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.

Joanne Froggatt & Katherine Dow Blyton: are they related?

Joanne Froggatt and Katherine Dow Blyton

A couple of weeks ago, while watching Kay Mellor’s BBC1 drama The Syndicate, about a group of supermarket workers who win the lottery, I found myself staring at the character of Annie, the partner of store manager Bob. She looked remarkably like Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna in Downton Abbey.

Annie is played by Katherine Dow Blyton, who had a fairly long run in Hollyoaks and has played several characters in Coronation Street among an extensive non-soap CV. After putting out a general enquiry on Twitter, I was told by one follower that (as a relative of Blyton) she was able to confirm that they weren’t related. But I had far more people tell me that they had been thinking the same thing. And because my blog’s pages include my tweets, my query about the two actresses ended up with an increase in traffic to this site by people who were clearly wondering the same as I.

So, for anyone still in any doubt: from what I understand, they’re not related. But they’re both awesome actors, and if anyone ever casts them as relatives, then I want to see that production…

Style guide wars: actress vs female actor

It’s such a shame when an injudicious choice of words overshadows the points that someone seeks to make. That’s what happened when, last week, The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman wrote an article for the paper’s G2 section about why Katherine Heigl would executive produce a film like The Ugly Truth after trashing Knocked Up, in which she starred opposte Seth Rogen, for being “a little sexist”.

The whole of Freeman’s piece makes some valid points — not that I agree with all of them. I liked The Proposal far more than she did, but I found myself nodding internally at this paragraph:

Hollywood romantic comedies have become the Primark dresses of cinema: disposable, crap and likely to make you wonder why you spent £10 on that piece of rubbish in the first place. It is tragically easy to see the thinking behind both Bullock and Heigl’s movies: “Hey! I’m a comic actress and I want a role that doesn’t involve me being a personality-free love interest, a shrewish wife/girlfriend, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a dumbbell. So why don’t we go back to the old school and make a Rock Hudson/Doris Day-type movie in which — and this is the real feminist kicker — I play the boss in the movie and he plays my subordinate. Amazing!” But no amount of sharp skirt suits can compensate for vibrating knickers.

But many of the comments attached to the article did not concentrate on the substantive points of Freeman’s article, but the headline. This is the part of the article which is least likely to have been written by Freeman herself, but would have been created by a subeditor. In this instance, it was given the headline

Even when they produce their own Hollywood romcoms, why do female actors still allow themselves to be humiliated?

Straight away, you can see the contentious element. Why “female actors” rather than “actresses”?

Freeman herself commented:

To all of you who are getting so exercised over the term “female actor”, take it up with the Guardian style guide.

…and later reiterated:

My goodness, the female actor / actress debate continues. As I say every flipping week it seems, take it up with the style guide. On the other hand, if that’s all most of you can think of to criticise here, my piece must be amazing.

And in Peter Preston’s media column in yesterday’s Observer he took up the cause:

Last week I was less than ecstatic about newspaper style books in general, and one in particular that saw a Hadley Freeman piece in the Guardian headlined: “The ugly truth about female actors in rom-coms”. Helen Mirren, female actor? Kindly leave the stage. And Hadley agrees with me. She’s blogged back to “all of you who are getting so exercised over the term” saying “take it up with the Guardian style guide”. Not with her, because she never wrote the two duff words; not with the sub-editor who wrote the headline and was merely following orders, but with the sacred book of ordained coinages.

Why do newspapers churning out hundreds of thousands of words a day – some of them as new as last night’s television or a blog from Tahiti – need to set living English in concrete blocks of disapproval?

Erm, let’s just look at the Guardian style guide, shall we? It’s easy to do, as it’s all online. Of the term ‘actor’, it says:


for both male and female actors; do not use actress except when in name of award, eg Oscar for best actress.

One 27-year-old actor contacted the Guardian to say “actress” has acquired a faintly pejorative tinge and she wants people to call her actor (except for her agent, who should call her often). As Whoopi Goldberg put it in an interview with the paper: “An actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor – I can play anything.”

As always, use common sense: a piece about the late film director Carlo Ponti was edited to say that in his early career he was “already a man with a good eye for pretty actors” … As the readers’ editor pointed out in the subsequent clarification: “This was one of those occasions when the word ‘actresses’ might have been used

I’ve added the emphasis to the start of the final paragraph. Good style guides recognise that there are situations where the “rules” are not hard and fast. I think that the clumsy structure of the headline to Freeman’s article is brought about by one instance where common sense was not applied. Indeed, note how the article itself describes Heigl both as an actor and an actress, depending on the context.

In Preston’s example of “Helen Mirren, female actor?”, “Helen Mirren, actor” would suffice. The style guide says that is preferable to “Helen Mirren, actress”, and I would agree. Preston seems to have a chip on his shoulder about style guides, and uses this example to justify his own prejudice. The error, though, is not in the guidance, but in the dogmatic following of such guidance without recourse to common sense.

On a related note, we recently had a flurry of letters over the same wording in a news story on The Stage, which was headlined Female actors get less pay and shorter careers.

This is a different case, though — as the headline implies (and the opening paragraphs confirm) there is a comparison to be made between female actors and their male counterparts in the same profession. If the term “actresses” had been used to change the headline to Actresses get less pay and shorter careers, that implication is lost and a longer, clumsier headline would have been needed.

A photoshoot for Edinburgh

Yesterday, The Stage undertook the photoshoot for its annual Edinburgh Festivals issue. We’ll have ten ‘acts’, for want of a better word — actually, it’s seven actors, one cabaret duo, one writer and one director — who were photographed separately, as well as in a group shot that will be used on the cover.

Organised by Paul and with Stephanie on photography duties, I was on hand to do a few audio interviews with which we’ll be putting out as a podcast.

I also took my camera along, though, to (a) take some candid shots, (b) have a bit of a practice photographing people rather than still lives and architecture and (c) to have something to do in between interviews.

I’m not going to bung the whole load of photographs up on Flickr, as to do so would compromise the publication of the full photoshoot, which will be in _The Stage_ in two weeks’ time.

However, a few bits and pieces:

Frisky and Mannish and Paul
Frisky and Mannish and Paul
Photographer Stephanie Methven
Photographer Stephanie Methven
Mannish in make-up
Mannish in make-up
Performer Inua Ellams
Performer Inua Ellams
Frisky (from Frisky and Mannish) and Charlie Cameron
Frisky (from Frisky and Mannish) and Charlie Cameron