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
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
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.