Pounding the Pavement

(Talent vs. Body Image: Stage vs. Film)

By Maryanne Renzetti


It all started as a little girl’s dream. For as long as I can remember, my grandmother would take my little cousins and I to a Christmas pantomime. The kind where girls play both the hero and the heroine, and there’s a campy dame being played by a man.  One particular pantomime (perhaps Jack and the Beanstalk?), while the heroine was singing a woeful song, I remember looking around at the audience and noticing that they were all enthralled by her- totally taken with the performance. I thought to myself, “That. I want to do that. I want to make people feel the way she’s making them feel.”

Fast forward to 19 years later and I’m graduating from the Theatre Acting program at UBC. Everyone is excited to be going out into the world, ready to take it by storm, and do all the things that we believe are the markers of a successful actor: get an agent, audition for everything, land our first professional theatre gig, land a gig in the Film and TV land, etc.

I watched as my class landed their agents and I tried to follow in their steps. I had a few meetings with agents and was so thrilled to find that some people were interested in me! Me! I was feeling pretty good about myself for a while there. However, after I met with a few of them, my self-confidence took a nose dive. I was told, “Listen, we’re interested in you, we think you’re talented, but the truth is that you’re just too fat for the lead and not fat enough for the fat best friend. We don’t know what to do with you.”

I tortured myself with this for a while. I tried to lose weight, struggled with a diet, and then when that didn’t work, considered trying to just gain a ton of weight. I yo-yoed like this, and struggled with my appearance for a while. I couldn’t seem to find my place when it came to finding an agent and getting into the Film & TV world. Where did I fit in? And, I wondered, was it the same with acting in theatre? Did it hold such high, sometimes unattainable standards?

I decided to interview some professionals in the field, to get different views on this and see how others stories compared. Well known Canadian Film/TV actress Christine Willes (Dead Like Me), with over 30 years under her belt, is very aware that appearance is a large part of the film industry, and has always been. “Styles in body and face may change, but there is always a preferred look of the moment. I’ve been an actor for 40 years and this hasn’t changed. Women who are talented AND slim and attractive are always going to have a competitive edge in either form. Pressure to appear more attractive than average affects all actors.”

Emmelia Gordon (Measure for Measure, Pacific Theatre), a very busy theatre actor, says that, “This pressure is the major reason why I have not had or gone after Film & TV. When it’s all about looks and not about talent, for the most part, I get very turned off. I had an agent once, who told me I had to lose 20lbs or gain 20lbs if I wanted to work. I didn’t work with her for very long. I am very comfortable in my body and with who I am. I feel that no matter what size, there’s always someone who you would rather look like. We are told and taught to be better than what we are instead of loving our bodies for what they are. I think the whole industry is about looks but with theatre you get more of a chance to prove yourself. There is more put on the creative side then on the looks of a person.“

Shauna Johannesen, who has acted professionally in theatre and film and TV for about 7 years, added, “I don't think worrying about being thin or young or attractive takes over my mind and it doesn't take away from the importance of being prepared, making strong choices, and being present, but it's there. And probably more so in film and TV because it's so visual. Plus I can't shake the feeling that a lot of film and TV still depends on advertisers and investors for money…so they're selling something…they're selling some dream, and a particular kind of beauty is somehow a part of that. Also, on the screen we don't suspend our disbelief like we do in theatre – we don't accept as much room for imagination. I mean, we'll watch an all-women Shakespeare adaptation or watch an actor play multiple roles and go ‘Ok, now she's the mother, now she's the meddling neighbour,’ or ‘Cool, what an interesting choice,’ because we accept the parameters of theatre. In film you would never do that – it's a more ‘realistic’ medium in that way, but perhaps more "unrealistic" in its narrow margins of attractiveness. Does that mean theatre actors have to worry less about their appearance? I don't know. Maybe there's a little less expectation for theatre actors to be as attractive or fitting in a particular box.”

Casting director Stuart Aikins has been in the business for over 40 years. When it comes to the issue of body image, he had this to say: “Ultimately an actor’s body and looks CAN be a detriment or a benefit to hiring, depending on the project. Bottom line: talent most often wins out but hiring is always dependent on the audience buying a specific without question. I have had many instances where getting the lead on a project came down to weight where a woman is concerned. However talent always wins out in theatre. I have seen so many character men and women playing romantic leads on stage where that simply won’t happen on film and definitely not on TV.”

It seems that there is also a difference between men and women when it comes to feeling this pressure. When I started writing this, I was sure that men would be the overlooked aspect in this, that people don’t often think of how this affects them. However, from interviewing people, it seems clear that, while it does affect men, it is to a lesser degree.

Torrance Coombs, the star of the current hit TV show Reign says, “When I started shooting Reign, the character turned out to be more of an ‘action hero’ than I expected. I felt undersized. Again, nobody said anything, but I started seeing a personal trainer 3-5 times a week to bulk up for the role. People in Hollywood sometimes have a tendency to obsess over their bodies when they should be more focused on their craft. I do think both are helpful, but a hot body won't suddenly get you cast in much of interest.”

“I have worked with some women who have had the network and/or producers tell them they need to lose weight or tone up. It's obviously been really upsetting for them. Being self-conscious is never a good way to feel when you're trying to be vulnerable and make something interesting”, he adds.

Jessie Award-winning actor Anton Lipovetsky (Broken Sex Doll, Virtual Stage) has noticed this pressure more so in his friends, than himself- “Actor-friends of mine have confided in me that they feel objectified in their film auditions or by their agents. I think this can make people jaded about acting and the industry. While I don't feel pressured to change my looks, because of my work as an actor I definitely have to observe and evaluate my looks more than I'd like to. Sometimes I can be self-conscious or hyper aware.  So I don't know if this is good or bad but it has become a big part of my life.”

So it seems that (at least for the gents I talked to) men have come through relatively unscathed.

Shauna Johannesen adds, “I think I see this pressure on women most in terms of age. The roles do not become more plentiful as you get older, and there are lots of wonderful talented actresses. It's hard to see so many talented people growing older and knowing that there is not necessarily more work in their future that, in fact, they might be working harder for fewer roles. I'm not sure that's any different in theatre. Some of it has to do with whose stories are being told and by whom, but it is also about looking young, attractive and aspirational on TV – about selling a dream (Who’s? You might rightly ask…).  And when I watch TV and see that so many of the older (and younger!) actresses have had some kind of work done it highlights for me this pressure on women not to show their age and I find that really disconcerting.

I'm aware that part of what an actor is ‘selling’ is his or her appearance, and knowing that there are fewer roles for women as they get older, and that there is a lot of pressure for women to stay looking young and beautiful gives me pause. I want to keep working! I want to see the many talented actresses I know work well into their eighties. And why not? There are meaningful, important stories to be told by and about older women – women who look like our peers and our mothers and our grandmothers. So, how do we get those stories told? How do we get those roles cast age-appropriately? How do we work all around to make casting more diverse, and more reflective of our actual communities – in age, ethnicity, and varied reflections of beauty and size?  I don't know how we change that in theatre or film except by making our own work and telling our own stories.”

As for me, things started to change when I did my first play after UBC. It also happened to be my first fully naked scene, which couldn’t have come at a better time. As hard as it was to get the confidence up to do a thing like that, once I did it for the first time I couldn’t believe how freeing and relieving it felt. I was just there on the stage with my other lucky ‘naked people’, in front of the audience, just doing what we rehearsed (it was a Greek chorus type play, nothing sexual). It didn’t matter that I wasn’t the skinniest girl, or that I wasn’t the fattest girl. I just was.

I had learned a valuable lesson. I decided that, for me, life was too short to be stressing about my body type in relation to my career. Yes, acting was what I loved, but was it worth it to be yo-yo dieting and constantly worried about that extra 10 or 20 pounds? It seemed that in order to fit into the Film and TV world, and to achieve those markers of success that I was supposed to achieve, I would have to attain this ideal, and be who these other people wanted me to be. I, on the other hand, felt accepted in the theatre world for who I was and my talent. I could get up on stage and do the work, and then go home and work on my script, learn my lines, work on the craft-instead of going home and obsessively planning my meals for the next day, squeezing in a frantic work out and preparing for my next fast.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that diet and exercise aren’t important. They definitely are. After all, these bodies are the only ones we get in this life, so we need to treat them right to make them last. However, when that need to look a certain way takes over your life and inhibits your ability to enjoy the rest of life, it’s a problem.  When you forget what you ever loved about acting (or whatever your passion is) in the first place, because you’re spending so much of your time and energy on how you look, or how you feel you’re supposed to look, is that really living?

Emmelia Gordon has been able to turn this (possibly) negative pressure into a positive: “Self-confidence is a major skill to have in this world of acting.  I know in theatre school it was harder to feel like I fit in. But that just made me want it more, to prove that I was capable. It’s taken a whole lot of time and effort but I feel like I am getting there. I thrive in a world where I can change the ideas of what people think is the norm. I want to bend and change those ideas and I feel that theatre is a wonderful media to do so. So I would say I thrive at the challenge. It’s a thrill. “

“Talent is the most important factor for me every time.”-Sarah Rodgers, veteran theatre director

So, there you go. There are two sides to the story. It seems that, although everyone seems aware of this pressure, it affects everyone in very different ways and to varying amounts. Everyone seems to agree, however, that there is a big difference between theatre and Film/TV, when it comes to this issue.

When I asked Colleen Wheeler about this, she had this to offer: I think that it is important to feel confident at any size, and just fucking go for it. “