The Way I Was: Drunk with my dramatic prospects: John Sessions tells Nicholas Roe how he left Canada and an academic career at 26 to train for the stage

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YOU KNOW that funny moment when you've got a dreadful hangover? When you walk around and imagine your face looks like a warthog's arsehole, but then you see yourself in the mirror and you just seem a little pale and guilty?

Well, it's remarkable, looking at this picture. I look astonishingly well for a man who's actually been pissed for three days. But you can do that at 26. I look very fresh. Like I've just come back from a game of squash. In fact, I'm sitting at my sister's dining table in Toronto at the end of September 1979, and I've just finished three days' carousing at the prospect of leaving Canada and going back to England, to Rada.

I remember very clearly who I was at the time. I was fantastically insecure. I'd gone off to Canada to write a PhD, with some half-arsed idea of becoming a terribly successful expatriate. I'd effectively failed at that, my academic career had nose-dived, and I had been persuaded by a friend that if I wanted to act - and I professed that I did - I should give it a proper whirl. So I had written to several drama schools and had been accepted by Rada - which was like winning an Oscar, the greatest day of my life.

But now I was coming back, with no idea of what I was letting myself in for, feeling very intimidated. I'd done a lot of one-man shows at this university in Canada, but I didn't know if I was any good. I thought: maybe you are just the guy who can make people laugh in the kitchen at parties. You know, I have this label of being a smug, smart-alec know-all who walks around in a sea of self- confidence and self-adoration, but I'm not at all. Generally speaking, I'm in a perpetual state of insecurity, and I was then.

Despite the cachet of having lived away for four years I was very unmetropolitan, too. I'd always been jealous of friends who'd been to university in London because I'd never lived there, so arriving was fantastically exciting. To be able to develop that luxurious sense of taking the city for granted, to be in this greatest place with a lot of talented, funny people . . . I was in awe.

Rada was great, and I loved it, but when I left there was no prospect of work, and I had this appalling feeling that the previous two years had simply been a rosy illusion. I went straight into a job as a security guard, no prospect of anything. I was so poor I had to work Christmas Day, guarding some large buildings: Canada House, places like that.

Wandering around at night with a torch feeling absolutely dispirited, I was thinking: so this is what it's come to. I'd be practising my audition speech in mirrors at four in the morning thinking, am I fooling myself? Will I ever, ever get to stand on a stage and do this stuff and be paid for doing it?

I got a part within six weeks and thereafter it was all right really. I did an atrocious play in Liverpool and got an Equity card. To give you an idea of how awful it was, I was the second lead and I tried to hide out of the lights so I couldn't be seen. I played the leader of a tribe of hippies and had to say things like, 'Do you know how bad your karma is, man?' That was my best line.

I look so young in the photo. I look like a little boy. I'm 40 now. Terrifying. Another milestone. I look at the picture and it has that plangent feel one gets from old pictures: that incredible poignancy because you are looking at yourself not knowing lots of things that have happened since, harbouring thoughts of things happening which did not in fact happen, or things you thought would never happen but did . . .

No, I don't look back and pity the man. I had doubts then and I have them as much now.

John Sessions appears in 'Likely Stories', a series of half-hour one-man shows on BBC 2 in the new year.

(Photograph omitted)

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