I got a phone call from my agent a couple of days ago. That’s always a good thing for an actor but this phone call was particularly good. Would I like to audition for a nice little cameo in a major feature film to be directed by one of the most famous directors in the world? It was, as they say, a no-brainer. One small drawback: the part I would be auditioning for was called “Ugly Man”.
We actors like to think if we get work it’s because of our talent, our charisma, the way we’ve turned our uniquely traumatic childhood into a truth that’s so pure it’s almost unwatchable, but really, more often than not, it’s simply because of what we look like. Brad knows it, Angelina knows it, Cher definitely knows it: in acting, looks are everything.
This doesn’t just apply at the gorgeous end of the market. It’s also true for those of us further down the scale, those of us who have what is euphemistically known as “character” faces. It’s impossible to be deluded about your looks in the acting profession. First of all, there are the reviews. I was once described in a national newspaper as “a goofy-mouthed, rubber faced idiot”. It was a compliment and I took it as such. I’ve also been called “extraordinarily grotesque”, “the man with a face that belongs in the X-Files” and, in one of the best reviews I’ve ever received, “an overactive, half-crazed gimp” (I was slightly disappointed to be only half crazed). But then I am a comedian. With a rubber face and a goofy mouth.
My girlfriend, however, is an award-winning, highly respected theatre actress who I think is beautiful. Over the past five years she’s been likened to “an underfed swan”, “a predatory stick insect”, “a beaky magpie”, “an adolescent giraffe” and, most recently, “a geeky horse”. This is the mother of my children we’re talking about! If anyone had called her any of these names in the street, I’d have been in their face and we’d have entered “Leave it, Dave, he’s not worth it!” territory, but in the Financial Times Theatre section… well, that’s another matter. And again, every one of this Noah’s ark-load of comparisons was intended as a compliment. Clearly, to be an actor, you need the hide of a rhinoceros (one animal which is so far missing from my girlfriend’s collection).
And if your vanity can survive the reviews, then there’s always the castings. Many casting directors arrange it so that everyone who’s up for the same part auditions one after the other. This means when you look around the waiting room before an audition you can see exactly who is deemed to be similar to you. For anyone with an over-inflated image of their attractiveness, this can be a sobering moment. I’m usually in with what are described in the casting breakdowns given to agents as “comedy men”: quirky, unusual-looking blokes in their 30s, although on one traumatic occasion I did find myself sharing a waiting room with a roomful of dwarves and hunchbacks (forgive the un-PC terms but I want you to get a sense of the un-PC feelings I had at that moment). I managed to convince myself I was there in case the director wanted a taller, straighter-backed option, but it was still a blow. Just as it’s a blow when you slip categories from “young male” to “middle aged male”, or, as has just happened to an understandably devastated friend of mine, when you go from “attractive young women” to “big ladies”.
The terrible thing about actors is that we put up with all this because we know that our face, our physique, even the hump on our back is our fortune. We sacrifice our vanity because, basically, we want the job. Once I’d got over the fact that I’d been grouped with actors of diminutive stature and/or with humps all I wanted was to get the gig. I would prove to the director I could be dwarfier than the dwarves, humpier than those with humps. And I wasn’t the only one. One of the actors with a hump confessed to me he’d stuffed a small towel down the back of his shirt to boost his natural hump so he wouldn’t lose out to someone with a bigger hump. That’s how shallow we actors are. We’ll do anything to get a job.
So if you go to the cinema in a year or so and see me playing the part of The Ugly Man, you’ll know that, yes, I’m a little bit hurt, but in the end the director and I both had to accept I was perfect for the role.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Telegraph.