Surviving unemployment lows: what I learned from an actor’s life

Jenga work

Photo by 'santibon' (Flickr)

A few days ago my husband mentioned an article he had read in the Guardian about Scottish actor Jeff Stewart. I didn’t even know who Stewart was, but the story struck a chord with me so I went to look for it myself.

It was an ‘a-ha moment’. Sometimes you come across something seemingly trivial, which can unlock the key to a deeper understanding of your present situation.

My story
My situation was that I had reached an all-time low after a string of unfortunate job rejections, despite several interviews for which feedback had been excellent.

One thing is is not getting a job for failing to meet its requirements, or for interviewing poorly. That’s easier to accept and move on. Another is to be praised for your “strong CV”, your “outstanding skills and experience”, being told what a “fantastic candidate” you are…only to be informed you haven’t got the job for reasons that have no connection with your competency for the role.

Had this happened in the first few weeks after I became unemployed, I would have put it down to bad luck. But in my seventh month looking for work it pushed me over the edge – I felt literally suicidal.

Much as I try not to rest too long on thoughts about the past that cannot be changed, it has become increasingly harder to get back on my feet after a fall. When you can see no flicker of light at the end of a tunnel, is it even worth continuing the journey? How can you want something so much, work so hard for it and still not be able to achieve it? How can the universe be so cruel, slamming all doors in your face one after another?

Stewart’s story
The lights must have gone out in the life of actor Jeff Stewart too when he was told his role as PC Reg Hollis in the long-running ITV police drama the Bill was to be axed after 24 years. Feeling  let down, he went into his dressing room and cut his wrists but  changed his mind and called for help moments before he blacked out.

That was in 2008. After a complete change of image ( he did not cut his hair for three years) to avoid being typecast as his old character, Jeff Stewart went on to get roles in four films. One of those, Under Jakob’s Ladder,  a low-budget movie made in only 21 days, and Stewart were both winners at the Manhattan Film Festival last month: the film won best period piece while Stewart earned the best actor award.

Newspapers this week have been reporting that Stewart’s award will probably shoot him to Hollywood stardom. The Bill, on the other hand, only survived for two more years after Stewart was sacked.

Jeff Stewart must be glad his life did not end when he thought it was no longer worth living. He told the Sun his suicide attempt was “sobering”.

His story reads like a fable.  He understood that  playing Reg Hollis was not the be all and end all of an actor’s career – there were many more roles for him to play in life, both artistically and literally. As a result, he got to where he needed to get.

Jenga blocks
Jeff Stewart’s success story reminded me that sometimes things you want don’t come your way because what you want is not necessarily what you need at the time. But if you persevere, sweet rewards and greater joys may be in store.

If you have ever played Jenga, you know how the blocks wobble every time a piece is taken out. How many pieces can you remove before the whole tower collapses?

You may also be aware that the blocks you can safely lose are those that will easily come out when you gently tap them with your finger. Likewise, if you treat each blow during your unemployment as a ‘loose’ wooden block you can get rid of because it is actually dispensable, you are more likely to end up winning the game. Remember: those blocks are expendable; there is no need to hang on to them. Let go.

Losing them may momentarily shake the structure but won’t destroy the building, which is supposed to grow taller. Think about this concept for a minute. By disposing of unnecessary “baggage” of past anger, hurts and resentments, whatever they may be, you can travel lighter and faster to your personal stardom.

Not that I am aiming for a career in Hollywood; I simply want to bid  farewell to life on the dole.

I thank Jeff Stewart for the inspiration.



Filed under Coping

4 responses to “Surviving unemployment lows: what I learned from an actor’s life

  1. This is a tremendous post, Chie, even though I’m sad to hear that you have had so many doors slammed in your face. I hope that a door will open for you soon, and in the meantime, kia kaha – stay strong!


  2. Adam, London

    What a load of tosh. I thought I might be treated to an insight into how actors cope with semi permanent unemployment. You know, some real world, practical advice. Instead I’m told about an attention whore who wanted all the publicity that comes with suicide – except without the dying part – and treated to a lifestyle metaphor about jenga. It’s now been 4 years since Stewart’s “suicide attempt”. It seems the ridiculous “Hollywood stardom” prediction was, well, exactly that.


    • Adam, if you are struggling with unemployment, as an actor or otherwise, you surely must know some days you can get very very low and feel despondent.
      Whether Jeff Stewart, and everyone else who’s ever attempted suicide, was being an “attention whore” is not for us to judge. We are not privy of his private circumstances at the time. Some people can cope with hardship, rejections, etc better than others. I wanted to use his story to illustrate that failure/rejection, etc happens to everyone at some point or another but we shouldn’t hold on to the pain and let it destroy us, as happier days may just be round the corner (as it happened with Stewart).


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