So, only about three years later than the rest of the world, the Bennett family has finally discovered the joys of “Downton Abbey.” We’ve been especially delighted by Dame Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the sharp-witted Dowager Countess of Grantham. She raises the game of every actor on screen in every scene she’s in, and she serves as the series’ indisputable centerpiece.
And, according to some reports, she’s well aware of how indispensable she is.
“Maggie Smith is a handful, it’s true. She’s very difficult,” said one of the "Downton Abbey" producers in an interview published last year. “She knows her worth, and she’s tricky on the set, but she delivers when the time comes.”
Now I have no way of knowing whether any of this is true, except that Maggie Smith unquestionably delivers stellar performances. One of her fellow cast members has risen to her defense, telling the paper that reported Dame Maggie’s allegedly difficult behavior that the celebrated actress is not, in fact, a “snotty cow,” so that’s good to know. In any case, I’ll leave the squabbles on the matter to the tabloids and continue to enjoy her onscreen professionalism, regardless of what’s happening on set when the cameras aren’t rolling.
This calls to mind, however, one of the primary reasons why, after more than a decade of producing professional live theater, I’m not interested in stepping back into that world.
Make no mistake — I love live theater, and I thoroughly enjoy the performances, but I grew very weary of the performers who weren’t content to leave all the drama on the stage. I never understood those who insisted that their abundant talent somehow compensated for their bad behavior. I remember one seasoned character actor who told me how he abandoned an audition because he felt disrespected by a young casting director who didn’t know who he was. As he stormed out of the room, he boasted that he was “too old, too proud and too rich” to be treated in such a way.
You don’t usually find a similar talent-to-trouble ratio in most other professions. Good plumbers don’t usually behave as if their great skill with a pipe wrench allows them to be rude to their customers. But defenders of the so-called “artistic temperament” have told me on many occasions that I shouldn’t compare actors to people as plebeian as plumbers. Actors, you see, are different because they’re artists. That makes them special.
Except I don’t think it does.
Let me be clear here. They may be “special” in that they possess impressive or even unique artistic gifts, but they’re still just people. Courtesy and kindness are necessary components of the human condition, and they should be required of all mortals, even the special ones.
Ironically, I’ve found that the most genuinely talented actors are also the kindest people in real life, too. (That, incidentally, is one of the reasons I’m skeptical of the Maggie Smith gossip.) It’s usually those who are uncertain as to their own talent and value who find it necessary to behave like divas in order to reassure themselves that they matter.
And to be fair to actors, they function in a professional environment that requires them to face repeated rejection on a regular basis. It’s enough to make anyone insecure, and some people deal with insecurity in more productive ways than others.
But that caveat is not an excuse. Each of us face difficult circumstances and difficult people. It’s a better world when we recognize that such difficulties should be faced with humility and grace, no matter how old, proud or rich we are.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.