I HAVE recently experienced my first stint as an actress in LA trying to get a job. It was a challenge I had sworn never to undertake. Being an unemployed actor at home in London is bad enough. Being unemployed in LA, where even the receptionist at the Yoga Centre is your rival, is an exercise in confidence bashing I could live without. Nevertheless, the summer began well. Taken out to lunch by my agents, it was tempting to believe in the myth they created around me. "Very exciting time, there's a buzz about you... we need to raise your profile."
"Profile raising" involved interviewing several publicists who, for considerable sums of money, were prepared to get me invited to the right premieres, featured in trade mags and seen in the best restaurants. I plumped for the cheaper and less glamourous course of waiting for the right script.
As the weeks turned to months, the pile of good scripts featuring strong women whittled away. I resolved to take matters into my own hands. I dropped in on my Agents to root around in their pile of "Independent Projects". The result of two day's reading is as follows:
There's the blonde bimbo in rhinestone jeans who beats her husband to death with a shovel and elopes to Las Vegas with her lesbian lover. There's the peroxide blonde, kidnapped by two knuckleheads, who discovers she wanted to escape from her drunken husband anyway and elopes with them. There's the dizzy red head who sings karaoke and leaves her boring boyfriend to elope with this crazy guy and they go to Las Vegas. And then, of course, the skinny blonde shoe fetishist who elopes from drug rehab with two crazy guys and goes to, erm, Las Vegas.
All specify thinness, hair colour and a sex scene. Women's hair seems to be inextricably linked to their behaviour in the plot, whereas men are free to express their genetic inheritance without mention in the script. I meet for all of the above over the next week. My hair is brown. I don't even get recalled.
As an actress I want to transform myself: to become powerful, weak , American, Russian, dizzy, offensive, desirable, whatever the role requires. Keeping your body ready for work is as important as learning your lines. However, if you want to survive in Hollywood, you must develop a perception of your body that's separate from your perception of yourself. Thus, when someone says you could stand to lose a few pounds (and unless you have an eating disorder, they probably will), your self-esteem doesn't get flushed away with your regurgitated Snicker Bar.
Unlike some women who have felt compelled to write, direct and produce good work for themselves, I have kept my head well below the parapet. Yet my fate has been undeservedly happy. My first Hollywood role was a pregnant widow, the second a teacher who has to balance the affections of a 15-year-old and a 50-year-old. The movies were written and directed by men. The dilemmas of both characters were challenging to play and given generous screen time in the final cut. I have no grounds for complaint.
Women have penetrated all aspects of film-making, yet the job of actress (in which a woman cannot be substituted by a man) still suffers from tokenism. The actress' low representation on set is caused by factors more nebulous than a deficiency in skills or professionalism. Why is the actress not the protagonist? Not because she's a lesser actor. Ophelia still can't say that when she gets promoted she'll play Hamlet.
I pondered these injustices one Friday in the August heat and decided to head home, contemplating an ignominious return to London and an alternative career. By Tuesday I was brushing up my Philadelphia Accent and being fitted for costume. Every time I reach a truth universally acknowledged about acting, it is instantly shot down, proved wrong, exploded. I have a role in a script in which women are well represented, backed by one of the great female producers. They do exist. It does happen. It has happened to me three times, and for that I am grateful. Hollywood actresses operate under limitations, but within those limitations I have been lucky enough to roam freely.
Olivia Williams' film credits include `Rushmore' and `The Postman'. She starts filming `The Sixth Sense' this month
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