It wasn’t until 2016, after Ben Steel had returned from living overseas for nine years, that he hit rock bottom and realised how anxious and depressed he was.
His career had started so well. He landed his first big acting break at the age of 25 when he was cast as Jude Lawson in Home and Away. He loved being part of the show, was nominated for a Best New Talent Logie, and featured in countless magazine spreads. Life was good.
Then, after two and a half years on screen, his character was written out of the soap opera. He was devastated but tried to shrug it off. He moved to Europe where he worked sporadically, then after nine years away, he decided to return home, but he found it difficult to find work here. And that’s when it hit.
Ben Steel. Photographs supplied
“I really struggled to get back on track here, and find work whether it was behind the scenes or in front of the camera. That’s probably where my struggle started to develop a little bit. I wasn’t fully aware of my depression and just how down I was,” says Steel.
He was coaching actors at the time and began to realise that he was not alone. “Actors that I was working with [were talking about] how difficult it was, and how things had changed so much in the last decade. Social media, that was not around a decade ago, and just lots of things… how more and more pressure is being put on creative people. And so, I just started observing and I thought, ‘I think this is an issue, I think people are really struggling’. That was the point for me where I thought ‘I think I just need to start talking to people and filming it and see where it will go,’” he says.
As well as being an actor, Steel had made little films in the past, so he decided that he would make his own film to address mental wellbeing in the entertainment industry. Three and a half years later, his debut documentary The Show Must Go On will premiere on ABC on Tuesday October 8 and be available on ABC iview.
“I started making this film to see if what I was going through was shared by others,” says Steel in the documentary. As The Show Must Go On movingly reveals, Steel is very far from alone. Research from Entertainment Assist and Victoria University shows that the statistics relating to mental health in the entertainment industry are alarming. Anxiety symptoms are 10 times higher than the national average, sleep disorders are seven times higher, and symptoms of depression are five times higher. Suicide attempts are double the national average, with five people trying to take their own life every week.
Steel ended up interviewing 63 people for The Show Must Go On, including Sam Neill, Michala Banas, Shane Jacobson, Jocelyn Moorhouse, David McAllister, Benedicte Bemet, Dean Ray and many more.
“I had no idea how big it would grow, I had no idea how open the whole industry – not just the screen sector which is where I had primarily existed – would be. I initially started to reach out the people I knew, and then contacts of their contacts, and then I realised I needed to expand it outside of my network. So, I started to delve into the music industry and live performance a little bit more and ballet and all kinds of parts of the entertainment industry that I knew very little about,” he says.
“Every single person that I spoke to about the project, either to be involved or just talk about it, said, ‘oh my God, yes! It’s about time, this is such a big issue. I know so many people [struggling], or I have struggled myself… we really need this’. Every single person had that reaction. Understandably a handful of people decided not to be actively involved, whether to publicly support the project or be interviewed. Most of those were behind-the-scenes people, because I think getting on camera is quite confronting for many people. But everyone said, ‘yes this is a real issue, this is a real problem’, and wished me the best for the project,” says Steel.
About a quarter of the way through filming The Show Must Go On, Steel decided that he needed to play a role in the documentary, so he turned the camera on himself as well. Having thought at the beginning that he would make the whole thing himself, he brought in an editor at that point “to bring fresh eyes and objectivity to help sculpt the story. Having an editor on board really helped define the story, for sure,” he says.
Asked what emerged from the many interviews, and why mental health is in such dire straits in the entertainment industry, Steel cites a range of issues: the pressure of being a freelancer and not knowing where the next job is coming from so you can’t relax when you aren’t working; the regularity with which people in the entertainment industry work away from family and friends; the often long and anti-social hours; the perhaps unrealistic dreams that many have of becoming a big Hollywood or Broadway star; the isolation that accompanies certain areas of work like writers, for example; the heart and passion that people in every aspect of the industry put into their work, and the rejection they can therefore feel when they can’t find a job, not to mention the rejection that goes with being knocked back at auditions.
Sam Neill discusses the issue of ‘identity’ very eloquently in the documentary saying: “Working is enjoyable, the darkness goes away but if you’re not getting a job that darkness can close in on you. I’ve had a few periods in my life where I’ve felt that darkness close in. Most people are between jobs and if you think of yourself as an actor and you’re not actually acting, what are you? You are kind of no-one. The way out of that is to actually separate yourself from your profession – that’s what I do, that’s not what I am.”
“That was certainly one of the biggest things in my case, and one of the things I had to unpack myself for my recovery,” says Steel. “It was almost like an identity crisis that I went through these last few years. I really had to remove myself from what I do, because that’s not all that I am. If you are an actor, and that’s all that you think that you are, when the rejections come of course [it’s easy to think] ‘I’m not worth anything, they didn’t want me, I’m not good enough’ – whether it’s coming from a bad review, or whether it’s coming from a missed opportunity. However, if you can separate yourself from what you do for a little bit, you are going to have a much more wholistic or positive journey with your career endeavours.”
In Steel’s case, taking up surfing again – which he had once loved but had stopped doing in Europe – helped enormously. “Sometimes, you forget to get that work-life balance right, particularly being a freelancer. You might be working now but you’re also thinking about where the next job is coming from so if you do get some downtime you are actually thinking about more work not going I’m going to go surfing, or go away with my family or catch up with my friends,” he says.
“It was only on this film that I realised that I used to love surfing, it used to calm me down and chill me out, and it was such a beautiful connection to the environment but I had stopped doing it. I realised that I didn’t have a hobby outside [of work] and I thought, ‘I need to go surfing again’ – and it’s the best thing ever.”
Steel believes that the general population doesn’t understand the problems of the entertainment industry, because of the starry picture that is so often presented. “We put out the glitz and glamour, we put out the red carpet and the awards and the jets and the limousines, we put out that image so the general population go ‘what are you complaining about, you guys have a great life, and you are so well paid!’ So, for me I think it’s a combination of [all these things] as to why mental health in the arts generally is in such a dire place.”
Steel is thrilled that The Show Must Go On – which is produced by award-winning film and documentary producer Sue Maslin (The Dressmaker) – will screen on the ABC during Mental Health Week describing it as “incredibly amazing” that it will be seen on such a massive platform. “All the way along that was a potential dream and a hope that maybe we would reach that amount of people but you never think it will necessarily happen, so when we got the confirmation it was an amazing relief in a way. So many people have helped me on this journey – the people I interviewed, the people behind the scenes – so I had a very big responsibility on my shoulders to have that collective work get out there.”
Running alongside the release of the film will be a national Wellness Roadshow, which will be launched by the Hon. Martin Foley, Victorian Minister for Mental Health, Equality and Creative Industries on October 9 at Arts Centre Melbourne.
The Wellness Roadshow will include events around the country at which the film will be screened, followed by discussions and workshops. “From the get-go for me was that the film was very much a conversation starter,” says Steel. “It’s using the screen to connect people to the issues and really open them up to this whole topic, and then the conversations that get started afterwards and the resources we will have on hand and the workshops and presentations and group discussions and Q&A’s – that’s where we hope to have a hand in creating lasting change. We are really hoping that the events attached to the film, and the toolkits that we will have, will educate, inspire and help change mental health not only in the entertainment industry but society at large.”
The Show Must Go On will screen on ABC television on October 8 at 9.30pm and on ABC iview