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CAN YOU PLAY ENGLISH?
Arnar Geir Bertelsen - On Being a Foreign Actor in England


To me the notion of being an actor brings out a feeling of uniqueness. Not everybody is inspired by the thought of being an actor. When I think about it and look at the people who are and have been actors I see ambitious and determined people who are not afraid of being different from the rest of us. Everybody wants to be able to earn money and to spend it in their own way. For actors, such as me, this however is not enough. To be an actor is to be an individual who has conquered thinks and desires that other people leave alone. I feel that if a person is ready and willing to work erratic hours, be unemployed at times, sacrificing all the trappings of a regular job and still feel they are accomplishing something, they must be and are amazing tribe. This type of work is not open to everybody like other jobs. It takes a certain kind of person to endure all the ups and downs that go with it. Acting is for lunatics only.

The attractions of working abroad for me outweigh the attractions of staying in Iceland. The options you have are the National Theatre, The City Theatre, various local and national independent theatre companies or set up your own company. The pay is not good unless you get into the two big theatres. Now there are at least two casting agencies in Reykjavik. There are still no agents of any kind, only word of mouth can help you or if you know a director personally. This is changing but still if you know people then you are half way in. Working in England has its advantages. The employment market is bigger and the pay is higher. You have agents, casting agents, theatre producers etc. The opportunities are out there in plenty. The chance of working in such a diversified field is to good to miss out on. The reward can be beyond your dreams. The drawback is that there are to many actors fighting for the same role. That is the trend across the industry wherever you go in the world. That is what makes the world of entertainment both exciting and difficult.

Language, Agents and Foreign Actors
To be on the books of an agent is a step up for all actors. To get there is difficult. The agent only has so many actors on his books. For foreign actors like me it is vital to have an agent, otherwise we are left in the wilderness without any hope. I have tried to get an agent without any success. Part of the problem is that I have stated on my CV that I am Icelandic and used my own name as my stage name. That is not a good idea if you want to get an agent. The minute agents spot that you are a foreigner then that is it. The reason for this attitude is that agents are selling a product. They take between 10-20% for getting you a part, be it in a play or a film. There are not many parts for foreigners as foreigners and those parts usually go to English actors who look the part. Foreign actors who do get parts are typecast as foreigners and that gets them nowhere. English is the language in any medium and if you do not have a good to excellent accent, be it RP or a local dialect, then you do not get anywhere. This is the main problem for foreign actors wishing to work in England. Therefore I, as a foreign actor, would have to get the accent right and Anglicise my stage name to be able to get an interview with an agent.

Stereotypes
Once I had finished my Postgraduate course in Acting I set about applying for parts, advertised in the PCR which is the job bible of the actor. The parts I have gone up for have been those of either Scandinavians or Germans. I have done one student film, playing a Swede. Otherwise it has been a struggle. The one year course is not suitable for foreign actors. It is too short. In order to get on level with the home-grown competition the three year course is the only option. That is the time and effort you need to master perfect RP accent and other English dialects on the way. The other option is to get lessons from a private voice coach but that is expensive.

Competition
The competition is hard in the acting profession and not everybody can withstand the pressures it creates. I know of several Icelandic actors who have given up trying to make it in England. Those with connections in the Icelandic theatre use them to get in back home. Though the pay is not special, at least they have a acting job. This I think is down to determination and opportunities. It is easy when you can call upon others to do you favours. How far are foreign actors willing to sacrifice themselves abroad for a dream that may never materialise? I think you need to be pretty stubborn to stick it out in hope for a miracle. I do not want to spend the rest of my time applying for foreign roles. I want something more, a lot more.

It is clear that there is lot to be had from trying it out on both sides of the Atlantic. Foreign actors are at an disadvantage when they decide to seek their fortune in England. The competition is hard and foreign actors have to be able to compete with their English colleagues. Foreign actors are enticed by the potential of becoming big names abroad. The reality is that the market is full of potential stars in the making and they have a head start, their first language is English.

© Arnar Geir Bertelsen 2001

If you read this and need a good actor for a London play or TV Arnar is your man.


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