Why being an actress is not glamorous
Before I was a diplomat, and before I even went to college, I was an actress in theater, TV, and in movies. In the Netherlands though, not in Hollywood! Still, people tend to find this interesting so a question I often get is: why did you quit acting?
Well, acting is not as glamorous as you might think. First of all, actor training is all about critiquing and breaking people down. I think it’s so actors get a perfect feel for how they come across. I took regular acting classes since the age of nine and during every session the teacher would tell me how my performance went; it was either “good” or it “didn’t work.” Whenever I wasn’t on the stage trying to impress I was hearing about the improvements I needed to make.
My acting classes were very different from my music and dance classes, where I was rarely critiqued and always rewarded with a “well done today!” at the end. Maybe it’s because acting isn’t as technical—it’s not about endless practice and repetition. You either move your audience or you don’t. I hated negative feedback so l learned to turn every critique into a learning moment and improve as fast as possible.
Once you’re acting in a play, tv show, or movie, much of the immediate critique disappears. The crew either says your performance was “fantastic” or avoids you. Still, the director is always right and you’re supposed to follow each instruction without question; taking your clothes off, crying, kissing or hitting a fellow actor, cutting your hair, or whatever it is they want.
I always felt uncomfortable with the power balance between directors and myself. As a beginning actress, they had a lot of power over me. They decided how much I got to play, how to approach my part, and how everything got edited. Some directors seemed to enjoy their power a little bit too much, and some definitely crossed the line by trying to get physical. The whole #metoo problem in Hollywood was in no way surprising to me.
I don’t have much experience filming in studios, but on a set on location I often felt like actors were treated as mere tools. The art directors and technicians were fully absorbed in creating the perfect setting, light, sound, frame, etc. and the actors were basically ignored until they were suddenly needed for a 30-second shot. Being on set is 95% waiting. In any given shot you may not even be visible, like when the camera is trained on the other actor, but you’re supposed to be camera ready at all times.
Crew members, while often very talented and friendly, could be judgmental and careless. Once I was having lunch before a “make out scene” and had apple pie for dessert. One of the cameramen asked me: “Are you really gonna eat that?” and I asked him why he wanted to know. He reminded me of the scene I was about to shoot and I laughed it off. I was going to be fully clothed, so who cared if my stomach wasn’t as flat as possible? But the conversation that followed made clear that most actresses have major insecurities about looking fat and the crew is apparently there to remind them of it.
What’s worse is when a technical error by a crew member ruins your best shot. This happens a lot when filming on location, but sometimes it’s particularly painful. Once I had to reshoot a scene in which I spontaneously burst into tears, because there was a hair on the camera lens. I had to reshoot it on a totally different location without much time or preparation. Crying on cue is not easy and the new shot was nowhere near as good as the first.
I’ve also done a lot stuff on camera I didn’t enjoy. I’ve played a drowning victim, which required lots of floating around in a cold pond (a real, dirty one) and I’ve played someone who overdosed on drugs, which involved vomiting while laying on my back. I’ve played a sex scene and a rape scene when I was still a virgin. These were not things that made me feel great about myself, especially when the dreaded scene was my only scene in that tv show (as was the case with the drugs overdose).
Then again, there’s a worse fate; having your scenes cut altogether. Fortunately that happened to me only once and it was before we shot anything. But it was after I’d already spent two days on set waiting around in costume. I was only eleven years old at the time, and it was supposed to be my first movie.
And the absolute worst thing about acting, I think, is the auditioning process (not to mention sucking up to directors and producers in general). I was terrible at auditions. I made a fool of myself countless times. I mostly remember the auditions for commercials, which actors don’t even wants to do anyway because it’s considered selling out. I didn’t understand the format; it’s very different from dramatic acting, perhaps closer to comedy, but more ridiculous. It’s a miracle I scored so many roles (although never in a commercial) while sucking so much at auditions. Maybe I didn’t really get my roles through auditions but because the directors already knew me or saw something in me. But all actors have to go through auditions—multiple rounds even for bigger parts. I did four or five rounds of auditions for my first leading part, which is pretty soul crushing for a clueless 15-year old.
Once I got cast in a movie that was never made. Thinking back about it, it’s hard to believe this actually happened. There’s nobody I even know who could confirm it. I auditioned with a well known tv personality. We played a couple on a road trip and it went okay. He was cuter than I expected and there was some chemistry between us I guess. I must have looked horrendous though. At age nineteen, despite all of the acting experience I already had, I was pretty broke and not really interested in making myself look pretty. I didn’t wear make-up or fancy clothes, I never worked out or bothered to do my hair. But somehow I was promised the part. I didn’t get the sense it was going to be a big movie—most movies in the Netherlands are low budget and few make a splash. I called the producer a few times to ask if anything was happening but basically the whole thing went away quietly.
I also got “promised” a major part in a tv show shot in South Africa, directed by a guy I knew well. I was very excited about this one. But I screwed up the audition—not surprisingly—and got passed over. I think that’s the time I decided I was done with acting. It just wasn’t good for me. It made me feel insecure because I had no sense of control.
It was not easy to give up acting though. Around the same time I decided to quit a well respected actress recognized me and told me she was “a fan of my work.” I had no words. This also feels like something that didn’t really happen, but it did. Now it’s just a memory. A bittersweet memory. But it gets less bitter and more sweet overtime. So that’s good.