As an acting student at USC myself, I am constantly surrounded by people who's desire to pursue and create art is insatiable within the theatre spaces of the School of Dramatic Arts. It is such an invigorating and affirming environment, one of collective growth and personal humility, wherein a group of people work together to put forward a piece of art designed to communicate something about the universality within the human condition and create a thought-provoking experience for its audience. In this process, it becomes clearer who is in this business (the business of acting) to tell the stories that create those aforementioned experiences and those who want to achieve a certain level of fame and social recognition. These are two very different types of actors: the artist and the star.
Take a look at the actors that are big in Hollywood and you will immediately see a difference between those who are famous for their work (the characters they've portrayed, shows they've been in, etc.) and those who are famous for other things (their looks, their wealth, for that "one character" they've done, their cultural relevance). Judi Dench, Alan Rickman, Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Allison Janney; these people are actors, artists who are well-known for their incredible work ethic and acting abilities. They prioritize their work over their fame, approach awards, and recognition with humility, broaden their comfort zones, push onward to the next project, and invest in a long-term career.
Take, for example, Helen Mirren's portrayal of the character Colonel Katherine Powell in the 2015 British thriller film Eye in the Sky (A few plot spoilers ahead so beware!). The film center's around this moral question: do you kill the terrorists who are planning a deadly attack and kill an innocent girl in the processor spare the girl and let the terrorists escape to commit more atrocities. Colonel Powell wrestles with the moral implications of this question weighed against her desire to stop the terrorists, while she and her team try various covert methods to get the girl away from the blast zone. Ultimately, they make the decision to fire the missile at the terrorist compound, knowing full well that the innocent girl is within the blast radius. The little girl is killed along with the terrorists and the protagonists are left with a bitter victory, and are left wondering if they truly had the right to make that decision.
In order for this film to have received the successful reviews it did, the acting in the principal roles had to not only be truthful but complete; you were never watching Helen Mirren interacting with actors on a stage, you saw Colonel Katherine Powell struggling in the limbo of her moral compass as it came into conflict with her duty. not once did she convey anything less than that, and that is one of the many hallmarks of honest and pure acting. This film may not be her most well known or best, but it is a very recent example of her masterful abilities as she continues to perfect her craft. She is a prime example of the actor who can truly call themselves an artist, one whose dedication is to the work and the truth it extolls.
(Watch a great interview from her about the film and its meaning here)
The same cannot be said for the "star". Actors like Mark Wahlberg, Jennifer Lawrence, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson are not known for their talent or their exquisite work ethic. They are known for portraying one particular character (and usually nothing else) or from other previous fame (like WWE) and continue to remain relevant by portraying incredibly similar characters or continuations of the same stories because they do a comfortably adequate job with it and their respective audiences enjoy it (that's how we get 95 Fast & Furious films and Ted 2 and Daddy's Home 2). These films are not amazing, nor do they investigate anything about the human experience that is worthwhile. They are entertaining, and many people love them for their comedic efficacy and light-heartedness, and nothing more.
Now, I hope it's clear but if it's not then I shall clarify: I don't think that only the classical-trained and extremely talented individuals within the actor community are real actors. No, they all are; however, not all actors are artists. That is a much harder profession to follow, one that is full of introspection and humility in the pursuit of the universal truths that we as humans share and experience in reality together. So, it isn't that I think that Jennifer Lawrence or Dwayne "The Rock' Johnson aren't actors, but to call them actors or artists AND hold them on the same level as Helen Mirren and Gary Oldman is a massive mistake. They simply aren't the same. One pursues entertainment and recognition from their audience (which is completely valid and reasonable in its own way) and the other delves into the various dimensions of our humanity in order to convey a meaningful truth to a diverse audience.
It is not impossible to be an artist and attain fame and recognition for your work, far from it as evidenced by the many famous greats of Hollywood and New York who live in the spotlight and continue to produce work that amazes people. Many famous and talented artists live well and enjoy their earned fame and awards, this is natural, but it is not the priority of the true artist and certainly not the goal, rather a by-product of a lifetime of hard work and training to express the intricacies of the human life.
Look at the origins of Helen Mirren and her lifetime of stage and screen acting, garnering all the valuable experience to hone her skills and push harder to better herself. Look at her personal life, her views, her passions and you will see a real person who lives life out of the spotlight for no one but herself. She allows her work to shine, not necessarily herself. it is through the lifetime of work and passion she has poured into her craft that she has achieved the level of recognition and admiration that she has, not for pursuing fame but for pursuing art.
Oh, and if you have the time, watch Eye in the Sky, it is very thought-provoking and engaging from start to finish.
Photo by lincolnblues (Flickr)