The Acting Diaries: How it All Started

What is it actually like to be a working actor in London? In this blog-series, our Screen Acting Tutor and professional actor Tom Colley gives you the lowdown. Welcome to the Acting Diaries...

Tom Colley City Academy Screen Acting Tutor

I left drama school training in the summer of 2010. We were the walls that tutors were throwing the mud against, hoping (somewhat in vain) that some of it would stick as we ventured out like shy underground animals into the vast busyness of the industry. At the end of all this vigorous mud chucking, we found ourselves sitting in a little screening room in Soho; the presentation of our final short films to agents and relevant industry folk. The room was mostly vacant, the films mostly average. I left the screening talking to no one, making no connections, and with the dark thought that the last year had been a categorical waste of time. What had I learnt? Was I a better actor coming out of it all? Why didn't any agents approach me?

I had no answers, and went back to rural Essex to work in a country pub, despite having vowed never to pour another pint again. Walking home through the fields in the early hours of a Sunday morning, staring at the stars, my mind stumbled on words said to me by my tutor at drama school in a mid term progress meeting:

"Don't worry too much about getting work. I think that the work will come to you later on in your life."

What did that mean? At the time I decided to shove this to the very recesses of my brain, for fear it could be true, for fear that I may not become 'an actor.' I was desperate to get work, to start on the life, to be the actor living and working in London. I wasn't in London, I was in Essex and living next a turkey farm. I wondered if it was ever going to happen.

Then I got an audition. A casting director had seen one of the short films and sent me an email. Would I "consider reading for the lead role in an independent feature film? Script is attached. Please learn two scenes to bring to the audition." I worked furiously on the script, learned the lines, how to smoke (I hadn't touched a cigarette before), and dug out some clothes I thought appropriate for an up and coming American writer from New York. It went by in a blur of adrenaline, partly due to the near passing out from smoking too many cigarettes in one sitting, and I was back on the train home. The character was staying with me. I couldn't shake it. I wanted to be that person for a while, badly.

The next week I was washing dishes and listening to the chefs curse at every opportunity to as many people as possible (I don't think they're all bad. I was one once!). I got a call on my phone. I let it ring out, and saw the voicemail icon pop up (pre iPhone days). Unable to contain my curiosity, I asked to go for a quick break, received the courtesy insult, and ventured out the back to where the bins were. The acrid odours of chip fat and chicken carcasses filled my nose as I listened, hands trembling;

"We loved what you did with the role. The director thought you were committed and liked working with you in the audition. We'd like to offer you the part."

I could have cried. In fact, as I write this, a little bubble of emotion ripples ever so gently in some deep well. My first acting role. Unpaid, but my first acting role! My first character, my first chance to dive voraciously into the life of another person. And in a film!

Tom Colley City Academy Screen Acting Tutor

Rehearsals were due to start next month, and as I blasted through the next few hours of washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen after the chefs went home, I was already playing the film in my head. I was already there, me as the character, going through his life in some parallel universe as my hand worked on the industrial kitchen grill with a scour. I thought to myself; I guess that I better get better at smoking.

An opportunity to act, to do what you do, must be grasped so tightly with both hands. There will be challenges on the way in rehearsals, filming, on the stage. That is totally normal and happens every time; the actor's job is to embrace them. Your job is to be a detective. Rather than say 'I don't like the way that character is,' or 'I wouldn't say that,' you have to find the reasoning for why you would say or do the things the character does in the story. It's too easy to resist; the joy of the job is found in working through what is difficult.

Tom Colley Screen Acting Tutor City Academy

We filmed the whole feature in two exhausting but electrifying weeks. At times we did back-to-back fifteen hour working days. It remains one of my most treasured memories. At the little wrap party we had at the assistant director's house I remember saying to myself; 'this is it. This is what I want to do. This is what I will do.', and then simultaneously, 'What's next?'