‘When was I last recognised? I was in All Saints about a week after I had been in the BBC series Luther, where I played a paedophile. Two blokes said rather loudly “look it’s that paedophile from the telly”, it was a bit awkward really.’ It’s not often that I laugh my way through an interview, but as soon as we started talking, I knew this would be an interview I wouldn’t forget. Funny, chatty and the definition of chilled out, Michael Shaeffer might not be a name you have heard of, but you’d probably recognise his face. Starring in the award winning ‘London Road’ at The National Theatre and appearing in the likes of Kingdom of Heaven, Trance and Silent Witness, Michael is one man worth listening to. A tricky guy to pin down, when we caught up on a rather echoed phone line (‘are you in a bathroom?’), Michael was more than happy to share his successes and struggles with me, in between rehearsals for his new play. Telling me ‘it’s the best job in the world’, for any aspiring actor this is an insight like no other.
So Michael, did you always want to be an actor?
Yeah, I think I’ve wanted to do this since I was about 12 – it was probably just showing off at that age, but as far as I can remember I’ve never wanted to do anything else.
Did you go to drama school?
Yes, I did my A Levels and auditioned for drama schools and didn’t get in anywhere. After a year doing a rubbish job I tried again and got into a college called Rose Bruford. It was the only college at the time offering a degree in acting. My advice would be to make sure you look for accredited drama schools; the real advantage of these is that agents and casting directors will go to the showcase in your final year. There’s no guarantee, but if you can get picked up by an agent it’s a great introduction into the business.
What’s the best part of your job?
I feel really lucky to do something that I really love. It’s the best job in the world. I suppose the best part for me is rehearsals, where you get to explore a character and form that bond with the people you are working with. At the same time going to the theatre and going on stage every night is fantastic.
What’s the most difficult part then?
It’s hard being out of work. I’ve been really lucky in the last five years or so – I’ve been really busy, but there have been plenty of times where I’ve had quite long stretches out of work. That’s really hard because you don’t feel like an actor. So to keep your self-belief when things aren’t going well, when you’re not getting jobs or having many auditions, that’s hard.
Looking back over your career, what is the project you are most proud of?
I did a play called London Road at The National Theatre five or six years ago. It was a verbatim musical, which sold out the Cottesloe which is the small theatre, then the following year they brought it back to the Olivier and everyone went crazy over it. We then made a film of it that comes out in the summer. It was an extraordinary thing to be part of and nobody had ever done anything like it before – it was almost like a new genre. It was a really beautiful project and I loved all the people that were part of it.
How do you think acting differs for film and stage?
The biggest difference with the camera is in close ups – the camera is like a mind reader, it’s not about trying to show the camera anything. If you are thinking it, the camera sees it. In a thousand seat theatre you need to make sure the people at the back can see and hear you; in front of a camera you just need to be present and active in your thinking.
Which do you prefer?
I’m much more familiar with theatre and have been doing it in some kind or another since I was a kid. Filming I’ve done quite a lot now, but I still feel I’ve got quite a lot to learn.
Have you got any top tips for learning lines?
I don’t think there are any short cuts, it’s a bit of a muscle that improves the more you do it – it’s just repetition and putting the hours in. I sometimes record the other lines on my phone, so I can speak along with it and fill in my parts. I also do the old fashioned method of covering lines and going down with a bit of paper. Whatever the circumstances, whether it’s film, TV or theatre, your lines are your security. Knowing that you can walk in and say to yourself I know his really well is your anchor.
Good advice! How do you deal with the rejection that must come hand in hand with the industry?
You have to set your mind to be really clear that it’s part of the job; it’s not a separate thing, it’s absolutely part of it in the same way that learning your lines is. Not getting a gig is fine – I always think as long as I’ve pleased myself its fine. There are a whole bunch of reasons outside of my control that mean I might not get the job, I don’t need to speculate – it’s irrelevant. You’ve got to please yourself and leave knowing you’ve done a good job, whatever else happens doesn’t matter.
It’s taken me a while to realise that even if you don’t get the job, if you’ve done a good audition they are going to bring you back for something else even if you don’t get that one. In a way you just have to know it’s part of it; do each audition and then just forget about it.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
If you really want to get into it, forget any rejection you might get at the beginning in terms of getting into drama schools – just keep going. If you don’t get in the first time and you never try again it’s not the business for you. Be prepared – it’s tough and there is a sensibility required to tough it out when things are difficult. Remember it’s a long game, I go back to my old college and talk to the third years and they are really impatient. They want everything to happen straight away and panic if they haven’t got a job in the first three months. Just remember it’s not a sprint.
My final piece of advice would be to join Equity, our trade union. It’s the only body that looks out for actors and I think it’s important that people are part of it. That’s my little manifesto anyway.
To get in touch with Michael or find out what he’s up to, catch him on Twitter. If you are ready to start your journey into the acting industry, why not take a look at the courses listed on our site and get going? Break a leg!