November 30, 2022
From stage to page
Give the gift of intrigue with a celebrity memoir that captures all the grisly details of glitz, glamour and fame.
Sam Heughan, known to legions of fans as Jamie Fraser in the popular TV show based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, recently decided it was time to walk the rigorous West Highland Way in Scotland, a long-distance hiking trail that runs from north of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. He wanted a solitary challenge and a pause in the acting career he has worked tirelessly at, and packing 96 miles into five days seemed like it would provide the right combination of endurance and introspection. In his remarkable, thought-provoking memoir, Waypoints: My Scottish Journey, he welcomes readers along for the journey.
Before Heughan stepped out the door onto the West Highland Way, he was a runner, not a walker. Marathons, yes; walking slowly, not his thing. His camping and hiking experiences were limited; he even thought hiking poles were “cumbersome” and almost threw them away once he hit the trail. His overstuffed rucksack, complete with whiskey and cigars, weighed him down. The rain in late October almost ruined him on the second day, and he soon chose comfortable wayside inns over his tent. But he was nearing his 40th birthday (making him the same age as the Way) and, despite these challenges, felt it was simply time he got this done.
Bracketing Heughan’s journey is an account of his visit to his dying father in faraway British Columbia, Canada. The man was a stranger who abandoned his family long ago, but Heughan and his brother felt nonetheless compelled to offer a goodbye. Once they arrived, Heughan was stunned to learn that his father had been following his acting career all along. He recorded their visit on his phone, but later, back on the set of “Outlander,” the phone vanished. It was, he writes, “a fitting epitaph.”
The award-winning actor, author, philanthropist and entrepreneur offers plenty of details of his walk to Fort William, including a daunting hike up Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the United Kingdom. Along the way, Heughan has a clear, precise and entertaining style. He is a funny man, and his encounters with roaming sheep, other hikers and clusters of mushrooms are wonderfully comic.
If Waypoints were merely about Heughan’s walk, it would be delightful, instructive and enticing. But this is a memoir, after all, and it is his reflection on his life and work, interspersed with the challenges and discoveries of the Way, that lend his story heft and grit.
A few years after British actor Tom Felton hung up his Slytherin robes for good, he hit rock bottom. It was the first step toward reclaiming his identity, as it prompted him to ask how and when he left the wisecracking kid from Surrey behind and instead became dependent on the numbing effect of alcohol. In Beyond the Wand: The Magic and Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard, Felton looks back in order to uncover the path forward as he candidly details the surreal experience of being a prominent part of a pop culture juggernaut.
Felton’s first major on-screen role was in 1997’s The Borrowers, an adaptation of the classic children’s book. This opened the door to other promising opportunities, notably playing The Boy Who Lived’s archenemy: sneering, peroxide-blond Draco Malfoy. At the time of his audition, 12-year-old Felton had never read a Harry Potter novel and couldn’t quite understand the breathless excitement that the books inspired.
Felton spent nearly a decade immersed in the world of witches and wizards, where he became accustomed to a singular life on set. The final stretch of filming was bittersweet, and when it was through, he hoped to transition into a career brimming with star-studded blockbusters and high-end craft services. Instead, Felton’s move to Los Angeles made him feel like a rudderless ship. “I missed having an ordinary conversation with an authentic human, who didn’t know who I was, and didn’t care,” he writes.
Felton’s memoir isn’t a shameless tell-all or a cautionary tale about the ills of fame. He frequently expresses gratitude and praises the skills and professionalism of older actors who were in the Harry Potter films, such as Jason Isaacs and Alan Rickman. He has no problem poking fun at himself, but his moments of self-reflection are compassionate. Beyond the Wand may focus on Felton’s Harry Potter days, but it’s so much more than fan service. With introspection and charm, Felton’s narrative captures the growing pains of adolescence.
Lauren Graham is perhaps best known for her acting, particularly her role as the young, headstrong single mom Lorelai in the television show “Gilmore Girls.” But Graham, who has a bachelor’s degree in English from Barnard College and master’s of fine arts in acting performance from Southern Methodist University, is also the accomplished author of a novel (Someday, Someday, Maybe), a collection of personal essays (Talking as Fast as I Can) and a book of advice for graduates (In Conclusion, Don’t Worry About It).
Graham’s second book of personal essays, Have I Told You This Already?: Stories I Don’t Want to Forget to Remember, is composed of 15 insightful pieces relaying impactful moments and life lessons that have shaped who she is. She explains how her creative outlook was molded by people and experiences from her youth. For example, although her mother was largely absent from her upbringing, Graham sees a positive side to this fact: “I think not growing up with my mom means I didn’t have any preconceived notions of what a mom is supposed to be!”
Graham takes the reader on a behind-the-scenes tour of Hollywood, sharing acting jargon such as “pumpkin” (the term for when child actors have to be done working for the day) and “sold it in the room” (getting backing from someone with clout). She’s candid about the demands of show business, too, and the acrobatics that actors have to perform to fit into the Hollywood mold. In a chapter aptly named “Forever 32,” Graham reflects on aging, comparing her recollections of being a 20-something to when, at the age of 32, she realized “I had a sense of myself I’d never had before.” She also muses about her days as a young actor, hustling to various jobs while trying to make it. These stories and anecdotes are especially raw, real and humorous.
Graham’s writing is fresh, sharp and very funny, with fast, staccato sentences that evoke what it must be like to have a conversation with her. Her voice invites the reader in, emanating a refreshing openness that will make them want to be her best friend. Have I Told You This Already? is an enjoyable, amusing revelation.
Oh, Lord Grantham, patriarch of Downton Abbey! We feel as though we already know you, with those twinkling eyes and deep, reassuring voice. In Playing Under the Piano: From Downton to Darkest Peru, stage and screen actor Hugh Bonneville shares what he calls “a series of snapshots I’ve taken along the way,” allowing us to know him more truly. As you might expect, his account is intriguing, breezy and full of intellect and humor. It’s also a delicious stroll down a red carpet lined with big names, including Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Laurence Olivier, Celia Imrie, Leonardo DiCaprio and many more.
The memoir is divided into sections discussing Bonneville’s childhood, theater years and film roles. His father was a urologist and his mother a nurse—or so he thought before learning after her death that her second job was with MI6, the British Secret Service. “I may not have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth but I realised I had a nice set of crockery compared to so many others,” he writes. Early on, he began thinking of the theater as a “magic toybox,” although he originally thought he would become a lawyer and also contemplated theology until drama school beckoned.
There’s no mean-spirited gossip in this memoir, just plenty of humorous self-deprecation and some laugh-out-loud anecdotes—like the time an actor in a live theater performance was popping peanuts while making a confession and ended up choking and passing out. Or the time Judi Dench dropped a note that said “Fancy a shag?” in the lap of an audience member she thought was a friend. Turns out, the man was not her pal.
Bonneville’s years of rich stage, television and film performances are nicely detailed, including amusing audition mishaps and disappointments. Although he offers a number of anecdotes about his parents, siblings, wife and son, he remains largely private about his personal life. But the “Downton Abbey” stories are wonderful, even if rabid fans like myself will wish for more. We shouldn’t complain though, given tidbits like Shirley MacLaine’s comment, “I had lovers all over the world. Overseas was fun. This one time, three in a day.” To which Maggie Smith responded, “Oh darling, you have been busy.”
Playing Under the Piano is a must-read for Bonneville fans, as well as an excellent look at the ups and downs of being an actor. Now excuse me while I go watch Paddington again.
Actor Paul Newman was known for many things: acting, car racing, philanthropy through his Newman’s Own food business and, of course, his rugged good looks and piercing blue eyes. He was a beloved Hollywood icon, but he didn’t think of himself that way. In fact, he wrestled with internal demons throughout his life.
Newman’s memoir, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, composed posthumously from interviews he began conducting in 1986 with the help of screenwriter and close friend Stewart Stern, is raw, honest and revealing. Through his own reminiscences and those of his contemporaries, including Elia Kazan, Stuart Rosenberg, Eva Marie Saint and Tom Cruise, the book provides a firsthand glimpse of Newman’s life and how his choices affected those around him. His upbringing, military service in World War II, first marriage to Jackie Witt, second marriage to actor Joanne Woodward, six children and professional and personal endeavors are all laid out on the table.
Even after he became famous, Newman was often unsure of himself. Part of this stemmed from the fact that he likely had a learning disability. The way he was treated by his parents, especially his mother, was also detrimental. She could be hurtful and treated him like a dress-up doll rather than a son. Newman’s memories of his father depict the man as an indifferent alcoholic. Unfortunately, this contributed to Newman’s own problems with alcoholism, as well as his son Scott’s substance issues and depression—burdens Newman carried his whole life.
But Newman also had more positive traits, from charisma and humor to compassion and business savvy. These qualities pop up throughout the book and were obvious to those who knew him. But even after all his success, he just couldn’t seem to shake his feelings of self-doubt. “If I had to define ‘Newman’ in the dictionary, I’d say: ‘One who tries too hard,’” he writes. The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is a humble and candid look into the life of a celebrated but often misunderstood man.
Nothing could have prepared Melanie Jayne Chisholm—aka Sporty Spice—for the loneliness, isolation and debilitating episodes of imposter syndrome that accompanied the extreme highs (and lows) of fame. In The Sporty One: My Life as a Spice Girl, the singer, songwriter and tracksuit-wearing Brit carefully unpacks her nonlinear journey toward self-acceptance while pinned under the glare of the spotlight.
The Spice Girls were a pop culture supernova at the turn of the new millennium. Contrary to the narrative wrought by the misogynistic media, the group was not the brainchild of industry executives. After answering a magazine advertisement, Victoria Adams (Posh), Geri Halliwell (Ginger), Melanie Brown (Scary), Michelle Stephenson and Chisholm came together to form the band Touch. When Stephenson proved to be a weak link, Emma Bunton (Baby) was recruited. It would take a pivotal name change and the reclamation of creative autonomy from their early male managers, but the Spice Girls would go on to smash records and, even more importantly, disrupt the cultural and musical landscape.
This type of rise at a young age leaves a few scars, and Chisholm isn’t afraid to recount her personal battles. The pressures of being a ubiquitous pop star coupled with her innate perfectionism brought on depression and severe anxiety. At one point after the Spice Girls had gone on hiatus and Chisholm had embarked on a successful solo career, she was nearly agoraphobic and plagued by incessant panic attacks. And despite her public image of health and fitness, the singer was secretly contending with disordered eating, which eventually led to anorexia and binge eating disorders. In 2009, Chisholm gave birth to her daughter, Scarlet. Motherhood wasn’t a cure-all for her mental health issues, but this new caregiver role allowed her to appreciate the extraordinary power of her body and all she has put it through.
Chisholm’s narrative voice is warm, funny and unabashedly real. Fans will feel as though they’ve been invited to an enlightening soul session with a close friend. Hard truths about patriarchal oppression and the fickle nature of celebrity are examined with sympathy and understanding. The Sporty One is more than the memoir of a pop star; it’s an emotional revelation.
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