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Behind the camera – why acting can be the loneliest of careers

Cory Monteith and the cast of Glee. Photo: Steve Farrell
Matthew Hemley
Matt is news editor for The Stage, having started as the newspaper’s broadcast reporter. He covers all areas of the industry in his role, but has a particular interest in musical theatre. Matt studied acting at Bretton Hall and presents a monthly theatre news round up on BBC London Radio.
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It’s been a very sad week for the acting industry. Glee star Cory Monteith was found dead in a hotel room on Saturday, while the body of British actor Paul Bhattacharjee, who went missing last week, has been found near cliffs in East Sussex. Meanwhile, the body of 27-year-old performer Richard Gent – who disappeared more than a year ago – was discovered in woods near his home in north London.

We won’t know what was going through the minds of these performers in the days up to their deaths, but it paints a rather bleak picture of an industry that is perceived by those on the outside to be one in which it is impossible for actors to be and feel lonely in.

But, of course, it can be very lonely – as many actors will testify. Last year, in an interview, George Clooney revealed that he suffers from bouts of loneliness, while Eddie Redmayne, star of the Les Miserables film, admitted in an interview with The Guardian:

Although it looks great – and is great – there are also shoddy moments when you feel really rotten, and when it's going well, you're not allowed to complain. Your actor friends will understand the nuances of a painful director, or the loneliness of being … Okay, in a beautiful hotel room somewhere exotic. But you're by yourself for six months, and you're thinking, 'Oh God, I wish I could share it with someone'.

It will be hard for many people to understand Redmayne's views. Actors, particularly those at the top of their game, are often seen to be surrounded by others – both on set and when attending glittering parties. But of course, the people they are spending their time with on these occasions are very often not ‘friends’ as such – more acquaintances, peers or colleagues.

And you can imagine that this can make an actor feel lonely. Plus, if a performer is working away from home six months of the year on a television series, removed from family and real friends, it can be difficult.

It's worth pointing out that Monteith had a history of drug use prior to joining Glee. Was he given the support he needed from those around him on the TV show that he may have got had he had more time with real friends and family? I don't know. But the clean-cut role he played on screen will make it harder for some viewers to understand his death. He was appearing in a series that is all about friendships, after all, and on screen his character was surrounded by people who loved and supported him. Combined with the outbreak of song and dance, this made McKinley High – the school in which Glee is set – seem the perfect place to be. And many viewers will see this as being something that gets carried through to being on the set and making the series. Of course what they are not seeing is the hard work that goes into making the show, which brings with it its own pressures.

[pullquote]If a performer is working away from home six months of the year on a television series, removed from family and real friends, it can be difficult[/pullquote]

When I interviewed Matthew Morrison – Monteith’s co-star – about working on Glee, he told me the cast and crew have a new name for Fridays. They call them Fraturdays – because very often work on a Friday rolls into the early hours of the morning on a Saturday. This means that the cast and crew only have each other for company. And while I am not suggesting real friendships can’t be formed here, it’s possible that the whole experience is so far removed from the real world that it becomes, by its very nature, a lonely place to be. As Redmayne suggests, actors can be with others, and still feel by themselves. Not only that, but the long hours make it stressful and tiring. Then there's the fame and attention that comes with being in a high-profile series.

With all this in mind, it’s interesting that the National Institute for Clinical Research into Stress in England, part of the Eric Leonard Kruse Foundation for Health Research, has set up a support programme for those working in the entertainment industry – such as actors, agents, directors or backstage staff – who are suffering from stress.

Professor Ray Iles, chief scientist at the ELK Foundation, said about the scheme:

Everyone in the industry works to tight deadlines and under unique kinds of pressure. Plus, amazingly, absenteeism is relatively rare. On the surface it seems that those in the sector cope far better than others would, but there are also indications that the pressures they are under can make them more vulnerable.

Let’s just hope that this scheme, and others like it, really can help performers who are feeling this way. And let’s also remember that, despite the inevitable lows, this is a brilliant industry to be a part of.

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