The Worst Critic

There is an old truism that an actor is his own worst critic. I think the reason for this has more to do with the actor’s status in society than with any excessive predilection for negative self-assessments. Indeed, my experience with actors, and my own self-introspection, tells me the average actor, if anything, has a pretty high view of himself. It takes a lot of self-confidence to perform. Yes, actors may be disproportionately shy outside of character, but whenever they have a chance to be in character they have far greater confidence about their ability to bring a character to life on stage on in film than the average person would. From the perspective of the actor, the problem is not his ability but his respectability. By respectability, I mean the extent to which his non-actor peers perceive him to be a professional with real talent.

How we perceive talent has a lot to do with our expectations. I think that Meryl Streep is a very talent actress, and she is especially capable of capturing the unique voice or mannerism of a character that heightens her believability. This is perhaps most true when she portrays a real life person, such as when she played Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher. She captured just enough of the real ticks these women had exhibited in their public lives that we the audience could walk away from the theater believing that Ms. Streep “had become” that famous lady. Still, if we are honest, can we really say that Ms. Streep is “phenomenal” in “everything” she does on stage or in film? Is she so talented as to be incapable of an average or forgettable performance? When we consider the accolades every time she acts, even when she performs in films that are otherwise not considered good, it seems the critics and the fans (but most especially the critics) are so predisposed to her greatness as to preclude anything else but fawning assessments. She cannot fumble the ball, because there is a widespread and long standing expectation that everything she happens to touch will become thespian gold.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the small town community theater or the grade school pageant. I have been fortunate to act on community stages with professional actors. Nevertheless, I saw first hand how audiences would grade community stage performances as “fun, but forgettable.” They bought our tickets to have a good time, not to be exposed to something “memorable,” let alone “sublime.” Therefore, though I had fans from among the community theater goers back when I lived in San Miguel de Allende, not one of them had much hope for me going into Hollywood. Indeed, my acting teacher at the time, who for the past couple of years had been calling me a “great actor” in one way or another, told me that Los Angeles would be “hard” when I got there. She was right, of course, and I am thankful for her honesty. She was also exhibiting my point here: Given her expectations, for the local stage I am a “pro” with “great talent,” but among “real professionals” in the dog eat dog world of Hollywood casting I am not going to be good enough to be successful.

People do not expect much from the journeyman actor. After all, how good can so and so be if in his day job he is answering the phone or taking lunch orders beside me? If he was “really good” he would have been “discovered” already in Schwab’s Drug Store (or the modern day variant), and we normal people would only know him as that dreamy, kissable personality we see up on the silver screen now and then. Moreover, if the actor is pushing middle age, and is not yet up there on that screen, then he not only lacks talent. He also lacks the maturity of everyone else his age who has figured out that chasing wistful dreams is incompatible with paying the rent, saving for retirement, and driving mom every week to the doctor.

The journeyman actor is his own worst critic, because she suspects that even his friends are feeding him false praise when they tell him how good he is in this or that performance. After all, how sincere is that praise when the same friends later are urging him to get a “real job”? Moreover, the journeyman actor seldom, if ever, gets much respect, let alone praise, for his acting work from strangers. When a stranger happens to find out he is an actor, he asks him invariably if he has seen him in anything. If the journeyman actor cannot point to a role in a well known television show or film, then there is not much more to be said.

The lawyer, the doctor, the teacher, the accountant, the business owner, these are all people with status in society. We recognize them as probably smart, certainly driven, rich or at least with a realistic potential of becoming rich someday (except for the teacher). But what do we think of the journeyman actor? Especially the journeyman actor who can see his fortieth year in his rearview mirror? And who has never been in anything we have seen or even heard of? If we are charitable, then we think he is noble for pursuing his dream, but probably not all that talented. If we are not charitable, then we think he is a loser.

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Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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