, mainly, other actors. Even if people have vaguely heard of the name or enjoy the performance, they are but echoes from the past.
We all know that when the people in your local find out that you’re an actor they’ll ask, ‘And what would we have seen you in?’ And generally only your small soap appearance that you drag out reluctantly – after you’ve mentioned the credits that make you proud – will get a reaction. And the only chance you have that they will have seen your performance is if you are talking to another actor. Actors go to the theatre.
If you work on films as I do, people will say, ‘Have you worked with anyone famous?’ Not, ‘Have you worked with anyone good, interesting, exciting?” Only ‘famous’. And after a few drinks you’ll trot out a few big names and then have to rebuff all the silly remarks. ‘No, she’s really lovely’, you say, ‘ she doesn’t really drink blood. ‘No, he wasn’t stoned, and he works really hard for that money – they all do.’ And you remind yourself to keep quiet next time about what you do. Sometimes you meet a film buff. My postman is one. Having noticed all the BAFTA packages that arrive each autumn, he stops by my five-barred gate to talk at length, and knowledgeably, about films and actors. But he’s one of the rare ones.
And if you listen to the public discussing actors, very few appreciate our craft. What we do. The things that we, in the business, see and admire.
As for celebrity status, it is passing, fickle and of little worth. It is about entering the public gaze for a while; not about the skills you possess. I am not saying that celebrities do not have skills, simply that the fame, the celebrity status, is not the point of their work. Although it may make them a fortune.
And if we are talking about money – that’s a whole different subject. Acting is a hard way to make that, and you’d have been better off being an accountant. Or an estate agent. Or a politician. Most of the acting profession lives way below the poverty line.
But of course we love the applause – the genuine two-way traffic of the stage. We love people to genuinely enjoy what we do. We love to make them happy. We are excited to be part of the magic of theatre, the circus of filmmaking, the energy of bringing an idea to living life. That’s why we do it.
So instead of seeking ‘fame’, we should seek respect from our peers and from the cognocenti – the people we respect. We should hope to matter to people who matter to us – and above all – to ourselves. We should strive to be better for our own satisfaction. We should know we’ve done the best we can do. That we can go further next time. That we’ve been part of a joyous group endeavour – that we tried to tell a story, or move people, or teach people, or to make people laugh, or whatever was the purpose of the enterprise. And that’s where the joy is!
And the point of all this is that you can find this kind of ‘fame’ at the end of a pier, in a theatre that seats twenty people, in a classroom, in a circus tent, in a far flung rep that no casting director has ever heard of – where there is a genuine audience to see you and be to part of it. You can find it in a small part on television that only impresses the director and your Aunt Muad, in an independent film that wowed the critics at a small film festival, in an opera that only music lovers attend. That kind of fame is as important maybe more important – than the kind that means people recognise you on the train. If that comes as well – Good on you. Enjoy! But it’s a (sometimes annoying) by-product of your good work. Not your reason for acting.
It all matters – if it matters to those that matter to you – and you know that it matters that you were part of it. A transient, parochial wonderful fame. A legend in your own lunchtime! Who could ask for more?