An actor will play many roles in his career – some of them gentlemen; some of them quite the opposite. But this does not mean that the actor himself should behave in any other manner than that of a perfect gentleman. Tabloids and gossip columns are littered with the exploits of actors, but whether Hollywood A-list or fresh out of drama school, there are a few useful tips that will boost your status as a gentleman.
A film set is a huge mechanical circus in which the actor is one of the many cogs, flywheels and levers that helps pull this creative enterprise together. It is the small details and touches, requiring the lightest of efforts that can define the gentleman in these circumstances. For example – a closer look at a call sheet will provide the names of the Assistant Directors (ADs) who will steer the actor through the bedlam; that first handshake can now be reinforced with their name. A little grease to make the wheels run smoothly, and you never know when you may need to ask a favour of the ADs.
A gentleman always knows his lines. It may seem obvious, but I have seen it myself when an actor arrives for work without full knowledge of their lines. For some this may be their technique, but for everyone else it means that lunch will now be two hours late. It’s all part of the preparation and if there’s one thing that will win respect and gentleman-credit on any film set, it is preparation. Preparation on your character, preparation on your lines and preparation of what is expected of you. Even preparation on your appearance; notwithstanding any specific character requests, the actor who presents themselves to the make-up department clean shaven and with clean hair is a real gentleman. It should be effortless and natural to make these small efforts that show respect for the other members of the team.
Being fully prepared in the character is not to say that the actor should be too fixed in any one point of view. After the actor has arrived on set and been polite to the first wave of crew; after they have charmed their way through make-up; once they have politely asked the camera operator what size the first shot is so they can moderate the size of performance; once they have been a gentleman in all these areas, then it comes to the key relationship with the director. The actor knows his lines and has an angle on the character – but we cannot forget that the director has a much broader vision on the work. As such, the actor cannot be too fixed in an approach to character – the gentleman-actor can discuss ideas, react to suggestions and give options.
Acting can often be a dark art. It is, at the same time, cerebral and instinctual; it draws on huge emotional reserves and an engaging relationship with your imagination. Nevertheless, the gentleman actor should also be armed with common sense. Know where you are going and be on time – for an audition as much as for the actual job. Refrain from calling your agent and saying that you’re lost and that you will be late. It’s easier than ever to find your way around; and always err on the side of being early. Better to be early and have a cup of tea in the vicinity, than arrive out of breath and unfocused. Even if you are being collected, know what time your car will arrive, so you are ready to go and not still in your pyjamas.
For a working actor like myself, I feel it is important to understand the position of my cog within the movie machine. The more profile an actor has, the more important this awareness. An actor may be at the front end of a finished film, and garner much of the attention, but they are there because of the hard work of a host of others, behind the cameras, all working toward the same goal. The last thing that this intensive environment needs is an actor wielding their ego and being thoroughly un-gentlemanly. But unfortunately this can often be the case.
Many actors have a searing reputation that precedes them and, despite providing the pull at the box office, they can make a day at work for everyone else a living hell. Far be it from me to brand fellow actors as demons: the rumour-mill is constantly churning out tales of egomania from the usual highly-strung and highly-paid suspects. There are countless recycled stories of meanness and emotional terrorism – but often the one thing lacking is context. Why did so-and-so walk off set? Why was such-and-such shut down after a week? Given a choice, we will take an outrageous, barely believable anecdote as truth, because it fuels our desire for drama and gossip. Anything that the actor with a fiery reputation then does, just confirms the image that we have formed of them. But it is very easy to judge without context. A witch-hunt is thrilling; an explanation of the pressures of a film set is not.
But hey – who am I kidding? We’ve all heard the relentless, expletive-ridden tirade that was launched at the director of photography on the set of Terminator Salvation, right? Recorded on the orders of the line producer in case things turned from bad to litigious? Shared virally around the globe? It gives us a gleeful sense of shock and wonder to have the world of the un-gentleman exposed in such stark light.
We don’t all have the luxury of context, but unfortunately we do have the convenience of hearsay. In an industry where image and reputation are so important, it can be very easy for both to be jeopardised. The fact is that the leading actor on Terminator Salvation takes a unique and intensive approach to his craft. Simply because his angry release was recorded for all to fear does not give us the right to brand him an un-gentlemanly actor.
Forty years ago a young James Caan and Robert Duvall were so intimidated at the prospect of working with ‘the great’ Marlon Brando on The Godfather that they frequently pulled down their pants and thrust their bare bottoms at him to diffuse their anxiety. Should such on-set hijinx relegate them to the league of the un-gentleman?
Brando himself was notorious for not learning lines. Cue cards littered the sets of the films he worked on, hidden behind props and worked into the clothing of fellow actors; even the nappy of ‘baby superman’ in Superman. But does that make him any less a gentleman? Can it not just be shrugged off as a case of whatever works? Does our suspended disbelief need to be cut down so brutally?
During the filming of Casino Royale (1967) Orson Welles and Peter Sellers despised each other so much that they not only stopped speaking to each other, they refused to shoot their scenes together. Each demanded to film their part with a stand-in and the scenes were shot over-the-shoulder. Was this the behaviour of two egomaniacs with too much power over production? Or a couple of gents, sparing the rest of the cast and crew the intolerable awkwardness of having to watch an embarrassing spat?
One thing is true: we all have bad days. But whether you’re an actor on a film set commanding millions of dollars, or a barman juggling cocktails for tips, the mark of the gentleman is in how he deals with his bad day in front of others.
Being un-gentlemanly may lead to some notoriety, but the gentleman-actor may earn more respect and have a longer, more fulfilling career. Indeed, you don’t often hear the counter-tales – the anecdotes of those star actors that are a pleasure and privilege to work with. As in any walk of life, it is far easier to develop a bad reputation than a good one. But there are gentleman-actor role models for us to follow, shining a beacon of respect and good conduct to light the way.
Anecdotes of their generosity and goodwill fight through the pages of backstabbing tittle-tattle. Moments come to light, such as Tom Hanks refunding the ticket price to a couple who hated one of his films; of Johnny Depp spending $65,000 of his own money on new waterproofs for 500 members of crew on Pirates of the Caribbean; of Steve Carrell standing at the door of a coach-load of supporting artists and helping the older ladies down the steps; of Tom Cruise resuscitating a hit-and-run victim, taking her to hospital and paying her medical insurance fees. Typical Tom…
But you don’t need to buy the entire film crew Harley Davidson motorcycles in order to be a gentleman. Sometimes all you need to do is have a shave and learn your lines.