My life as an actor, part one
By Simon Barget
There’s a bench at the top of the Heath where I go over my lines but it doesn’t matter how much I practise I never get them quite right. There’s always a moment where I falter on set, not that anyone notices, it can be something as minute as a tiny error of timing, but I’m the only one who ever knows it, and even the most pernickety directors seem to let it pass.
I have to read them over and over and over and over.
When you think of all the lines an actor has over the course of his career, the mind boggles, all the words he speaks, how many hundreds of thousands: words, words and more words, not to mention the half-words and the stutters, the exclamations, the sighs, the intentional slip-ups, they all count too, constant dialogue, sentence after sentence, without respite, because there’s nothing without speech and dialogue, that’s the first thing, you can’t do anything with a character without words, and then you perhaps wonder why you can’t just make it up on the spot, improvise, I mean if you’re in character, well then surely you won’t and can’t ever go wrong.
But it doesn’t work like that. You can’t just swing in and wing it; you’ll get found out and then there’s all your career ambitions you have to juggle and you certainly don’t want to trash your reputation just because you felt like you could do better than the words you are given. And that’s the thing about acting, the whole point is you have to learn your lines, they were written with a higher purpose, the purpose shines through you, and it’s not for the actor to decide if he does or doesn’t want to say something.
But this bench is right on the top by the pond, on a little glade of land that looks out west, slightly removed from the main paths so you don’t get so many people, which means I can really concentrate and absorb myself in the scripts, and this thin shelf of land sits above West Heath Road to one side and just below Lower Terrace to the other and you look southwest more precisely towards West Hampstead, Cricklewood, and then Kilburn and Paddington further out, but right in front of you is the actual glade of land – because the bench is at the back of it, like the back row of the stalls in a theatre -- before it drops sharply off and then the panorama is there before you and in the distance you catch Shepherd’s Bush and the trios of tower blocks and then further out, maybe Royal Oak and Hammersmith, all these different places in London, and everything is concrete, stacked in, everything suffocated or like one giant cloud or maybe a big Lego set a big Lego man has just built and the clouds move across the top of the sky and I just sit with my scripts reading and reading trying to get the words right.
A girl approached me the other day, late twenties I’d say, her phone out and a picture of me on it asking me if it was me, and I just said ‘a-ha’ without any follow-up or attempt to play it down, there was no thought in me at that moment, and it felt like the most normal thing to be approached, and she said that I looked ‘serene’, I think she meant there on that bench staring into the distance as opposed to in the photo and I had never thought of myself as serene and I couldn’t remember whether in that moment I was being me or my character. She asked for a selfie and I said yes. It was only later when I got home that I started to think about what the whole thing meant, that someone had recognised me, I mean I assume she had and didn’t just have some facial recognition app on her phone, you never know, plus my face is not that distinctive and though I often get glared at in the street, it’s rare for someone to actually approach me. But for the time I was on the bench, I didn’t think about it, I kept on reading, and as my mother used to say, perhaps not an exact fit as an expression: ‘it was like water off a duck’s back’.