The following Career Dispatch essay was written by Jack McMullen, who followed his star turn in Ford V Ferrari and The Souvenir with his current role co-starring with Sean Bean and Stephen Graham in Time – currently the BBC’s biggest new drama of the year. He writes here about his child-actor roots on Brookside, the immediacy of theatre, and how an existential crisis revealed to him a more successful approach to acting.
I started off on a show called Brookside, filmed and set where I lived in Liverpool. I’d kind of stumbled into acting through a local drama class, and back then I didn’t know anyone who knew anyone that was an actor, so I didn’t have any context of what to expect. I was only 10 years old, and when I look back on some of the scenes I was in as a little boy, I’m often struck by the freedom and lack of self-awareness of my younger self. Somewhere along the way, I seem to have lost that. I often joke that the older I get, the worse an actor I become.
It was only when I went to high school that I realised it made me stand out, and not everybody would respond positively. Going through my teenage years, I felt I was sneered at by some and praised by others, all seemingly for the same thing. Unsurprisingly, it was difficult to establish a secure sense of self, particularly around work.
“I’d be on a film set one day and working in a call centre the next. I’d take negative feedback from auditions to heart, and found it hard to know who I was and where I was at. ”
Acting has provided me with some enormous privileges. I’ve been able to go places and do things I might never have been able to otherwise; but as time went on, I felt ill-equipped for the challenges I faced – like I was always winging it.
The internal insecurity was playing out externally, too. I’d be on a film set one day and working in a call centre the next. I’d take negative feedback from auditions to heart, and found it hard to know who I was and where I was at. There have been times I’ve been on set and thought: “Why am I doing this job? Maybe I shouldn’t be here.” Other times, I’ve been on a set and I’m pinching myself, thinking: “I definitely shouldn’t be HERE!” – as if I existed in this perennial middle ground somewhere in between imposter syndrome and shame.
I was too afraid of other people’s judgement and I started to hold myself back. I can see it in some of the performances I’ve given.
Too often, I’ve been tempted to just try and ‘get away with it’ and not get ‘found out.’ Working in film and TV is a real collaborative endeavour: you have to trust the director and fellow creatives – and most of all, yourself. When I couldn’t do that, I felt like every single take had to be perfect or my mediocrity would be etched into eternity. The powerlessness was anxiety-inducing.
It was only in the theatre that I didn’t have the same fear. It may sound strange due to the very nature of live theatre – literally witnessing the audience’s reaction to your work in real-time – but I preferred the immediacy of it. There’s something honest about it. You share the space with the audience for the length of the performance and then it’s gone, forever.
What was it that was so different? I wasn’t worried about what people thought when I could look them in the eye, but who were these faceless people whose opinion I seemed to care so much about? I was struck by the absurdity of it all. I started to embrace the fact that I could only do what was in front of me and that there were things I couldn’t control, and I stopped giving a fuck about what other people thought.
“I started to embrace the fact that I could only do what was in front of me and that there were things I couldn’t control, and I stopped giving a fuck about what other people thought.”
I felt this overwhelming relief – I suddenly had so much more freedom and I started really enjoying my work. I started to focus on what I could give rather than what might go wrong. It took me a long time to realise that nobody was watching my every move. That I could be bold, that I should celebrate mistakes and learn from them.
A positive I can take from this existential crisis was that it forced me to ask myself some important questions: What are you in this for? What do you want to achieve? Can you be of service? You can’t half-arse anything. You’ve got to be all the way in. All of my favourite performances from actors are audacious, outside the box, risky. You can’t make that sort of work without courage, and you can’t have courage without vulnerability.
I feel like actors live a little life-within-a-life – like Shakespeare’s Seven Ages Of Man. The freedom of the child, the self-awareness of the adult, and eventually returning to the playful child. The closer I can get to my inner ten-year-old, the happier I’ll be.
Time is now available to stream on the BBC iPlayer in the UK.
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