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The Green Room: Can you make your own luck in an acting career?

Olivia Colman, pictured here in Mosquitoes at the National Theatre, has spoken about the role of luck in her own career. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​

Albert_Parker

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Adam Lovett is a 45-year-old actor who has appeared in film, BAFTA-winning TV, at the RSC, National and West End

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre and television

Ros Clifford, 30, is a deputy stage manager. She has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

Seamus Wallace is in his 30s and has appeared regularly at the National Theatre, as well as at the RSC, in the West End, on tour and on TV

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked in regional theatres and is a writer and street performer

 

Beryl Isn’t the nature of luck intrinsically arbitrary?

Ros Luck, or really hard bloody work. In some cases, genuinely bloody – but that’s another story.

Albert Thomas Jefferson said: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

Adam There are so many vagaries around creating a sustained career that our profession creates a mythology around luck. When people reach milestones of success, articles are written implying a grand narrative arc and moments of inspiration. The truth is that it’s far more haphazard.

Peter You can be bold when asking for a job.

Ros I say I’ve been lucky, but that luck has been partially created by my work ethic.

Jon I feel the same. My career was transformed for the better by a series of outrageous coincidences, but they couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t put the work in. So it’s maybe not ‘making luck’, but hanging on so you can be there when luck happens.

Peter I got a job because an eminent director saw me working with his wife. You can’t make that sort of luck.

Seamus Luck plays a huge part, but I don’t think we make it. You didn’t ‘make’ that luck. You were just lucky.

Albert There’s luck in life – not just for actors. And, as it’s random, there’s nothing you can do about it. Successful people concentrate on the things they can do something about. You can’t change your luck, so don’t waste time worrying about it.

Adam I think people want to know that their hard work will be rewarded, and while it’s true that you really have to graft and cover your bases in this profession, there’s also a random component.

Annie If you want something enough and focus on it, your choices will encourage you to start creating what you want. I want to work at the National, so I go there more to see plays, making me more likely to bump into directors.

Ros I’ve worked for for nothing, networked my arse off and knocked on doors until they were answered. I finally got my dream job last year after 10 years of trying.

Adam I like the old Arab saying: ‘Trust god, but tie up your camel’.

Peter The Maggie Smith quote is good…

Adam Oh yes: “Luck gets you there. Talent keeps you there.”

Beryl It’s about the work, and keeping faith in yourself.

Adam I look back on some moments in my career and think “Christ, if I hadn’t done X, the whole trajectory of my life would be different” – and they’re always such seemingly unimportant decisions at the time.

Beryl That’s life!

Jon There’s the old idea of the casting director throwing away half the CVs because they don’t want to work with unlucky people.

Beryl What?

Adam That casting director needs a lot of therapy.

Jon It’s a myth, but a funny one. They’re more likely just to go, “Ugly… ugly… maybe… ugly.”

Adam Haven’t we all looked at a career on screen or stage at some point and muttered under our breath: “S/he’s been fucking lucky.”

Beryl All the time.

Ros I’ve done it with people from my stage-management class at drama school.

Jon The ones you watch and think: “When were you ever good?”

Adam And then there are the actors that were bad for so long, but they got so many opportunities that they eventually became good. That’s a lot of luck.

Albert I think lucky in the majority of cases means ‘without talent’?

Seamus I’m not sure it’s about talent per se. It’s more to do with being in the right place at the right time, being seen by the right people when you didn’t expect it, or being blessed with a certain look or symmetry.

Jon Looks are certainly a thing – not just model looks, either. A musical director once told me (referring to Follies): “Your problem is that you have a Ben voice in a Buddy body.”

Seamus Awful. I was once told by a big-name casting director that my face wasn’t catching the light properly.

You make your own luck by grafting, being professional and not screwing up the opportunities you’re given

Adam I think what lies behind the question is the idea of “Should I hustle? Should I go to parties? Should I network?” and all that jazz, but actually you make your own luck by grafting, learning your lines, being professional and not screwing up the opportunities you’re given.

Peter Legend has it that at one time every actor’s file at the Royal Shakespeare Company had GCM or BCM next to their name – to indicate whether they were a good or bad company member.

Annie It should. That’s part of the job.

Ros That wouldn’t surprise me.

Beryl Yes, how you are in a room is your future.

Peter I think that having a reputation as being nice to work with doesn’t do any harm when there’s competition between people of equal talent.

Adam 1. Nice. 2. On time. 3. Talented. You need two out of the three to work in this business.

Annie I always used to say “Well, I’ve been very lucky” when really I wasn’t owning the fact I’d grafted my butt off.

Seamus I’ve done the same.

Adam I do think a lot of successful talented people acknowledge the huge role of luck in their lives and say that they all know actors better than them who have never worked. I’ve heard Olivia Colman be quite vocal on this point.

Beryl I think success being equated with luck is fair enough. People can come from anywhere. And getting paid to do what you love is lucky.

Adam And so, dear reader, our panel says that you can make some of your own luck, but certainly not all of it…

Indira Varma: ‘If you don’t get big in the first 10 years of your career, you’re lucky’

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