I’d just given an unforgettable talk (think small, then cut in half) at a book festival when I received the most surreal offer of my professional life. It came in the form of a Twitter message from one of the creators of the HBO/BBC show Industry. “A bit odd,” he wrote, “but would you be open at all to being in Season 2 and essentially playing yourself?” And that’s the short story of how I landed a small part in the golden age of television .
Trust me, I’ve thought a lot about what to do in my career. Starring in primetime drama was never an option. I’m not a good actor. My theatrical highlight so far has been being doused by a pitcher of water in an elementary school play Bugsy Malone (and even then the water was somehow missing).
In contrast, Industry, which revolves around fast-moving banker trainees in London, is a real telly. The creators, Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, had channeled their failed City careers into a show whose first series was funny, gripping, and believable. Their search for authenticity, which I wrote about for the FT, was the reason they thought of me for the second series. “We wanted to add some reality to it,” Down said.
That also appealed to me because most portrayals of journalists on TV are ridiculous. My bugbear is when a fictitious journalist accuses a politician of corruption at a press conference and the whole scene erupts in turmoil. In real life, such a blunt question would be easy for any politician to roll over. The press conference would elicit a collective yawn. Yes, sometimes I thought I could do better. Now I had the opportunity to prove it.
I think I also remembered the stories of amateurs becoming surprise stars playing themselves. Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, a convicted murderer in Baltimore, has been cast The cable after one of the actors spotted her in a bar. Phyllis Smith is one of the major characters in the US version of The office, but was only spotted for the role because she worked for the show’s casting director (“I’ve probably been honing a craft I didn’t know I was honing,” mused Smith, who didn’t initially quit her day job) . Even if not everyone carries a novel within them, surely everyone has the ability to act for themselves?
However, my excitement was tempered when the creators asked me to record a short video of me reading a scene. I fully expected to fail at this hurdle. A friend who works in television gave me some advice: “Don’t try to act.” This proved invaluable. I fumbled with my iPhone, trying desperately not to act.
Not acting is harder than it sounds. It’s like someone telling you to act normal – what the hell is normal? In my scene, I interviewed a fictional financial titan on stage. I do similar things in my day job at FT. But it’s one thing to be yourself and use words you make up, and another to be yourself and use words (excellent) screenwriters make up for you. The script read, “Aren’t you worried about reputational risk? People slandering?” I don’t think I’ve ever used the word slander before. Even “Snoop” Pearson was told about it Cable Creator David Simon to improvise as little as possible.
Let’s just say it took me several tries to capture the clip. The rejection seemed certain. But no, HBO approved me. The casting agents asked if I had a theater agent (apparently I didn’t). It wasn’t until they offered me a real money contract and union agreement that I was confident this wasn’t a hoax. I was also assured that the contract said, “Nudity/Simulated sex: No.”
It was the Covid-infused summer 2021 so the producers sent a car to take me from London to Cardiff where Industry being filmed, despite my protestations that I could take the train. This is pretty much the opposite approach to travel expenses to that taken by the FT. I was soon shown to my trailer and offered free food. For a short time, I was a talent, even if I only had two lines.
I’m sure the glamor wears off quickly. They say that the first day on set is the most exciting day of your life and the second day on set is the most boring. One reason the production offers to drive you anywhere is so they can control where you are. (Director Danny Boyle apparently prefers to drive around the set himself for exactly this reason.) And my trailer was really a third of a truck, with an uncomfortable sofa that couldn’t see the TV. And the bathroom only seemed big enough for a child actor. There’s also a lot of hanging out on set.
But for me it was dreamland. I tried on more suits at the dress rehearsal than at my actual wedding. Never before has my appearance been so important to anyone else, and never again. There was an awkward moment in the Green Room when a couple of actors – unaware that I was a journalist – were chatting about how much they disliked doing commercial interviews. “Can’t I just say read the internet?!” said one. A part of me died remembering the hours I put into researching and writing celebrity interviews.
Meanwhile, my TV friend had more advice. “People on set might be mad at each other. Impenetrable politics. You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” he wrote, overestimating my understanding of Shakespeare. Actually, the people on the set weren’t mad at each other. They were surprisingly nice. When I initially had trouble writing my lines, director Birgitte Stærmose asked if I had ever interviewed anyone who seemed intimidating. (On TV, unlike in film, the director is not the crucial ego.) I started telling Stærmose about some of my interviews with boxer Tyson Fury and billionaire Richard Desmond before realizing that she wasn’t interested in interested in the details – it pushed me into the mindset for the scene. Because I had a speaking role, I was treated gently like a beloved pet while the extras were herded around like cattle. They seemed pleased nonetheless.
My scene was with Jay Duplass, the American actor who plays the hedge fund titan Industry with delightful humanity inspired by two encounters he had with Jeff Bezos. I had loved Duplass on the show Transparent, and here I was just chatting to him between takes. Writing, directing and acting, he made it clear that acting is definitely the easiest of these jobs. He glided through the scene. I do not have. For starters, I was completely blown away by how softly Duplass spoke – the mics mean you don’t have to project like you do in theatre, and a deeper voice allows for more emotion. My main concern was not ending up like Joey friendswhen he takes a big break as a “butt double” for Al Pacino, but ends up getting fired for putting too much emotion into his buttocks.
I wasn’t fired. It seemed to work. . . fine? Or so good that I’m asked to stay for the next scene. It turned out that this meant standing mostly in silence for five hours, but it felt like a privilege. My friend predicted that I would be cut from the filmed version. “You’ll be asked to re-record your dialogue, and it’ll all be played from the back of your mind.”
In fact, much of my dialogue was cut. But I was invited to do another scene in a later episode – as the talking head on a CNN talk show. Again the direction was like this polite: “I like the smile, but maybe we’ll try it without.” The biggest challenge was the cold, shooting in December in a large metal hangar. In the seconds between each take and each different camera angle, the crew brought us jackets and hot water bottles. When you see how fragmented the filming is, it’s even more impressive that the actors manage to keep their focus.
There is no comparison between me being almost myself and these real actors who not only manage to be someone else but also expand our understanding of human nature. “On stage he was natural, simple, moving; It was just that he played when he had the day off,” as playwright Oliver Goldsmith wrote of David Garrick.
I appear in episode 8 of Industry Season 2, but I know my time as an HBO/BBC actor is over. No one will ever ask me again if I should put them in touch with my theater agent or if I want my coffee delivered to my trailer. When it comes to who should play me in the movie of my life, I’ll stick with Chris O’Dowd.
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https://www.ft.com/content/16377a0f-9038-4407-8c60-f8382ef533d2 How I Landed a Lead – OK, Small Part – on HBO’s Industry