I was 9 when my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I found out from a friend who told me that her parents had told her – 6 months previously. I didn’t really know what it meant. My parents were still of the opinion that I was too young to be told because I was too young to be worried. They hadn’t got that bit quite right. My imagination was already on turbo power, filling out the images behind the closed bedroom door, their hushed conversations, the flowers that kept arriving at the house, the peculiar sympathetic comments from my teachers, the wheelchair brochure in the kitchen drawer. I observed my parents meticulously and obsessively; desperately hunting for clues in the tones of their voices, their eye contact, my mother’s sigh.
Google didn’t exist then, but the clues were there; I had enough to work with. I began tying my legs together when I went to sleep so that I could know how it felt to wake up with them not working. I would crawl to the bathroom in the middle of the night and crouch outside my mum’s bedroom door, trying to hear if she was breathing or not. I would chop my food into tiny pieces and then swallow them each with water to practise what it must be like to have to take lots of medication. I thought that to understand what was happening to her, I must start to feel what she was feeling. I would silently cry at the thought of neither of us walking again. I absorbed her into myself until I felt that I could ‘be her’.
And it worked. My instinct was razor-sharp. I could anticipate what she would need because I’d already felt it. I often had a tissue to hand a few seconds before she sneezed. I was pouring the glass of water just as she started saying she was thirsty. When out at the shops, I’d pick clothes I knew would fit and suit her perfectly. I felt keenly when the TV volume was too loud for her. I knew achingly that dark evenings drawing in would dampen her mood so I’d switch on every lamp half an hour before the light dwindled. I knew her because I became her, and in that way I felt that I was able to support her. I longed for her pain to become mine in the hope that it would ease her load.
Of course, 20 years later, I know science doesn’t work like that, but it’s a difficult habit to switch off. But as I was growing up, I realised this muscle was serving another purpose – as I fell in love with acting through my teens, I realised that this was how I was approaching my characters. I empathised with them. I felt for them. I felt as them. And I couldn’t stop feeling. Feelings, not thoughts, would tidal wave through me. Instead of making notes about my characters, I kept diaries as them. I look back at them now and see all the different hand-writings. I had become so accustomed to switching myself off in order to feel the experience of another that acting became the simple act of existing, as another.
Someone asked me after one performance how I could make myself cry on stage. I replied that ‘the character was devastated’. They asked again how it was that I could cry and I could only say again that the character was extremely distressed. I’m sure you can see the obvious danger here, that as I progressed into the treacherous waters of angst-ridden late teens I would soon lose sight of who that I was altogether.
Like anyone, I was a mixture of my experiences and my genes. But this empathy was also gaining its own power. I’d find myself doing it with random strangers I passed; endowing them with an imaginary life which I felt as brutally as if it were my own. It was not unusual for tears to leak indiscriminately on their behalf as I strolled to the shop for a pint of milk. It’s not that I imagined myself doing things, rather that I felt to be other people in an imaginary set of circumstances. This approach has fuelled and fed my pursuit of an acting career. However, whilst I have found this to be useful when I find myself playing a role which requires more than ‘sit down, open the packet of biscuits – no, so that the packet is facing the camera, and then eat a biscuit and say ‘yum’ – no, eyes down the barrel, yes that’s it, smile,’ I have found it extremely detrimental to the entire business of ‘being an actor’.
How can I reconcile this overpowering instinct to become other people with a world of Twitter and Press Nights and Networking and Generals and ‘You’ve Got To Put Yourself Out There’, when all I’m really good at is disappearing? I’ve considered developing a ‘character’ for these things – someone who’s good at auditions and loves meeting people who will make decisions regarding their future, and delights in the financial insecurity, the scrutiny and the constant rejection. But somehow, that doesn’t feel honest. It’s obvious that these things require a ‘thick skin’ but to me, being a truthful actor requires exactly the opposite. I want to be porous enough to allow myself to transform. How can I know how a character feels if I’m busy protecting myself? Can I enter the audition room shrouded in rhino-hide only to shrug it off as soon as a performance is required? Maybe that’s the answer. I contemplate it all as I sit here writing this in a hospital ward. My mother is asleep next to me in the bed while I’m perched on the chair beside her. She’s been in for a few days now. I think about nipping out into the corridor to ring my agent to check up on meetings we discussed two weeks ago, but I’ve got a feeling that my mum will wake up in a couple of minutes. And I want to have the glass of water ready for her when she does.
“In the language of an actor, to know is synonymous with to feel” ― Konstantin Stanislavski
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