Acting was once a marginal occupation. In Shakespeare’s time, actors were considered not much better than vagabonds, and even into the 20th century the profession carried a faint whiff of scandal, especially for women. It’s not hard to understand why. Acting, after all, is a form of deception, and an actor is a chameleon who can be a king one week and a brain surgeon the next. You never know where you are with actors.
But I have always envied them because they seem so much more lifelike than the rest of us, and so much better at performing themselves. But how can we amateurs compete with no training, no script and no direction?
This envy of actors must be almost universal. A few were already famous in back the 19th century but only in the 20th century, with the arrival of movies, did they become superhuman. The tiny figure on a distant stage suddenly became a demigod on a movie screen twenty feet high, with an amplified voice to match. With special effects he or she could do anything and be anywhere, even on other planets. No wonder so many dreamed about being movie stars, and why the stars themselves became objects of fantasy and worship.
Now it seems everyone can be a star. Streaming services like Netflix, producing new shows at breakneck speed, have created a huge demand for actors, good or bad. Those who can’t act at all are put into TV reality shows.
You don’t even need a studio contract or a theater. Technology has provided a personal spotlight for everyone. We can all have our own little stage, or our own little screen, even if it’s only a few inches square. Almost everyone you meet under the age of thirty seems to be a singer songwriter or an internet star with twenty million followers. If you can’t act or sing, you can become a celebrity by performing home repair or diet therapy on YouTube. It’s proof of the universal desire to act, which we see in children and even in some animals. We are born looking for a stage.
I’ve always wondered how deeply actors identify with the parts they play. Does Hugh Bonneville really want to be the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey? He does it so well. Would Mark Hamill prefer to be Luke Skywalker? Would Diana Rigg like to be the Queen of Thorns? They must believe in their roles to some extent, but to what extent?
Sam Goldwyn used to say: “The most important thing in acting is honesty. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” This reminds us that the biggest and most rewarding stage of all is politics, which these days is pure theater. We will see a great deal of bad political acting in the next few months, which is fine. We don’t have to believe in it any more than we believe in “Game of Thrones.” The only worrying thing is that some political actors, dazzled by the lights and the cameras, might begin to believe in their own script and try to become the character they play or, worse still the character they really want to play.
Copyright: David Bouchier