This is Joesph's first blog post. This week he discusses how he became an actor, the difference between acting stage and television and preparing for a role.
Transcript of Podcast
Becoming an actor
My name is Joseph Marcell and I’m playing Cominius in Coriolanus. In August, it will be 36 years that I have been an actor and I’m still trying - I haven’t got it right yet! When I was 19 or 20, I wanted to be a metallurgist, an electrical engineer kind of person, and I was doing a year of industrial training down at Southampton power station. I used to travel up to London on weekends to meet my friends and have my mother do my washing and all those things that if you’re lucky enough to have parents you don’t have to do yourself! I used to come to London on a Saturday afternoon. I’d arrive at Waterloo and I’d walk across the Waterloo bridge and my friends would pick me up at the station. We’d go over to Kingsway and go to a little pub we knew and then we’d have a few drinks and talk about our week. Then we’d go and do what young men do and ‘pull’! It wasn’t called ‘pulling’ in those days though, it was called something else, I can’t remember what.
And one day, in about 1965, we were crossing Waterloo bridge to Aldwych and we walked past the Aldwych theatre and there was the Negro Ensemble as part of an event in London that happened in the 60s and 70s called the World Theatre Season. There was this group from America called the Negro Ensemble. They were doing a play called Black New World. For my friends and I this was one of our first experiences of theatre - you know we’d been to the theatre before with school, but we hadn’t really been to the West End, as it was then.
And outside the theatre were these huge photographs of black actors, singers, entertainers and we were really chuffed - we thought this would be quite the thing! So we went in to see it and it was just amazing. I was blown away. So from then on every Saturday they would pick me up and we’d go and see a play. I saw Maximilian Shell in The Man in the Glass Booth, all sorts of things, wonderful productions. That was how I got my love for the theatre. The Aldwych theatre then was the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. So, I went to school, I learnt to be an actor, I got a job at the Sheffield Playhouse in 1970 and I decided I didn’t want to be an engineer I wanted to be an actor!
I went to live in West Hampstead, because I was told actors lived north of the river, not in Peckham or Bermondsey where I lived! I went to a very good school and learnt a lot about acting and I met some wonderful teachers. After that, I went to the Sheffield Playhouse for a while and then I came back to London and my then agent said to me ‘I believe the RSC are casting and they haven’t seen you so I’ll try and get them to see you because you’ve been up in Sheffield’. So I went to the RSC to audition. The actors were saying ‘Oh they’ve got this new guy who's just taking over, he was one of the young assistant directors and apparently he's really brilliant. His name is Trevor Nunn. This is his new season, his new regime and he's doing the Roman Season, he's doing the Roman plays; Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Anthony & Cleopatra, and The Comedy of Errors, and yeah, yeah it will be great’. So I went to see him and I prepared my speech from Julius Caesar, Brutus’ speech:
"Romans, countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause; and be silent, that you may hear. Believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge."
That one! So I did that for the casting director, and then they said, ‘We want you to come back and do that for Trevor’. So I came back and did it for Trevor and John Barton and Terry Hands, and they asked me, ‘Do you mind playing small parts?’ and I said, ‘No, are you kidding? I want to be in the RSC!’ I felt I had made the right decision, because after a year in Stratford the plays come to London to the Aldwych, so I came back to the Aldwych and that's how I became an actor. It came full circle.
Auditions are unbelievably nerve-wracking. I think there are two types of audition. There are the auditions for film and television where they have an idea of what it is they wish but they can’t express it, and it's usually to tell you that you are not the idea, that you are not the embodiment their idea. But theatre auditions are different, you have a wonderful way of impressing and I love theatre auditions. You are incredibly nervous but it's like a stage performance and if you’ve prepared as carefully as you can then it's a piece of cake. I did a singing audition for the musical Hair once and I learnt that singing is not my thing! For theatre auditions you have to marshal all your talents, your whips and your organisational skills and if you do that well enough then in some ways it really doesn’t matter if you get the job because it is an opportunity to show off and show how good you are at a certain thing. Sometimes you may not be the right height, you may not be what they’re looking for but you get the opportunity to exhibit your skills and that's what I find fun about auditions.
Acting on stage and television
They’re very different jobs. They’re another tool in the tool bag really. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the really successful Hollywood type of acting, and that is about success, that's about personality and there comes a point where you’ve got the characters you’re supposed to play down so well, that it really is about you. Whereas a theatre actor can create something and move it in the direction that he wishes it to go. In film and television you have to adjust your creation to the way the thing is filmed and set up. You make more money but you have less power.
I have difficulty when I come to do the stage! Theatre actors know the play they are performing so well - they know exactly what it's about and you kind of make decisions before you begin rehearsals. But when you’re doing a film or a television show, every moment has to be explained to you so that everything happens in sequence and your characters development is credible. So you have to be dumb really, you have to stop thinking for yourself! And it's very difficult to come and do a play and have that attitude because people think ‘What's the matter with him? What's wrong? It's on the page, you can see it’, and you say ‘No, no, sorry I don’t understand, what does that mean?!’ It's hard to act in a play but it's also interesting because you have a lot of choices.
Sometimes when you are doing a play you are forced to do what is often called radio acting, in which you spell out what is happening in an obvious way: ‘The gun in my hand is loaded’ that kind of acting. Obviously if you were to do that on the Globe stage people would walk out because they’d think ‘What is this?’. To not do radio acting, every moment has to be clear and the clarity comes from your director and you discussing it and in certain cases having it explained to you. One of the things I’ve learnt in my career is there is nothing wrong in saying you don’t know!
You perform the play every night, and every night it's a different audience, the responses are different, they have different expectations. Some people come to see an exhibition, some people come to be part of a performance and you have to adjust to what it is they wish from you. But if every moment in the play, in the way the drama and story unfolds, is clear it really doesn’t matter what their expectations are because they will get what they want from it because your character will be so clearly delineated that it doesn’t make any difference. It's just that you’ve got to keep your wits about you and remember what you have to say and where you are supposed to be!
Preparing for a role
I’m one of these actors who works from the inside out, and it's very difficult for me whenever I’m doing a Shakespeare play because 95% of Shakespeare is the words, the iambic pentameter ‘de-dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum’. It's about how you get the language across and so that is working from the outside inwards. The way I prepare is I really go the opposite way. I try to slowly understand what it is I’m saying, why I’m saying it, and the point of it, what does it mean, where does it stand in an historical context and can I get my tongue around these words?
Once I’m confident with that I begin to personalise it, I begin to understand the character. So a lot of moments have to be explained to me because I’m not at that point where I can see the full story. There are a lot of images in the play of blood, of defeat, and of success and the kind of actor I am, the inside out actor, I need to be able to visualise those moments to make those words make sense. For me it has nothing to do with the beautiful speaking - the beautiful speaking has to come from the pit of the stomach and the peak of your imagination and with Shakespeare's plays that's how I approach them. I try to get my tongue around the words and when the words make sense I begin to create a character. I use the Michael Chekhov system where you use a psychological gesture, you find a gesture that gives you the character and gives you one of the vertebrae of their spine and then you start building slowly, slowly, slowly from there.
These comments are the actor's thoughts or ideas about the part as s/he goes through the rehearsal process – they are simply his/her own interpretations and frequently change as the rehearsal process progresses.