Monday, 2 March 2009


It is unfortunate that actors are ever called upon to make speeches, particularly the impromptu kind, but it often occurs that a body of people, a charitable organisation say, or an events company, decide to commission an actor to speak on an appropriate subject, to an invited audience, touching lightly on their own illustrious lives and delivering the material with a blend of solemnity (for the sake of the cause) and humour (for the sake of the audience) that only the literate love child of Shami Chakrabarti and P.G.Wodehouse might produce. Actors are used to speaking in public, the thinking goes, they are comfortable in the spotlight, and people like to watch them, will even pay to watch them. They bring publicity, they embrace a good cause, and my kids/mother/husband loved them in that film/show/photo shoot.
The vital ingredient missing in this recipe is that of the writer. It is the writer who creates the character that the actor assumes, the writer who creates clever/funny/interesting people and the writer who has a point to make. Actors can only pretend to do any of these things. They are good at pretending, so good that they may get asked for medical advice by strangers when all they did was show up on the set of ER dressed as a surgeon. At this point, actors sometimes get confused and may offer a diagnosis. The easiest person for an actor to deceive is himself. The important thing to remember is that even though both parties believe in the character, the actor knows nothing about medicine and any advice should be promptly ignored.
Strip the actor of their character and of their script and they are reduced to themselves, a person who knows an awful lot about pretending and about as much as anybody else on any other subject, perhaps even slightly less. Most people will have a skill that they use to earn a living and so will have some training in a practical/academic capacity. They will know how to engineer a bridge/play the trombone/fly a plane. Actors can wear the right sort of beard to look like Mr. Brunel/purse their lips with a musician's intensity/sleep with the cabin crew. But they haven't learned how to do anything with any degree of expertise, except fake it.
Most people, when asked to give a speech would either decline or start studying very hard. Politicians employ speechwriters, television hosts read from cue cards, even the best man researches his jokes. But actors are used to standing in front of hundreds or thousands of people and making a fool of themselves. They like it. They don't need to prepare, it's just an extension of their day job, isn't it? It's not until I'm standing in the wings of the Albert Hall with a waiting audience of 5,000 and the producer says, 'The band's going to take a while to set up, could you fill for a couple of minutes?' that I understand the true horror of the situation. I have no 'material', I have no speech, I have in fact, no character. For the next five minutes, I get a glimpse into how it must feel to be able to speak another language fluently and to be speaking it to a crowd of people who have no idea what country you even come from. Tumbleweed. If I thought I had got away with it, the look of incredulity tinged with fury on the producer's face when I came off stage, swiftly disabused me. It was such a disaster that the bouncers tried to stop me going to the party after. And I was the host.
So, if an actor stands up at an award ceremony and the rest of the world wonders how they manage to open their cereal in the morning, remember the one thing that actors are totally unsuited for, being themselves.


  1. At the European Film Awards three months ago, Dame Judi Dench received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Consequently, as the only person among the award winners that evening, she had known for months she would receive an award and had been able to prepare her speech. Her remark to presenter Mads Mikkelsen, when she was half-way in character as ‘M’, was delivered with confidence, but she looked rather nervous and self-conscious and trembled like a leaf during the montage and most of her speech. I am sure, as you stated, it’s because she is up there as ‘herself’ and it must be a situation she is not used to no matter how often she has been on a stage.

    Dame Judi Dench at the EFA, Dec. 2008:

  2. It is painful to watch someone reduced to a stuttering mess. When my ex’s grandmother died, her mother attempted to give a speech at the funeral. It was complete and utter mortification. I found myself staring at my shoes and silently humming the Legend of Zelda theme song. This is one of the reasons I have problems watching award shows. I’m always afraid they’re going to drop the award or trip. This is all before they even began the speech! I’ve been lucky when speaking in front of an audience. I’ve never done so badly that I wanted to sink to the bottom of the ocean and be eaten by one of those fish that have lantern looking things on their heads. We’ve all been there though. A professor once told me that speaking is one of the responsibilities that come with being in the professional world. That still doesn’t make it any easier though. Sophie, I’m sorry about the rude bouncer and producer! I’m sure you didn’t do that badly! >:(

  3. This post really cuts to the heart of it. Being an actor for a living, I mean. While it made me laugh a bit in the way that we all share terror at standing before people and opening our mouths. Most non-actors haven't the expectation that we'll be cool and groovy and elegant and perfect. We are given allowances and mercy if we fumble and do the ah-ums. Actors--rarely. Made me want to rush on stage and shout at the audience of 5,000. 'Pipe down! You think this is easy, what she's doing?'
    Thanks, Sophie, also for the plug about the importance of writers--made my day.

  4. Today, March 8th is International Women's Day. Happy Day to all the women reading this blog :-)

  5. Thank you Niki for the reminder!
    And happy International Women's Day to you and Sophie, Melissa, Emenel and Paul, too :)

  6. Dear Sophie,

    I thought of this post the other day when I found out that I do *not* have to give a presentation next month.

    I almost went and bought myself a whiskey out of sheer relief.

    Mary (was Mary in Tennessee)

  7. Oh, yes, the relief of not having to do it after all, is nearly worth the anxiety of thinking you were having to do it in the first place.
    And if no longer of Tennessee, then where?

  8. I'm in New York State studying for another MA. It's been a bit of a culture shock-- getting used to snow again after twenty-five years in the South, for one thing!

    I notice anxiety of the "Oh no do I *have* to stand up in front of people and *speak*?" kind is not, however, limited to the South.

  9. Fantastic. I'm nearly finished with the MA and now I'm institutionalised I figure I better stay on. What's your new MA in and you enjoying it? Sorry about the snow. Is it a necessity to relocate to colder climates, a sort of student penance?

  10. Well, since this one is in theology I would say that yes, in this case the snow may be penance. Or it would if I walked through it to the chapel on winter mornings instead of sleeping in. I am enjoying the course of study very much. It fits perfectly with my plan of being a librarian-- I'm writing my MA thesis on "Harry Potter".
    On the topic of Speeches, a news program crew is coming on campus on Tuesday. We received the shot schedule yesterday. I have only one (class session) shot-- no interviews or small group shots. The relief I'm feeling is worth, I think, *two* whiskeys. Or a donut.