Sunday, 23 September 2012

Cosmetic Surgery

Cosmetic surgery is somewhat of a mixed blessing for an actor. In many ways it is the last thing they should be doing. Actors need movement and expression in their faces and their individual features and flaws are much more interesting to watch than mass perfection. But while surgery used to be confined to the very famous and/or wealthy, a huge percentage of the Western population now routinely undergoes both minor and major cosmetic procedures. How do actors present themselves in such a climate? If they are to reflect the population, they must at least be taking the same amount of care of themselves. And how do they fulfil the image of the fantasy movie star if everyone is sculpting their bodies to perfection?

Those actors under most pressure will be female and working in the States and the biggest threat to their career is ageing. For them, getting the balance right between looking great for their age and losing their facial personality is more than a personal concern. There will be swathes of acolytes whose income depends on that actor's success who will be only too happy to recommend a good surgeon. If they don't have work done, they might be in competition with those who have and if they do have surgery, the world is eager to notice and disapprove. A review for a Demi Moore film in a Sunday broadsheet remarked that her performance was only notable for demonstrating her considerable plastic surgery. Yet there is a distinct possibility that if she hadn't had the surgery, she might not have been in the film at all; your dedication to your career is measured in some quarters by your commitment to your surgeon.

In England, it is not quite so pressurised. We don't make so many films, the small screen is more forgiving and the stage is positively greedy for character and quirks. We even seem to have an innate suspicion of good-looking actors, especially English ones. French actors are allowed to be beautiful and brilliant, it just suits them.

Living in a country where getting a manicure was regarded as the height of extravagance, British actors used to be relaxed about their body image. The only real pressure I ever received was from a costume designer on a Barbara Cartland film I once screen-tested for, who was most frustrated by my lack of cleavage, 'You could have something done about that' she hissed as we stuffed yet another sock into the cavernous corset.

Then I went to L.A. and it was all a bit different. It took me a while to understand what was happening when every audition I went to I met dozens of stunning, physically perfect actors. One evening I went to a party with a friend and, like the auditions, there were beautiful women everywhere you looked. I wondered what I was doing in that city; I couldn't compete with the level of perfection, nor did I really want to. Crestfallen, I was standing at the bar when I noticed a well-dressed older man staring at me from across the room. His eyes were boring into me and even when I returned his gaze, he didn't look away. At least someone, I thought, finds me interesting for who I am. Embarrassed but flattered I turned to my friend. 'That man, over there. He's really staring.' I said. 'He can't take his eyes off me.' 'Oh, him.' said my friend, 'He's a plastic surgeon. He’s just working out what he could improve. Don't smile for God's sake, he'll get a dentist over.' Sure enough, within a few minutes, several well-dressed older men had presented me with their business cards and reassurances of 'competitive rates for Brits'. How did they know?

I didn't get any surgical work done. At 26, it all seemed both too late and too early. And I figured at least I'd always have a big audience of cosmetic surgeons, waiting in the wings.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Love Scenes

Love scenes, also known as sex scenes, are as inevitable for actors as death and taxes and held in roughly the same esteem. Youth and Beauty are not pre-requisites for naked horizontal performances, although, as in the Real World, they may be asked to the party more often. Independent, low-budget, literary or artistic films might deliberately include graphic depictions of sex between the old and the faded to gain some reality points. Independent, low budget, genre or exploitation films will employ the more genetically or cosmetically favoured. Only big budget studio films tend to eschew sex altogether; R-rated movies limit potential box office revenue. So, if you want to avoid disrobing, your best bet is to be American, attractive and extraordinarily famous. If you still find you're rolling around the set with your ass in the air, you must really want to.

Once agreed upon, the days of shooting love scenes are marked indelibly in the schedule and on the consciousness of all involved. And that is a lot of people. The entire crew will be made aware of the sensitive nature of the filming with the large printed 'Closed Set' on the call sheet, if they hadn't already spotted the haunted faces of the actors and director flitting between caravans. Most directors enjoy filming sex scenes as much as they would taunting dancing bears; there is an unpredictable mood to an actor placed in such a vulnerable situation and if they turn, it is the director who will get the first swipe.

With the crew alerted, all bets are on. For the make-up and costume departments it will be a particularly challenging day. Tattoos, scars and other blemishes will need covering. Twenty-nine different types of underwear will need supplying for all eventualities, including the dreaded 'stunt pants'; flesh coloured triangles of synthetic fibre with Velcro sides, for last-minute nudity. Tousled hair, various stages of coital make-up, perspiration application and the soothing of egos will be among the day's work. They will not get to see the results of their labours for some time. The large television monitors, which relay a live feed from the set, are switched off during closed set filming. And although one member of both the make-up and costume department will stay on set to assist the actors between takes, the convention is for them to discretely turn their backs during a take. The first time I looked up in the throws of simulated ecstasy to see my good friends facing the corners like so many naughty students, we had to stop thrusting for several minutes while water and a thump on the back was supplied. I wasn't being paid to laugh that day.

The mechanics of filming sex scenes are complex. Who puts what where being a matter of story, character, personal preference, artistic interpretation and gravity. Not necessarily in that order. While rehearsal is in progress, clothes are kept on and the crew continues work on the sound and lighting. When shooting starts, only the camera crew, a sound operator, and the few facing the wall, remain. The director and the DP will have a monitor. For the actors, the amount of people watching is almost irrelevant, after all, everyone will be looking at it on a screen as big as a double-decker bus in the near future. Even if the camera was rolling with a remote operator there is always going to be a live audience; your fellow actor. And whether you like them,  or rue the day they were born, it is they who will witness the baring of your body, and even of your soul if you aren't very careful.

Every actor deals with the forthcoming event differently. "I apologise if I get an erection and also if I don't." The Gentleman Actor is known to have said to his Leading Lady. And while it is true that the subject may arise, male actors are legally protected from having to display their full proportions. Actresses may find it harder to disguise their disinterest from the public view but a cold set and the liberal use of ice cubes can assist if sheer terror has not sufficed.

As soon as each take ends, robes are replaced, cramps attended to, make-up re-applied and hair combed. If outdoors, any thorn scratches, gravel burns or sand grazes are dressed. At this moment, actors can find themselves wondering about the nature of their profession. It is best to keep them distracted with baby wipes and chocolate. They still have another take to do and then several different set-ups from other angles. Let them cry about it later, for now there is stubble rash to conceal and an awkward shot of the consummation in profile. Such are the labours of celluloid love.