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Jonathan Harden: 10 things I’ve learned from interviewing actors

Jonathan Harden. Photo: Ori Jones
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It was only 18 months ago that I started interviewing actors for a podcast with a very long title that nobody had yet heard of. Thankfully, the idea was seemingly better than the name and now I’m on the verge of launching a second series of what has become known as Honest Actors’ The magic formula? Honest conversations. No Hollywood gloss, no PR spin, just chats about the things we all have in common: the hard stuff and the realities of the industry. But there’s more to the concept than simply providing a forum to have a moan.

Since I interviewed Simon Darwen on a sober Saint Patrick’s Day in 2015, I’ve spent some 50 or more hours in the company of 26 very honest actors, discussing everything from unemployment to stage fright, training to rejection, favourite jobs and career regrets. You may have heard some of them, or heard them talked of, whether backstage or behind a bar; Denise Gough doing her ‘shopping’ in her sister’s fridge, Isaiah Johnson surviving on ramen, and Sinead Matthews running down the street “laughing at my own shitness” are some of my personal highlights. But in there, among the stuff that made me laugh for not being the only one to feel down at my own failures, jealous of friends, or to beat myself up over an opportunity wasted, there are some nuggets of wisdom. From the regrets, there are lessons that I, for one, have benefited from in the intervening months.

So, in the long-established tradition of online writing, here is a bullet-point list of things that I imagine might interest you. And, although there are 10, unlike most internet lists, the last two are not just there to make up the numbers. This is an ensemble piece; we’re all in it together.

Celebrate the victories

“Every job is a miracle,” says Justine Mitchell. With this in mind, I always have a bottle of very cheap Prosecco in the fridge so I can celebrate every tiny victory. And once that five minutes of celebration has passed, don’t get caught up in the anxiety of “Can I do it?” or “Have they got the right person?” any more. As Gough observed: “You wouldn’t do it to a child,” so don’t do it to yourself. They hired you because they believe in you. Run with that.

Take control

Luck is huge, but you can’t rely on it. Jessica Raine advises that you try to be in control of everything you can possibly be in control of; do the work. And as tough as it sounds, the audition may be the only opportunity you get to play this great part. So try to enjoy it.

Be objective

When I’ve asked: “Do you consider yourself successful?”, what has become apparent is that success is relative. Often the question: “Would your younger self be happy with what you have achieved?” will solicit a different answer. I guess we all revise our definition in light of our experiences and achievements. Don’t undermine yourself, because you’ve done well.

Bear rejection

Rejection doesn’t get any easier, regardless of your age or how much experience you may have accumulated. It just doesn’t. If you care about the job, not getting it will hurt. It may take a while to get over, you may descend into a moment of “teenage self-pity”, as Siubhan Harrison put it, but that’s okay. It’s allowed. This too will pass.

Pick yourself up

If Tom Goodman-Hill has days when all he wants to do is stare at the wall, so will you. You will have days when nothing seems to be going your way. You might have days when you can’t get out of bed. “But those days don’t define you.”

Be stubborn

Matthew Flynn reckons that as long as you feel you can confidently call yourself an actor, then you’re doing okay. If you feel like you can’t, get over yourself. Acting is hard. Just because you’re not acting right now, doesn’t mean that anyone is going to take away your Equity card. It’s survival of the most stubborn. Keep acting until you’re 80 and you will get to play Lear.

Take positives

We don’t have careers – we have a series of jobs. You won’t get promoted. You’ll never be head of the acting department. The plus side? You’re lucky enough to work in an industry where, as Michael Hadley observed, (almost) everyone is equal. That’s a rare thing, and something many of the older interviewees have grown to cherish.

Breaks will come

There is no such thing as a big break, at least not in the way many people think of it. So says nearly everyone I have interviewed. Even though you may feel like you’re on the crest of a wave, don’t be too disappointed when the wave crashes on the beach, leaving you gasping for air with sand in your mouth. Another big wave always comes along, eventually.

Be good to yourself

To the question: “If you could go back and talk to your younger self, what would you say?”, the most common response across all the interviewees was a variation of “You’ll be okay” or “You’re doing great”. Put simply, don’t wait for the invention of time-travel to go easy on yourself.

Be happy

There’s more to life than acting. You will be happiest if you learn to have a life outside your career, a life that doesn’t depend on it. You cannot get your self-worth from acting alone. As John Rogan puts it: “If my health is good, I’m happy. I’m happier if I’m working, but there’s more to life than acting.”

You can listen to the first episode, featuring an interiew with Noma Dumezweni, on iTunes now. Find out more about the podcast, and read some of the award-winning blog, at inanything.com

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