You may not think of it this way, but actors are definitely entrepreneurs. To be a successful actor means overcoming challenges and obstacles, seizing opportunities, staying strong in the face of rejection... like becoming a successful entrepreneur, becoming a successful actor requires passion, commitment, and relentless drive.
Prime example: Clive Standen, the actor who plays Rollo (my favorite character) on Vikings, the History Channel ratings juggernaut that starts its fourth season on November 30th. (Clive will also play Brian Mills, the lead character on the TV version of Taken.)
When we spoke, I was definitely struck by Clive's intelligence and introspection, but don't let that fool you: as evidenced by one particular scene in the upcoming season (what happens is unfortunately a cat I can't yet let out of the bag), he's also a badass in the best sense of the word.
Because of Vikings you might seem an overnight success... but you've been doing this for years. How did you hang in there during the lean times?
I'm a husband and the father of three kids. I have the pressure of putting food on the table. The cliché is that when you have kids you stop worrying about yourself, but it really does. Becoming a parent changed everything for me.
When things aren't going so well, you simply do whatever it takes. When I was struggling I had no pride in terms of what jobs I would take: I drove vans, passed out things on the street, waited tables, did bar work, cleaned houses.... the mortgage doesn't pay itself. That was motivation enough.
On the flip side, having kids gives you less time to devote to putting food on the table.
When you have kids you think you'll have less time, but I actually find more time. We waste so many hours in the day procrastinating.
Nowadays those hours when the kids are at school are the ones that I make sure I use to get the work done. I don't want to take away from time with the kids. I don't waste it; I use that time. I find myself getting far more done as a parent because I seize those opportunities. Ultimately I do everything for my family. Even if means staying up all night... you make the time.
You asked how I hung in there; when Richard Briers came to our drama school we asked him a similar question. "How do you hang in there? How do you get through the hard times?"
He said, "If you really really really really really really really really really REALLY want to act, don't. But if you HAVE to act... then do it."
It's not as easy as saying, "Well, it's not working out... so what else am I good at?" That's another motivation for me. There is nothing else I am as good at as acting that satisfies that hunger as much.
So I didn't have a choice. I had to hang in there.
Doesn't that attitude make it hard to turn down less than great roles roles?
You definitely have to craft a career as well. Sometimes the quick route might not be the best route for your career over the long run.
I just finished doing four seasons of Vikings. If I take another role set in medieval times then it has to be as good or better or I'm carving out a career as an actor that just does those dramas -- especially if I take on a role or a project that is a step down in quality. You may get a paycheck... but your career will fade.
You can become the guy that only does this, even though you might be versatile enough to be able to do that, and that....
I have to be clever about the roles I pick because I want to keep doing this until I'm 90.
How do you decide a role is right for you? Use Vikings as an example.
Vikings was somewhat unique. I had done period dramas and they were really just get credits on my CV. I'd been riding horses and training in martial arts and doing stunts for years, so those were skills I could play to.
Then, I am definitely drawn to characters with fires in their bellies. I like characters with layers. I like the flip side of the coin: I like characters that aren't what they first seem. If a character is heroic and stands up to be counted, what is the sacrifice he had to make to do that?
With Rollo, everything was there for me.
You also have to take into the account the script. (Creator and writer) Michael Hirst has the pedigree.
I auditioned to be Ragnar, and when Travis Fimmel got the role, Michael changed the part of Rollo to suit me. Making Ragnar and Rollo brothers was a license we took; Michael initially wrote him as Ragnar's hard drinking, wisecracking, slightly psychotic fifty-ear-old cousin. Making us brothers was a clever plot device that enabled us to take Rollo and smash him into a thousand pieces and then slowly put him back together again.
I'm blessed with Rollo. He tries to learn from his mistakes, and that's something we can all relate to. When he falls down he gets back up and tries to make himself a better person. I love that about him.
Then what drew you to Taken?
The show runner of Taken is Alexander Carey. He wrote the majority of Homeland. When we Skyped and talked about taking on the character, he answered all the questions I was worried about.
I was a British champion in Muay Thai, and I wanted to carry that on in Taken, but I don't want to go down doing action films that aren't set in reality. I don't believe in characters that can run up walls and do double back-kicks. Brian Mills, the character I play, is an everyday guy...
Well, he does have a "particular set of skills..."
True, but the way Brian is written, we definitely believe it. The moment we don't believe something, we turn it off and make a cup of tea. We're unforgiving.
That belief has to come from character. You have to believe what you're seeing can really happen to someone. You can tell a story through action but it must have a through line.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, "Sound and fury signify nothing." The action has to be real. You can't do impossible things. In Taken you don't do stupid kung fu moves when you just need to move someone out of the way. Alec has written a real-world scenario.
That even comes down to how Brian looks. When I'm playing Rollo I weigh around 220 pounds, but for Taken I'm down to about 180. Brian is a spy; he should be able to sit next to you in a cafe without you realizing he has those skills. You have to believe he could disappear into society.
Alex has also embraced the time and place and the duplicity of characters. Similar to a movie like Sicario, there are no completely good guys or completely bad guys. If you think about it, everyone seems like a good guy or a bad guy to someone. Brian Mills is a bad guy to someone. We're all driven by the same things, and good and bad are often just a matter of perspective, so that approach makes it more interesting.
Drama is built on conflict, and drama is more interesting when both parties believe they're right.
When you commit to a show it's normally for a number of years. Is it hard to commit know that a project may not last, and that whether it lasts is often largely outside your control?
Vikings has now gone to twenty-episode seasons. We just finished 10 episodes of Taken. 22 episodes would kill me. (Laughs.)
Shooting ten episodes means four and a half to five months filming, so even if Taken runs for seven or eight seasons, each is still less than half my year. I could do a movie, take on a recurring role, do a miniseries... and that's great because what I really want is to have diversity and get to spin lots of plates.
Because of the inherent uncertainty of your profession I imagine it's hard to plan ahead. How do you set longer-term goals?
To be honest I'm still figuring that out. Vikings is the biggest job I've had, so far five years, and I'm doing Taken and Vikings at the same time... but I definitely don't feel like I've reached a place where I can turn down good work.
Maybe if you're a bit older and have more on your CV, you may be able to take your foot off the gas. Maybe you can get to that point, but it's hard to see myself doing that. If a great part comes along and you were planning to take a bit more time off... the part chooses you.
So at this point it's hard to have an opinion on that question. Being self-employed makes it tough to turn things down because you're always thinking about where the next job will come from.
Work-life balance is an issue for everyone; how do you balance yours?
When I got Taken we moved the whole family to Toronto. The kids are in school and we're committed to being here from July to July.
I'm in nearly every scene of the show. I knew I wasn't going to get time to fly back to England to see my family. If for some reason it doesn't get picked up for another season -- although I feel sure it will because it's a kick ass show -- we're still going to stay in Toronto and let the kids finish the year. If it gets picked up, we'll stay.
Past that, the rule my wife and I have is that when I come through the door I leave Rollo or Brian at the door.
You don't bring work home?
I really try not to, and that makes it tough because I have to use more of my time at work to prepare.
My workout routine naturally takes a lot of time for me to look the part of Rollo. But I didn't want to do that during family time, so I get my workouts done using 15-minute bursts between scenes.
That extends to other aspects of my job. On Vikings we all share a minibus together and that's fun because you get to catch up with the guys, or snooze, or whatever. Because I'm in every scene in Taken, I get my own car to pick me up and I have an hour there and an hour back... and the amount of work I get done is huge. At lunchtime I work in my trailer on scripts so I can get work done on work time.
I sometimes feel like I have steam coming out of my years because the pace is relentless. Occasionally I might feel like I just need 5 minutes to breathe, but that's the bed I've made for myself.
The reason I'm doing all this is for my family, and it's worth it.
How do you define "success"?
Quite simply, being happy. Success is doing something that makes you happy.
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Money doesn't make people happy. You can't gauge success from money, you can only gauge it from happiness. Stress is part of life, but in general if you're living life and you're happy every day, that's success.
That, plus making my family proud of me -- being a good husband and father.
I always think about that Jack Nicklaus quote where he says, "It's funny, the more I practice the luckier I get." The same is true for happiness: You have to put the work in, but that work must be devoted to something you enjoy. Even if you're earning shedloads of money it isn't going to necessarily make you happy.
You can be a successful businessman but not a successful person, and to me that would not be success.