“we have to be optimistic. The moment actors start thinking otherwise, they’re dead. You simply have to believe you have a future.” – Peter O’Toole.
Peter O’Toole is a god of acting, he is a great actor, his performance in Becket is one of my favourite of all time, so when he speaks, I listen. However, I was quite shocked by the statement above, it never occurred to me that somebody as fabulously successful and bravura as O’Toole ever had to worry about having a future as an actor, certainly I would never have guessed that he would ever have had to place his chips on being optimistic.
I’ve never really liked “optimism”, it’s similar to “being positive”, it just seems desperate, as though we are powerless and can only accomplish anything because of luck, or because of some outside force doing us a favour. I much prefer to try to see things as they really are, then plot a course of action in response to the conclusions of my analysis, and proceed from there. Optimism is linked to the frustrations of the casting process, where the actor is having to appeal to someone, whilst knowing there are dozens of other actors lined up behind him, waiting to do exactly the same thing – then after the casting, the actor is left hoping he is the one who will be picked, and if he is passed over on this occasion, then he must hope something else turns-up, and the process starts all over again. The actor copes with being demeaned in this way only because it is the accepted norm. The point is however, we can easily see how the actor is reduced to sitting around trying to be “optimistic” about the future. The trouble is, optimism is only a hop, skip and a jump away from wishful thinking, and wishful thinking is, we know, the opposite of hard thinking – but wishful thinking is what keeps people volutarily participating in a system which does not necessarily serve their own best interests, ie: “I have absolutely no control over what is happening to me, but I’m sure something’ll turn up”. Wishful thinking is thinking that one day you’ll have a career like, well, like Peter O’Toole, even though you may not possess the capability to actually make it happen. As I mentioned in my blog on Why Actors Quit, without a concrete and energising goal (and for the goal to be concrete and energizing, accomplishing it needs to be within the actor’s power), the actor will not be able to overcome the obstacles he will inevitably encounter – he needs powerful reasons to keep fighting – optimism, positive thinking, wishful thinking, self-help mantras, vague hope, are not concrete, and they are not energizing, they may, like cigarettes, seem to offer momentary relief, but ultimately they are empty and lead to self-deception.
For my own view, the acting world has changed radically from the days when O’Toole was coming up. The last 10 years has seen an explosion in the number of people going into acting, and arguably there has been a dimunition in the volume of work available. Like the rest of our culture, getting a decent education and working hard is no longer enough. We are moving into an era when eveyone needs to be an entrepeneur, and that includes actors. Infact, in the case of acting, I think we will see the emergence of more and more “actor-auteurs”, wherby the actor is the unmistakable author of the work, such as Charlie Chaplin or Woody Allen. This will happen largely because of the reason I mentioned above, that there is just so much more traffic on the old career paths than there used to be and actors will be forced to be more innovative, but also it will happen because it’s now doable: the cost of production has been coming down and down and down to the point where a professional quality feature film can be produced with a literally zero budget, and then we have the emergence of micro-distribution, where an audience can be found and nurtured. The actor doesn’t need to believe he has a future, the actor needs to create one for himself.