x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

From acting to energy consulting: it's a tough act to follow

The Life: Performing comes naturally to a one-time Hollywood actor even after taking on his new role as a consultant based in Dubai.

Robert Smith says going from Connecticut to Tibet made him realise there was a big world out there waiting to be explored. Christopher Pike / The National
Robert Smith says going from Connecticut to Tibet made him realise there was a big world out there waiting to be explored. Christopher Pike / The National

These days he advises oil companies on how best to invest their money. But not so long ago Robert Smith was more likely to be found treading the boards in Los Angeles than in a boardroom in the Middle East discussing energy.

It may seem like an unlikely career path, but the 36-year-old, from Connecticut in the US, spent eight years as a Hollywood actor before becoming a commercial oil and gas consultant for Dubai-based Facts Global Energy.

At one point he even shot a vitamin drink commercial with the singer Kelly Clarkson, which led to his face becoming known across America.

"I loved the thrill of being on stage or in front of the camera," he says. "I suppose it was the allure of Hollywood."

Mr Smith says his career choices have always been against the stream. While studying at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, he spent a term studying Tibet and the downfall of the Tibetan resistance against the Chinese.

"That experience had a big effect on my life," he comments. "Connecticut, where I grew up, is a nice, quaint little state but going from an upper middle class existence to Tibet made me realise there was a big wide world out there and I wanted to explore it."

Later he studied ethnic Muslims in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Istanbul. As a result of his studies, he won a scholarship to do a Masters at the University of Hawaii. The title of his thesis was "Central Asian oil and gas development and its effect on Central Asian ethnic Muslims". This led to a job with an oil and gas company in Hawaii.

But two years later he became disillusioned with his career. "I was making a good living but I no longer found it challenging," Mr Smith says. "I wanted personal satisfaction more than anything else.

"I remember walking into a bookstore in New York in 2002 and taking a book about acting off the shelf. There was a line in it by the actor Sandy Meisner: 'Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances'. That really hit home."

Despite never performing before, Mr Smith decided to take up acting and in 2003 moved to LA, where he enrolled on an acting course. At first his interest in the thespian world was just a hobby, but by 2007 he was being offered enough work on stage, in film and commercials to make a full-time living.

However, his passion for his new profession faded during the economic downturn.

With fewer parts on offer because of budget cuts, the turning point came four years ago when he attended an audition and found the other actor reading for the part was the child star of Free Willy - Jason James Richter.

"If someone as well known as him was going for a job at such a low rate of pay it showed that everyone in the business was struggling," says Mr Smith. "It made me realise it just wasn't worth it."

Turning to production instead, he began raising finance for a low- budget independent movie. That brought him into contact with a man he'd met years before in Hawaii - an Iranian by the name of Fereidun Fesharaki, who was starting a company in Dubai. He offered Mr Smith a job as a commercial oil and gas consultant. Three years on and the former actor now lives in Dubai but works across the UAE and the Middle East. While he misses acting, he says the experience has helped his new career.

"I'm more at ease with myself than I used to be," he says. "I'm more confident; I've better people skills; and I have a thicker skin."

His interest in the film industry remains, however. He's currently attempting to raise funding here for three movies (two short independent films and one commercial) to be shot in the US. He believes his knowledge of the industry will encourage people here to invest.

"More blockbusters are being released and fewer independent, low-budget films," he says. "I believe there exists a good business opportunity as a result. My goal is to change the film distribution and production models and produce low-budget movies which make a profit."

Whether Mr Smith stays in the oil and gas business remains to be seen.