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Nearly every day I am asked to give my advice on how to be an actor. What I've realized is that my experience has made me much more predisposed to giving lessons in life rather than acting. One of the biggest misconceptions about actors is that we just love any excuse to stand up at a party and make a speech or sing a song or generally take over a room.

Of course clichés are clichés for a reason, and for every shy, retiring thesp who could easily command an army when in character on stage but who would rather crawl under a cocktail napkin if asked to command anything more than a waiter's attention in a public place, there is the loud, attention-craving, life-and-soul-of-the-party type who enjoys the limelight so much he will steer it toward himself with all the accuracy of a heat-seeking military drone.

And this illustrates the basic misunderstanding between showing off and acting. I would hazard a very well-informed guess that the shy retiring type would be a much better actor than the show-off, though perhaps not as fun to get drunk with.

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Acting is, to me, about pretending to be other people and meaning it. That's all. It's play for adults. Showing off is about making sure as many people are looking at you as possible, no matter what you are doing. To use a culinary metaphor, the former is the cake and the latter is the frosting. And we all know how nauseating it is to have all frosting and no cake.

I used to be terrified of being asked to speak in public. Truly terrified. If I were presenting an award, or worse, having to sing at a gala, I would quite literally shake in my boots. And worse, people thought I was kidding. My closest friends' eyes would widen in disbelief when I told them of this phenomenon and cite the fact that I had recently taken all my clothes off in front of hundreds or even millions of people, so why should reciting a few names off a teleprompter or doing some glorified form of karaoke send me into such spasms of anxiety? And to make matters worse, when I was actually doing these terror-inducing acts, I didn't look nervous at all.

And do you know why? Because I was pretending to be someone else, someone who was at ease with speaking in public, picking up a mike and starting to sing a song he barely knew the lyrics to and, even if he did screw up, doing so with charm, self-effacement and panache. I was acting.

After many years of not being able to understand, let alone control, the panic a non-acting public appearance triggered, I realized that the reason I became so stressed was down to a lack of preparation. Acting in character on a stage is easy because I feel in control and I have rehearsed for many weeks. First nights are, therefore, terrifying because they are the first time a new element comes into the equation: the audience. But after a few shows, that element becomes the norm and the panic ebbs. Making a speech at a charity bash racked me with fear because I would have little, if any, rehearsal and most importantly, no character to hide behind.

So … I decided the only way to overcome this was to do what I've always done with things that scare me: Dive right into the centre of the fear, smother myself in it, understand it, control it, beat it and then enjoy it.

I decided I would do a cabaret, an evening of songs and stories as myself. When I sang a song I would do it in my own voice, not a character's. I would tell stories about my own life, with my own opinions. When I felt emotional I would be letting the audience see inside me, Alan. I was biting the bullet. It was honestly the most frightening thing I had ever done in my entire career, and worse, I didn't start small. No little club downtown to get my feet wet. Oh no! My first appearance was at New York's Lincoln Center as part of their American Songbook series and a few weeks later I was flying to Australia to perform the show at the Sydney Opera House. For real! I am nothing if not bold!

This was the beginning of what I think of as my personal and professional renaissance. And you know what? It worked. Now, I get up and say a few words or sing a song I barely have a grasp of the lyrics of, and I do both with confidence and aplomb and the knowledge that the worst thing that could possibly happen is that I will slightly fail. But even better, I will admit my failure, and that will be not only just fine but actually a completely admirable and positive gesture to anyone who sees it. People will like and respect me more because I tried. Maybe I didn't do as well as I would have hoped, but come on, isn't that just what happens to all of us every day?

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If I can pass on a life lesson after several decades of acting, acting, acting, that I feel might impact you, dear readers, in whatever field you find yourselves forging an existence, it is this: If you feel scared, just pretend you aren't. If you want to do something, do it with passion and honesty and keep doing it until you feel comfortable doing it and then pretty much everything will be okay.

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