No matter how many times I stumble across something – a song, a movie, a book – that gifts me way more than it promised, I find myself delighted and surprised by it. You know the kind of thing: something that ends up being more than the sum of its parts, that ends up meatier and more meaningful than you anticipated.
The podcast Dead Eyes is the most recent example of this for me, a series that on the surface is about something perhaps unresolvable, but which ends up excavating what it means to be human, tunnelling down beneath the surface of what we think life is, and digging up nuggets of truth. I heard about the series – where else – on Twitter (thanks Jenn), but thought initially that it might be gimmicky. It’s about an actor, Connor Ratliffe (whose mother is Irish), who over 20 years ago was rejected from the small role of Private Zielinski in the Stephen Spielberg TV series Band of Brothers by the episode’s director Tom Hanks, who reportedly said he had ‘dead eyes’. Ratliffe thought that the role could be his big break, but he’ll never know as he didn’t get it.
Ostensibly, the podcast’s aim was to find out if Hollywood’s nicest man Hanks showed his dark side by giving that unflattering description, and if Ratliffe does indeed own a pair of dead eyes. I thought the podcast would be a comedic riff on Hanks’ bad decision making, with Ratliffe making fun of his own inability to emote. But over three series, the podcast did much more than tease apart one joke. It became an exploration of what it is to create, and what it is to fail, and how the two are inextricably linked to each other, how they walk hand in hand like lovers. They can’t be parted – they’re always within touching distance, even if you prise their joined hands open for a moment.
Ratliffe is an actor and comedian, and has wanted to work in the industry since he was a child. He’s a naturally funny guy, self-deprecating, aware of his own quirks, but he’s serious about his job too. The rejection from Band of Brothers had such a big impact on his sense of self as an actor that he left the industry entirely for quite a long period of time. So the podcast turned out not to be so much an examination of why Hanks made the decision he did (or whether Ratliffe’s eyes are in fact dead), but why what happened felt like such a punch to the gut, and why it shifted his vision of his future when he was just in his early 20s. Your early 20s are a time when you should think anything is possible, and when you should have those dreams about being a movie star, because it feels to me like the older you get, the more realism sinks in, and the more you understand how much is stacked against you and those dreams. What I wanted to be when I was 20 is quite similar to what I want to be now, in many ways, but what I know I can ‘be’ is more realistic, more measured, less about ego and more about practicality.
I presume that when he started the podcast, Ratliffe just thought it would be fun to examine what happened and wring some comedy out of it. But episode by episode, he ended up going deeper and deeper, looking at his own motivation, his ego, his creative self. He interviewed various people across the three series, many of whom are quite big names, like Seth Rogan, Paul Feige, and Judd Apatow, and they talked to him about their failures. I’ve listened to some famous people’s stories about personal failure before, and found myself thinking: they don’t really know about failure at all. They just didn’t get something they wanted, once. And they don’t seem like they were really impacted. But Rogan, Apatow et al’s stories, even though these people are extremely famous and rich, were real stories of failure, not being told to show off or pull sympathy from anyone. They were being told in one way to show that on the other side of failure is success, but it never felt like they were saying they had success despite or even because of failure. They failed because they failed – because the timing wasn’t right, because they just weren’t good enough, or because somebody wanted something that wasn’t them.
I was most struck by the times when the conversation got around to being an actor, and turning up for an audition and realising before they had even opened their mouths that they would not get the role, because the director or producers simply wanted something different, and they would never be able to provide it. I learned that the acting world is full of failure, in fact is mostly failure, because it doesn’t matter how good an actor you are, how talented you are, how beautiful you are, how old or tall or well spoken you are – sometimes you are just not what is desired. The series did go into what happens when there are odds stacked against you that are invisible, that are unfair, that should be interrogated. But it also showed that on the whole, living a creative life means embracing that you will fail more than you will succeed.
I let out a bit of an exhale while listening to the stories of failure. I’m not an actor, but I compared attending auditions to sending writing submissions out. You enter a writing competition, or submit to a journal or website, and you might have sent something that’s decent, or fairly good, or even brilliant, but it might not get chosen for a million reasons that aren’t anything to do with you or the piece. They just don’t fit into the whole vision that the editor has. Yes, there will be times when the decision is unfair, but realising that rejection is going to happen more often than acceptance is a sort of relief in a way. It means you don’t always have to feel down about yourself, or your work, when things don’t as you wanted. You can feel disappointed, you can wish that things were different, but you don’t have to take it as a sign that you are somehow wrong.
Maybe it’s cold comfort to know that failure is common, because failure is an uncomfortable, clammy feeling. But listening to Dead Eyes I felt less bad about my failures, and buoyed by the fact that these people kept persisting because they believed in following their creative urges. Ratliffe eventually returned to acting and to comedy, and from what I remember, everyone he interviewed stayed in the creative world in some way.
Not all the stories of failure were necessarily comforting, however. One of the starkest interviews was with Starlee Kine, the American journalist who presented the wonderful Mystery Show podcast. That series – sort of like Dead Eyes, actually – was more than what it was on paper. It was a show where Kine solved mysteries without using the internet. But it was also a show with heart, which was about human connection, and coincidence, and quirky obsessions, and tunnel vision. If you loved Mystery Show, you *really* loved Mystery Show. (I really did). Sadly, Gimlet Media, which produced Mystery Show, didn’t love it, and dropped it after one series. Kine told the story of what happened in way that showed she’s still furious about how unfair and unwarranted that decision was. It really knocked her confidence, and perhaps even her faith in people. It showed us listeners, and her, that those in power don’t always make the kindest of decisions. Though Mystery Show’s failure at the hands of others was the most unfair failure on Dead Eyes, it remains a special thing, a series in a heaving ocean of podcasts that still sparkles in people’s memory. I have such warm feelings towards that show, even though it lived briefly. Kine was let down, but she still created something joyous and delightful – and that truth can’t be crushed by its untimely end.
I won’t spoil what happened at the end of Dead Eyes, only to say that the journey is worth it. It’s worth it because every episode gives you a reason to believe in yourself and your creativity, even if no one else does. It may make you feel not so bad about the failure that travels alongside creation, or at least give you a new sense of acceptance about it. There’s comfort, too, in hearing about Ratliffe and his guests’ experiences of grasping for success and only finding its opposite; of trying and trying and not getting anywhere; of getting what they wanted and realising it wasn’t the key to success. Ironically, us creatives can be prone to crafting narratives where one decision begets another, and where success is at the end of a straight road. But as Dead Eyes shows, both the ‘key’ and ‘success’ can be a mirage of our own making. Sometimes, they’re a distraction from the good stuff – it’s up to us to realise what the good stuff really is.