Last night I stumbled upon this video of Jack Gleeson, the young actor who played the much-hated Joffrey on HBO’s Game of Thrones. The video is long and comes with a lot of um’s and uh’s but the essay he reads aloud is a good examination of the phenomenon of celebrity worship in our culture.
For a long time I’ve been mildly amused by the fuss over actors, musicians, sports figures and the like, but there’s been a shift in the past few years. We now make a fuss over any person we deem a “celebrity”, even if their claim to fame is an unkempt beard and blatantly racist comments in favour of the Jim Crow South. It’s bizarre.
But I can’t point a finger without looking at the three pointing back at me. I was lucky; I had the celebrity awe exorcised from me. Before that, I was just like anyone else.
My first job on a film set was in my late teens. I’d signed up with an extras agency and this was my first call. The movie was the unmemorable Distant Thunder, which starred Ralph Macchio and John Lithgow. I don’t think I slept more than a few hours the night before. I WAS GOING TO BE IN THE SAME ROOM AS THE KARATE KID!
For three days, I ate Costco muffins and sat in rooms that were alternately freezing and stiflingly hot. The pace of filming made watching paint dry look thrilling. But…BUT…the actors were often right there, right where I could see them! And at one point Ralph Macchio spoke…wait for it…right to me! To me! He made words with his mouth, directly at me, and I made words directly back at him.
BEST DAY EVER!
Or was it?
Truthfully, I can’t remember what Ralph said. It wasn’t profound, just the kind of conversation people make when they’re standing around bored. He probably said something like, “Wow, those chocolate Costco muffins are really chocolately, huh?” In the Karate Kid, Macchio was lean, all sinew and super wax-on/wax-off power. In person, he was actually a bit pear shaped and doughy. And I was not overwhelmed by his acting prowess—not that those scenes were exactly Oscar material, to be fair.
In short, he was just a regular guy. And, in the spectrum of actor personalities, that’s not so bad.
If you had told me, on that day, The Day Ralph Macchio Spoke To Me, that there would come a time when I would not only not care about talking to famous actors but also that I would often deliberately avoid it, I would have pelted you with Costco muffins. And yet that’s exactly what happened.
There’s a celebrity ragazine I read as a guilty pleasure if it happens to be close at hand when I get my hair cut three or four times a year. In it, there’s a section titled, “Stars–they’re just like us!”. This is where you see famous people buying groceries or pushing their kids on the swings or picking their noses. You’re supposed to look at these photos and be both amazed and comforted that these godlike creatures must indeed perform human acts…just like us. GASP!
Yeaaaaaah. They’re like us but they’re not. Yes, they eat food, and poop, and sleep, but many times that’s where the similarities end. You can’t spend your life in a bubble, working at a job where people follow you around tending to your every whim, and where thousands, or tens of thousands, or millions, of people hang on your every word and action, and not be changed by that. Some can handle it. Lots can’t.
Oddly, actors in the UK seem to do a much better job of staying “normal” than their US counterparts. Is it the tea? I like to think so.
As a stunt performer, you are in a strange position when it comes to celebrities. You don’t just work with them, you have to “be” them. You’re not there to be a person getting hit by a bus, you’re there to look like Tom Hanks getting hit by a bus. You’re there to make the actor look good and to keep them safe, which requires a certain degree of trust and intimacy. Stunt performers can spend months on set, sometimes in stressful conditions, and under those circumstances you’re going to see a version of the celebrity that you won’t see on a talk show or in a “candid” interview.
Most of the time, things go well. Actors have a vested interest in maintaining a good working relationship with their stunt doubles. Quirks are overlooked, for the most part, because…actors. But every now and then you have an opportunity to double someone of whom you have been a fan, and that’s when dreams can get smashed.
My first experience with this happened on a TV movie. I won’t name the actress (not that many people would know her name anymore) but I will say that she was one of the leads on a popular 90’s TV show. I’d always loved her character—smart, independent, funny, strong—and thought she did a brilliant job bringing those qualities to life. I couldn’t wait to meet her.
Cue the sad music.
She was nice. She was also a complete ditz. She was everyone’s image of the dumb blonde except without the blondeness. There’s nothing wrong with that, she seemed happy, but I could not reconcile the person I “knew” from TV and from magazine interviews with the person standing in front of me giggling like an idiot.
A disappointing moment but a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
My story is tame compared to others. An old friend of mine practically jumped out of her skin when she learned she would be doubling Pam Grier. We all want to see heroes on screen that look like us. Back in the day, it was difficult to find female action heroes, never mind black female action heroes. Enter, Foxy Brown. Yow! When the long awaited meeting occurred, my friend introduced herself and politely told Ms. Grier that she had been an inspiration. Grier’s response was one of the worst and rudest snubs I’ve ever heard. My friend walked away deflated and disgusted.
I have a long list of stories like this from my former stunt co-workers. Combine that with some of the on-set behaviours we witnessed—Christian Bale was not the first actor to throw a tantrum on set, he was just unlucky enough to get caught on film—and you have a pretty bleak picture of the people our society bestows with the honour of “celebrity”.
Work in the business long enough and, one by one, all your actor heroes will fall.
Don’t despair, there are good folks in the business, too. Ironically, the actors who traditionally play villains are often the nicest people in real life. Renowned soap opera bad girl, Susan Lucci, was one of the sweetest and classiest people I ever met on a film set. Maybe I caught her on a good day, but I’m going to hold onto that happy memory.
My point is merely that image and reality can reside light years apart from each other. When you buy into the celebrity culture, you’re buying into a lie.
And the lie was bad enough when it was all about people with actual skills. Now, with the explosion of reality TV, the lie has spread like a virulent strain of mouth herpes.
Who is Kim Kardashian? Why does anyone care about her? Why do I even know her name? Explain this to me.
The herpes has spread down into the population of us common folks, too, via social media.
Popularity is no longer a minor blip on the radar in our adolescent years. Popularity can now be quantified. It has a numerical value. Look to the right of this post and you will see a line that tells you the Coconut Chronicles has 1069 followers. JOIN THEM! Below that, a box announces that 167 people “like” Warpworld on Facebook. LIKE IT! And if you head over to Twitter you’ll see I currently have 841 followers. FOLLOW ME!
What does any of that mean?
Am I a more valuable person than the woman with 839 Twitter followers? A less valuable person than the person with 852 followers? Does the “quality” of my followers matter? Shouldn’t it squick us out just a little bit that we have “followers”?
There are entire businesses now devoted to getting you more likes and follows and increasing your numerical social status.
Oh wait…someone else just liked Warpworld. Make that 168.
The worst part is that I can’t opt out of the system without risking my career. As an author, particularly as an indie author, I need to be seen. I need to shove my big face in every body else’s face and do what I can to collect likes and follows and favourites and pieces of kibble just so that my little scribbles can hopefully be found in the ocean of noise. And, if I told you the thought of thousands of screaming fans lined up for me to sign copies of my book doesn’t elicit masturbatory thoughts, I’d be a liar of Godzilla-like proportions.
I would also be lying if I didn’t confess that the thought of thousands of screaming fans also terrifies me. If that dream/nightmare came true then I might end up as someone else’s celebrity hero. I couldn’t be me anymore. There would be expectations. What if I had a bad day and sniped at a fan and they then went on to write a blog post about how all celebrities are shite and how their dream was smashed?
I just want to write stories people like. I care if readers like my stories, I don’t care if they like me.
And yet, it matters.
I think of that actress who disappointed me and I wonder if I could watch her work now and still lose myself in her character? I don’t know. I can say the same of the books I read. Once upon a time, all I knew about authors were their names and maybe what they looked like, thanks to the photo at the back of the book. Story was everything. The only thing. Now, authors are public figures and, for reader me, that’s not always a good thing.
There’s a big kerfuffle going on the publishing world right now again between two corporate powerhouses who shall remain nameless because I am sick of hearing their names. Battle lines have been drawn and authors are taking sides. I do not have a side. I will not be taking a side. As Scalzi points out so eloquently, this is about business.
In the meantime, however, I watch the authors on both sides of this conflict, as well as on the sidelines, behaving in ways I find unappealing (at best). This makes me less enthusiastic about seeking out their work to read. That bothers me. I want to separate artist from art, person from product, but I’m not sure I can.
Hey, there are actors whose work I will never pay to watch, why should the work of an ill-behaved author be any different?
Are people now products? Is fame the real commodity?
I don’t have any answers, only questions. More every day.
What will the future look like? Will we all be reduced to popularity numbers? Will this cult of celebrity grow until fame is meaningless? Can I succeed as an author without sacrificing at least part of who I am and what I believe? Have I done that already, before success has even arrived?
I know I can’t stop the machine but I can ask you, my friends and…ugh…followers to spend a few minutes thinking about the cult of celebrity. I can tell you that you are not a number.
I can assure you a million likes will never equal one real life person who loves you.