Sunday, 23 February 2014

No Limits - A response to Helen Mirren's comments on RIch kids

First up, I should thank Dame Helen Mirren for giving me something to write about this week because until last night, I didn’t have any ideas for this week's blog - then a friend posted a link to an article in The Telegraph where Dame Mirren suggested that acting was only for ‘kids who have wealthy parents”.

It was disappointing to see someone as influential as Helen Mirren say this as I believe it’s inaccurate, misleading and worse, substantiates the notion that there is a ceiling to what kids from underprivileged backgrounds can achieve and implicitly suggests money is at the root of opportunity. It validates the incorrect belief that wealth and privilege are the gateways to success and that if you don’t have them, you might as well forget about having dreams, particularly those of an artistic nature.

I come from such a background where there was very little money; my mum worked all the hours she could as an NHS nurse, we qualified for free school meals and clothing vouchers (which for me, was chronically embarrassing), we didn’t have much but nonetheless, my mother planted in us core values that would serve me and my brothers better than financial abundance ever could.

This is why I believe the main thrust of Ms Mirren’s argument is not only inaccurate but damaging. Well-known individuals such as Plan B, Idris Elba, Benjamin Zephaniah, Honor Blackman, Stephen Mulhern and Perry Fenwick have all emanated from my little corner of London, Newham, classified officially as an underprivileged borough and voted the third worst place to live in Britain in a Location, Location poll!

Ms Mirren's assumptions seem to be based on the notion that all actors must undertake a formal three year training program at an accredited drama school before they can become an actor. Though a lot of the industry would prefer all fledgling thespians do this, it is not a prerequisite of acting. There are many, well-known and much loved actors who did no such thing, people such as Brad Pitt, Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Rooney Mara (The Girl Who -), George Clooney and Octavia Spence (The Help) and of course, who can forget Thomas Turgoose, plucked from a youth club to star in Shane Meadows' award-winning, This Is England.

Granted, the idea of spending three years and several thousands of pounds or dollars on training can make the standard entry requirements into acting seem prohibitively high but if you take this route, bursaries and grants can assist you and some schools, including RADA offer scholarships.

There’s no doubt attending drama school gives you a useful foundation such as comprehensive technique, industry contacts and the end-of-year industry showcase at which graduates will hopefully land  an agent, the Holy Grail for new actors.

However, I went to one of these showcase, for Julliard (a US Drama school) and whilst many of the actors were competent, only a couple had that special something that made them stand out. My friend and I predicted that they would both be snapped up immediately. The rest would perhaps have to work a little harder to unearth that special something in themselves. This is achievable by simply plunging yourself into the world of work and getting first-hand experience, which is arguably as vital as any formalised training.

After all, when a doctor graduates, the time when they really learn is when they’re in A & E at midnight dealing with a drunk guy who’s split his head open stage-diving off a bar. It’s the difference between having driving lessons and being on the road in real-life situations.

When I decided I wanted to be an actor, I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford the time and financial commitment of three years of training so I compromised and undertook a one year part time course,  deciding that rather than languish in school, I would get the basics then get out there and learn on-the-job, treating each gig as an apprenticeship. Rightly or wrongly, before I’d even finished the course I started working. My first job, a play which I affectionately called ‘the gay rape pantomime’, was terrible but I was very grateful because I learned so much as I was finally among professionals (even though this also meant I was  hugely intimidated, not wanting to let on that this was my first job and worse, that I hadn’t had full-time training like most of the cast).  

Training was a hot topic among the actors, perhaps, in lieu of stage and screen credits, it was a way of establishing ranking. Because of this, I would say to any actor who decides to leap into the profession without any training, that you must own this fact, never apologise for it, treat each job as a chance to grow and be humble enough to further your education in any way you can.  

Attitudes in the States are different as there doesn’t seem to be the same snobbery pertaining to your training credentials. Granted formal training is respected but they don’t consider it a prerequisite for entering the profession. Evangeline Lily was an extra before she was cast as Kate in Lost, Brad Pitt studied with acting coaches rather attending drama school and Michelle Williams learned everything she knows, on the job.

In LA and NYC anyone can turn up with a pocket full of cash and head full of dreams and give acting a shot. This is the other end of the spectrum and not necessarily a better alternative because, as one casting director said, it means the business gets cluttered with untalented people (harsh… but true) but if you have determination, you will rise to the top and it means the profession is open to people from all walks of life (and also that people from all walks of life are represented on stage and screen here - perhaps more so than in the UK).

In the comments on the Mirren article, nepotism was also sighted as a reason why wealthier kids succeed. It’s funny how we only seem to use that term when talking about rich or ‘privileged’ people but working class people pass on opportunities to their close friends and family too but when we do it’s called ‘keeping it in the family’. When rich people do it’s called ‘nepotism’!

But it’s a fallacy to think that all successful actors are dependent on this. It might get you your first break, but it is your skill, talent, tenacity, thick skin and determination that keeps you in the game.

I find Mirren’s comments disappointing too as it almost excuses the belief that if you have nothing then you cannot achieve anything, when in fact, many people come from challenging circumstances and not only overcome them but go on to excel in their field. Indeed it may be because of those early challenges that they have the fight that means they'll succeed over those whose path has been less encumbered. 

A life coach once said to me, “we sometimes mistake lack of resources for lack of resourcefulness”.

Dr. Michael Beckwith, one of the many contributors in TheSecret states, “You can start with nothing. And out of nothing and out of no way, a way will be made.”

This isn’t just cute fridge magnet talk; this is what successful people live by. The most important thing you need, to be able to achieve anything in life is not money but belief that your goal is possible. You get what you belief in. I heard the following line in a gospel song once and I believe it to be true.  

What lives in your mouth, lives in your future”. When you speak and act towards your dreams, they become simply an inevitable outcome. This is true of greatness and mediocrity. If  your speaking and actions are orientated around staying small, then that is exactly what you will achieve.

I knew that I had to give this acting lark a shot because I felt, at my core; it was what I wanted to do. I was skint for a large chunk of time, not socializing because I couldn’t afford to buy rounds at the bar, not buying clothes, temping in an office during the day and working in a pub almost every night but I did it because of the belief that being a performer was not only the life I wanted but the life I could have.

Part of me wishes that someone had said to me, when I was young, that you can be anything you want to be and given me self-belief at an earlier stage but then again, I realise what I’ve gained from having to make that journey myself. The battles we fight make us stronger for the next one which means that, if we want to, we can go on to achieve bigger and greater things.

These hardships can be a gift or a burden depending on how we see them. Seeing the cost of not living up to my expectations drives me even harder to success. Sometimes, people think I’m too hard on myself and on one level they’re right. I find it hard to stop, give myself a pat on the back and say “job well done” before I’m looking at the next challenge however, I also like the fact that, good is never good enough. That thinking is what pushes me to take on bigger and more audacious challenges. I like the idea of being audacious in life.  

It’s a shame kids get limitations planted in their minds. I know people don’t do it out of malice, it’s just what was instilled in them but as parents, guardians or responsible adults in children’s lives, we must let kids know, if you work hard, apply yourself, nurture your talents and skills and put your 10,000 hours into that thing you love, anything is possible.

Never let anyone impose their limitations upon you.


When I win my first acting award (see, audacious), I’m going to dedicate it to all the kids who’ve come from similar backgrounds to my own, who’ve come from strict parenting, absent fathers, little money and other life hurdles and let them know that wealth is not the key to their success. It cannot open nearly as many doors as your belief in your own abilities can. This is what Helen Mirren should be telling young people about achieving their dreams. 

Other posts which many be of interest: Path To Victory -on goal setting , From The Desk To The Dance - How I quit my desk job and To Be The Actor's Actor - a post on Philip Seymour Hoffman and actors training in LA.

4 comments:

  1. Who is a Thespian? A lesbian with a Lisp? I think not

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  2. Actually, Helen Mirren was advocating for more support for the arts so that acting won't be only for the children of the rich.

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  3. I usually like your posts, Andi, but this one seems like a real misrepresentation of what Helen Mirren has said (as far as I can tell from the article you provided the link for).
    She seems to make a "descriptive", factual statement about how a lot of the actors in the industry happen to come from rich families. Maybe this factual observation of hers is incorrect, but she certainly doesn't make a "normative" claim that this is how things SHOULD be, which is kind of what your article insinuates. I also don't think that Mirren made a point about actors HAVING to go to drama school, she just mentioned that drama school, if that's your preferred way into the industry, is tough to afford for less wealthy kids. Which, clearly, she doesn't seem to support, as she actually comments on how important the work of this one theatre charity is.
    Hence, if you intended to point out how, fortunately, there are other ways into the industry as well, fair enough. But, just saying, it seemed like a criticism of Mirren.
    Personally, of course, I couldn't care less about it, but you have this comment box here for feedback and I was bored :-)

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