Michael Pennington on How to be an Actor

Let Me Play the Lion Too is freighted with such a volume of stories, anecdotes, examples of how things work in show business that they can probably become exemplary advice for someone starting out

As you get older, everything accelerates. When I was 60, like many men, I thought I was still in the middle of things – middle-age, mid-career; now, 10 years later, Faber are bringing out my Let Me Play the Lion Too, which is part memoir, part advice to a young actor, and has the distinct air of a summary, though I'm not done yet. Still, I'm freighted with such a volume of stories, anecdotes, examples of how things work in show business that they can probably become exemplary advice for someone starting out.

For most of the last 10 years I couldn’t work out how to do this book. Older actors like to pass on their knowledge and young ones – sometimes – welcome it. Some young stars seem to have sprung ready-made from the womb and don’t need any help, but most do appreciate it. The trouble is that the elders’ advice can be tainted by an Oedipal instinct to patronise. My generation is always going on about how “the kids” don’t understand Shakespearian verse/ only want celebrity etc – but from my experience of working with actors fresh out of drama school I don’t think it’s true. Most of them are better than I was at that age, and would love to have the opportunities I had.

They're also interested, as I was, in the past: they ask me how things used to be and who John Gielgud was – a surprising number don't know, though Olivier and Guinness have survived better because of their movies. I'm sometimes asked who that fellow was who did Man for all Seasons – Paul Scaffold, was it? – and who was William Nicholson – no, not the writer, but the extraordinary Nicol Williamson, hardly remembered at all. And they want my opinion about how to behave. I sometimes wonder if they do a course in their last year at drama school – Remember to be Nice to the Old Guys – but I think it's sincere.

Young players today have to cope with a great deal that was easy for me 50 years ago. Then the obvious path was to graduate, go into rep, with luck do metropolitan theatre and only after that TV and film: it was always the plan, though you could sometimes leapfrog a bit. Now it’s a free-for-all. There’s less theatre to do, and some less conscientious agents hold young performers back from doing what there is in case some television comes up. It usually doesn’t, and the actor should – of course – have taken the theatre job. On the other hand, some practical things are easier: now you can make an audition tape on your own equipment, press a button and it’s on a screen in LA. On the other hand again, actors have to do increasingly explicit love scenes in front of a TV audience of several million, a gruelling experience we never had.


How can I help? Because I've worked closely with John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep; Douglas Fairbanks liked my Hamlet, and I was briefly granted the freedom of the city of Assisi on the strength of my work, though they've taken it back now. I've been around such a good while that a recent Old Vic programme announced that I'd first appeared at that theatre in 1898. I've travelled the world, including playing Chekhov and Pinter at the Gate in Dublin. I've premiered new plays by 20-odd major playwrights and done most of the big Shakespeares: in fact I'm so much a Shakespearian that I get birthday cards on April 23rd, and today Amazon recommended my own book on Shakespeare to me. A few weeks ago a woman called across the Underground lift descending at Holloway Road station that she'd very much enjoyed my Duke in Measure for Measure (a role in which I was, physically, deeply disguised) at the RSC 35-odd years ago.

Perhaps because I’ve done fewer films I’ve never sweated in the hot tub of celebrity – rather, I’ve been appeased by warm, lapping waters of general approval, as if there were a little invisible crowd gathered closely around, all murmuring appreciatively into the air. Half-smiles in the half-light of some restaurants have suggested that people appreciate my being around and would be sorry if I weren’t.

At the same time the routine humiliations and setbacks of an actor’s life have buffeted me like everyone else. I’ve been nominated and not won, not nominated when I probably deserved to be, been the bridesmaid not the bride. I’ve auditioned for Robert de Niro to play a part with two half-lines, and didn’t get it. I was once wooed into playing a non-speaking character in a photograph by a casting director who was a lifelong fan of mine but kept getting my name wrong.

I’m quite used to people I know fairly well cutting me dead at parties – or worse, looking vaguely discomforted at my approach – and being lionised by others I don’t know at all, some of whom want me to help get their play put on. I know just about every mendacity, broken promise and abandoned hope that a life in show business brings: all the codes are familiar, and I’m quite proud of having drained both the bitter and sweet glass to the dregs.

The fact is that I've had a hell of a time, the best of times. I'm still working at an age when quite a few colleagues are beginning to retire. I've been mistaken for the theatre critic of the Guardian, whose name slightly resembles mine. My real name is shared by Johnny Vegas, but for one reason or another he changed it; however, ours has stuck to him, so I sometimes see reviews headed "Michael Pennington – over the top again".

Books about the acting life, like books about acting itself, wobble uncertainly between the daftly self-important and the ingratiatingly self-mocking, as if we were either earnest vicars or Uriah Heeps in cap and bells. Mine goes on the presumption that performers starting out may be more interested in the highs and the falls from grace of someone who’s been at it for half a century than from any number of tablets patriarchally handed down the mountain.

I’ve dwelt on the setbacks rather than what it’s like to play Hamlet or King Lear because there’s not so much to say about the big moments, except that they’re extremely nice. I also think it’s good for any young actor to sense the connection between the Greeks and the Noh Theatre and why Edmund Kean was the player from the past we’d most appreciate now; why the scenery is always better on radio; how Max Factor became the king of Hollywood (via the Russian Imperial Court) and even patented a kissing machine to test the non-smudge of his lipsticks.

In the end the best advice I can give is to develop a sense of humour and the ability to forgive yourself for your mistakes. I also hope, of course, that I can illuminate the life – this deadly serious, sometimes hilarious, often misunderstood but infinitely enriching life – for any older performer or general reader who is halfway interested.

Let Me Play the Lion Too: How to be an Actor by Michael Pennington is out now (Faber & Faber, £17.99)