“Are You Still Acting?!”

by Mara

Imagine that when you were a child, you liked to finger-paint. It was a fun pastime, but it came easily to you, so you never took much pride in it. Regardless, you got a reputation for your finger-painting. Now imagine that, fifteen to twenty years later, people are coming up to you and telling you that they have your finger-paintings up on their walls and that your finger-paints changed their lives. It’s flattering, but you haven’t finger-painted in years, and it seems like something you did a long, long time ago. You’ve realized you don’t particularly enjoy getting your hands dirty and that there are other outlets for your creative urges. But people are adamant: are you going to finger-paint again? When? Wait, you’re not? Why not?

That’s what it feels like.

I’ve only recently realized that what I did as a child means to people. I get messages on my Facebook and Twitter nearly every day from people telling me that I was in their favorite movie. Matilda has been name-checked by librarians and feminist bloggers alike, and I’m flattered, though the compliment does not seem to be mine to receive. I didn’t write Matilda or direct the movie, I just played the part. Still, what I did was important to them. I can understand why they want me to continue acting. But interestingly enough, only about half of the people asking me “Are you still acting?” seem to take what I want into consideration.

This is not to say I have no thought of my fans. Believe me, I do: I have several half-finished ranting blog posts about respecting one’s audience in my “Saved Drafts” folder on this blog. Years of art school have turned me off “provocative” art that seeks to make the audience uncomfortable. But I think there is a difference between providing for a wanting audience and pandering to them.

Here is something no real celebrity will ever tell you: film acting is not very fun. Doing the same thing over and over again until, in the director’s eyes, you “get it right,” does not allow for very much creative freedom. The best times I had on film sets were the times the director let me express myself,* but those were rare. In terms of sheer adrenaline, film has absolutely nothing on theater. Theater is about connection with an audience, being in the moment, and living a live moment onstage. It’s thrilling and terrifying and ephemeral. It’s life. But I’m digressing. My point is that film can be exciting, but more often, it’s tedious. The celebrity aspect is nothing short of ridiculous, and auditioning is brutal and dehumanizing. Every time I see a pretty young girl on the subway reading sides for an audition, my only thought is, “Man, am I glad I’m not doing that anymore.” I never feel nostalgia, just relief.

There is a saying amongst actors, said by Stella Adler or Uta Hagen or some other guru of the dramatic arts, “If you can live without [acting], you should.” I have found that I can live without it.

A philosophically-inclined friend once remarked, in a conversation about ethics, that he thought it was fine to forsake a task as long as you knew there was someone else who could perform that task as well or better than you could. I agree, and I think that there are many much more talented, much more conventionally attractive actresses out there who are taking the roles I would have been offered. To paraphrase the showtune, anything I can do, Anna Kendrick or Ellen Page or Jennifer Lawrence (or any actress from the plethora of actresses waiting to be “discovered”) can do better.

The short answer is no, I don’t have any plans to pursue film acting. It’s not my “thing” anymore, if it ever was. Yes, I do still act sometimes. But when I do, it’s with people I know and trust, people who respect me as a person and appreciate what I have to offer. Yes, I love working in theater and have always loved voice-over, but pursuing a full-time live-action film career does not appeal to me.

And no, you will not ever see me on Dancing With The Stars. Sorry.

*Probably the best example is the homemade doll Danny Devito asked me to design for Matilda. I drew a picture of a doll Matilda could have made using basic household materials, and ended up with a real life red-pipe-cleaner-haired doll we called “Wanda.” It’s one thing I feel comfortable using for bragging rights: “I got my first Design credit at age seven!” I’m not actually sure if I was ever officially credited, but still, I’m proud.