While traveling last year in France and the U.K., when I wasn’t visiting family and friends and doing some tourism, I wanted to find out: What is it like to be an actor in Paris? I speak the language—my mother was French—so why not do a little delving? And how about in London? How does the actor’s experience compare with my own here in Los Angeles?
A bit about me: I’m originally from Northern California, and went to U.C. Berkeley, spent eight years in NYC, then moved to Los Angeles in 1990. I’m employed primarily onstage and also do TV, film, and commercials. I didn’t really find my footing in the business until I was in my 40s, after I wrote my own solo play and got critical attention; feelings of accomplishment and legitimacy were a long time coming. I’ve received L.A. Drama Critics Circle and L.A. Stage Alliance Ovation Awards, and am a member of Antaeus Theatre Company, a classical ensemble.
While in Europe, I spoke to four actors, two in Paris and two in the U.K. They included Shaghayegh “Shasha” Beheshti, who was born in Iran but raised in France by artists. Beheshti is alive with passion and intelligence, and looks a bit like Frida Kahlo. I saw her in the extraordinary Une Chambre en Inde (A Room in India) at the renowned Théâtre du Soleil in the Bois de Vincennes. A 20-year veteran of Ariane Mnouchkine’s unique troupe, Beheshti functions as actor, co-creator, and staff member, and as such has an atypical Parisian actor’s life. She has a musician husband and eight-year-old daughter. She is currently in Macao, where a Level 8 typhoon has disrupted her production Kaleidoscope.
Lovely Rosemary Boyle, based in Edinburgh, graduated from Guildhall in London just four years ago. I saw her in her second professional production, as Sorel Bliss in Hay Fever at the Lyceum Theatre (a co-production with Citizens Theatre of Glasgow). Rosemary has toured with the National Theatre of Scotland and done a bit of TV; and she has just completed a tour of the U.K. in Of Mice and Men.
Paris-based Pauline Deshons is vivacious, with sparkling eyes; I saw her onstage in Le Porteur d’Histoire. She characterizes herself as a small-town girl who happened to win a coveted spot at the private Conservatoire National. Deshons and her classmates then formed a company with cutting-edge sociopolitical themes, Le Birgit Ensemble, which is gaining recognition. Recently she performed in Cyrano de Bergerac (Roxane) and in Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. She lives with her “amoureux” and recently quit her side job as the assistant/figure model to a well-known painter.
Petite and blonde, Debra Gillett has enormous, flashing blue eyes and a keen wit. We spoke after I saw her brilliant turn as Shirley Williams in Limehouse at the Donmar Warehouse. She studied at Guildhall and immediately began an impressive career in many productions at the RSC, National Theatre, Royal Court, etc., receiving an Olivier Award nomination for Best Comedy Performance. Recent films include Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Bridget Jones’s Baby. Debra is raising three boys (13, 15, and 17) with her playwright/screenwriter/director husband, Patrick Marber. She was most recently onstage at the National in Marber’s adaptation of Ionesco’s Exit the King; next will be the National’s The Madness of King George III in Nottingham, an NT Live production.
I spoke to each about similar topics. Here are their thoughts about the craft and career of acting across the Atlantic.
Debra Gillett: When I started it was a very linear profession: You would leave drama school, go out to the reps, which is all over the country, and learn your craft there. You’d do all the great classical plays in Nottingham, in Leeds and the Royal Exchange and up in Scotland—you could do that for 5 or 10 years, and then you’d move to the RSC and do a few years there. Then you might start to pick up a bit of TV work. There was a sort of direction; you’d arrive with a lot of knowledge, your armory. It literally doesn’t work like that now. You can be plucked from somewhere because you’re perfect for a certain part in a film, and the next thing you’re playing a lead in the National Theatre. Now they radio mic everybody, so you don’t need that training, so it does feel a bit… something has been lost. To be able to be heard—I mean, that’s just basic stuff. No one cares about that now.
Pauline Deshons: At the Conservatoire I was placed in a class with a master who goes deep emotionally—you torture yourself. Later I had a teacher who told me, “You don’t have to suffer for this profession.” I had to find again the joy in acting. Because even in a tragic scene—there can be pleasure in doing it, whether it’s Strindberg, Ibsen, Chekhov.
Rosemary Boyle: At Guildhall, which is classically based, there was an emphasis on movement and voice. There’s text work. Scene study. We didn’t do much emotional work. A few TV classes, but no on-camera classes, which is unfortunate, because self-taping is becoming really big. I wish there had been more education about the industry. The third year was all about doing shows, putting it all into practice and getting an agent.
We can easily get student loans. It was about £ 3,000 a year when I went, but it’s up to something like £ 9,000 a year now.
Gillett: In my mid-30s work was harder to come by. I was married with three small children. We moved out of the city and bought a farm. I didn’t work for 10 years, and I wasn’t batting away offers. It was my choice to be with family, but also I had grown out of ingénue—and there are three actresses who get all the work in theater. Television’s the same now too. I was lucky enough to be able to turn things down, because I realized I’d be more miserable doing pulpy telly than not working.
The only power that you’ve got as an actor is to say “no.” And if you need to be earning you don’t even have that. I don’t really quite have the ambition to be a proper actress actually, at whatever cost. I just haven’t got that.
A lot of the young actors, the men particularly, are incredibly ripped, and do all the body training and the green juices. In my day they were far more raffish, lots of drinking and staggering into work with a bacon sandwich and a big mug of tea because they’d got such a hangover.
Deshons: It is a precarious existence. It’s tough to get a bank loan. But you can live decently—you earn about 1,500-3,000 Euros a month. It’s higher than the minimum wage. We also have excellent unemployment benefits. But for eligibility you must have worked 507 hours in a 12-month period.
Le theatre publique [state-subsidized theatre], of which there is a lot, gets criticized for being elitist, masturbatory, intellectual, experimental. Le prive [commercial theatre] is more often purely for entertainment. I am lucky enough to perform in both. In the publique you earn a better salary because rehearsals are paid; in le prive sometimes it’s three days of rehearsal and show up and do the show. But of course stars get huge salaries.
Gillett: When I started you earned more money than now. You have to love the language or the story that you’re telling or the director, because it’s not going to pay your mortgage. I’m lucky that I’m married to someone doing well; on what I’m currently earning I couldn’t afford to pay someone to look after my kids. She would earn more than I do!
The rep companies don’t exist anymore. You’re just employed for a job then you’re looking for work again. Now it’s more about star casting and getting bums on seats. So people on telly series now clean up onstage. I have many friends who…it’s all you’ve done and you’ve got to your 60s and you’re like, “I don’t even own the flat I live in—and I’m not working.”
Ageism and Sexism
Gillett: It’s quite cruel on women as a business. Very much about aging, how you look. And HD came in on the telly, so a lot of discussions about whether people needed fillers, and it’s really got very lookist. Often the woman’s role is the adjunct. [In Limehouse] people’s reaction is so satisfying: It’s a woman who’s 50, has an incredible brain, and she’s part of that group because of what she feels and what she thinks, not because of who she’s married to or who she’s having sex with or who she’s the mother of. At the Donmar they just did a big season, it was all women in fact. So there is a definite shift. Although one of the critics said, “We’ll lose our leading men if we keep doing this.”
For years we’d be down there at the bloody gym—so much work to maintain yourself, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve literally been going to the gym since I was 20 or so. Sometimes I think, when will I ever not care about that?
Identity and Significance
Shaghayegh “Shasha” Beheshti: Between productions I have great doubts and great loneliness. What is this métier when you’re not actually doing it, not actively performing? Most people do their job all the time—can you still call yourself an actor when you’re not onstage? I feel disturbed when I am not onstage for a while. It eats at me. I decided what’s important to me is to be in the theatre, whether onstage or behind the scenes.
Gillett: When you work it’s fabulous—and then you don’t work again. It’s insane. It’s quite a frivolous job, being an actor. It’s only acting…I’m not a brain surgeon. That’s why this play I’m in [Limehouse] feels—certainly our country is a mess and this playwright [Steve Waters] has written a play as a direct response. And to do something active in the only way you can, which is your skill, feels…yeah, that’s brilliant. Who would have thought when I was training that there would be this woman in her 50s still working, doing something that is relevant to the world that we’re in?
As a lonely traveler I received inspiration from my encounters with these actors and felt an instant kinship. There is something in talking about our lives onstage and off which transcends language, culture and nationality.
When I got back to L.A., I spoke to British actor Janet Greaves, a recent transplant from London with whom I had the pleasure of performing. She is a deep soul, quick to laugh, modest; her unique situation added some much welcomed nuance. A few years ago Janet toured the U.S. with the Peter Hall company, and she has performed in many theatres in the U.K. as well as the U.S. I asked her, “What’s different about working on a show here?”
“I’m surprised at how alike it is,” she said. “I thought it would feel more alien.”
“But what’s dissimilar about the actors here?”
She paused. “Everybody’s in class here. That’s different. And the healthy eating. And our L.A. cast seem more confident—Brits are self-deprecating. But that’s probably just cultural, not an actor thing.”
Certainly American culture is different from European culture. So I had expected the life of a theatre artist in Paris or London to be more refined, somehow easier, and at the same time more gratifying on a creative level than mine here in the States. But it turns out that their struggles, passions, fiscal concerns, their training, their identity issues, and the sexism they face—in other words, much of their life experience, seems very similar to my own. For better or for worse, the actor’s path, whether here or in Europe, is where I can always find a fellow traveler.
Shasha Beheshti gets the last word: “We live simply, in 40 square meters [430 square feet], but I have an extraordinary, rich life. On the road with the troupe I bring my child—Mnouchkine is all about family. There is an Iranian proverb: ‘If you have two loaves of bread, sell one and buy some daffodils to nourish your soul.’ We survive with difficulty, but that’s it for me, this job, this choice—even if you have an empty stomach, life is poetry. I am happy.”
In addition to those quoted I owe thanks to Fadila Belkebla and Walter Hotton, whom I saw in Le Porteur d’Histoire at Theatre Des Beliers Parisiens and chatted with after the show.