Ever since I saw Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, I’ve wanted to be an actress. I can’t remember what age I was but it left a strong impression and a kind of ‘aha’ moment, that this was what I was going to be when I grew up.
In the film, Streep plays the forlorn and melancholic red haired beauty in 19th century England, who becomes fixated on a man (played by the tortured and stunning Jeremy Irons) who tries to help her and who, despite her reputation as a ‘fallen’ woman who had had an affair with a French soldier, falls in love with her. But she also plays the American actress making the film of the story who has an affair with her co-star. It was the fact that Streep plays two characters in the same film and with two different accents that was the light bulb moment. Doing voices, using my imagination to create characters was what I did very naturally already. There was a use for this gift, I reasoned, in acting.
And so, I aspired to become the ‘Irish Meryl Streep’.
I didn’t do too badly for a while. I got roles that enabled me to play characters with different accents, I got to play characters with complex stories. I’ve had a small measure of success as an actress. I got to work with Jeremy Irons’ wife Sinead Cusack and have his son Sam do my headshots, so I guess I’m a couple of degrees away from La Grande Dame du Cinema but I’m a far cry from achieving my goal.
If anyone deserves the title of ‘Irish Meryl Streep’, it’s the stunning actress Saoirse Ronan who I love to watch almost as much as the great actress herself.
The dictionary definition of the verb, ‘to aspire’ is
To direct one’s hopes or ambitions towards achieving something.
And it comes from the French word aspirer meaning to breathe.
Our hopes and ambitions can become the air we breathe. When we have a goal to strive for, it can become all-consuming. There’s not a thing wrong with ambition, indeed I’d like to see more women speak about their dreams, visions and ambitions but it’s really important that we direct our energies toward something that is going to be ultimately for our good and the good of those around us.
If I’d been determined to have ‘becoming the Irish Meryl Streep’ as the end goal of my life, if that had been my life-breath, then I think I’d be a fairly embittered, jealous and dissatisfied person right now. And, if I’m truly honest, I have wasted time and energy over the years coveting other people’s success and bemoaning my perceived lack of it.
What was engaging about seeing Meryl Streep in that film all those years ago was seeing someone thrive and excel at what they did. Seeing her switch from playing the frail and romantic red haired English woman to the autonomous, modern American actress. Here was a woman who was really good at what she did, and getting to do it as a job and also getting to reflect on the role, the industry, the role of women within the very story of the film itself. Her talent was recognised, she was seen.
The feeling of getting to do something you’re good at, getting to do work that you love, of being seen, that’s what I really wanted. And there’s a really important differentiation to make at this point; there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to being recognised for your gifts and talents. It’s only when that core desired feeling isn’t met that the ego will turn to attention seeking and we make choices that are not in our soul’s best interest.
If all I wanted was to become the ‘Irish Meryl Streep’, I might have made choices that diminished my spirit. In knowing that what I really aspire to is to use my gifts, get to do what I’m good at and be seen, then I can direct my energy on working on my craft, becoming someone people enjoy working with, being professional in every aspect of career. But I can also derive satisfaction from writing a blog post and having a good friend write and say ‘I liked that, well done.’ I can get the same feeling when I make a meal that results in my children’s empty plates. I don’t need to be a famous, award winning actress to feel like a success. I don’t need that to feel enough.
When I’m on a stage, or a set, I feel more at home in myself than anywhere else. I love it! I love the energy that zings between me and the audience. I love the electricity that ripples between the other actors and I when we are being our very best. I aspire to being the best I can when I’m given the opportunity to play a character. But I don’t need to rely on it to feel whole. My desire can be fulfilled in other ways that allow my spirit to soar and my soul to breathe.
And for that I’m very grateful.