Michael Pennington dishes wise advice to young actors

Actors Michael Pennigton (left) and Catherine McCormack during rehearsals for 'When The Night Falls'

Actors Michael Pennigton (left) and Catherine McCormack during rehearsals for 'When The Night Falls' by Hanif Kureishi at the Hampstead Theatre, in north London. The psychological thriller, directed by Anthony Clark runs until Saturday 3 April 2004. - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The veteran performer tells Bridget Galton about his new book, Let Me Play the Lion Too: How To Be An Actor.

Michael Pennington starts his book of acting advice with a self-deprecatory but witty anecdote about a humiliating audition with Robert de Niro.

The 71-year-old Highgate resident says too often tips from old actors are patronising - and unwanted and he found it difficult to get the right tone.

“Advice to a young actor is a well trodden path and I’m wary of handing down the tablets from the mount. It can be patronising, and anecdotes of ‘Johnny G and Larry O’ mean little to the younger generation. Besides these young actors who are mopping up at the BAFTAs clearly don’t need advice.

“On the other hand it’s good to pass on things you know when you’ve been in the business for 50 years.”

Let Me Play the Lion Too: How To Be An Actor (Faber £17.99) is an honest, personal, humorous guide to the practicalities of acting– from coping with touring, surviving a long run, dealing with explicit love scenes and stage fright, to who does what on a film set, professional jealousy, and what to expect when summoned by Hollywood’s A list.

“The de Niro anecdote was to show that even a very experienced actor can still feel like a kid - it shows the temperament and superhuman sense of humour you have to develop to survive the farcical aspects of our profession.”

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Pennington, who has played Hamlet and Lear, acted with John Gielgud, Judi Dench, and Meryl Streep, includes anecdotes from actors of different ethnic backgrounds and ages to illustrate “the ups and downs” of the professon from all points of view..

Unlike his early training playing seasons in repertory at regional theatres, today’s young actors must focus on film and TV, he says.

“There are hazards I didn’t have to face in 1964. It’s difficult to get the opportunities my generation had. Now it’s a kind of free for all, a day on EastEnders, a show in a pub, it’s hard to find a traditional career path. Instead of helping them build a career, some agents sign them up from drama school and if they don’t get anything good, drop them. They throw these kids at the wall to see which of them sticks.”

In the chapter Sex and Drugs and Turning Up, Pennington discusses rights around nudity and whether actors are entitled to refuse an explicit scene.

“My generation had a drink at lunchtime which is now completely taboo, while theirs are asked to do much more explicit nudity.”

Increasing commercial pressures dictate that productions often only get financed when there’s a star attached. But a recent experience playing Antony opposite Kim Cattrall’s Cleopatra was positive.

“As soon as we got into the rehearsal room none of the sound and music that surrounds Kim came in. You get on with the job. She’s a very good actress, incredibly hard working, but why would that be a surprise? What you are famous for isn’t the whole story.”

Pennington whose career has included directing, actor managing and playing the death star commander in Return of the Jedi, says you have to see through hype and face down disaster if you are to survive.

“You either get very full of yourself or very empty of yourself which is why self mockery is our lingua franca, a way of taking the sting out of our disappointments.

“Your run of luck might end tomorrow and even if successful you might be out of work for months. If you don’t have reserves to fall back on you can end up a mess. But the next job is just a phone call away and you have to accept there’s no justice in any of it – but sometimes justice is done.”

Ultimately, Pennington still loves the collaborative nature of theatre, the live audience, that keeps every night “interesting, always different, an experiment”

“It’s a lifelong interest, that’s what keeps me going.”