A couple of years ago I read an interview with Michael Gambon who, when asked what work he had lined up next, replied that he didn't know and hoped a couple of projects would come to fruition and provide him with employment. He then remarked that it was a terrible life to always have to rely on others for your happiness.
Of course, what Gambon is referring to in that last sentence, is that acting makes him happy, but he must rely on other people to give him the opportunity to perform.
If an actor of Gambon's stature doesn't know what's going to happen next, then think of the challenges facing the young, unknown actor, whose life is made more problematic by the general distorted view of what an actor is. When we say “actor”, many relate that to the stars of Hollywood, or famous soap actors on the cover of magazines, or even celebrated stage actors like Gambon. But this lifestyle is only enjoyed by a very small percentage of actors, the reality for the vast majority is very different, much of whose time is spent simply struggling to get work as oppose to sipping champagne, and during this struggle the actor must maintain focus and strength in order to be ready to work at the drop of a hat. This is not easy, and it can take years to develop the mental strength and the correct habits of thought in order to endure the struggle over long periods of time. As I've mentioned before on this blog, few are able to cope with this way of living and many quit the business. Infact, I have come to believe that those who are able to continue and flourish, are the ones who can adapt to shifting circumstances the best.
I have often found absurd the notion that actors should treat their careers like a business, because if anyone applied business diagnostics to acting, no one would ever become actors because acting doesn't make business sense (although I do believe that business disciplines should be employed by the actor in his life and work). Few actors are rich people, to get even one acting job is difficult let alone attain any kind of financial security.
This isn't a complaint, I'm simply stating my view of what life is like for many actors. Infact, I think the struggle is one of the beautiful things about the life. Afterall, if it were easy then anyone could do it, and where's the fun in that?
No, I speak of the challenges facing the actor in order to question what motivates him. If making a basic living is hard enough, and fame and fortune are such remote possibilities, then what is it that impels the actor to continue? I'm sure the notion of fame (and it really is only a notion) is lodged at the back of many actors' minds because it is a profession where fame is not impossible. But fame is too broad an idea to drive one through difficult times, and if it's money you want, then there are far far easier ways of making it. Infact, an actor can toil endlessly without material reward.
Then what is it? What is it that drives the actor to ignore the overwhelming odds against him and go for it and keep on going for it every morning when he wakes-up? Is it the sheer joy of doing the work? For sure. Pigheadedness: I'm going to finish what I started irrespective of anything else? That too. Fear of failure? That's very possible for many. The need to continually improve and accomplish ever greater goals? Yes to that aswell. But none of these points is overarching.
So, what is then?
That acting makes the actor's life make sense. When he is not working, the actor becomes uncertain, distracted, dissatisfied, a hollowness forms within him, and he can commit to many other activities with furious conviction. However, acting will always call him back, and when he returns, the pieces will slot into place. And it is this need for meaning which impels the actor to continue, and a man like Gambon to put his happiness in the hands of another. It is not fame nor fortune, but meaning.