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Soapbox: It’s time to debunk the bygone myths of stardom

Judi Dench. Photo: Andrea Raffin/Shutterstock Judi Dench's professional debut was at the Old Vic soon after she left drama school. Photo: Shutterstock
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Watching classic films over Christmas reminded me of the stories told to children of people “making it”, just by being noticed sweeping or making the tea. These stories need to be put into perspective and historical context.

This is no longer that industry, if indeed it ever was. No longer do you get a background role in a film, end up with a few lines only to be catapulted in front of the camera in a leading role.

‘Extra’ work is an industry of its own, with every agent and casting director warding off actors from writing it on their CVs. Extra work also has its own agents, as do commercials. If you get a commercial, great – that’s good money in the bank, but again it’s a separate industry largely filled with models, not actors, and these are no longer stepping stones into dramatic work.

Why did I choose to act? Well, in many ways – as “actorly” as this is – it was a calling rather than a choice. Acting is about storytelling – it is an expression of what it means to be human. It seems it’s part of who I am.

And perhaps because of this, I do not wish to be a performing monkey by taking any job however remotely connected to acting, and I don’t think I’m a snob for saying so. I want to be creatively fulfilled, that’s why I chose acting, and while I may never get a “big break” I certainly won’t get it making tea!

We have passed through the time of year when a lot of actors play Santa, and elves, and dames, and princesses incapable of keeping their shoes on. Now, I know many who love to do this, but I don’t. The elf ears would never suit me and all the most interesting female characters get played by men.

But more to the point, it’s another avenue that acting mythology has suggested is a “stepping stone” or less flatteringly “paying your dues”. Maybe this was once true, maybe going around a theme park dressed as a duck was once a legitimate acting role to tide you over until Hamlet, but I doubt it. I should say at this point, no one is less of an actor because they take these jobs. The roles bring joy to thousands of people – but they are not CV-fillers in the run up to a season at the Old Vic.

I saw Eileen Atkins recently give an interview at London’s The Bunker during The Faction’s SchillerFest. She mentioned that Judi Dench chooses which film she does based on whether she thinks she’s going to have a nice time with the cast and crew.

This sounds lovely. Did she “pay her dues”? No, not really. Her professional debut out of drama school was at the Old Vic. I’m not sure many of them did – Maggie Smith was being driven around in a Bentley in her 20s according to Kenneth Williams. Of course the rep system was the catapult for most of them.

These great actors deserve plaudits for their work, as do our younger great actors, but they didn’t get there sweeping up for anyone. Neither did they by standing very far away in a crowd in a panoramic shot, or sitting in shopping centres wearing white beards.

If it sounds like I’m crushing hope at the beginning of the year, it is only because these myths are totally unhelpful. Actors can, and should, dream. However, perpetuating these bygone ideas of how to rise to stardom misleads young people entering the industry. It also keeps existing actors in parts of the industry where they repeatedly flog their wares in the hope they’ll start to tread the bridge over to “legit” work, when the bridge isn’t there.

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