Legendary TV and Film Producer and the man behind BAFTA-winning TV programme EastEnders and Taste of Life, an iconic HIV-related TV drama in Cambodia, Matthew Robinson, now running Khmer Mekong Film in Phnom Penh, offers his advice to the young people who dream pursuing a career in acting.
Imagine this scene in a movie:
A film producer, finishing his meal in a restaurant, goes to the cash desk to settle his bill. As the pretty young manageress takes his money, she looks embarrassed and coughs.
“Erm … Sir … you’re a famous movie producer, right?”
“I make a few movies, yes. But I’m not sure about the ‘famous’ bit.”
“Sir! I want to be an actress.”
“Erm … well … aah …”
“I really want to act. Can you help me? Please…”
Cut to reality.
This happened to me last week in Phnom Penh. Similar encounters – with waitresses, waiters, bank clerks, shop assistants, all sorts – have occurred quite often since I arrived in Cambodia in 2003. It also used to happen back in Britain where I’d spent decades directing and producing popular TV dramas.
What can I say in reply? Rather, what should I say? Before answering, let me make it clear: Being asked for advice by people hoping to change their lives for something apparently more glamorous, for a supposedly glittering career, doesn’t annoy me at all. And I do understand why young people yearn to on TV or cinema screens. Preferably, of course, the latter.
The first of my two-word answer – perhaps surprising coming from someone whose career has depended on an endless supply of actors – is:
DON’T. Don’t even think about it.
The second word is:
UNLESS¬. Unless you’re prepared to risk insecurity, criticism, misery and a personality change for the worse.
Let me explain. Even in countries where the career path in acting is established – Britain, USA and France, for example – with drama schools, agents, theatres, TV and film producers clamouring for new talent, the chance of real success is tiny.
My estimate is that only 0.01 percent of all actors are true ‘stars’ with big movie parts constantly on offer and hefty fees attached; one percent make very comfortable livings from their acting; five percent earn enough money to survive without a back-up career. But more than 90 percent never secure enough regular ‘work’ (acting jobs) to pay their bills for everyday items like rent, food, clothes, phones and gas.
The tiny chance of succeeding – ¬¬¬ ‘making it big’ – is not the only drawback for aspiring actors. You should think about three other dispiriting aspects of the life you seek.
First, how good is your ‘talent’? Believe me, there is no sure way of telling. It’s entirely subjective. Your parents, brothers, sisters and friends may tell you that you’re “a brilliant actor”. Encouraged, you go for auditions where producers may reject you while offering strange and depressing reasons: “We’re afraid this part doesn’t suit you”; “We’re afraid we’re looking for a different ‘match’ to go with the other actors”; “We’re afraid you’re a bit too tall … short … young … old … thin … ” (Fill in your own negative adjective.) They’ll never say that your acting is terrible or they think you’re insufficiently attractive.
Then, even if you get the part, audiences may not appreciate your ‘talent’. They may hate you. Social media users may post unflattering things about your acting ability or, worse, your looks. Yes, the audience may love you, even adore you. But ask yourself: Are you prepared to put up with the high risk of the opposite happening?
Second, I’m convinced there’s only one truly happy period for an actor, usually very short. It’s when you’ve been told you’ve got the job for which you auditioned. For a few minutes, you are ecstatic. Someone likes me! Someone recognizes my talent! Then the doubts set in. Do they really like me? Can I really act well? Will the other actors hate me? Have they got bigger parts than me? Are they better than me? When this job’s over, will I ever get another? These worries increase when filming starts.
Third, if you do get a few juicy parts, your personality may change in unpleasant ways. It’s likely you’ll become jealous of other actors, even if you’re normally not a jealous person.
Worse, if you start to become well-known¬ – ‘famous’ – you’ll need to keep an iron grip on your ego. When you’re recognised everywhere you go, when autograph hunters run after you, when the public treat you like a little God, you’ll start to believe you are a little God and behave like one. Sure, some well-known actors and some ‘stars’ are able to remain modest; but they are far and few between. Many halfway successful actors turn into monsters. Even in Cambodia.
So, you’ll be taking huge risks with yourself – insecurity, misery, arrogance – if you give up your current job, become an actor and manage to get your first part. So, don’t. Unless you know you must act, that it’s your greatest desire and you’ll never be satisfied with your life until you try, there’s nothing more I can say to stop you.
Except, perhaps, to mention the horrors of looking at yourself on screen. Not when you’re young, beautiful and almost flawless (though millions of youngsters are dissatisfied with their selfies posted daily on the internet). No! What can be unbearable is seeing your ageing face in close-up on the screen: your face growing older year-by-year. Wrinkles! Lines! Sagging jaw! Crooked teeth! Thinning hair! Fattening figure! Where has my youth gone? Do I really look so ugly?
I’ve known actors in their late 20s, let alone their 30s, 40s and 50s, who won’t watch their old shows. Some can’t even be persuaded to attend premieres of their new films. They find it too depressing to see what Father Time does to them, indeed to all of us.
So, to young people wishing to be actors, please remember my two words of advice:
DON’T UNLESSHowever, I know you’ll still want to and I know you’ll still try if you get the chance. The temptations are too great. Well, good luck with that! But never say that I didn’t warn you about what is to come.