I have read two memoirs written by actresses recently, namely Zawe Ashton and Mara Wilson. Despite their very different career paths, both clearly have mixed feelings about the industry and how it operates.
Zawe Ashton’s memoir ‘Character Breakdown’ has an unusual but brilliant structure switching between prose sections about different auditions and roles she has played, and scenes from her life in the form of a play script as she makes the transition to roles in Hollywood. Each chapter begins with the “character breakdown” of the audition – in other words, a short description of the role and the type of actor they are looking to cast. Some chapters are about the auditions or roles themselves, and others draw on events in her life at the time.
Ashton has been acting since the age of six with a range of credits spanning sitcoms and period drama across television, film and the stage and is also a director and playwright. The abstract style of this memoir is intriguing – most likely this is for practical reasons while she is still working (she is careful not to identify the projects or people involved), but it also gives some insight into how acting has impacted her life to the point where having a sense of her own identity becomes increasingly distant: “Some days, I feel like a human woman walking down the street, pretending to be a human woman walking down the street.” She highlights the sexism and racism inherent in the industry, and also the limited number and range of roles for women of colour. This is a very original and creative memoir, although some of her experiences are so grim it does make you wonder why she still does it.
One actress who did quit the industry, although not entirely by choice at the time, is Mara Wilson – undoubtedly one of the most recognisable faces of children’s films from the 1990s, she is best known for her roles in ‘Matilda’, ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ and ‘Miracle on 34th Street’. However, the awkward transition from “cute” child actress to adolescence did not translate into callbacks for roles in her early teens. Wilson retired from acting at the grand old age of 13, studied at NYU and is now a successful writer and playwright. She published her collection of essays ‘Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame’ in 2016.
As well as a thoughtful chapter on the concept of “cuteness”, Wilson writes about the death of her mother from breast cancer while she was filming ‘Matilda’, her experiences with anxiety and her OCD diagnosis and her memories of Robin Williams following his death in 2014. Despite tackling some pretty dark subjects, it’s great to see Wilson appear to be more settled in herself now and able to look back on her career with sharp wit. This is a light and nostalgic read for those who have fond memories of the films Wilson starred in.