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Daniel Evans: Don’t waste your 20s waiting for a hit TV role

Mark Rylance in the BBC's Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC/Giles Keyte Mark Rylance in the BBC's Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC/Giles Keyte
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When I was invited to write this column, I made a vow: to never write in a way that criticised the younger generation, romanticising the past. As a young actor, I was rarely impressed when senior actors’ complaints began with the old chestnut, “When I was starting out…” However, as I’ve got older (and now that I run a theatre), I need to discuss a significant sea change that’s occurring among today’s younger generation.

Just recently, we’ve been turned down by a handful of actors. This isn’t anything to write home about. It happens from time to time and, as a director, you try not to take it personally. Actors have such little power. Relatively, only a few of the very famous have the ability to instigate productions, choose their directors and/or veto their fellow cast members. So, actors’ meagre power resides in the ability to say ‘no’. They can turn a job down. That’s their prerogative. I’ve no issue with that.

Sometimes, on being turned down, a director is offered reasons from the agent. Most often, they’re oblique: ‘Oh, it’s not quite right for him…’, ‘She’s got another offer on the table…’. Every now and then, the reasons are honest and blunt: ‘She really doesn’t want to play that part…’. Over the last year, there’s one reason which I’m hearing more and more: ‘He doesn’t want to leave London’.

Now, for older actors, for actors with young families, I completely understand that reason. It’s hard being away from dependents – particularly when we can’t offer handsome sums of money in recompense. But hearing it from the younger generation is becoming hard to stomach. Some actors (and thank god it’s not all of them) would rather sit on their hands in London, waiting for an audition than venture outside the M25 to play a great part in a great theatre. And if I hear of another British actor deciding to bow out of doing any theatre because of their upcoming pilot season in LA, I’ll go mad. There are too many excellent British actors who are wasting away their lives and careers in a California motel, waiting for a part on American TV.

You can understand the urge. Some Brits strike it lucky out there. They get terrific roles in popular series, become famous and make a packet! You can forgive anyone for thinking it’s worth a punt. Black actors, in particular, have spoken out recently about the dearth of roles on British TV, hence their flight to America. But sadly for the many, the waiting game comes with a huge sacrifice.

I really don’t want to say ‘when I was starting out’, but I beg actors in their twenties to use the time to explore. Play lots of parts, in many places. Don’t hang around. Don’t wake up in your thirties to find out that you could have had a career back home and on the British stage. After all, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

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