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Actors Gotta Act, Haters Gonna Hate

I’m a big fan of Simon Pegg: Spaced is one of my favourite sitcoms of all time, the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ is fantastic, he’s a geek like us, I enjoyed his autobiography; we were at the same university at the same time. This means that I will watch most things he is in, which is why watched Hector and the Search for Happiness. As my reactionary tweets show, I didn’t enjoy it.

Pegg stars as Hector, a successful psychologist in London, where he lives with his adoring long-term girlfriend, played by Rosamund Pike. For various plot reasons, he decides that he is not completely happy as a well-off white male, and that he must travel to China, Africa (I don’t think they specified which country in Africa he visits, which is offensive) and Los Angeles, where he eventually discovers that he loves his adoring girlfriend and his job and his comfortable life in a developed country. The triteness and naval-gazing aspect of the film became more clear to me when I discovered that it was adapted from a French novel … There are other actors in this film who I admire (Pike, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgård, Christopher Plummer, Jean Reno) but for some reason I feel most disappointed in Pegg, perhaps due to the fact that I watched the film because of him.

This reaction got me thinking about something that’s always bugged me: why is it that actors we like make films we don’t like? There are many actors whose work I enjoy but not one has a perfect CV (the only actor who can claim to have a perfect CV is John Cazale – he acted in only 5 films [The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter], which are all brilliant, but he died tragically young from lung cancer, soon after filming his scenes for The Deer Hunter). Every single actor who has made a handful of great films that endear him or her in the hearts of the audience has also made a handful of stinkers that make you wonder what he/she was thinking. I can’t fathom why Pegg would want to do a film where he was paid to travel to China, Africa and Los Angeles … (That reminds of the story Mark Kermode often trots out about Michael Caine’s decision to be in Jaws IV was based on reading the first line of the script: EXT. Day. The Bahamas. ‘I’m in.’)

There is a strange disconnect in our brains where a person who we like (‘like’ being a shorthand for admire a performance in a good film/TV show that we enjoy watching, perhaps again and again) in one thing should always be in films/TV shows that we like. We assume that the actor has the same excellent taste as we do and that all future choices will be excellent and we will be safe in our admiration because of the constant quality of the work. Because the quality of a film/TV show is based solely on the leading actor, right?

Obviously, this is absurd nonsense – there is no connection between actor and quality of the finished product. Yes, stars gain enough clout to develop projects and mould them when in production to their own requirements, but that’s no guarantee. Making films and televisions shows are a collaborative medium (but, as Richard Aoyade says, so is a profiteering psychic in Nazi-occupied France) that involves the input of many different people, from writers to directors to other actors to producers, not to mention all the technical people who actual make things happen – how can one person be responsible for the quality of the finished output? (Even auteur theory toting directors as the authors is stretching a thesis to its limits.) To expect your favourite actor to always produce brilliant entertainment is impossible.

Then there is another factor to take into contention, one that I understand more now that I am a freelance medical editor: actors are freelancers, with no guarantee of continued employment from one job to the next, so they have to take work where they can get it or they won’t get more work because people will have forgotten who they are. Job security in the acting profession is also flimsy when you’re successful: Olivia Colman, having won BAFTAs for drama and comedy at the same ceremony, didn’t work for six months after the end of the second season of Broadchurch, despite being one of the most respected and loved actors of the moment. There are far too many actors for far too few roles, so it’s astonishing that anyone can sustain a career (from a purely statistical perspective). The only way to survive is to act in anything when it comes along, even if the quality of the script might be suspect, or the director is untested, or the concept too unusual or too bland. Do enough films and the bad ones will be quickly forgotten …

Pegg is a writer as well as an actor – he co-wrote Spaced and the Cornetto Trilogy, and is co-writing the latest Star Trek film – but he’s also an actor, which means he has to be in films so that people still know he’s an actor, and he has to fit in the smaller films in between his regular roles in the blockbuster franchises of Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, which will limit the selection because of a variety of reasons (availability of other actors, funding, readiness of script, the right director, etc.), but he still has to work. He has a family, so he needs money.

[NB: I’m not picking on Pegg here – he has quite a good CV and I still have nothing but great affection for him and a lot of his work – I’m just using him as an example. Pick your own favourite actor and most of this is applicable.]

Acting may still be seen as a noble calling, pursuing artistic ideals of truth and humanity, but it’s still a job and it’s the same for many of the actors working today, including famous Oscar-winning ones: Nicolas Cage has been churning out films in recent years, most of them not well received critically or commercially, some even distributed as video-on-demand, and one can’t help but think that it’s due to his tax problems. He has an Academy Award, he was a respected indie actor who made the successful transition to action blockbusters and was the fifth-highest-paid actor in 2008, according to Forbes, yet he’s still a jobbing actor. He’s not the only one who makes seemingly inexplicable choices: Robert De Niro has been acting in a whole load of rubbish since his glory days; Tim Roth was Sepp Blatter in that awful film about FIFA, and let’s not get into the whole issue of what female actors have to slum in for the sake of continued screen acting …

I think that actors take work where they can get it because they know that the bad ones will be quickly forgotten – most people tend to remember the good things they watch a few times, not the stinkers they actively try to forget that they watched (I want my money back for Batman and Robin, and I had won free tickets for that, but I don’t hold it against George Clooney) – and the good ones will play on rotation on the likes of ITV2 (which always seems to be showing Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead for some reason). Actors don’t feel bad about the ones that didn’t work (except for Bill Murray discussing a particular film in Zombieland, perhaps) because they know how alchemical and unpredictable cinematic and televisual entertainments are, so why should we? Actors are human beings, just like us – not every job I’ve ever done has been amazing and worthy of return (particularly working as a cleaner in a mental hospital), so I’ve got to stop holding actors to an unattainable standard. However, it doesn’t stop me from hating Hector and the Search for Happiness

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