It’s tough to be an actor, or anything else

Over the last couple of weeks, the acting world has lost several people – Paul Bhattacharjee, Briony McRoberts, Richard Gent, Cory Monteith – in ways that have thrown into focus the various mental health pressures that people in the entertainment industry share with others in other walks of life, as well as where the issues differ.

Mental health issues are rarely caused by one solitary outside influence. Everybody’s own personal health can have a myriad of contributory causes and pressures. That means that treatment and preventive measures vary, too. That’s partly why seeking help when one needs it is so imperative – another being that, if you are experiencing depression yourself, you’re rarely the best judge of your own illness.

The acting world in particular has pressures that many other professions don’t. Actors tend to have to move form short term job to short term job, often taking roles which pay poorly – if at all – in the hope that the exposure and/or experience will pay off with greater, better paid roles in the future. And far more than anybody in an office job – or even a backstage career within the entertainment industry – you are judged, judged and judged again.

Not being an actor myself, I’m limited to seeing my actor friends’ lows – and, it has to be emphasised, the highs as well. It’s far from all misery. But even on the best projects, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful ones, there are always avenues for individuals to encounter mental health problems.

In the first of a number of articles published recently on this topic, Matt Hemley wrote for The Stage, quoting Eddie Redmayne:

Although it looks great – and is great – there are also shoddy moments when you feel really rotten, and when it’s going well, you’re not allowed to complain.

While producer Richard Jordan, also for The Stage, emphasises that it’s not just actors:

It’s important we recognise that in our industry depression is not exclusively an illness affecting just actors but people across all sectors of the business. Those affected can also be great masters at hiding it, with a frequent fear that, by admitting being a sufferer, you might be viewed as unreliable and unemployable in this small and gossip-fuelled industry.

And today, over in The Guardian, Michael Simkins asks if the industry itself is too cruel:

The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it. What’s more, with no qualifications or tests to assess how good (or bad) you are, the only benchmark is success.

Regardless of the potential pressures, actors put themselves through the wringer time and time again. The end result is usually great enjoyment for audiences of theatre, TV, radio, film – but we need to ensure that it’s not at the expense of anyone’s health and wellbeing.

Actress Katie Brennan has written a nice piece in direct response to Simkins’, which if I had to sum up in half a sentence, explores some of the positives to be found amongst the negatives:

 In no other profession would potential employees be treated this way, and perhaps the worst thing, is that we have learnt to accept it, that that’s just the way it goes in this industry, which makes me a little bit sad. We’re people at the end of the day, not just timestepping robots. I just like it when people are nice to each other…

…when [the industry] is glorious, it is wonderful glory UNBOUNDED. Seriously. There’s absolutely nothing like it. All those clichés about showbiz, the lights, the greasepaint, the applause, the comradery of castmates, the feeling of just standing on that stage and belting the shit out a brilliant, yielding money note- they’re all true on paper, but they FEEL even better.

I don’t have any pat answers: as I’ve indicated above, I think everybody has different triggers and anxieties, and their ways of dealing with their own mental health issues will be different. The key is finding the right support – nurturing friendships that last long after the curtain comes down, finding the people who will lift you up when you need it, and who you will walk over hot coals to help should the need ever arise.

And, of course, nor are the sort of pressures actors face unique to their industry. Short term, low paid, itinerant jobs are hardly the exclusive domain of the performer. Mental health issues, whether influenced by those pressures or others, need to be recognised better across all industries – but we can all of us start changing within the realms we work in.

Of course, no amount of talking about mental health will ever replace what the families, friends and our industry has lost in the people whose deaths have been reported over the last few weeks. But I’m beginning to see the start of conversations that will without doubt help others, and hopefully prevent similar headlines in future.

For information and advice, mental health charity MIND is a good place to start.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.

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