The following Career Dispatch essay was written by Alex Hassell, who stars in Cowboy Bebop on Netflix and The Tragedy of Macbeth, which is currently in select theatres and on Apple TV+ from 14 January.
Coming out of drama school in 2002, I was overflowing with self-belief and ambition. I knew that the lives of most actors were supposed to be paved with hardship. But despite this, I was unswerving in the belief that I was one of the lucky ones—that I would make it right to the top unscathed quicker than you can say, ‘And the Oscar goes to….’
My main advice to this naive young man, however deflating it is, would be for him to manage his expectations about what the reality of the next 20 years will be like, and to make sure he doesn’t put all his self-esteem eggs in one basket. While I, from my present vantage point, am deeply grateful to know that this young man will experience moments of profound joy and nourishment along the way, I would nonetheless advise him to get ready, in as deep a way as possible, for the fact that the future won’t be the endless carnival of wish fulfilment and creativity he was excitedly envisioning. It’s not an express elevator to the A-list; it’s a long, slow, and often painful drag up a shallow gradient.
His will be a very destabilising life at times. The gradient he is determined to climb often won’t feel like an incline at all, but an unforeseeable series of peaks and troughs, varying in size and length. Some of the troughs will be so long that he will forget what sunlight feels like. One or two peaks will be so vertiginous that he’ll needs oxygen. Each will seem as if they will never end. The troughs will make him question and doubt the very fabric of his being, abilities, personality, and worth. The peaks will be so wildly unlike the rest of his life that they will hurt even more for being short-lived and not, in fact, representing the crossing of that magical Rubicon he’s so desperately searching for.
In my experience, the idea of a ‘career ladder’ or ‘career path’ in this industry is a dangerous fallacy—the idea that one rung up or one step forward leads to the next, and so on. I would say it’s more like career snakes and ladders or a career mountain range. You’re up, down, or sideways, and it’s all at the whims of some unseen hand rolling unseen dice, a surprise weather front, or loose footing. You can’t control the terrain, only the spirit in which you climb. This is a tough lesson.
“The mistake is assuming that this industry, this business, this kind of life is sensible, logical, rational, meritocratic, or fair”
There are other climbers all around you, too, which adds to the challenge. You will look at them in comparison, and they will look at you. Some of their paths will look more difficult than yours, so much so that they may turn back and aim for safer ground. It’s an understandable and sensible choice for many, and one to be admired. Those people might look at you and question what on Earth there is to find difficulty in; fair enough. Others seem to float up the mountain unimpeded, carried by countless minions who pass their shiny dais from hand to hand through the clouds and up into the heavens. ‘Why?’ you will ask yourself. ‘Why them? Why not me? Why are my hands bleeding while theirs are dripping in gold?’ From where you’re dangling, they may look like you, sound like you, and seem no more talented. So you may ask yourself: What happened? What did they do that I didn’t? What is wrong with me? Did I ruin something? Am I defective?
These are tough questions, and these are troubling times. The mistake is assuming that this industry, this business, this kind of life is sensible, logical, rational, meritocratic, or fair—whatever that means in this context. In my experience, it is largely none of these things—or only occasionally, at most. This industry doesn’t care about you; it doesn’t owe you anything; it has no feelings; it makes no sense. I don’t mean people. Many people I have worked with or come across care a great deal, are extremely encouraging and supportive, and fight as hard as they can for those they believe in and champion. And thank God for them, and thank you to those people from the bottom of my swelling heart. I am talking about the ‘powers that be,’ the ‘hand of fate,’ or the ‘market forces’—whatever that elusive thing is that determines luck and fortune and picks some people for the shiny dais and not others. There is no negotiating with it or begging for mercy; there is no right way, secret trick, or type of person you have to be in order to succeed. There is just luck, chance, readiness, hard work, opportunity, resilience, and grit.
So if I were able to impart all that knowledge to my younger self, my advice would be to work towards a healthy sense of perspective about what he is doing and the way he approaches the climb, as soon as possible. Know that it is not necessarily your fault that this climb isn’t without difficulty. Be grateful for the learning experience of those troughs, as well as those highs. Know that all things must pass and that nothing is as straightforward as you would like it to be. Be present. Be in the moment. Be true to yourself, and do what feels nourishing to you rather than what feels like the best next step up the ladder. Let integrity, delight, and joy guide you. You can’t avoid problems, so choose the ones you would most like to spend your time solving.
Finally, be kind and open; don’t judge other people’s choices or needs, balance work with life and relationships that have nothing to do with acting, and find pleasure where you can. Live within your means, put your taxes aside straight away, work hard, pick your battles, don’t sweat the small stuff, surround yourself with good people you trust and can talk straight with, and try your best to enjoy yourself.
Oh, and go to therapy. That will really, really, really help you.
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