I don’t know if media coverage of the Geoffrey Rush defamation trial boosted Australian cinema attendances for last week’s simulcast broadcasts of an acclaimed British production of King Lear. But it’s safe to assume that in addition to mastering this notoriously challenging role, the actor playing the bard’s mad dad at the Chichester Festival did not also have to contend with newspaper allegations that he harassed a female cast member. Few theatregoers would be unaware that Sir Ian McKellen is gay, and many would also know that he has never had or wanted children (‘I’m too selfish,’ he once told the Daily Telegraph). But his gayness and childlessness did not diminish his portrayal of a binary biological father – any more than his poor magic skills stopped him playing Gandalf. That’s what great actors do; assume another identity so convincingly and compellingly that the audience’s disbelief is completely, if temporarily, suspended. Awed by this ability, many of us see the acting fraternity as almost a different species, and put even unremarkable actors on something of a pedestal. But the truth is, what this vanishingly small number of adults do for a few hours each week on a stage or in front of a camera, and call work, is what every single one of us did in backyards and bedrooms every day of our childhood, and called play. Indeed, pundits of the past made so little distinction between the two activities that they referred to the people we call actors as players.
Most kids stop pretending to be someone or something else around the time they leave kindy, and those who want to keep on doing it at big school are faced with a simple choice; either develop a reputation as a bull-shitter, or join the Drama Society, where their penchant for dissembling will be encouraged and applauded. Given the dwindling job prospects for today’s school leavers it’s not surprising that some of these often attractive and charismatic young people then progress to drama schools where they find they are no longer members of a quirky minority, but surrounded by lots of other like-minded young men and women intent on spending their entire lives pretending to be other people and hoping to get paid for it. And it is this nurturing, supportive community which gives some of them, in addition to important life skills like speaking loudly and breathing properly, certain interpersonal traits and habits which would be deemed odd in less glamorous work environments. How many construction workers and miners, after all, hug and kiss their mates at the end of a shift? How many police officers feel compelled to tell their fellow officers each day how absolutely marvellously they’re performing their duties? And then there’s the work itself. With the obvious exception of one much older profession, is there any other job in which you’ll almost certainly be expected to hug, kiss or even simulate sex with a co-worker?
There are, of course, plenty of very fine actors who don’t conform to the luvvie template. Just as there are some who, having gained a certain industry status and the financial independence which that brings, turn down all roles involving physical intimacy and demeaning dialogue. But the vast majority can’t afford to be that picky, especially at the start of their careers. Geoffrey Rush is certainly not at the start of his career, but to those familiar with the glittering demi-monde which this erstwhile national treasure has inhabited for much of his life, the things he is alleged to have done and said may not be all that surprising. At this stage of the proceedings I find myself sympathising as much with the man as I do with the woman he is alleged to have harassed, much as I did in the Kavanaugh hearing. But whatever the Federal Court in Sydney eventually decides, there is one lesson to be learnt from this particular drama which already seems crystal clear. If you want a career where you can be sure you will never be touched or flattered by a member of the opposite sex, or indeed a member of the same sex, the acting game may not be for you.
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