From driving a taxi to waiting tables, teaching football to property valuations, many great actors carry on doing their day job for years after that so-called big break. So, argues our theatre editor Nell Frizzell, is it all just a matter of class?
Yesterday the actress and This Is England star, Vicky McClure, posted a photo on Twitter of her standing in front of a flip chart, long hair up in a ponytail, giving a presentation to a fluorescently lit group of office workers. Lol.
You see, not coming from a famous theatrical dynasty, not having a father who could buy her a London flat and not being from the sort of school where you’re encouraged to wear yellow socks while whipping an eight-year-old newbie with nettles, meant that McClure had to work for a living. And that job happened to be working as a trainer for a property valuation company.
As she explained in one interview, “I stayed because I needed to earn money, and I didn’t have work coming through. I don’t know how to make money without having a job, so I stuck there.” Hear that? To make money she got a job. And not a job she quit as soon as she got on screen, either. McClure was still working in property valuation 10 years after Shane Meadows cast her in A Room For Romeo Brass, four years after the release of This Is England.
And she is hardly alone. Nick Frost went back to being a waiter after the first series of Spaced. Philip Glass wasn't able to quit his jobs as a plumber and a taxi driver until the age of 41. Paul Brannigan has been in Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share and just filmed Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson, but still teaches football four hours a week. And Michael Fassbender – star of Shame, A Dangerous Method and Inglourious Basterds – kept his bar job after landing his first big role in Steven Spielberg’s TV series Band of Brothers. As he told The Guardian, "I worked behind a bar for [a friend], and I went back to working behind the bar. He said to me, 'I believe in you but I reckon it's going to take another six or seven years.' He was right.”
Which brings us to the cold, stained teabag of truth: as an actor you cannot rely on a big break. Secondly, it is much harder for an actor from a poor background to make it. There, I said it. Acting, like so many other creative jobs, favours people with money.
The Royal Court may have introduced the world of theatre to working class culture, but it is still very hard for someone without a couple of grand of savings to make it as an actor. Paying your rent with the proceeds of your fringe theatre show is a struggle at the best of times, but it is even harder when the middle class university graduate beats you to a part because their dad went to school with the director.
Of course, acting should be a meritocracy. Of course you should be able to make a living out of your creative talent. And of course we are all trying to make that happen. But, in the meantime, don’t be dazzled by screentime. Don’t burn bridges with your current employers. Don’t ignore the obvious benefits – money, friends, structure, the chance to interact with the public and a reason to leave the house in the morning – of regular employment.
Think big. Chase your dreams. And don’t give up the day job.
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Illustration by Narcsville.
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