Monday, February 27, 2012

The Price of Fame

Reading Stephen Fry's latest blog entry has brought to mind a thought I've had previously about the challenges of being a celebrity, particularly an actor.

I wouldn't want to be an actor.  When I think of what that entails, it seems to me to be as awful an occupation as being a sewer technician or working in a slaughterhouse.  It's a more creatively satisfying occupation, but at least when one goes home from work at the end of a long day of chopping up cow parts, one doesn't have to worry about international media repeating one sentence you said that day, out of context, over and over as if it was a proclamation from the Pope.

But it isn't just that sort of media frenzy that makes acting seem so unappealing to me.  It's the thought of all the things actors have to do to carry out their craft.  I'm primarily thinking of film and television acting, but some of the same concerns apply to stage acting as well.

About 25 years ago while I was an undergrad, one of my art professors decided to make an artistic video.  It was the kind of thing that might have aired on the PBS series 'Alive From Off Center', before the advent of YouTube.  My professor asked for some of his students to act as production crew on the filming.  For about 6 weeks one summer I participated in the production as a still photographer.  I sat on set and watched much of the shooting, and even had a couple of opportunities to go on location.

It was then that I learned just how boring and tedious shooting a film can be, at least for those who aren't appearing on camera.  It involves a lot of sitting around being quiet while the camera is rolling, punctuated by quick flurries of activity as the set is reset for another take, or everything is shifted for a new shot or scene.  For the actors it may be a bit more interesting, as between takes they can be reviewing the script or getting their makeup touched up.  But it must get very tedious if the director likes to do a lot of takes.

An actor has to play a character.  That character might be furiously angry, or weeping, or deeply in love.  I can't imagine that there's any way to simulate those emotions without actually feeling them.  But when the scene is over, or the director says, "Cut", that emotion, no matter how powerful, must be switched off.  If you're a film or tv actor, you may have to switch it back on again in a few minutes when the director asks for a retake.  I can only try to imagine how stressful it must be to do that all day long.

Film and tv actors also work very long hours.  Now that it's easier to film at night, they may have to shoot until 4:00 a.m.  When they're shooting they often don't get any time off.  They can't go home in the evenings if they're on location.  They can't spend time with their families and friends, or watch the films and tv shows they like to watch, or spend hours playing video games, or indulge in hobbies that take a lot of time and equipment.  They have to live in hotel rooms or apartments.  They may be working in marvelous locations, but have little time to enjoy the scenery.

We all have to work with people we don't like.  But actors not only have to work with people they don't like, they may have to pretend those people are their best friends, or even their lovers.  They may have to simulate sexual activity with a partner for whom they have no attraction.  They have to do all these things in front of dozens of other people.  They may have to repeat the actions over and over, because the sound or the lighting was wrong, or someone missed a cue, or the director just wants a few more takes to choose from in the editing suite.

Is it any wonder that actors seem to do such a poor job of choosing life partners?  They are thrown together with a small group of other people for some very intense activity, taken away from their "normal" lives.  Maybe they have to act out a deep relationship with some of those people.  That feeling can bleed over into "real" life, and suddenly you've got a scandal as Actor A and Actor B leave their respective spouses or long-term partners to be with each other - only to find after a few months or years that the only thing they really had in common was that film/tv show/play they were both appearing in.  Then, because they are celebrities, the avaricious public want to know every detail of their embarrassing or saddening personal situation.  Ordinary people probably make just as many bad choices in romance as actors do, but of course we don't hear about it on E!.

Actors make friends while they're working, just as we all make friends with our co-workers.  But in ordinary jobs we don't usually find ourselves spending 16 hours a day with a small group of people, then not seeing those people again for months or years.   And what about the friends an actor had before taking up that occupation?  What happens to the old friends after an actor becomes famous and sought-after?  It must be a bit like having a co-worker / friend suddenly get a promotion.  It's difficult to remain friends when your friend becomes a boss.  It must be equally difficult to remain friends with someone who's become a huge celebrity.

In addition to all these other unpleasant activities, actors are expected to do publicity for the film, show or play they're appearing in.  They have to appear on chat shows and radio programs and be interviewed by newspapers and magazines and websites.  They're expected to have Twitter accounts and a presence on Facebook.  But many actors are by nature private people.  The characters they play are their public personae.  They don't enjoy talking about themselves.  They don't want to share their personal lives with the public.  Some of them aren't really very interesting people, others aren't very articulate or witty.  They have to appear on programs with interviewers or presenters who don't like them, or find themselves being overshadowed by someone who is more witty or just more self-aggrandizing than they are.

It's a constant grind, too, for them to keep themselves in the public eye, so the studios won't forget who they are.  There are a few actors whose names are big enough that they can pick and choose their roles and take a year off from performing without fear that they'll be forgotten. But for most actors it's audition, audition, audition, public appearances, and taking whatever roles they can get.

It's not just to keep the studio heads from forgetting who they are; that's how they earn their living.  No one is going to pay them to stay home and play with their kids.  They have to pay their agents and publicists.  They have to pay for their houses and health insurance and taxes and utilities just like the rest of us.  And because acting isn't a stable job with regular hours, they don't get employer-provided benefits.  The studio may pay for an actor's medical care while she's working on a studio project, but once she's not working for that studio she's on her own.  Those immensely wealthy actors with enormous mansions and yachts and garages full of expensive cars have agents and financial planners helping them get the best rates for their work and invest it wisely.  The rest just have to hope they can get a role in a big movie or a tv series that lasts more than 3 episodes so they can pay the bills.

And finally, what happens when an actor suffers a long-term illness, or just has a reversal of fortune and stops getting parts?  How often have you heard someone's name and said, "Is he/she still alive?"  How must it feel to be forgotten, to be considered "too old" for the roles you'd like to play, or to be typecast because you gained fame in a particular part and now all the casting directors think you can't play anything else?

Now that I think about it, perhaps being an actor isn't so different from my life after all.  I don't have to go into a freezing cold movie set, take off all my clothes, and pretend to be having sex with someone I don't know while half a dozen people watch.  And I don't have to pay someone 10% of my income to help me find a job, or appear on the David Letterman show and have him ask me a lot of smarmy questions that he doesn't really care about..  But I still have to work with people I don't like, and pretend emotions I'm not really feeling, and worry that management will decide I'm too old, and fret about how to pay the bills, just like actors.

I still wouldn't want to be an actor, though.

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