Esther Freud’s lucky break
The former actor started writing to fill in time between jobs- now she’s happier than ever
AS A former actor, who is married to an actor, Esther Freud is eminently qualified to write compassionately about the unpredictable, often ludicrous life of a thespian.
In Lucky Break (Bloomsbury, �11.99) she follows the emotional rollercoaster of three budding actors from drama school into their early 30s.
Nell is thrown off the course for lack of talent, but gamely pursues her dream despite a series of humiliating jobs and rejections.
Dan finds TV success but must balance it with the demands of a wife and children.
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And stunningly beautiful Charlie is catapulted to A-list stardom and all that it entails.
Freud, who trained at the Drama Centre in Chalk Farm alongside Colin Firth perceptively skewers the self-obsession, fragile self belief and pretentions of an oft-mocked profession.
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But she admits that writing about actors presented challenges of both characterisation and tone.
After handing a completed draft to her husband David Morrissey, he asked whether it was a satire.
“I said that was so not what I intended’ but he said I was writing from the outside.
“I didn’t know until that point that I wanted to show the inside of an actor and what they actually have to do to entertain us.
“I did a big re-write and worked very hard to get it right. To get inside who actors really are and how they dedicate themselves to what is an extremely difficult life. Mostly they are portrayed in novels as a bit of a joke, set up as a silly self obsessed person to laugh at. Almost everyone gets a huge amount of pleasure from being entertained by what actors make possible yet we still think of them as performing monkeys.”
Freud thinks she fell into the trap of laughing at rather than with actors, because she wanted to convey the ludicrous aspects of the job, from the excruciating experience of shooting a sex scene, to the humiliation of flunking an audition.
“They have to laugh at these things because it makes the disappointments easier.”
She decided to be an actor at the age of 12, after seeing a production of Playboy of the Western World.
“I always loved stories but I couldn’t imagine it would be possible to write them because I wasn’t clever or good at that kind of thing. When I saw these actors on stage I had the feeling they were in their own world. I wanted to run away with these people.”
She only started writing to fill in time between acting jobs – but she soon found her true calling, going on to write acclaimed, often autobiographical novels, including Hideous Kinky and Love Falls.
“There was a strange moment when I realised I was happy but didn’t know I hadn’t been before. I suddenly felt released from an endless need for someone else to acknowledge me and tell me I was great. I felt confident in myself and I realise now that what I really wanted to be was a storyteller. Once I realised I could do that without people saying: ‘you are a bit young or, ‘maybe you could grow your hair’ it changed my life. Much as I loved acting, I now don’t have to wait around for someone to say ‘yes you can’.”
Now Freud keeps the home fires burning in Highgate with her three children, while Morrissey – a successful TV and film star – is often away filming.
Like Dan’s wife Jemma in the novel, she has to deal with domestic uncertainty and a husband whose job can be “overwhelmingly absorbing”.
“Everyone in an actor’s family has to adjust to that unpredictability, you can’t just plan a holiday, it never happens. It’s an endless process of adjustment. Getting used to them being around, that’s really lovely, then used to them being away. The re-entry moment is what we find difficult. You often have this idea that nothing could be harder than being at home with the children while they are in luxury hotels with no worries.
“But the reality is a 14-hour backbreaking day filming an action film in remote Scotland wearing a kilt in winter. It’s hard to hold someone else’s life in your imagination. I would love to say after 20 years I am better at it but I can’t.”
The title Lucky Break says Freud, stands for the randomness of an actor’s life, the fact they have little control and are always waiting for the role that will absolutely change their life so they can “take a breath and relax”.
“Actors are very superstitious. So many moments you get offered two amazing jobs at the same time after being unemployed for months, you choose one and it might be the wrong one, even though that script looked better, it didn’t turn out as you’d expected. Luck is a huge part of it.”
The downsides are obvious, unlike regular jobs, there’s no promotion and no pension – with older actors often living in poverty.
“I know someone like that, whose life is hand to mouth, but I don’t thing she’d regret that she chose a life of playfulness, abandon and adventure. Living your dream; there is an awful lot to recommend it.”
Freud says she had no trouble empathising with her often self-obsessed characters, but after multiple re-writes she eventually let them out into the world.
“On one level, these are just three people finding their way in those formative years from 18-32. They are all versions of me so you have so much empathy for the characters and what they are dealing with, even characters who the reader would think was a baddy I understand their motivations and weaknesses.
“On this book, I decided to do a big re-write and I’m really happy I did. You are never really satisfied but at the same time there’s a point where you can’t go on re-writing. You have to let it go.”