Be Somebody Else, for a Change

Last night I met Matthew, a film production student at Sheffield Hallam University who is currently directing a short film, Given Identity. I offered myself as a Rockabilly extra, but it looks like Matthew might actually be writing in a small part for me, which is very cool. I’m quite excited about the film – something Matthew said made me think of City of Lost Children, I mentioned this and Matthew admitted that it was a big influence (Given Identity will have a vaguely similar 1940s sci-fi feel).

Something led me on to thinking why I want to act, or at least why I have recently got back into acting (from the ages of 11 to 18 I was in several plays, first as a member of Bernice Warrens’ Childrens’ Theatre, then with Youth Action Theatre where my contemporaries were Rufus Sewell and Martin Freeman). I remember when the idea first came to me: I went to see the Ecclesfield Priory Players in 2000 and it brought back memories of the fun of being involved in a production. It also made me long to try my hand at some more weighty roles: when I was younger I tended to get bit parts of the “second policeman of the left” variety; either that or I would be asked to play some authority figure (“Securicor”, president of the galaxy in “Dazzle Star”, the White King in “Alice”) only because I was much taller than everyone else. And all I ever did (from what I can remember) was learn the lines, go on stage and speak them: I don’t recall ever thinking about how I ought to say them, or indeed doing any sort of work on my “character”.

This led me first to thinking that I would like to see what would happen if I acted a part and did think about the character, and from there my thoughts stewed onwards. I started wondering what it meant to be an actor, and in particular what it meant to be a good actor. Although I could see various skills involved, often it seems that a good actor is just a person whose own personality and behaviour makes an audience naturally drawn towards them (for instance, About Schmidt aside, I think I’ve only ever seen Jack Nicholson play Jack Nicholson; not that I have a problem with that, he makes a very good Jack Nicholson). When Channel 4 broadcast its list of 100 Greatest Movie Stars I got even more worked up about this idea.

So, finally I got to try it when I acted in Marriage. And of course, it was everything: far more work that I was prepared for to make a really convincing character, but at the same time most of what you give out on stage is what you’re already born with. It’s made me wary but possibly even more excited about trying new stuff, aware of the many areas in which I need to improve (at the moment I think that voice training is a real priority), and wondering how much better I can inhabit another person’s being next time around.

So mainly I act to test myself, to see how far I can push myself and how well (by other peoples’ standards for the most part, because I am still not a confident enough judge of myself) I can take on a role and win over audiences. But of course there’s the other reason why I (or anyone) wants to act: sheer bloody egoism, “look at me”. I sometimes think that’s an element of any creative endeavour, it’s a desire to show the world how well you can do something, how beautiful and mind-affecting you can make it, but with acting it’s stripped down even further than with, say, painting or composing, because the canvas on which you’re showing is your own body and voice.