Treading the Boards

Why are actors so weird?

Male thespians are often seen as emblems of ‘how to be’ in their era. At their best, they are arbiters of style, behaviour, attitude, outlook and sexuality; chameleonic, charismatic, and somehow in tune with the times. Think John Wayne, Al Pacino, Steve McQueen, Sidney Poitier, Jack Nicholson, Denzel Washington, Tony Curtis, Tony Leung.

However, stages and screens can be great deceivers, and more often than not, actors are not the beacons of cool we wish them to be but a peculiar, insecure, ill-at-ease bunch. Most of the time, that manifests quite charmingly, as in the case of Robert Pattinson’s strange, frenetic GQ profile from last year. Other times, well, you can end up like Kevin Spacey.

Between those two poles, you’ll find all manner of bizarre exploits. Think Matthew McConaughey’s red-pilled self-help book, Jonah Hill’s therapised outbursts, Damien Lewis’s lounge jazz version of God Save the King at the Grand Prix, Jeremy Renner’s snowplough habit, or the horrifying Imagine video from the depths of lockdown. Then, of course, there is the entire concept of Jeremy Strong.

While there are a few kooky female actors out there (Tilda Swinton, chief among them), there is an obvious disparity when it comes to male actors going off the deep end in their personal lives, and in the way they present themselves in the media. Male actors appear to be more obsessed with ‘The Method’, more keen to be taken seriously, more disposed to public weirdness.

On the promo circuit, male actors often appear as a flurry of tight suits, transatlantic accents, low-slung beanies, diabolical music projects and bruised egos. If they’re not doing Al Pacino impressions on Graham Norton’s sofa, they’re appearing on Jon Bernthal’s podcast, talking about their ‘journey’ and calling each other ‘bro’. Juxtapose that with the endless churn of ‘these stars teach you British slang’ videos an actor now has to commit to, and it can build a very unknowable breed of person, someone who is forced to flit between everyman relatability and alien glamour.

Thinking back over my own sightings and encounters with actors, I can remember once being in an overpriced deli in Hackney where a man in a low-cut white T-shirt and Ray-Bans held up the lunchtime queue, blissfully unaware, as he fussily asked the stuff to show him various tubs of ricotta. The perpetrator? None other than Hitman and Homeland star Rupert Friend.

Then there are the countless stories you hear on the grapevine – the ones you hear from someone’s cousin’s girlfriend who found themselves on a yacht once. That Hollywood hunk, the one whose love life is a constant storm of speculation and controversy? His ‘thing’ is apparently only ever having sex wearing huge noise-cancelling headphones, pumping hard techno throughout.

Something in the profession either attracts people who are a little odd, or makes people a little odd. And speaking to a number of people who have either acted, tried to act, or spent time with actors, the mystery as to why this is only deepens.

Conducting interviews, the same themes seem to pop up over and over again: self-consciousness, skittishness, insecurity, eccentricity, a sense of being a vessel for other people’s ideas.

To understand actors, you probably start at their most common denominator: drama school. A rarefied version of education where you are cut off from the real world and encouraged to spend your time inhabiting other people. A recent graduate remembers their time there. ‘One thing you’d always see was people walking around with these vocal steamers. They’re called Dr. Nelson inhalers. You can only buy them in a few shops in London and they’re always out of stock. The model hasn’t changed for 200 years or something; it sort of looks like a bong. People would walk around with them, saying, “Sorry, I’m not speaking for the day.”

‘There’s no other job where you get to live as another human being. Where someone pays you, momentarily, fleetingly, to live someone else’s life. That can be a very exciting thing, but also extremely complex,’ says Henry Lloyd-Hughes, an actor who has appeared in everything from Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina to The Inbetweeners.

Perhaps to medicate this sense of impermanence, actors are drawn to excess. It’s a habit that has probably slowed since the days of Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole going to the pub in the middle of a play, but is still very much in action, according to the people we spoke to.

It brings to mind another story I heard third-hand, one that relates to a true Hollywood superstar. On the set of a big film, production staff were asked to clear his hotel suite of alcohol, or anything pertaining to alcohol. The actor was perilously sober and could apparently be set off by the slightest temptation. A day or so after arriving on set, he suddenly vanished, holding up production at horrifying costs. Some days later, he returned, off his rocker and with two sex workers in tow. The reason for his sudden relapse? Someone had forgotten to remove a whisky tumbler from his suite, which in turn set off a chain reaction of debauchery.

‘I haven’t met many actors who don’t have some sort of thirst, whether that’s alcohol, sex, drugs, exercise, or all of the above’, says Dan Nicholson, a British actor who has appeared in stage and screen roles including ITV’s Liar. ‘Actors tend to be thirsty beings, through this desire to take themselves to a different place. You can do that by playing King Lear, or you can do that by drinking a bottle and a half of scotch.’

I spoke to someone who was given a rare insight into the effects of fame. Some years ago, two award-­winning stars pitched up at his countryside home to make a small independent film. With costs running tight, he became a kind of Man Friday to these household names and found himself with the type of access that Vanity Fair profile-writers could only dream of.

‘Colin Farrell… He was an absolute lad – a real tearaway. But he’d had an apocalyptically intense life. He likened the whole fame experience to being a ceramic brick in a tumble dryer. He was sober and very scared of slipping up. He told us how he’d spent a lot of his career in a total blur; living at the Chateau Marmont, coked off his face, coming out the other [end] with some movies he couldn’t remember. Sometimes, in the evenings, we’d watch the films he couldn’t recall making. You’d think it was method acting, with how fucked off his face he looked, but it really wasn’t.

One night I had dinner with him, and I remember him saying: if you don’t think that level of fame changes you, with people gawping at you and accommodating your every move, then you’re very sorely mistaken.’

The fame complex isn’t just a Sofia Coppola cliché. Actors have to live with the effects of becoming recognisable, like a poisoned chalice inside a gilded cage. A friend of mine was recently at a pub and Christopher Eccleston was sitting on the table opposite – everyone in our group chat was asking him to sneak a picture of the Our Friends in the North star. What that lack of anonymity can do to a person’s psyche feels almost unimaginable.

However, actors’ love of self-mythologising can lead to a sense of ‘overplaying’ it, as anyone who’s watched an episode of Inside the Actors Studio will attest to. ‘I worked with an actor who was from LA, and he was talking about his sober journey. And when he described his darkest depths, I perhaps slightly unfairly thought: that sounds like a Tuesday night on Brick Lane in the early Noughties. But I wonder if that’s more of an American, West Coast thing than an actor thing,’ says Lloyd-Hughes.

Still, the industry is full of tales of delicious weirdness and creative overreach. ‘I know someone who worked on a movie with a famously troubled male star,’ says one anonymous actor. ‘They were in the same hotel, and my friend goes to the gym. This actor is there on the treadmill in full World War Two army gear – rucksack, fatigues, boots, camo face paint – in the Hollywood Hilton or something. Then he turns and says to my friend, “Hey, you’re on the movie, right?” My friend confirms he is and this guy goes, “You wanna fight?” Next thing he knows he’s trying to wrestle him to the ground.’

However, Lloyd-Hughes is quick to point out that these tales of method madness don’t represent the majority of actors, rather the ones who are given the chance to go deep into their characters. ‘There is a genuine, bona fide, 1-99 per cent ratio in terms of the lives of actors. When someone like Jake Gyllenhaal makes a boxing movie, he gets six weeks of movement work, six weeks of muscle-building and six weeks of rehearsal. It’s only someone on Gyllenhaal’s level who gets to do this deep immersion, whereas the vast majority of actors get parachuted into projects not really knowing what they’re doing.’

‘I think it massively depends on the way that you work,’ considers Nicholson. ‘Because I have actor friends who [say] it’s all about craft, very technical, and believe that no job should ever come at any emotional cost to you. Then there are others that need to put themselves into the project. And obviously, there can be some spillover. Over a lifetime, it can accumulate.’

Lloyd-Hughes brings up Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy’s bitter feud, recounted in the book Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild & True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road, and remembers a similar experience with a young, hotly-tipped star. ‘We were both living in east London at the time and we were playing best mates in this film. So, for cost-cutting measures, they decided to make us share a car every morning. I’d get in first, and then we’d go wait for him. We’d wait for 10, 20, or 25 minutes. 40 was the record.

‘It went on like this for weeks. Eventually, one day, I don’t know if I rolled my eyes or said, “Come on, man,” but he went ballistic. “How dare you? You don’t have the authority to speak to me! You’re nobody! You’re not the director!” Then, I had to go and do scenes in which we were best friends, arm in arm. Which is the other weird thing about the job. I have a lot of belief in this guy’s talent, but that was an unpleasant experience for me.’

Older actors, it seems, are not immune to this kind of odd, tetchy behaviour either. The journalist Oscar Rickett, who was an actor in his youth, remembers what it was like having dinner with Ian McKellen.

‘At the end of every course, he would pick up his plate and lick it clean, completely dry. He would say something like, “I’m just a boy from Burnley after all,” or “You can keep the boy out of Lancashire…” It was great, but I also thought: it’s not really though, is it? Because there aren’t that many elderly men from ordinary families in Lancashire licking their plates clean at The Ivy. That’s a different type of person.

‘I remember telling him how good I thought Michael Hordern, who played Gandalf in the [1981] BBC radio version, was, and he seemed genuinely put out by it. I thought he’d enjoy the comparison. Afterwards, one of our mutual friends said, “You’ve got to remember, he’s a fucking actor.”’

But really, who can blame someone like McKellen for coming out a tad prickly and strange. Acting is a career like no other, one where you are born into extreme stress, told to forget about your true self (while simultaneously asked to mine personal trauma), forced to compete against people that look and sound like you, and then subjected to the critiques, fantasies and delusions of an entertainment hungry public.

Think about what your average actor has to go through and the answer to the question, ‘Why are actors so weird?’ becomes as simple as ‘Why are long distance lorry drivers so lonely?’ or ‘Why are teachers so stressed?’ Actors are weird because they act.

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