I am one of those actresses you don’t know. The kind that routinely earn £8k a year thrashing their soul out in an off West End play. A couple of times a year, I play a nice guest lead in a series that you will have seen, I’ve played semi-regulars in high end dramas – but you won’t remember me. My characters are not meant to be remembered, they are meant to support the leads. I am definitely in the below the line budget.
It’s hard for me to admit that I earn so little as an actress. It’s embarrassing. I’m 37. I have a mortgage, and a daughter. I’m good at what I do, and I’m smart. Once upon a time, I had a good couple of years. I had some brilliant jobs, earned some decent money, paid off some student debt paid a high tax bill and I bought a flat with a friend. Then it stopped. Overnight. And this is the story of most actresses.
For the last ten years I’ve subsidised my career by teaching at one of the world’s best drama schools. I’ve also taught in other places, part time drama schools, and evening classes – all too aware that there aren’t enough scholarships for full time drama training. And I love teaching. Genuinely. My students know it. My boss know it. So I’m all good. I’m blessed. There is nothing to feel sorry for here.
I graduated from drama school over 15 years ago. The first two years of training were amazing – immersed in a bubble, I worked on my voice and body, I learnt how to break down a text, sword fight and how to create character, but the third year was tough. As students, we became public, and everything changed.
In the Autumn of the third year we did our first West End showcase. We took over a theatre. Agents and casting directors came in droves. The future was about to begin. At the end of the showcase, a few of us went for a drink. So. What now… ? The next fifteen minutes were pretty tough. We walked together down Old Compton Street and one at a time, phones started ringing – agents. The slim went first, then the posh, and the hot, and I was left wondering the streets of Soho in tears – no-one wanted me. That night I pulled in an extra night shift at Gap where in tears on my midnight lunch-break, my mate Nathan took me to a Lebanese restaurant for a posh kebab.
A few days later, the principle of the school called me into his office. He told me I’d be fine: the problem is Michelle you’re not specific, so no one is really going to want you … I was silent. You’re not thin, you’re not fat, you’re not tall, you’re not short, you’re not ginger. You’re not … mixed race enough for anyone to notice. But you’re a good actress. You’re very good. So don’t worry. Keep reminding people you’re alive and you’ll be fine. He said it with warmth and kindness.
So I wrote to people. A lot. Too much I imagine, but I was young and ambitious – which can easily be seen as desperate. A few weeks later, I had a call from a casting director at the BBC. I’d written him letter saying I was from the Midlands, asking if he could keep me in mind for an episode of Doctors. He asked me to come and read for a five-line part. My beautiful young things friends we’re going up for leads in features films but I was content. I’d start low and work my way up. I’d learn. In a phone call a couple of days later, I was told I’d got the part and I couldn’t have been more delighted. A few days later, the casting director in question called again. He told me he’d like me to wait for a better part to come along. Did I mind? He promised he’d look out for me. I said I didn’t mind, hung up the phone and cried – again. I left my training with neither agent nor job.
Six months later with some great reviews under my belt for playing Ophelia in an open air production of Hamlet that a group of agent-less graduates put on, I invited the casting director to come and see the show – he came. Now, this story isn’t going where you think – this guy is one of the good ones. He stuck to his word and when a lovely part about a girl who had attempted to commit suicide came up, he called me. It was a Mental Health awareness week special. I auditioned and I got the job! After a bad start I was off. I followed that with an episode of Casualty and on a casting director recommendation, I got an agent.
So here I was, in a meeting with my first agent: Are you happier playing posh or common? Pardon? Do you see yourself as above stairs or below? Neither really. And then – far less tactfully than my former Principle. He stated the main problem: I can’t place you. You’re not thin or fat. Either lose two stone or put a couple on.
We also had a conversation about race. Now as you can see, I look pretty white. But as it happens I’m not. I’m mixed race, so I tried to talk to him about this. He dismissed me quickly: I’m only going to put you up for white parts – you don’t look mixed race – there’s no point, I took exception to this. I’ve always felt protective of my mixed heritage. I’ve had to explain it to people on a vast number of occasions. My mum is Seychellois – when I was young she was mistaken for my nanny more than once… I explain to people that she is the lightest of ten siblings – why am I explaining this? – so as to excuse and explain my shade. But I told my agent: if you’re not going to put me up for mixed-race parts, I won’t sign. We don’t all look like a fucking Benetton advert. The agent signed me, and within a week he had found my particular casting bracket. Generic foreign. I was an easy sell. My first job was for Max Stafford-Clarke playing the Creole Maid, this was followed by years of playing Turkish, Kuwaiti and Croatian. Then Russian and Mexican. All of these characters the outsiders. These are never the leads.
Over the past few years I have been vocal about race, gender and disability. Creating the guest list for the first Act For Change Project mid post-natal depression, was possibly not the smartest of choice. Getting riled up about things when you’re getting two hours sleep a night is ill-advised and it lead to a bad period of post-natal depression. I was angry. But it turned out other people were too. Colleagues were popping their heads over the parapet all over the place. In a matter of months, Parents in Performing Arts was set up, Women in Film and TV and The Act for Change Project. People weren’t going to be silenced. It was only a matter of time before people felt strong enough to fight back.
Over the years, I have tried to make students aware of the industry, but without frightening them. Where I can, I use cross gender, colour-blind, casting, which helps students explore the edges of their casting bracket, but sometime I wonder, is it worth it? When casting directors come and audition students they are generally in two camps. Forward thinking and smart, hoping to push barriers and make changes, but the other half make me furious – of course he’d never be up for that kind of role – oh she’s very tall isn’t she – she’s just so plain – gay, so useful right now, but… I keep my mouth shut – me putting a casting directors back up will not help the students get jobs, or me. I have to choose my time and place to fight the battles that need fighting.
Last year I challenged my Alma Mater to do everything in their power regarding a couple of specific issues. Firstly to ask students not to change their names. In our industry, on occasions students have to change their professional name because our union, Equity, has someone else with the same name – but I had noticed a worrying trend. Students were changing their names from any name that sounded less traditionally British’ to more traditionally Western sounding names. Mohmmed became Mark, Atefeh became Grace and Samir became Gabriel (ironically names changed to protect my students). One student who choose to keep her name, ended up changing it eight months later when her agent told her she was struggling to get her in for leads, because her name was too foreign sounding.
In my past ten years as a teacher, I have seen students do all kinds of things so as not to limit their casting, lose weight, cut their dreads, de camp, and I find it upsetting, fiercely so. But I am mainly angry because I knew why they do it – and I can’t blame them. I have done it too! Mole removed, weight lost, Brummie accent smoothed.
But last week, at the ripe old age of 37 I looked in the mirror and accepted joyfully that I have a round beautiful bum, wide childbearing hips and a tummy. My skin is so so. I have nice eyes. Wrinkles round my mouth … but ultimately, however transformative I am, I am me.
For the past fifteen years, I have been quietly made to feel who I couldn’t do my job because I didn’t look like those other girls – who too are beautiful – with their slender frames and small breasts. With my less than perfect proportions – which as of today I am going to call perfect – I’m the shape of the maid, or the best friend, or the slightly overweight council estate mum. It started at drama school and it hasn’t stopped.
So, fuck you Harvey Weinstein.
As a teacher I pride myself on teaching students to embrace and to use themselves in their character creation. But I have always felt the need to look like those other girls … because they got to better parts. Plays at The National or that film job I wanted… I’m not saying they didn’t deserve those roles – don’t mistake this for the rant of an un-working actor, it isn’t. Kate Winslet was held up as curvy, she’s a size 10-12… maybe sometimes a 14… I can’t be those girls however hard I try.
So fuck you Harvey Weinstein.
I was told on a job when I was 27 by an ex-Hollywood leading lady – not to eat pudding on the shoot. I was the slimmest I’ve ever been. I laughed it off. But I’d worked hard to be my size 10, I was exercising 6 times a week and I was exhausted, but I’d got this job and surely I’d got the job because I was thinner than I’d ever been. My size conformed. It didn’t tell a story of its own! I felt like I had a place on set…
So. Fuck you Harvey Weinstein.
I am not black enough, or white enough, thin enough or fat enough, like Sophie Okonado was cruelly told, I’m not fuckable enough. But there is a change coming and I can feel it rise. This change isn’t and mustn’t just be about him, or him or him (and there are plenty more to come). It is and isn’t simply about sexual abuse. It’s about more.
Last week, after waking up feeling great, I went into BAFTA for a meeting. I bumped into a casting director there. She’s lovely, another of the good ones. She’s cast me a few times, in good roles. She said hi. She was pleased my career’s going well. She then said – oh god, it’s such a shame, you’re at that tricky – in between age –
So now I’m going to say this – I don’t care if you’re lovely, casting directors. If you’re not challenging your own thoughts on this stuff, on a daily basis, you are not doing your job. Mother, Wife, Daughter – is that literally all women are seen as? With the odd exception of the strong woman category. It must stop.
It turns out lots of men have had the same thing – you’ll be more castable when you’re in your thirties, we need to cast someone who is more believably 30. There’s a trend of casting Daniel Radcliffe height men to play boys, but I knew boys at school who were 6ft tall when they were 15 and girls who were a size 16 aged, 12. This kind of casting creates a false view. It’s lies. And it’s endemic
Later, on my day at BAFTA I overheard a conversation:
Man: Claire Hi… Oh my God … I didn’t even recognise you. With your clothes on… oh God…
Claire: Nice. Did you go to the Harvey Wienstein school of etiqette?
Man: Shit man. Funny yeah. I’ve got to be careful.
Man: Well nice to see you…
Claire walked away.
The man then turned to me.
Man: Oh god. I have to be careful now. I have to be careful.
I nodded. I did not smile.
Michelle: Um hum. Yes. Yes you do. And I got back to my work…
For the first time ever, I felt empowered and for the first time ever, he knew he was in the wrong. I would like to sit in BAFTA for the next few weeks and note the changing conversation.
Over the past three years I’ve been writing. I’ve got projects in development with Working Title, Warp and Genesius Film to name a few. A series about two non-mum mums, a pan-Europe action thriller – (which people insist on calling a female led action thriller – my husband joked I should just call it FLAT and have done with it), and end of empire drama, a series about a female asylum seeker, another about an MP and her team. But there’s no point me developing projects if they stall at development. More commissioners need the female gaze. We can’t pitch two shows about mums at the same time. No? Really? Why not? Hollywood made a female led action thriller last year. Not sure there’s room for another. Is there a one female action hero rule I don’t know about? We can’t make the asylum seeker the hero, no-one will watch it. Really? No. I’m saying no.
I’m going to tell stories from the female gaze. Stories about people like me and like you. Stories of women who exist as whole beings… where family is an extension of the woman, rather than the other way around, where outsiders are on the in, and where no one is a tricky age. I’m not being strong doing this. I’m not being brave. I am being me.
The past few weeks are about so much more than him, (or him, or him) but I can still be angry, and I will remain angry. Now we just have to use the anger. People like him better watch their mouths. We are not sex objects. We are not yours. We are us. Uniquely us and we’re coming for you.
And here’s an instruction if you’re in a position of power. Celebrate us. Help us. Or please step out of the way – we’re coming …