They’re Going in a Different Direction
“Not really my cup of tea,” said my agent.
“Well, Donna, I think it’s going to be a global phenomenon,” I said.
It was 2009, and the script under discussion was Downton Abbey. I didn’t in fact predict the show’s worldwide success but we’re only a few lines in here and I want you to think I’m smart. Nine years and fifty-two episodes later we were about to do the readthrough for the first Downton Abbey film. A memo came through from the publicity team saying that Focus Features, the financiers of the movie, had come up with a shiny idea with which to tease our audience. As we assembled on a sound stage at Twickenham Studios, a film crew would capture us clasping each other as we reunited after three years apart. Moments of coffee drinking and satsuma peeling would be caught on camera for posterity as the returning heroes prepared for another foray into the world of the British aristocracy between the wars; the show that its creators had first pitched as “Merchant Ivory meets The West Wing.” Then, during the readthrough itself, a supercool 360° camera would record the experience in a digitally shimmering way and there would be a photographer snapping it for all eternity.
A knot tightened in my stomach.
Readthroughs in any genre of entertainment are awkward at the best of times. For the writer(s) it’s like giving birth on the centre spot of a football pitch in front of a capacity crowd. For everyone else it’s first day at Big School. Because of the number of personnel involved, it usually takes place in an anonymous hall, deconsecrated church or, if at a British film studio, in an airless condemned sound stage with what looks worryingly like asbestos billowing out of the chicken-wire walls.
On a table in one corner next to the scalding/freezing urn is a tower of Styrofoam cups, tea bags, coffee (granulated if it’s theatre, cafetière if it’s TV, barista – chain or possibly in-house – if it’s a movie), a smattering of fruit and biscuits and a stack of croissants that no one dares touch because you’re on a diet, obviously; now that you’ve got a job you’re no longer prone to stuffing your face with the unfairness of it all.
If you’re lucky you’ll know a couple of people from other jobs and if so you cling to each other like shipwreck survivors, reliving the horrors of Harrogate ’88, or Peak Practice ’09. Some real car crashes of productions, some invented but worth amplifying anyway in these nerve-shredding circumstances.
Over there is a producer, in a daze because he or she never thought they’d actually get to this point without either having a nervous breakdown or being fired by the money people. Nearby is the director, either quivering because they’ve finally agreed that the schedule is unshootable, or worryingly relaxed (beta blockers) for the same reason – knowing they too may be relieved of their duties before long, or may just walk.
If you’re a guest artist on a series then, however welcoming the principals might be, you are by definition An Outsider. As everyone else mingles and brays and says See You in a Bit, like they’re at a glittering cocktail party that’s never going to end, you hang around the edges of the room gradually deconstructing your Styrofoam cup until it resembles a piece of failed origami with a brown drip. Alternatively, you sit in your allocated spot at the trestle table which has a place card on it with your real name misspelled and beneath it in brackets your character – “AN OUTSIDER (ep. 2).” You want the floor to open up and put you out of your misery, preferably plunging the cliquey overpaid stars to their deaths as well, along with their hilarious in-joke wrap-gift mugs from last season with the special herbal drink in it that some runner had to get them from the production office because that’s what they’re meant to do and Christ how they hate it but as Dad said, everyone has to start somewhere, Tiger.
I guess whoever had the task of telling Maggie Smith about the bright shiny marketing idea of filming up our nostrils throughout this emotionally complex rendezvous had been met with a brief and final “Oh I don’t think so,” because there were, thank God, no 360° cameras in evidence as we assembled for the day. The reunion.
Our hugs and smiles went unrecorded. It was three years since we’d last been together in the same room but I can tell you that the bond of those six seasons working with largely the same group of people was tangible. In a good way.
As we started to read I looked round the huge square of tables, catching Lesley’s eye, now Brendan’s – Mrs. Patmore, Mr. Bates. A shared smile and a shake of the head, almost of disbelief. Who would have thought it? And then Liz Trubridge, one of our executive producers, the one closest to the cast and its welfare from day one, who had been going to leave after the second season to pursue other projects but had said to me one day, “I can’t leave. This show’s in my blood now.”
I suppose that’s how we all felt as the series continued to roll out around the world.
We were standing in a garden in Dorset watching a camera track being laid for the next shot when Julian Fellowes first told me about Downton Abbey. He was directing me in a film called From Time to Time. Maggie Smith is brilliant in it. Well, what else would you expect? Seemingly half the future cast of Downton Abbey were in it too.
“You writing anything else at the moment?” I asked.
Julian’s statuesque wife Emma was nearby, chaperoning her elderly mother who was sitting in a chair next to the sound recordist, a rug over her knees. “Now Mummy, when that man over there with the walkie-talkie says ‘Action’ you zzzzp,” said Emma firmly, zipping her mouth with one hand and adjusting Mummy’s blanket with the other.
“Well, yes,” Julian answered me, “a number of things on the go, as a matter of fact.”
In a blazer and tie, he was without doubt the most smartly dressed director I had ever worked with.
“There’s a four-parter about the Titanic. I’ve got two book adaptations in the works. Oh, and one idea that’s set in a country house before the Great War. Gosford Park territory but earlier.” He paused before adding, “You probably think you’re too young to play a dad.”
“I am a dad.”
“Of three girls, marriageable age.”
“Well. Once it’s ready, let’s see.”
Ten months later I read the first episode. I couldn’t put it down. The way the characters, as yet uncast, popped off the page was rare. I could see them in my mind’s eye and I could hear them, too. All too often you can blank out the name of a character in a script and not be able to tell who is speaking. The setting was grand yet homely, the pacing snappy, like that of a soap opera (it was no surprise to learn that Julian was a fan of Coronation Street), the characters intriguing, endearing and convincing. And as I turned the final page, I wanted to know What Happens Next.
At the time, period dramas were out of fashion with British broadcasters and none of the US channels were interested either; only PBS Masterpiece put its hand up. Nevertheless, Carnival, the production company commissioned to make the show for ITV in the UK, wanted a three-year option on its cast. “But as we all know,” said Gareth Neame, the executive producer and managing director of Carnival, “it probably won’t run beyond the first seven episodes.”
“Well, Donna, I quite like it,” is what I actually said to my agent.
She shrugged. “OK. It’s up to you.”
Some people change their agents like they change their underwear. I’ve worn mine for more than thirty years. In fact, I’ve been with my UK agency longer than my agent has. Donna started as an office junior at Marina Martin Management; after ten years, she and a colleague, Cally Gordon, then my agent, bought out Marina and changed the name to Gordon and French Ltd. Then Cally hung up her headset, leaving Donna holding the baby. Or at least holding the actors, some of whom need treating like babies because sometimes we behave like babies. I don’t, obviously, but you know what I mean. You’ve heard the stories. As a breed we’re notoriously thin-skinned, prone to door-slamming and lying on dressing room floors flailing feet and fists until one of them connects with something hard, which justifies upping the screeching by a couple of decibels.
That’s the public perception of the indulged actor, who can’t handle criticism or rejection and has to be protected from painful truths at all costs. A good supply of euphemisms is probably the most valuable tool in the agent’s toolbox, if he or she is to have a chance of getting through a Bad News phone call with a client without it descending into a silent sulk or a tearful tirade, or sometimes both in the space of half a minute. I’m made of sterner stuff. I can’t bear being let down gently by means of a euphemism.
“Hugh, it’s me,” says Agent Donna. “I’m afraid they’re going in a different direction.”
“If by that you mean I haven’t got the job,” I say, “then just say so. Please don’t treat me like an imbecile.”
“OK. You didn’t get the job.”
“Fine. Thank you. I didn’t want it anyway. We move on.”
As an actor you are the chairman, chief financial officer, production manager, marketing director and product all in one. At least that’s the way I see it. Being rejected is nine-tenths of the job. One in ten times you get the part.
American agents are often more straightforward and to the point. There’s certainly no gushing down the phone about how exciting it is to have got as far as an audition. In my experience, it’s usually a dispassionate email from an assistant.
In anticipation of your conversation with Jeremy Barber about RADIATOR MOON, please ﬁnd attached the script. This is a Bottleneck/Turnip Production directed by Ming Vase, produced by Curly Wurly, for Ginger Snap Productions. Please consider the role of JESSICA. Also attached to star are Sprouting Broccoli (AMY), Crème Caramel (COUNT SERGE), Pina Colada (MIKEY) and Pickled Onion (DAPHNE).
I’m always interested by the “Also attached to star” bit – which is sometimes “Interest has been expressed by,” or perhaps “Offers are out to” – because they rarely reflect reality. By the time the film eventually comes to be made (if indeed it does get made) most of the cast originally mentioned have either jumped ship, or died.
The one time I had to eat my words was when a note came through about playing the role of Donald Jeffries in a film called The Monuments Men. Aside from George Clooney, who as co-writer, director and co-producer was fairly likely to turn up, “Also attached to star” were Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett, Gary Oldman and John Goodman. For once they did show up. All, that is, except Gary Oldman. He had presumably “expressed interest” initially but at some point had become less interested or in some other way uncoupled from the project but the assistant forgot to take him off the “Also attached to star” paragraph. So when the script and covering note reached my inbox it didn’t take much to deduce the clerical error. Still, it was flattering to think that if you can’t get Gary Oldman you might eventually end up with me.
Most actors are wise enough to know that you’re often second, third or even eightieth choice for the role, however much the producer, director, casting director and agent try to convince you otherwise, gushing waves of superlatives in your direction about how thank God you agreed to accept the role because you are the only person in the universe who could possibly play the part. What’s hard to take is when you know you’re perfect casting but no one else does. I was so convinced that I was right for the lead in David Nicholls’ TV mini-series I Saw You that I was prepared to cancel the holiday I was taking soon after the audition because I knew I’d be required in London for the recall. I was about to break the news to my wife about having to sacrifice our romantic jaunt on the altar of my career when Donna rang to tell me I wouldn’t be needed for a second audition and so we could
go on our mini-break after all.
“Well, that’s great! That’s fantastic!” I was grinning from ear to ear.
“Is it?” Donna said doubtfully.
“I mean, that doesn’t happen very often, does it – no need to bring him back in, he’s our man. Wonderful!”
“I don’t think you understand. They don’t want you.”
Time stopped. The world went silent. Somewhere in a park a mile away a crow flapped its wings. Tumbleweed.
“I beg your pardon?” I husked, my voice now a winded whisper.
“You haven’t got the part.”
The air chilled, the tumbleweed began to dance, precursor to some terrible change in the weather. A plume on the horizon.
The bluntness of those words was so painful, her directness so utterly, appallingly insensitive, that really I should have fired her on the spot. And lo, the plume funnelled, grew taller and taller, spiralling upwards as it approached, gathering speed, until the tornado roared into the foreground and down the telephone line. “How could you? How COULD you? I cannot believe you just called me up and ruined my day, my week, my whole fucking year actually, by being so callous. Christ, don’t you ever THINK before you speak? Do you have any IDEA what it’s like going into auditions, baring your very soul to these people, putting your life on the line, time and time again, and then – bang – ‘You haven’t got the part.’ Just like that. Jesus! And anyway, he’s wrong. He is so fucking wrong. That is MY PART, it has MY NAME ON IT.”
“No it doesn’t, Hugh.”
“Oh doesn’t it, Donna Marie French? Well, I’m going to write to David fucking Nicholls and tell him he’s wrong.”
“Don’t,” said my wife Lulu as she stepped out of the shower in the crummy hotel we were now in for our mini-break.
Three days later I was still fuming. I’d cleared the rickety little table of the kettle with the implausibly short lead, the sachets of tea, instant coffee and UHT milk pouches in order to create a desk from which I could launch a nuclear strike via the medium of words. I wrote a brilliant, pithy defence of my position – that I was the only person on the planet who could do justice to the lead role in this brilliant piece. You, David Nicholls, may have given birth to the character and the script, you may have crystal-clear ideas about how the role should be played, you may indeed be the executive producer on the show and involved in the casting, but you really don’t know what you’re talking about and your project will be a catastrophe if I don’t play the part. I jabbed the last full stop and tore the page from its binder – I thought using the reverse of the final page of the actual script was a brilliant touch – folded it and put it in the envelope I’d brought from home for the purpose.
“You’re not actually going to send that, are you?” sighed Lulu, searching for a plug socket for the hairdryer without which she never travelled. “At least sleep on it.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said as I licked the stamp and flung open the hotel room door for a full-flounce exit. Or I would have done if it hadn’t been one of those self-closing doors that has a ridiculous pressure hinge on it, so you can’t slam, fling, or do anything remotely dramatic with it for punctuation.
I woke next morning and lay in a sweat wishing I hadn’t found that post box in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, quite so easily the night before.
The letter didn’t make the blindest bit of difference, of course, and Paul Rhys was excellent in the part. I met David Nicholls again eighteen years later. We were both on a jury for something or other. He said hello as he reached across the table for a ginger biscuit.
Sometimes you read of actors going into the audition room and smashing up the furniture and impressing the director so comprehensively with their I Don’t Give a Shitness that they instantly get the part. Other times the police turn up. Tricky to know how to pitch it. Or there are times when your agent believes in you in a way that you yourself don’t. Because you’re now in your fifties and have concluded that no one’s going to let you try anything different any more.
“I’ve got this script, Hugh. Nina Gold’s casting. We love Nina.”
“Donna, you love Nina. You go skiing with Nina. I don’t ski.”
“There’s a part in it which Nina doesn’t think is right for you but I know, I absolutely know, you can play it.”
“She’s Nina Gold. She skis. She’s bound to be right.”
“Hugh, I’ve represented you for thirty years. This part is you.”
“He’s a bitter misanthrope who drinks too much, wafts his own farts round the office, looks a mess and nobody likes him.”