This article isn’t about me, but there needs to be some context; in 1994, in front of a packed college audience, I had to deliver a monologue.
The play, I think, was Brecht’s Nazi gangster parable The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, in which I’d been cast in a supporting role that had a few good scenes. Rehearsals had been the predictable combination of mass criticism and praise that comes with any educational production, and I’d fulfilled the teacher’s directorial demands as well as any shy and uncoordinated 17-year-old boy could. It was my first major role and I followed the blocking like a dance, allowing myself to be a tool in the storymaking process, careful not to screw up this opportunity. It was fine; I was fine.
However, when the first of two assessed performances came round, a very strange thing happened.
I remember clearly, vividly, the seconds before my short monologue began. Being a Brechtian play – Bertolt hated the idea of the actor fooling the audience into false reality – I had to face the crowd directly and talk to them. The speech itself was simple enough and typically beautifully written with humour and heavy meaning, and in rehearsals had caused a few smiles as the shy boy teased the fake audience with a wry delivery. But then, in the show, at that moment, with dozens of expectant eyes all pointing at me, I paused. Something clicked loudly inside, cogs rearranging into new meaning. It’s hard to describe even now, but the feeling of tension flipped into focused excitement as I realised that I was about to weave a tale, that I had the power with these words to create and change emotional responses in the hearts of whoever might listen. I took a breath, a glint appeared in my eye, and I said the words with new beats and tones and colour. I found a voice that I hadn’t heard before, one that I have been using ever since. The audience laughed in gasped, uncontrolled bursts and I had them in my control like puppets. The feedback was staggering, further intensified when the director singled me out for praise in front of the whole cheering cast once the show had ended. It’s not the adulation I remember; it’s the clear and wholly evident surprise that this quiet young man had transformed so wildly on stage.
That was the trigger point for my whole career. I went from there to study theatre at University, widen my acting range into film and TV and radio, become first a theatre and film director, then teacher, then writer, then professional actor (who unfortunately fails to impress his son by finding Daddy’s face on Netflix). Brecht may have taught the superficiality of roles but I went wholly the other way, diving into Stanislavski’s Method approach until you couldn’t find me inside the characters I portrayed. However, when you actively use your own emotions like a painter’s easel, the price you pay is the huge amounts of energy involved in the procedure, and the taste left in your mouth when it is all finished. In Liverpool, around 1999, I played a First World War soldier who spent the first half of the play making plans with his fiancée, then had it all taken away when he got killed on the battlefield. His ghost, inside me, watched from the wings as the world he left behind fell apart. Before every performance, I stand in front of a mirror and watch my character emerge; with him, I felt nothing but guilt as he appeared, knowing that I was leading him to his death every night. I’d force him on stage to share his blissful happiness before taking the steps to his end, and it felt terrible. He was alive, you see; he was real to me.
So, why do actors keep putting themselves through this grinder? Why the process, the stress, the fatigue, the payoff? Why do we keep doing it, even after the grief of throwing our character away after the final curtail falls? Because, unsurprisingly, for many actors, it is simply not a choice. It is a compulsion.
We lost Philip Seymour Hoffman this weekend. I say we, because I mean we. There’s much hyperbole kicked around when a famous face dies; every remembered moment often recounted in a serious of multi-voiced superlatives. The best this, the best that, legend, king, master. The thing is, with Mr Hoffman, it all happened to be true. We lost him as he was ours; like many actors, he’d dedicated himself to the exhausting process of being a storyteller. And with his death comes our loss; on Sunday, the capacity for his new stories died with him.
His backstory was that of so many other actors. A few years dabbling in high school theatrical productions led him to study at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Drama. He lost some time to a stint in rehab to counter his growing addiction straight out of college, and his fatal lapse may have been back into heroin, but he freely admitted that, at that time, he was face-deep in anything he could get his hands on. He gave up on all of it as a kind of self-rescue, and stayed sober for most of his life afterwards.
Years of presumably hard work followed his first role in a student film, then came his lucky break in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. From here, a steady series of mainstream and indie roles on stage and screen defined him as one of the best actors of this generation. The intensity he brought to characters became his calling card – from soft thinker in Magnolia to psychopathic nemesis in Mission Impossible 3, he never once phoned in a role. Watch his eyes when he acts. I dare you to look away.
So what does a quiet, unassuming man such as this find in such dark places? It’s a hard question to answer – not answer, actually, but define. The act of exploring the lower depths of human nature is akin to diving down into the Mariana trench. There is danger and discovery, questions leading to answers and more questions hiding behind those. It sounds pretentious (even ridiculous) to those that are not so inclined, but acting is staring into the heart of what humans are, or could be. There’s no question that actors take themselves too seriously – a fact that Team America: World Police captured so perfectly – but that’s part of their job. Effective acting is having the focus to push your mind to the places where it’s never been before. This necessity of concentration leads to all kind of stories perfectly written for the entertainment pages, such as Christian Bale releasing a tirade against someone on the production crew who interrupted his flow, or Daniel Day Lewis terrifying people on set by staying in character for the entire shooting period. Of course, these stories are ridiculous when compared to everyday behaviour, but that’s exactly the point. The Method actor isn’t concerned with normality, and sometimes will do anything to keep the truth of the character.
This kind of person places the needs of the role above personal, familial and social well-being. It’s a dedication to the art that, by definition, is all-encompassing. Acting – the concept and approach – insists that it becomes an obsession, an addiction to finding the characters hidden in yourself, often in response to a facilitative script. Drugs, unfortunately, go hand in hand with this need. Whether it’s alcohol’s loosening of inhibitions, marijuana’s softened lens, tobacco’s knife-edged focus or the sweet release of painkillers, many actors (and, to be fair, thousands of other regular people) find solace in their welcoming arms. Too often, one addiction leads to another.
The idea of the troubled artist is not a new one, but it’s troubling how commonplace it has become to read about the latest actor succumbing to an overdose. Even worse, beyond a few weeks of sorrow and an Oscars montage, it’s treated as a kind of inevitability that comes with the territory. This feeds back into the business itself; it’s deemed a sacrifice worthy of the cause. This is ridiculous, of course. In preparation for The Machinist, Christian Bale lost 63 pounds and reportedly did permanent damage to his body in the process. Oliver Reed has branded t-shirts for sale at beer festivals. Heath Ledger couldn’t sleep for weeks after The Dark Knight wrapped, unable to shake off the Joker he’d created. Who are we to demand this from anyone? Why should they be expected to demand this from themselves?
It’s a circle that feeds itself: no actor will ever forget the moment the art becomes a serious obsession, and no audience will ever expect anything less than total devotion for a role. The person always wants to once again feel an audience in their hand. The crowd will go there and stay there, even uninvited, hungry for the next show. And all the time we judge, and push, and demand more. It just so happens that more is exactly what the actor wants to give, but sometimes they seek out a little material help.
In the pursuit of excellence many terrible things become acceptable, and it makes sense that drugs can shift from stranger to close friend when the taker has already devoted their life to another addiction. But then, as River Phoenix dies of drug-induced heart failure, and Heath Ledger fatally gambles on the combination of six prescription drugs, and Cory Monteith dies alone in a Vancouver hotel room while trying to deal with his light-speed rise from taxi driver to superstar of the Glee machine , and Philip Seymour Hoffman follows his lead with a final heroin urge that, it seems, has been haunting him his whole life, our first reactions – after the initial shock has cleared – aren’t of protest, or objection, or universal clamouring for change and help. They are of course, and, who’s next?