When I was small, there were these scrapbooks you could buy for your child’s school years. There was a place for the photo, areas to fill in your favourite foods and teacher, best friend, things like that. And at the bottom of each page, it said, “When I grow up, I want to be…” Below that were two lists: one for girls, one for boys. The boys’ list had things like …Astronaut! Doctor! Scientist! While the options for girls were …Mother. Nurse. Teacher. It was the 70s. The only saving grace to this bullshit gender-definining list of nonsense was the blank line underneath. Oh, the blank line. Who would I have been without that blank line? There were years when I would check off Teacher or Mother with my big, messy-handed check mark (Never Nurse. Are you kidding me?) but every year, my mother would fill that blank line in with the defining sentence:
Morgan wants to be a STAR!
There was never a doubt about me being a performer. I was in ballet classes at the age of three, lied about my age to get into drama classes (which started at age 10) at the age of nine, and was writing and casting my classmates in my own productions from day one. I’ve been in theatre companies since I was a teenager and performing pretty much solidly ever since. Hell, even before I began school, I would entertain. My dad would come home, sweaty and tired from a long day working in construction, his sawdust-caked boots heavy as he lifted them carefully over the rows and rows of stuffed animals I had lined up to be my audience. “Daddy!” I would scream. “Don’t step on the ladies and gentlemen!”
I moved to Vancouver in my late teens to pursue film & tv acting. And to marry Johnny Depp. Lucky for me, I arrived at a good time for the industry. With shows like 21 Jump Street and Neon Rider needing a steady supply of young actors, I quickly got work and a fair amount of it. I wasn’t a star, don’t get me wrong. I was the quirky best friend, the weird daughter, the troubled teen. I wasn’t the ingenue but that didn’t bother me. I learned the ropes. I went to acting classes and I took workshops and I waited tables because that’s what actors starting out did. I even had a scene with Johnny Depp once. It was incredibly anti-climactic. Maybe that should have been my first clue.
It would take too long to register all my 20-something criticisms of the industry but, suffice it to say, there was lots that knocked the glimmer out of the stars in my eyes. Still I kept at it because I truly loved the acting part. And I learned how to adapt to the stuff that was gross about the industry. When my body was continually criticized, I learned to say, “Fuck you. This is who I am. Hire me because I’m more interesting, why don’t you?” Well, first I developed a years-long eating disorder and hated myself and found a great therapist to help me overcome it but THEN I learned to say that. When I got frustrated by the skewed ratio of work for men to women, I learned to write and produce my own work with my sketch comedy troupes Girl Parts and 30 Helens and felt good about redressing that balance in my own way. When producers answered cell phones during my auditions or casting directors told me I didn’t get the part but asked me if I would babysit for them instead or when I was expected to sit in a waiting room for over two hours because the auditions were behind and then was never seen by that director again because I decided not to stick around after hour two…well, I started to feel a little less thrilled with it all. But I kept saying I wasn’t going to let what was wrong with the industry keep me from doing what I truly loved. Sacrifices would continue to be made and they would be worth it.
When I was cast on a TV series in LA, it was worth it. When I got to know Patty Duke on set of a movie of the week and discuss her book that I’d loved so much (I’m an autobiography junkie), it was worth it. When I got to spend a day filming with Steve Martin (who I grew up loving), Owen Wilson (from one of my favourite movies, Zoolander) and Jack Black (JACK FUCKING BLACK SANG TO ME!) it was worth it. When I had the chance to work with directors who “got me” and let me be funny (thank you, Ron Oliver), it was worth it. When Daniel Stern (love him) excitedly asked me about my one-person show one day on set, it was worth it. When I get to say I was in Hard Core Logo, it’s still worth it. Yup, there were lots of times that were absolutely worth it. But, you know, those moments are so few and far between now that…well, it just isn’t worth it anymore.
When I get called for an audition now, it’s usually for a one-line part, slightly bigger if I’m lucky. Is it because there are fewer parts? Is it because US productions are using US actors in the larger roles, causing the bigger name Canadian actors to take the smaller roles so there’s not much left for the rest of us? Is it because I’m just not really that good of an actor? I can’t say for sure. And I don’t really care anymore. What I do know is that I am trying to work in an industry that repeatedly expects me to take an afternoon off to drive across town to audition for one line, probably have to hire childcare in order to do so, usually spend another couple of hours preparing for the audition (hair, make-up, outfit, rehearsing) only to sit for however long it will take in a room full of other actors all vying for the same one line and then be in and out in under a minute. And I’m expected to be grateful for the opportunity. I’m not. Oh, and, if I’m very lucky, I get to come back again a couple of days later to do it all again because now other important people need to see me read my one line and decide whether or not I am right for this part. But if I’m really, really lucky, I will actually get the part. It used to be that you got paid pretty good money for a part and it sort of retroactively paid for all the work you did on the parts you didn’t get. But it’s not like that anymore. Now we are expected to work for less, my favourite of which is “Scale less 30%”. Um…scale means scale. There should be no % less than scale. That is fucking ridiculous. So, even if I do get the part, it’s certainly not something I can really afford to do! Now, let’s talk about these parts just for a minute, shall we?
Most of these miniscule parts are moms or nurses. Ironic, huh? But I think even my (eerilie prescient) 70s scrapbook would want more for me than these characters. They exist generally to give important characters information which is all well and fine but it’s just not enough for me anymore. Not because these characters aren’t “stars”, but because there is really no pleasure in acting in these roles. I respect that all roles are important in the telling of a story but, frankly, most of these stories don’t need to be told. Most television is shit. Most films are shit. I really don’t want any part of them. Long gone are the days when I was happy to have one line in a crappy tv series because it just might lead to something bigger. I’m 42. If things were going to get bigger they would have by now. I look around at my peers and I don’t see many people in Vancouver whose work has led them to something bigger.
In fact, I’ve watched almost everyone I knew at the beginning of my career quit over the years. Many is the time I silently judged them for not being able to tough it out, for not wanting it enough, or just not being talented enough to endure. Diamonds are just pieces of coal that stuck to the job, I’d tell myself! (Good grief.) But now I admire them for taking care of themselves in a way I haven’t been able to before now. At least I hope that’s how they did it. That’s how I see it for myself. I’m not quitting out of failure, I’m quitting because I think of myself as a positive, healthy, talented person who deserves respect and who wants to actually work creatively. Continuing to offer myself up for the opposite–that’s failure.
I long ago decided that my goal was not to “make it big” but to be a working film & tv actor. But if this is all there is in terms of work, no thanks. Further fuel on the pyre of my career is that these mom and nurse roles are actually an improvement as of late. A while back, I told my agent I wouldn’t go up for any more fat girl roles. You have to be a much stronger person (or maybe a much more self-hating person?) than I am to retain your self-respect in the face of the fat girl roles. I tried it for years. When that audition call would bing into my inbox, I would dread opening it, knowing that there would be some variation on the same character description greeting me: “depressed overweight friend” or “slovenly, plump secretary” or “fat, disgusting woman popping her pimples in bathroom mirror”. I wish I were joking. I finally said no more. For this? Man, if this is looking up, what the hell am I still doing here?
I feel like someone who has justified a shitty relationship for too long but I guess I kept thinking it would get better if I tried harder, if I lost weight, if I studied more, if I swallowed my pride, if I just paid my dues. It didn’t. My dues are paid. It’s not better. It’s time to go.
I could blame the Vancouver industry and all the changes its gone through in the past twenty years but that would really be missing the point. The point is, I’ve changed. And I don’t want to do this anymore. I love acting. But the film and TV industry doesn’t provide me with opportunities to act. It provides me with opportunities to debase myself on occasion for the chance to deliver a line or two on some crap show that I would never watch myself. Don’t get me wrong, if I had the opportunity to do the kind of work I’d love to do in film & tv, I would work my ass off and act the fuck out of those roles like I always try to do. For instance, I would give my left arm for the opportunity to be on a show like Less Than Kind! I know people working on great indie productions that they actually believe in and I admire and respect them greatly for it. So if you know me and you have a project or you think I’d be good for something, let’s talk. Like adults. Like artists. Let’s create something. That was the whole point for all of us in the first place, wasn’t it?
But other than that, I’m done. No more demoralizing auditions, no more upsetting bings in my inbox, no more wasting everyone’s time just to make myself unhappy. I quit. If I make room for someone with a better attitude, more talent, more drive who will be more successful than me, great. I wish everybody all the best. But I’m not playing anymore.
Over 20 years have passed since I first moved to Vancouver to become Mrs. Johnny Depp and a star. I don’t want that anymore (sorry Johnny) but I’m finally getting clear on what I really do want. I want to hear the reactions of a live audience. I want to make people laugh. I want to use my talent to connect people so maybe we’ll remember that we’re all in this together and we need to take better care of each other. I want to express things that are important to me–on stage, in front of groups of people, on a blog, maybe in a book, and if the circumstances are right, sure, on film. I want to use my talent to its fullest to share stories and ideas because I really, truly, with everything I am, believe that’s what I was put on this earth to do.
I’m already a mom, I’ve already been a teacher, I’ll leave the nursing to people who don’t barf upon entering hospitals. I guess all that’s left is to be the star my mom said I would be. That doesn’t look much like it once did but it’s still true. Yes, Morgan still wants to be a star. Let’s line up the ladies and gentlemen, shall we?