Friday, 17 September 2010

Identity

At the end of a play's run, usually on a Saturday night, the entire production is packed away. All the cast and crew say their goodbyes and rush off back to their families. By Monday nothing remains of the show except for a small shadow cast on the brow of the company at about 7 o'clock, when each member realises they don't have to go to work that night.

In film and television, it is different. Actors come and go; only a few remain for the last day's shooting. The intense bond created during filming loosens its grip more gradually since the production is still a work in progress. Editing, post-synching, music, special effects, are yet to play their part. There will be private screenings and eventually release dates and airings, more opportunities to revisit the show. Above all with film there will always be a record of the event so that in some sense you are never truly finished; you will continue playing those scenes in perpetuity. But unlike Wilde's Dorian Gray, you will be deteriorating while your portrait remains unchanged.

Of course, we all have photographs that can haunt us with their candid reflection of our young and innocent selves. That is not unique to performers. What really confronts the performer is more one of identity itself. In most of their better photographs and in all of their recorded work, the actor will be playing someone else, the memories and associations of those photographs connect to a character. The pictures that survive in the public domain will be of an actor in underpants while an alien licks their face/hands on cheeks in horror at the realisation that your parents have left you behind for Christmas/standing on a railway platform in an oversized hat waiting for daddy. Now those images endure. The question is, who are you when you are not in character?

It's not an issue that should trouble anyone else, but for the actor it is of no little importance. Being 'between jobs' may be of longer or shorter durations for different actors but at some point all will hopefully return to a room you call your own, possibly to share with another living creature (wife/boyfriend/pot-bellied pig) and to interact with companions who have known you at least since before your last movie. It is hard not to mind that no one has shown any interest in announcing your arrival in the kitchen when you walk in (especially not with a Motorola) or laid out your clothes for you/applied your make-up/arranged your hair. There may not even be anyone to make you breakfast. As you stumble around the room trying to remember where you keep the coffee mugs, you are bound to wonder, who are you? And indeed, what do you look like?

It might seem a good idea to get back to your default personality and to make a start on that with your personal appearance. This might be as simple as going back to wearing your own clothes, putting on your wedding ring, washing off make-up and hair products. But it may involve longer term changes and a few decisions.

Some actors are particularly fond of wigs and certainly, when it comes to the end of a job, your own natural hair will be there waiting for you, grateful to feel the wind in its strands and the sun on its follicles. Most of us adapt our own hair for a role which might mean that it has been cut or coloured, or both. Colour can take a while to change, bleaching out red toned hair dyes is a slow process, putting colour back into bleached hair, a delicate one. Growing out a cut is clearly just a matter of time but if it has been left to grow over the course of a job, such as a costume drama where ringlets and bonnets are the order of the day, then it will be ready for a good chop.

There may be weight to lose or gain, fitness regimes to be resumed or abandoned, nails to grow or cut, skin to be tanned or tended. All these personal details have been in the domain of the character; the property of the production. Victorian ladies do not sit in the sun, Noel Coward heroines always have red nails, bathing beauties are suitably depilated. It may well be that these regimes coincide with your own aesthetic but in any event it is not your choice, while you are working that is the way you must look. Every time you finish a job you must re-establish what you look like as yourself. If you don't even try then you are admitting that there is not really that much of a self to go back to. You exist entirely in limbo.

When I was a teenager, a particularly formidable English teacher decided I needed some words of wisdom. She was worried I was taking my acting work too much to heart. After a long chat she appeared to give up and lifting her not inconsiderable self from the armchair she turned to me with a frown, 'But where is Sophie?' she asked and seeing I was not entirely sure, repeated the question as she headed back to the staff room, 'Where is Sophie?'

And whenever a make-up artist looks especially aggrieved at my several tattoos, I remember the formidable lady in tweed and her prescient question and I am grateful for the knowledge that those few square inches are definitely and undoubtedly me.