Professional acting is not for adults

Sir Alec Guinness, so the story goes, had just delivered a talk to a school when a boy rushed up to him. “Sir, sir,” said the boy eagerly, “I want to be an actor when I grow up.” The Great Man looked at him a little pityingly.   “My dear boy,” he said, “you can’t do both.”

When I was a stagestruck teenager, I saw a TV interview with Alfred Hitchcock. He made me bridle at his patronizing attitude to actors. These were my gods, and he referred to them as if they were not very bright children. It was not till I became a professional actor that I found he was right. That was one reason that, despite having enjoyed a certain measure of success, I packed the profession in: I wanted to spend my working hours in an environment of more intellectual weight.

There were exceptions, of course. but in general I found that actors who lived by artifice were so focused on skin-deep appearance that they held opinions that were built on sand, opinions that were as shallow as damp linoleum. “All you need is love” rather summed it up. It was not that my opinion sometimes differed from theirs, it was that they were incapable of backing up their arguments with anything more substantial than what made them feel good.

I said that there were exceptions, and I know that the shallowness of the theatrical existence is a source of pain to many pros. A hugely successful actor with whom I worked in the 60s was recently quoted in an interview as saying the whole business was bullshit. This morning we awoke to the tragic news that Robin Williams had apparently taken his own life. I would not dream of claiming that it was shallow showbiz rather than pathological depression that caused him to die by his own hand, but I don’t suppose it helped.

Daniel Hannan, who is no stranger to readers here, recently tweeted a fresh link to an article he blogged in April 2011. In it he pondered why actors get treated by the media as omniscient, and get invited to pronounce on so many unsuitable topics.

The answer is simple. They are unusually articulate. Articulacy is their stock-in-trade. That, coupled with the fame that will cause viewers and listeners to pay attention, makes them a gift to producers. Who cares that they have nothing worth saying when they say it so beautifully? And the relationship is symbiotic: performing fleas can keep their names and faces in the public consciousness by popping up all over the media.

The ones who actually have something worth saying tend to keep their own counsel.

I now have the best job in the world. I get to work with people of substance who are bright; who create things and wealth and jobs; who may have opinions at odds with mine but who defend them with data. My role is to liberate their latent coherence and make them at least as articulate as any actor. And I am told I am good at it. So when I drive home after delivering coaching, and if on the radio I hear some tiresome luvvie elegantly spouting hollow drivel, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I am redressing the articulacy imbalance, one person at a time.

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