Being an Actor: Part 1 — is it 'Manly' to Act?
Updated: Mar 25
The parents were out of the house and the boy was playing in the back. He raised the plastic revolver and fired a few last, desperate shots into the rushing army of invaders. It was too late. His body slammed into the hard wall behind him and started sliding down slowly as the bullets of the enemies kept tearing into him. He was dying, but he was dying for freedom. This is why the tears dropped freely from his eyes as he was leaving the cold, harsh world. He had lived like a man and he had died a man, not holding back, not cowering in fear, not bowing his head before the oppressors. He knew that a man only lived once and unless he became willing to stand up, speak up and take risks, he would be dying slowly every day...
When boys play at war they are rehearsing their part in a much bigger drama.
— John Eldredge, 'Wild at Heart'
I was only eight or nine when I first became conscious of my weird impulses to act when I was by myself and experience emotions that were in response to the scenarios I acted out. I never really did what real actors did; I never 'became somebody else'. What I did do, was just...play, and enact things by responding with what was already inside me — the good, the bad and the ugly. But in those early days before the pressure of having to 'grow up' and leave my true self behind, there was mostly the good, the pure, and the noble. I remember no darkness, no shadow needed to be entered, expressed and embodied. My heroes were characters like Zorro and heroic historical figures like the famous Bulgarian revolutionary Vasil Levski.
It was at Levski's birth-home, the now famous house-museum in Karlovo, where, as a little boy, I wanted desperately to take his revolver that was on display there. I was indeed desperate; so much so that my parents had to take me out of the building — so loud was the crying of the three-year old boy who, for some strange reason, wanted to steal a weapon from a museum...
One time, much later, while my brother was home on leave from his, then mandatory, Army service and I was around eight or nine years old, I had the strange desire to put on his miliary uniform and go out on the main village street wearing it, in full parade uniform, cap and all...
My grandmother, whose house was right by the main road, remembers seeing 'a little solider' walking proudly by with a uniform that was comically too big for him; she remembers seeing drivers turning to look as they passed this strange sight, not believing what they were seeing...
I remember it too, and I also remember how bitterly I cried when my mother made me come back home quickly and take the uniform off.
I remember feeling the shame of wanting to express something and finding out that I didn't actually have it. You can't play battle if you don't have a warrior inside you. I reeled and revolted against that realisation while I was taking the uniform off, my vision blurred by hot, bitter tears...
Back then, it was easier to cry, and I cried a lot.
The same happened with my lover-heart and my ability to see the beautiful and the noble in a woman and the mystery of romance. The very idea of 'romance' was cut off from my life quite early. I knew, somehow, that being tender and vulnerable, yet passionate and strong, was simply not...me. Zorro was gentle and vulnerable and expressive; so was Levski. I wanted to be, but was eventually disillusioned. I knew that I could not express the pure, fiery, sacrificial, noble heart that I wanted to — I simply did not have that fire in me...
I did not know then that whatever we are born desiring actually does exists in us in form of potential, and, if the needed conditions, the right people, and the proper 'training' were put into place, that potential could begin to be realised — not in dreams, not in desires only, but in reality — and expressed through the same body that was growing bigger every day just as the soul within it was meant to grow larger and stronger and more uniquely developed with each day.
I knew nothing of this, and nor did anyone else around me. My soul did not grow but shrank with each passing day and each passing year...
It didn't take too long before I was an awkward adolescent, a boy whose heart was alive only in very small parts, only in fragments of what desire and joy he had once been free to feel.
To carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood...
this is the character and privilege of genius.
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'The Privilege of Genuis'
I was full of shame and I thought that this was just how I was. Not lucky enough to be born with any particular talent or any particular distinction. No sports abilities, no outstanding artistic gifts, no real intellectual prowess...only small glimpses of something here and there; only sparks of the hidden potential of a child who had never blossomed into manhood, no matter how old his body grew.
The world today is trying hard to make men expressive and 'vulnerable'. Don't trust the world. This same world once tried to make us unfeeling and cold, robotic 'macho' men whose only strong emotion was rage. Who knows where the world will go tomorrow...but this never concerned me and it never will. The truth is that I actually had a deep desire to be emotionally open — I longed to be free to hug whoever I felt like hugging; I yearned for the ability to be spontaneous in my expression; I deeply coveted other men's ability to be strong and confrontational when it was called for. I knew what I wanted to be. I just could never become that.
And so, by the time I was fifteen, I was firmly secure in not being secure in anything; I had no personality and was hiding behind the best defence I could come up with: a nice-guy image — a persona that revealed very little of what my true self actually was. Even the way I dressed revealed one single desire: to not be noticed by others.
Because I was afraid that, if they did see my true desires and my true longings, they might expect me to live up to them. They might even assault them, squash them and make fun of them in that typical playground cruelty that often comes so naturally to children who, driven by their own insecurities, need to mock the insecurities of others...
This was also why, back in primary school, I often held back even in the things I was good at, like art and literature. When the teacher asked a question, I often answered it. The next time she did, I looked around me and waited for others to raise their hand — even though I knew that answer, too! I did not want to stand out. I did not want to be seen. What was there to see? A funny, foolish boy who was a dreamer instead of an athlete; a thinker instead of a doer. Who wants that? Who wants to remain a boy while others grow into manhood? Who wants to remain 'sweet' in the eyes of the girls while others grow to become 'handsome' and 'dashing'?
Those were legitimate questions, and still are. But I can now see that what I was repulsed by in myself — namely, that 'childishness' — did not it itself repulse me; what I was frustrated with was the inability to be those other things as well...
The real problem I had was not that I felt too young for my age; it was that I could not balance that inner childishness with outer physical power and the joy of competing and winning in the physical realm.
This is, I believe, part of any child's deep longing — to be developed in his own unique emotional and spiritual expression but also outwardly, in the more practical realities of life. Unless a boy is taught to overcome fears and inhibitions in the physical realm by older men in whose world he is made to feel at home, he would struggle in expressing himself emotionally as well. A boy cannot grow up feeling emotionally safe with others if he had not felt physically safe first. In other words, you need to have had some form of struggle and victory in the physical realm of boys and men, to know that you are safe around them.
After all, even my childhood hero Levski whose nickname means 'lion-like', got his name by winning a long-jump completion between him and his friends. He was secure in his physical identity as a man; he felt like a man among men and could later freely express his emotional and unashamedly communicate his spiritual longings as well, not to mention cheering his fellow revolutionaries up!
About that, a fellow revolutionary and poet Hristo Botev who once lived with Levski in an abandoned windmill in Romania, writes:
"I am living with my compatriot Vasil, the deacon. Ask not how we get by, because it's only every two or three days that we find some bread to quench our hunger... My friend Levski is of unheard-of character. When we are at our most critical, he is so merry as when we are in the best of situations. In moments of hellish cold, and when we have been hungry for two or three days, he is still happy. In the evening, when we are going to bed, he is singing; in the morning when we open our eyes, he is singing again. No matter in what desperate situation you might find yourself, he would always make you laugh and make you forget all your sadness and suffering. It is good for one to live with such people."
('Vagabond Magazine' — Who Was Vasil Levski?)
Levski, and people like him whom I admired, did not fear other men. They did not feel awkward and self-conscious in front of them like I did and still do at times. Men like Levski were free to express their true selves in front of them. This was what made them loved and this was what made them hated; but no-one could remain indifferent toward them. I think that this is indeed the essence of true masculinity, the potential for which hides in every man's heart, no matter how deeply buried, marred and wounded: the ability to impact the world with its presence.
But a man cannot grow up with his presence fully developed and unleashed in all its glorious, God-created goodness, until he had been given the freedom to express all of himself.
All of himself. All of his true, original, free, unmarred self...
This is the self we are born with, and then of course the world does its work…the world sets in to making us into what the world would like it to be, and because we have to survive after all, we try to make ourselves into something that we hope the world will like better than it apparently did the self we originally were... In the process of living out that story, the original, shimmering self gets buried so deep that most of us end up hardly living out of it at all. Instead we live out all the other selves, which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s weather.
— Frederick Büchner, 'Telling Secrets'
As we grow up, we don't so much as listen to what our parents and our community tell us, but we feel the spirit — and therefore the true meaning, which is subconscious and thus often hidden even from them themselves — behind their words. As we grow and develop, we are shaped not so much by their advice, but by a thousand little daily subconscious reactions of our own soul to their presence, and what that communicated to us about ourselves.
During my boyhood, most men around me admired sharp, powerful, heroic men like Vasil Levski or William Wallace. People with such expressive presence were worshipped by the men around me...and this is where the division in me began to take root: because even though they were admired, those heroes were not emulated by anyone I knew. Their lifestyles of freedom, emotional expression and open relationship to the world and its people, seemed absolutely foreign to what I saw when I looked around me.
Most of those same men (our neighbours and relatives, my father and his friends) also enjoyed watching television and films, and they admired the same actors I admired — men who openly portrayed and expressed deep, true human emotion such as love, grief or anger. Indeed, I observed that whenever an actor wasn't able to fully express the emotion that he was expected to, people weren't happy with his performance...
This was what puzzled me about acting, and in all honesty, it still does.
But stay with me here, and you will soon see why, I hope.
I had never seen my father dance. I had heard him sing, I had seen him cry, but I had never seen him articulate an emotion with the single purpose of its own expression, or, God forbid, simply for entertainment. Yet, I knew my father to be a man of presence, a man of substance, just like those heroic men on the screen or in the history books were; only...even more so. He was real, he was there, he was present, and he was as hard as a rock. My father's presence never tuned out; it never faded out or disappeared into the corners of the room he occupied. Even when he was quiet and listened, he never diminished. He was...there.
And to be perfectly clear, I still admire that, and I still strive to reclaim and release more and more of my own suppressed energy and latent potential into the current reality...
As a son, I still need more of his strength released in me.
My father never said anything negative about the profession of acting. He admired actors who were good at what they do. But he, personally, was as far removed from the world of entertainment as most menI knew. His father — a strong, hard-working, honest man who survived things such as the first murderous waves of Communism, the gruelling months on the front during the Second World War and a lifetime of poverty that followed — brought up four children in a little adobe house.
As with most men back then, my dad's life was not about expressing what's inside of you; it was about survival.
But I did not hear those words from him. I am certain that he would have never discouraged me if I had said to him that I wanted to pursue acting, but I know that I would have never uttered those words back then. I would have never wanted to become a man whose masculine essence, whose inner self, was so open for everyone to see, judge and even mock, if they wanted to.
I did not hear it, but I felt it — a real man does not entertain others.
A real man is...heavy. He is solid. He has presence. He enjoys entertainment but never creates it.
This is what I felt. Nobody said it, nobody put it to words for me, but I felt it.
The few things my dad did say in regard to the performing arts were directed towards some rock-musicians...
On day on television we watched a snippet of some concert; there, the frontman of the Bulgarian punk-band Control was doing that wild movement known in those circles as 'head-banging'. Riveted in front of the old 'Electron', I was watching him with avid interest.
When my dad saw him, he chuckled: 'I wouldn't do this for all the money in the world...and I mean, all of it!'
And I knew he meant it.
Another similar occurrence I remember well was when, in my teens, I was trying to record the sound of an advertisement of an upcoming Metallica concert (grasping at sound-bites does sound desperate, I know, and I'm still not sure why exactly I needed to tape those few moments of incomplete songs mixed with the speech of the advertisers...I guess it was because, when I am 'into' something, as I do even today, I tend to exhaust every known avenue to it and squeeze whatever I can out of it. It could also be that any exposure to the music I liked back then was simply too precious to me, back in those days of expensive cassette-tape albums).
My dad, who was sitting around the table with his friend, Peter 'the priest' (I will tell you about that wild character one day) looked at the advertisement, and, seeing the Metallica boys do their thing, smirked: 'junkies, every single one of them...'
I never forgot these two occasions, and I never forgot the remarks of the man I admired and worshipped above all else: the strong, good, honest man who for no obvious reason was respected by everyone around him.
Because he respected himself first, I thought. Because he respected himself first. And people who respect themselves get respect from others. People who respect themselves don't do foolish, childish things. Like the things I did in secret...
I had no self-respect, but I wanted to have it. I wanted to be a man like my father. But I just knew that no matter what I tried, I could not be that man.
Yet, I kept trying. What other choice did I have?
* * *
Another reason for my first belief that the world of acting was as far from me as the East is from the West, was that acting was simply...not available to our family. We lived in a village, geographically as far from the city of Sofia as we were emotionally and mentally far from the people who used nothing but their own selves to make magic happen on the screen.
Acting, such as computer science, or the hotel industry, or banking, just wasn't 'on the radar' for us.
And neither was emotional expression.
It seems to me now that I have always searched and watched the world around me, looking for this one thing: hoping to see whether or not being a true man — a man with a solid, uncompromising presence and an intact warrior-spirit — can indeed go together with being an actor, or at least with expressing one's weird, 'childish' inner world without shame...
In regard to the profession of acting, all I heard, saw, and perceived around me was the concept of...deception. Actors are not 'real' people, I thought, and their job was to deceive others into believing that they were. I wondered then, how can an actor walk down the street and interact with his neighbours and friends without having that as a handicap — the ever-present knowledge that people would suspect him of not being genuine, or not being his true self.
Little did I know that most of us hardly, if ever, show our true selves to others.
While others admired men who acted, and while I myself wanted to have their looks (meaning, of course, not to look like them but to have their freedom to express all human emotion that was displayed on their faces) I could not help but shudder at the prospect of being in such a 'fake' line of work, let alone being so childish as to allow oneself to stoop down to such levels of infantility in front of a whole crowd...
I shuddered at the thought of a man's dignity being so readily cast aside for the sake of mere entertainment. Thinking about actors, I wondered: did those men actually have any real dignity? Did they respect themselves? Did they possess a real, true and unshakable firmness within them, or did they shift and change like chameleons, according to what they wanted others to see in them? And if they did constantly change like that, what a sad, pitiful, lonely life would that be!
These are strong words, I know, but that was how I felt then and how, at least in part, I still sometimes feel today. Not towards other actors, of course (in fact, I can honestly say that I have never met truer and more genuine people than some of the actors I know), but toward myself, whenever I think about my desire to act. I want to be true, firm and unshakable. I do not want to act my way through life.
Yet, we all act things out...and little did I know that good actors actually do not 'act' in that sense at all; they do not pretend. They simply...express.
This is why, I think, many good actors are so healthy and able to function emotionally and physically well into old age. They are very good at finding and integrating lost or repressed fragments of the inner being. They know their 'sin-nature' well, and often enter that shadow and embody it, thus disarming it, albeit temporarily, making themselves at ease with life itself. They frequently purge the body and the soul of things which all men have but few ever dare to feel or even admit to ourselves, let alone express.
Back to my own frustration with the profession — and I'm sure you feel it as you read this; I'm sure you feel the chaos and the struggle that I cannot help but let spill on this page even as I try my hardest to contain it and organise my thoughts into words...
I guess I would have tell you another story...
I was eighteen. It was around the time the picture below was taken with my mother's 'Skina' (which was quite something in our family at the time!).
I was playing with my nephew Kiril, the kid on the picture below, who, then as well as now, everybody called 'Kiko'. At that time I was well on my way to becoming a man who hid behind a facade. Kiko was, mercifully, still the lovely chubby boy you see on the photo..
I was chasing him around my grandparents' house. Due to the heat, they were inside, resting, and him and I started using the house as a war-zone. We stalked each other holding broom-handles and sticks, and opened fire mercilessly whenever the other was in sight. The noise was deafening, and the fun was overwhelming! I'm not sure I fully appreciated then that I had this young boy in my life, who, albeit temporarily, brought some of my defences down and neutralised my inhibitions. In doing so, he not so much as introduced fun again to me, but for a few precious moments each time, he liberated my true self again — the self I showed only to myself while I was alone, and even that less and less as I grew more and more into who the world and my pain-generated choices shaped me to be...
Machine-gun crackle, hand-grenade explosions...the battle was fierce and I felt the rush of being free, the excitement of the chase, of hiding and not being caught, of staying alive one more moment — and of playing, just playing the game of life as it was meant to be played: with utter abandon, risk-taking and wild, fierce joy.
Then I was caught by the neighbour and it all fell to pieces.
My friend Stoycho's mother was coming back from work and as she approached their house, she had probably become aware of the noise.
She saw me long before I could see her.
I was startled by her greeting and clumsily greeted her back while I regained my composure.
With terror, I realised that she would have seen the hulking body of the youth who not only ran around with her son doing foolish things, but was perhaps a lot more foolish than he appeared to be.
'Hello, George,' she chirped with a big sincere smile on her face. 'Wow, it's so good that you are playing with Kiko like that! Well done! Good for you!'
Good for me? Good for me?
I wanted to hide, to disappear...
Yes, very 'good' for me...
I was an adult, caught playing a child's game. This was not just the benevolent stooping down to the child's level that I saw some adults do from time to time; mine was a full embodiment of something I was supposed to have outgrown. That was not normal. I was not normal.
I hated myself for being seen like that...I had always gone the extra mile to avoid it. In fact, that hiding began long before that, back in my first school years...
If we had a recital, I watched the other boys...and saw that they almost openly expressed how unpleasant the experience was for them. They complied, of course, and did what the teachers expected them to do, but they never 'gave all' to the what they were being asked to perform. They showed their classmates a part of them that was too mature, too bored with such 'good boy' childishness, and at the same time, they let another part — the obedient child — be seen by the teachers.
Never did any of them just throw themselves at it, like I wanted to, or tried to somehow embody the words they spoke. They did not dance or sing or recite with the full abandon and the joy that I saw in the children I saw on the television screen. None of the children from my class ever looked as though they actually wanted to be at those performances. None of them looked excited; none of them looked emotionally engaged with the words they said or sang or acted out...
Then, how could I?
How could I throw myself into those activities even if I did have the desire to do it? How could I read and recite with the childish joy that I did actually feel inside me when I looked at some of the stories, songs, and plays that were before me?
How could I afford being the one who was not like them?
I already knew that my schoolmates suspected me to be somewhat different...Yes, a kid who was witty and fun to be with, but perhaps a tad too eccentric for a boy from the village. I always remembered how they had all looked at me when they came home after school one afternoon to celebrate my twelfth birthday...
I had opened the door, for some reason dressed in a way that was way too smart for the place, the occasion, let alone my age and even the time we lived in.
My parents had bought me the outfit for my brother's wedding, where I was something of a best man. It consisted of a black velvet vest, trousers of the same material, a white shirt and a ribbon tie...
(I can't tell you why did I have to have a cap-gun with me at the wedding...but judging by my determined face and the embarrassed face of the girl, I'm sure I had had to use it at some point!).
I don't remember why I had chosen to wear the outfit in front of my friends on that birthday...
But I do remember the amused, puzzled, but benevolent looks on their faces throughout most of that afternoon...
I was free, a lot more free then, in those early pre-embarrassment years. But it didn't take me long to lose that freedom. It didn't take me long to realise that acting was stupid, performing was childish, and that I wanted to grow up as a man, not remain a child.
I started going out at the age of fifteen. I wanted to dance, I wanted to enter the world of the 'normal' teenagers. But secretly, upstairs in the safety of my room, I always became that foolish self which was not worthy of being shown to them or anyone else; I acted things out and embodied emotions freely. Those things were often either battle scenes or wild music performances. The battle or confrontation scenes were often done with some kind of a weapon in hand, like a rile which was in fact my mother's rolling pin, a plastic gun which I was already too old to possess, or (and this I loved the most) some real, dangerous item like the hunting knife an uncle gave me when I was ten years old...
For those few brief years, even though I hid my true self, I actually loved life and, like most children, looked forward to growing up. I eagerly anticipated something in the future that I couldn't express with words but only felt.
Then, one night, an unprovoked confrontation with another boy showed me rather quickly that I would, perhaps, never grow up and become the man who embodied the things I felt and wanted to live out...I'm sure some of you remember that story.
But I know that it was a combination of many things that shaped my view of masculinity and acting — the loss of my own masculinity in the face of danger being one of them; the way I grew up, another.
And later, when I did finally managed to erect a facade that was big enough to hide my fearful, young and undeveloped little self, and strong enough to keep the bullies at bay, I openly scoffed at the world of acting and truly respected only men who I knew could be tough when they wanted to and for the most part, had more prosaic, no-nonsense attitude to life.
The young man who had given me my first real black eye and his company were, in the eyes of myself and my friends, clowns. We watched them dance to their stupid modern music, smoke their marijuana cigarettes that had recently entered our little world, court their girls, and live their wild, young lives.
They were the boys who, lost souls as some of them were, truly lived, or at least tried to.
I, on the other hand, stopped listening to the modern music which did not give me the life it promised to deliver; I turned back to the generations before me and borrowed old heavy-rock cassettes from friends of my brother's. Feeling that I could not express the wildness inside me the way others did, I locked away my youthful impulses and threw away the key. I calculated my every move and every step I took in front of others, in a painfully literal way, save only for the times when I drank enough alcohol to lift those inhibitions. I hated the taste of alcohol but I loved the freedom it gave me, so most nights, I had to force myself to drink, until I felt that pleasant haze surround me and that wonderful sense of freedom envelop my body...
As for dancing, I only did that when I was really drunk. Only then I didn't have to worry about what others thought of me.
My perception of the world of acting could be summed up in what I felt during the times when, in a few memorable occasions, temporary freed by alcohol, I played a major role in the mini-battles we fought against the other 'camp'...
I remember one particular time when me and a friend had cornered one of those boys in the darkness behind one of the administration buildings. We asked him (my friend Victor did the talking, with chilling politeness) if he had taken a part in something that had happened the previous weekend. He vehemently swore to us that he had not and we left him alone, walking together back to the nightclub. 'I swear to you that I had nothing to do with it' — he pleaded passionately —' ask anybody who was there!'
My friend snarled, 'let's hope so...' and we walked away. And as we walked, we laughed at the boy who, usually acting tough and always the first to start a fight when his friends were around (the same boy who had attacked me and given me that black eye some years ago), now pleaded so eagerly in hope that he would be spared the punishment we intended for him.
'A real actor, isn't he?' — said Victor. 'A real Hollywood talent! Worthy of the red carpet!'
Yes. Not a real man, but an actor. A person who pretended to be something he was not.
Thank God I was not an actor.
Thank God I did not have to fake my way through life...
But I did. I did.
End of Part One.