“You need endurance to be an artist. Anyone can make art over short distances. To be an artist in your own eyes you need a relationship with your work over a long period of time. Try not to bow out early. I began my actor training 12 years ago and I suddenly feel I’m coming to the end of my ‘apprenticeship’. No one is more surprised about that than me.”
About Theo Devaney
Born in London, Theo grew up a few miles from Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. He graduated from 3 year acting training at the Oxford School of Drama in 2005.
As an actor, he is known for his work on Supernatural (2014), Psych (2014) and Assassins Creed III (2012).
1. What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?
My personal and professional ambitions are very much entwined – that’s pretty much consistent for all freelance artists and self-employed people. My need to be recognized for my work by my peers, my friends and family, even complete strangers, probably comes from a Sisyphean need to impress and live up to the expectations of my parents. I’m an only child and I’m sure that in my case it has helped to engender a deep sense of responsibility to capitalise on all the emotional, moral and financial investment my parents focused on me when I was young. I respect and admire them a lot so I want to make them proud; but also it’s preferable for me to believe in all the good things they think about me – it’s a more flattering self-image for sure!
I was told I was unique, interesting, capable, talented from a young age, and I suppose on some level I’ve absorbed that and consequently feel a duty to realise some vague idea of my own “great potential”, however delusional that may be.
On one hand it obviously means I may harbour some unrealistic ambitions that exceed my real abilities, yet at the same time it has armed me with the self-belief to withstand some of the rejections and setbacks that one would naturally encounter whilst pursuing them.
In many respects being an actor or any kind of freelance creative in our competitive contemporary environment is a Sisyphean task. There is no achievement that can secure us from potential anonymity, irrelevance or uselessness. The struggle is most of the story. But then I do find if I ever take a moment to look back over my journey so far, I feel really fortunate about what I’ve experienced – great people, places and satisfying work. You don’t get that unless you stay in the game and remain open to new possibilities.
2. Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).
It seems sort of trivial in some ways, and it is almost certainly a cliché, but my Showcase for agents and casting directors just before leaving drama school back in 2005 always comes to my mind as a pivotal turning point in my development, and something I have seen as a ‘failure’. My main failure was my inability or refusal to recognise the real potential and importance of the opportunity in the time leading up to it, and consequently I didn’t make the most of it. I’ve got it well-rationalised by now of course and as I’ve worked and developed, as a person and an artist, it has got progressively easier to see it as a key learning experience in my professional development, rather than as a missed opportunity or irredeemable mistake.
In front of some of the most powerful agents and casting directors in London, career-making people in the acting game, I half-heartedly performed two uninspiring monologues, chosen for their inoffensiveness and against my better judgement so as not to alienate the audience.
Had I been true to my real strengths and passions in my choices of monologues, and really seized the moment to share some work I cared about, then the first 2, incredibly tough years out of drama school, might otherwise have been a roller-coaster of exciting opportunity and precipitous creative and professional growth! But you never know… There is obvious value in not having things too easy to start off with – it gives you perspective and teaches you resourcefulness and resilience.
I have recently thought a lot about the idea of the “False Dawn”. The way that an opportunity or a single job can be viewed as a “game-changer” that will finally unleash your potential – a ‘big break’ if you like. These breaks or game-changers usually end up being what I think of as a ‘false dawn’: a mirage of sudden self-realisation that appear to promise a huge leap forward, but almost always end up being just another step on your journey. For me, it’s now really important that I view them as such, because it gives me a more fluid sense of the progression of things, and saves me from attaching too much outward significance to a piece of work. The proper and rigorous execution of the work itself should always be the priority; not what the work may or may not do for your “career” – whatever that outmoded word means nowadays.
3. Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?
I am happy by my own measure of the term. By which I mean that generally, in this time and place of my life, I am not conscious of being particularly unhappy. But I don’t consider my own life as a ‘pursuit of happiness’. I feel more as if I pursue security, or a sense of connection, or even distraction.
When people discuss the desire for happiness I always remember Tolstoy, writing through Platon Karataev in War and Peace (an adaptation of which I worked on with Shared Experience, a brilliant British theatre company):
“Happiness is like water in a net: drag it along behind you and it bulges. Open it to see what’s inside, and it’s empty.”
Generally I find the future daunting and the present confusing. My life tends to look better in retrospect.
4. What do you think is your greatest strength? What is your greatest personal challenge (something you struggle with)?
My greatest strength from an artistic point of view… I really enjoy the work, and I care about whether it is good or not. That’s all there really is to it. And why I never seriously consider quitting, regardless of whether I’m having a quiet time or not. I’m not sure I have an idea of my particular strength as an actor. I’m not sure it’s even desirable to have one, because then you obsess over it and commodify it. I like being lost in the work so I’d hate to go into it thinking “OK I’m really gonna make my world class quiff work for me in this scene…” or something similar.
You can tell an actor who’s been told they have a ‘lovely mouth’ or a ‘great voice’. There’s a tradition in English theatre of actors really relying on a strong and sonorous voice to charm an audience into ignoring their lack of emotional investment. It’s become a sort of joke to the modern generation of actors, but you still see it a lot. The ‘Voice Beautiful’ my Drama school Principal used to call it.
My biggest ‘personal challenge’ (weakness!) in my own eyes is probably my intellectuality. I can be very heady at times and I have to work hard to calm my critical and analytical faculty so that I can feel things on a deeper more instinctive level. It’s vital for actors if you really want to achieve great work. A tutor of mine Che Walker – a very successful playwright in the UK – once said that one intuitive actor is worth a hundred intelligent actors. Daniel Day Lewis achieves what he does because he pursues his instincts for a character in action rather than getting bogged down or stifled trying to embody an idea of the character. Anyone can perform an idea of a character, but to inhabit the world of one, to live, breathe, think and then react as a created human being, takes a lot of emotional investigation and time. Pursuing that process is an ongoing challenge for me.
5. What do you love about what you do?
I love that acting and theatre, any live performance in general, gives people the chance to live in the moment. To explore how we feel without judgement or fear, within a safe space that is for the enjoyment and curiosity of ourselves and others. I love that it gives me the chance to work with brilliant, interesting and unusual people, on projects that can have incredible range in style and content, and share my own enjoyment of the whole thing with people who are interested enough to spend their time watching it.
I love to travel with work – a marriage of two of my favourite things.
Growing up it was a vivid dream of mine to be part of a travelling theatre company and get the chance to see new places, whilst having some purpose in being there – something to offer. Working in a place always makes me feel like I belong; otherwise I just feel like a tourist, an outsider – sort of useless – and much too self-conscious to really enjoy myself.
6. What is the one habit that you’ve implemented that has had the greatest impact on your success so far?
I’m not sure I have implemented many good habits! I sort of enjoy having a constantly evolving behaviour pattern. Sometimes I concentrate on working hard physically for a while, then I might find a new author or book and spend a lot of time reading. Sometimes I binge on other peoples’ company, then I deliberately spend time alone.
Perhaps the best thing I can say is that I’ve found it helpful to be flexible in my habits. I like to allow natural ebbs and flows in my lifestyle and routine. Anything that can be considered really living has to be worthwhile for an artist – whether it’s trying new and scary things, embarking on all-consuming love affairs or climbing a mountain. I would say I’ve made a habit to try to guard against complacency. I don’t believe there is one fixed set of habits or routine that can satisfy a person totally. We are always in flux and we have to get comfortable with that. A pluralistic life is a healthy one, just like a pluralistic society.
7. How do you deal with doubt?
I think you can try to use doubt as a signpost to see where your insecurities lie. Doubt and fear are usually excellent signposts for our own self-perceived weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and flag up the areas we need to work on to develop our confidence. If we can be honest about them, then we can work on rehabilitating ourselves. For instance, if I doubt that I’m going to remember a long monologue before a performance, then it’s a pretty good signal that I need to get down to some serious line-learning. Nothing is wrong with fear of failure as long as you can use it in a positive way. Doubt is fatal only if it paralyses you. But then of course not all doubts are to be eliminated. Some are healthy, and save us from making complete idiots of ourselves, or even entering into something with no value because of some other internal process, like vanity, greed or hubris.
A simple exercise if I encounter a situation in which I doubt my ability to do a job, for instance, is to think “well, who else can I imagine doing a better job than me?” “Is it wrong for me to attempt something if I’m not sure I’ll succeed?” Of course not. My most mediocre performances (I know they were because my loved ones told me so!) have been in shows that I cared the least about – that I considered easy – not ones that were most challenging for me.
8. Is there a quality that you think artistically successful people have in common? What is it?
Honesty with oneself.
It is an incredibly rare quality in artistic circles, and it is impossible for anyone to be honest with themselves 100% of the time, since humans are designed to deceive themselves so that life is more bearable.
Some people are naturals, but it’s a muscle that you can train, and it can hurt. If you become really good at being honest with yourself then you can identify your strengths and weaknesses and also know when to criticise yourself or to be kind to yourself. Self-analysis can arm you against the baggage of an over-inflated ego.
I’m not sure if I’m very good at this, but I like to think I am. My decision to move to Vancouver from London in 2012 was based on my assessment of the economic conditions of London and the fact that my skills would be more unique in the North American marketplace. This in itself may qualify as a realistic assessment of why I was finding it hard to grow in London – and sidesteps the self-obsessed concern of whether I was good enough or not. A performing artist has to find their voice – their performative character – to develop self-belief, and they can only do so if they can find an audience. A painter or musician, writer, can work – and improve – in solitude. A performer has to perform, and for that you need an interested audience.
9. Do you have any advice for artists? Perhaps advice that you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out?
1. Always stay in touch with a sense of Play. It is the soul of great art, in my opinion. It’s something almost all animals do (all mammals do anyway), when they’re not eating, sleeping, foraging or mating. Try to enjoy yourself – or at least look like it.
2. Spend some effort towards fitness of the mind and the body. The body has an effect on the mind and vice versa. Try to get a sense of how yours affect one another.
3. Do not become obsessed with projecting a single aspect of yourself. Invest all of yourself into the work and into your relationships with colleagues. Honesty and ease with who you are, in toto, reads as self-confidence and is infectious – and you need not be phoney or insensitive when being so. Authenticity empowers others, makes them want to work with you and also to help you achieve your goals.
4. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. A very true cliché. You need endurance to be an artist. Anyone can make art over short distances. To be an artist in your own eyes you need a relationship with your work over a long period of time. Try not to bow out early. I began my actor training 12 years ago and I suddenly feel I’m coming to the end of my ‘apprenticeship’. No one is more surprised about that than me.
5. The only time wasted as an artist is time spent wishing you were elsewhere. But even that has its uses. “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be” Thanks John Lennon.
6. Hold yourself in high esteem, and others will do the same. You earn this by being honest with yourself about your ‘strengths’ and your ‘weaknesses’, or as I prefer to call them, your ‘talents’, and your ‘room for growth’!
7. Prioritise the work itself, but don’t be afraid to socialise within your industry. The worst that can happen is you get drawn into having one too many beers with colleagues, or getting a little sidetracked. It may test your focus, but after all, this is human, you will be a real person, not just an ‘artist’ and you’ll probably find out about other opportunities or ways of working just by listening a bit.
8. Try not to compare your situation with others’, but if you do, do it to your own advantage. If you’re envious of other artists’ skills or achievements, try to emulate them, don’t be negative. If you’ve identified something you want, go after it. Externalising feelings through action soothes a lot of internal angst.
9. Periodically sit down with yourself and try to articulate the precise goals and aspirations that you have for your work. You may not be able to, but it’s a really useful exercise for focusing your energies and also for seeing how you’re evolving. A lot of time can be saved if you guard against habitual behaviour that is getting you nowhere. I have had a tendency in the past of allowing other people’s (usually mentors’) notions of what my objectives should be influence me a little too much. You won’t get any respect from anyone for living their lives for them.
10. Work hard. It’s difficult, but always be on guard against the little voice in your head that wants to slack off or divert your energies to trivial things. Try and stay in the zone. Writers know this very well. In the case of actors: allocate yourself reasonable downtime as a ‘carrot’ to motivate you; and then, during the time you allocate for voice work, training, reading, body conditioning, networking etc. really focus on getting it done.
- NB: I am NOT very good at this! I’d love to get better at it. As my mum has said to me many times: I am the most disorganised Virgo in history. However, Bernstein (with whom I share a birthday) said this: “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
11. Openness to new experience should be an artist’s default setting. It has taken me a long time to embrace this, but I think it’s true. Instead of ‘Why?’ think ‘Why not?’ You never have all the answers, and being out of control feels so good.
I could go on, but I would need a glass of wine and a comfortable chair.
10. What is your happiest memory (could be related or unrelated to your field)?
I have a few, but I don’t really look back on specific moments as being happy. Memory is too dreamlike for me to really isolate a particular feeling around an event. Being told ‘I love you’ by a girl I was in love with comes to mind. Numerous moments with my family. I tend to experience happiness as a sense of good fortune or gratitude.
Two juicy professional ones were:
Finding out I had got into the Oxford School of Drama.
I had just finished a shift at a recycling plant in my home town. I felt grim, and I got the phone call from George Peck – the Principal, who loves making those calls to delirious young actors I’m sure! It was the first moment when I felt I was on my way.
In 2008, I was performing with War and Peace at the Bath Theatre Royal near where I had grown up in Wiltshire in England. It’s a very prestigious theatre and one where I had seen plays with my parents as a child; an awesome old building. We performed the 8 hour cycle of the play in its entirety on the Saturday and my parents, close friends and family were there. I came out for the curtain call with all the other, fantastic, actors I was working with – and we received the most glorious standing ovation from the audience. I was more proud than I have ever been before or since.
11. What is your favourite book? It could be about your craft, or maybe just an excellent story. If that is too difficult to answer, who are your favourite authors?
- Straw Dogs by John Gray is my favourite Non-Fiction – brilliant, simple and persuasive portrait of humans individually and as a group. John Gray himself is also a big fan of…
- Joseph Conrad – my favourite fiction author. Massive intellect that really sees people from the ground up. He was a merchant seaman for 20 years before even writing his first story and his breadth of experience of people and the world infuses his work with huge depth and authenticity. He really gets to grips with the internal conflicts of human beings. My favourite novel by him is either Victory, for its characterisation and atmosphere, or Nostromo – generally considered his masterpiece. He is most well-known today for Heart of Darkness, although I think Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now is a richer expression of what he’s getting at in that book.
IMDB: Theo Devaney
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