A few weeks ago, I was at a family function and my aunt received a book called Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. It was short stories written by the actor. It made me think about how many literary works written by actors I’ve seen over the years, and why it seems like actors often cross over into writing. And by the way, I’m talking about fiction, not a tell-all autobiography written by a ghostwriter. Also, these are actors who I suspect have written their own books, and again not hired a ghostwriter.
The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie (apparently he’s also written another novel called The Paper Soldier, which is unavailable)
Are all of these books good? Of course not. Are some good? Yes. I confess that I haven’t read them all, but I do think that Steve Martin, Carrie Fisher, Julie Andrews and several others are legit writers as well as talented performers. And that list doesn’t include the many actors who have written nonfiction, poetry, and drama. Many of the actors I listed above have other works in those categories.
Often we think of actors as being attention seekers who love to perform for an audience, whereas writers are seen as introverts. who feel safer behind a computer than in front of a camera or on a stage. But this is a difference that’s more in the way that art is delivered to an audience rather than the art itself. It’s also a stereotype to which there are many exceptions. Many actors feel safer gaining attention while in character than out of it. The character is a mask that allows the actor a safe space from which to express things. A writer uses the mask of character in a very similar way.
I’ve experienced these similarities myself. As a child, I wanted to be a writer and/or an actor. I had a vivid imagination and a dramatic inner world full of stories that were looking for a way out. I was also very shy in many ways. Acting gave me a chance to be recognized emotionally in a safe way. People would react to the character rather than to me personally. I feel a similar kind of freedom in writing. I took acting classes for years. I did school plays and community theater. So why did I choose writing instead of acting? Well, aside from a total lack of acting talent, I find more freedom as a writer. As an actor, I was limited by the script. I could bring my own interpretation to a character, but I had to be consistent with the director and the other actors. By contrast, writing gave me complete control.
Molly Ringwald clarified why it’s really natural for an actor to cross over into writing in recent interview:
I just wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called “Act Like a Writer,” and mentioned how it’s always surprising to people when they hear that an actor has written literary fiction. But for me it’s surprising, in a way, that more actors don’t do it; it’s so connected in terms of the character and the back story. As an actor you’re always trying to figure out why a person does what they do; why they very often do exactly the opposite of what they’re supposed to. And sort of the psychology of that is something I’ve always been interested in, and I think that’s definitely extended into my writing.
It’s not just a contemporary trend. Shakespeare was an actor. So was Charles Dickens. Actors and writers have long felt similar creative drives. Of course, that doesn’t mean that a great writer will always be a great actor or vice versa. It just means that they have similar artistic origins that are expressed differently.
Journalist and author Andrea Chalupa says that “On the rare occasion someone asks me for writing advice, I always say to take an acting class.” This is because
Writers can spend days, weeks holed up in a room, churning out words, not knowing if their work is any good—engaging, or just shallow “busy work.” Actors, on the other hand, have the benefit of the mirror, studying recordings of themselves, or the reaction of any sized audience to immediately know whether they’re being honest… Unlike the one formal writing class I had previously taken, the acting class taught me how to connect with people, and to cut out what’s not essential. The regular instant feedback of the instructor and the audience of a dozen students tethered me to the responsibility to simply be. Studying acting is at first scary then it becomes invigorating; it’s physically challenging and head-clearing.
I think authors and actors are more similar as artists than they are different: both are required to disappear into a pretend world and make an audience believe that it’s reality. Both need a certain level of comfort with language and an understand of a character and that character’s motivations and intentions.
What do you think? Are their other arts and artists with similar overlap?