Choosing your career

 24 February 2014

After graduation, you'll take any opportunity that comes your way. But how do you choose the right direction for your creative career? Writer and actress Alexis Zegerman talks about her experiences.

Alexis played the role of Zoe in Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky.
Alexis played the role of Zoe in Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky.

I often get asked, if I had to choose between careers, whether I’d choose acting or writing. It seems such a strange question given that I very nearly had no creative career at all.

Finding a path after graduation

I graduated from the 3-year acting course at the Central School of Speech and Drama (where Gael Garcia Bernal had been a chicken to my meerkat in ‘zoo studies’) full of ideas and possibilities and hope, and with the ultimate of drama school Holy Grail... an agent.

I had carefully composed resignation letters for my jobs at the estate agency and credit control where I worked. I was ready to take on the world. Weeks passed. Then months. Then years. The phone never rang. The resignation letters yellowed. The world didn’t know I existed.

I did a few tiny fringe theatre jobs, but nothing that paid. I was getting depressingly good at credit control. The estate agency offered me a permanent job. I had to face the bleak fact that an acting career – all that I’d ever wanted – might not happen.

An artistic director of a local fringe theatre walked into the estate agents (he owned a number of flats in the area) my colleagues helpfully introduced me to him as their ‘resident actress.’ He told me not to give up the day job.

"Being part of that amazing creative environment, being called a ‘writer’, honestly saved my sanity."

I went home that night devastated and angry. I wrote a play. The next day I sent it off to theatres.

It wasn’t very good. In fact, it was pretty awful. But apparently it showed promise, and I was invited on to the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme.

To say the YWP saved my life might sound ridiculously extreme. Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being an estate agent (unless you work for Foxtons), but I truly believe that being part of that amazing creative environment – being taught by industry professionals like Simon Stephens, being surrounded by people who were all striving and struggling to do the same thing as me, being called a ‘writer’ – honestly saved my sanity.

I wrote some short plays, and received my first paid writing gig – a radio drama commission. I wrote a second radio play.

Opportunities in acting and writing

Just when I was getting my head around the idea that I might try and be a professional writer and, with some regret, lay the ghost of a non-happening acting career to rest... I was standing by the photocopier in the credit control office, and the phone rang. It was my lesser-spotted acting agent: Mike Leigh would like audition me for his new play at the National Theatre.

To this day I have no idea why Mike Leigh chose me out of the hundreds he auditioned. He’d read a letter I’d sent him five years before, whose envelope bore the post mark of a certain estate agent’s franking machine.

I'd sent a lot of letters to casting directors and film and theatre professionals back then. Most probably ended up as coasters. This one ended up in Mike Leigh’s Bisley filing cabinet.

The play turned out to be Two Thousand Years, in which I played the daughter Tammy. It was a sell-out and ran for nearly a year. I went on to play the part of Zoe in his film Happy-Go-Lucky. Mike Leigh had given me the possibility of an acting career.

So what to do? Give up the writing? Not a chance. Not when I knew how volatile and fickle the acting world could be.

I carried on writing. I carried on auditioning. I wrote whenever I could. I sent plays out. I sent ideas off to TV and film companies. I was offered the Pearson Writer-in-Residency at the Hampstead Theatre, where my first full-length play Lucky Seven was later performed.

Balancing writing and acting

I’ve never actually written for myself. The only time when I’ve been in one of my own things was my Radio 4 comedy series Mum’s on the Run. It was around episode 5 I realised Shelley, the best friend, had all the best lines in it and sounded a lot like me. I asked the producer if they’d mind if I played it.

Other than that, I think of acting and writing as very different entities. It’s like wearing two different hats to work. The writing I see as quite solitary. The acting, as sociable. As an actor I see myself as a vessel for the writer and director. I’d never turn up to an acting job with writer’s notes on a script.

That said, each discipline definitely informs the other. There’s no way that working with Mike Leigh hasn’t changed the way I write. Being on a stage definitely gives you a sense of stagecraft. Reading other people’s scripts informs your writing. And sitting on the other side of the camera during castings is horrific, but makes you understand how non-personal the casting process is.

"Each discipline informs the other. Being on a stage definitely gives you a sense of stagecraft."

They say actors tend to write parts that other actors want to play. And there are so many brilliant actors out there – why wouldn’t I want to write stuff for them to be in?

At the moment I’m writing a feature film commission and developing a couple of TV shows. I’m auditioning for acting jobs. Auditioning is still a necessary evil – as an actor and a writer.

I try to plan ferociously. And then sometimes things happen last minute and you just have to spin plates. If you’d told me ten years ago that I’d be making a stab at balancing an acting and writing career I’d have probably laughed, then cried, then showed you around a nice two-bedroom flat with a roof terrace subject to planning permission.

What would I choose – acting or writing? I’ll take what I get.