x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

All the world's a stage, and I am the wooden planking

When you have only one acting job every 35 years, you can forget just how draining the work is.

I was a tree in a school play. After that my acting career had a 35-year lull.

Until one day late last year, when I was "discovered".

I was sitting at my desk minding my own business, when my boss walked into the newsroom with a member of a video-production team from the Abu Dhabi-based Al Emarat television station. The National and the station have a common owner, Abu Dhabi Media, and sometimes a person from the TV side will amble in, but usually they are not recruiting.

The TV man was looking for someone to play a professor in an "ident" or "bumper" spot, one of those promos at the end of a commercial break that signal to the viewer to stop fast-forwarding because the show's about to resume.

My boss pointed the TV man in my direction. Maybe it was the dash of silver in my curly hair. Maybe it was the fact that I'm naive enough to say "yes" to the prospect of making a fool out of myself with the camera rolling.

"Sure," I said. And why not? I figured it would take half an hour or so, and if it went well, maybe I could broaden out into other local adverts - KFC, mayonnaise, off-plan property. But when I showed up at the studio in Musaffah, it was a different story.

Although acting seemed to mostly involve waiting and standing around, by day's end I was drained; the job had weighed on me. The actor is a cog in a machine with a great many moving parts, and any mistake by him will gum up the whole mechanism. You're like a goalkeeper: when you miss, the team pays.

As for who played the role of the manager in this, an observer could have been forgiven some confusion.

The director was a calm fellow sitting on a canvas chair at the back of the room who would, every now and then, offer advice to the actors or crew. But he seemed more like a consultant than a chief. It was the cameraman around whom all revolved. It was the cameraman who told people where to stand, who chided me for touching the props, who ordered the lens to be changed and whose words made other people jump into action.

Essentially my task was to stand at a three-quarters angle to the camera, take a few short steps to the right, end up where a piece of tape was stuck to the floor, point to some X-rays posted on a light-board behind me, make eye contact with the three actors playing my students, gesture occasionally, ignore the camera and, of course, relax.

This wasn't a speaking part: there would be an Arabic voice-over for the sound. Nonetheless, during the early takes I went "all method" and spoke as if I really were a med-school lecturer, blabbing on about the invention of the X-ray, and what a miracle it was to be able to see inside ourselves, and how in a way that was a parallel to Freud's contemporaneous work in psychology.

Again: not a speaking part.

Clearly my method was too involved, so after a few takes I just articulated what I was doing physically: "And point, and gesture. And step, and point. And point, and gesture." That helped. It took about five hours of filming, but the spot was logged and I've even seen it on air. An Arabic-speaking colleague even called me "professor" in the queue at the canteen (I had the lasagne).

The night after my ad shoot, I watched Downton Abbey with my daughter and beheld its actors with new eyes. These magical people could somehow walk through an entire room while talking! They could convey emotions, play billiards and hit their marks - at the same time! And somehow they made it all look easy. I was in awe.

Some years ago at a TV-industry event in Beverly Hills I spoke with the actor Taylor Kitsch. This was during his Friday Night Lights days. I never knew what to say to actors, so I cheated and asked: "What's a good question to ask an actor?"

He answered: "What's the most interesting layer of your character?"

That's an actor's answer. As for me, I was a mere technician, a prop, a lab coat with legs. But I'm ready for another role in another 35 years, even if it means being a tree again - the most interesting layer of which is, of course, bark.