Darren McStay shares his story of discovering acting classes as a way to deal with introversion and panic attacks.
In 2015, he moved from London’s concrete jungle to one of the most greenest and idyllic parts of greater Helsinki with his wife and young child.
Today Darren is experiencing success with several acting roles in Finnish film and television, as well as through his entrepreneurial venture, ‘Improve Your Voice’ coaching services.
Hosted by Heidi Akselin.
➤ Darren, how you doing ?
Good! How are you?
➤ I’m very good, thank you! All dandy up in here. I’m so excited to get to talk to you today because I am a musician just like yourself and I think we’re going to have loads to talk about today.
So I’m just gonna hit you with the first question which is something that we usually ask our guests here. When you meet somebody new and they ask you, ‘What do you do?’ how do you respond?
Depends who I’m speaking to. You know, if I’m speaking to an acting agent or a casting director or a possible client you know I’ll introduce myself in the way that’s most appropriate to that person. Otherwise I generally say, ‘Someone who uses my mouth a lot.’
I’m a bit of a polymath I have a lot of things going on and so trying to sum all that up is is often difficult because there is business elements of what I do and there’s also you know the creative side. And there’s also growth that I have as a business as well as an educator and so I just came down to the the thing – I’m an artist. I’m an artist because that leaves it quite open. Now I’m a voice artist and I’m a voice coach and I’m an actor and I’m a songwriter.
➤ So you’ve done a lot of things.
Well that’s nothing. I’ve done more than that! I just had to narrow them down.
➤ Were you born with confidence? Like do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
I love my own company, I always did. I was always head in the clouds, always a loner.
➤ You love your own company! That’s good. That’s how it should be.
A lot of people can’t handle it. They need others around to feel their identity you know. It secures who they are in the world but for me I much prefer just being left alone and it doesn’t necessarily make me an introvert if sometimes somewhat solipsistic.
I might believe that my world is the only world that exists you know and that’s a trap I can easily fall into. So my way to get out of that and I have done for years was to push past it and really try to express myself. And of course when you’re pushing that way it can come across as aggressive.
I discovered that when I was working as a chef actually.
When was that?
I think I quit chefing 11-12 years ago to go to acting school.
Where did you go? What school?
East 15. In the UK there’s over 100 drama courses and, like only 20 of them are considered accredited by [CDMT / Drama UK] and that was one of them so it was already pretty good. You had a lot of things that you were interested in at the same time, you were doing music, you were doing acting.
➤ When did you get interested in voice acting?
It came around the same time because if we go back to when I was chefing, it was a job I hated. It was really stressful, terrible for your back, terrible for alcoholism, you know. Still today in the UK, if you put ‘chef’ on your car insurance you get them at the highest rate.
That is such a classic when you’re doing art, you have a job that you don’t like, that you can sometimes even hate but you need to do it for the money.
Yes, to live. And then it eventually sucks you dry and you start feeling bitter about one and even worse about the other. So actually what happened was I was getting panic attacks because I was drinking too much, stressed out too much, not getting any money and just my life was, you know, there was no goal. My love of music was dwindling and I was still doing it in bands — quite successful bands as well — but it didn’t matter because it became hard work.
So these panic attacks turned into something that I needed eventually to go to a doctor for. And there I was prescribed Diazepam which is like a calmer, to just chill you out. I was very reluctant to take them. I didn’t want to get into that sort of rolling system of dependence on chemicals from the doctor. I prefer to look at the cause rather than their effect, so on the same day I went to that doctor, another friend of mine just pointed out that there was this walk-in acting class down the road from where I lived.
I’ve always wanted to give it a go so I walked in there and in the very first lesson, they were doing voice work. So body work, practical stretching, yawning, rolling around on the floor, going, ‘Mmmm…. Ma.. ma.. ma.’ And as crazy as it sounds, I walked out of that class that day feeling calm before I’d taken any of those pills, feeling really connected and really present. And I’d also realised that I probably had a voice. Because my voice had only been expressed through music and as a speaker and communicator and as someone who worked in kitchens, I was terrible.
I mumbled,in a sense I had become more introvert and the panic attacks had made that worse. So I couldn’t communicate very well. And what that class did was open up a doorway to say, ‘Hey Darren, look! Actually there’s other ways of being and other things you can do. From that moment on I went to start taking speech lessons to help with my mumbling and pronunciation.
➤ Speech lessons. I didn’t even know that was a thing.
Of course! I found something yesterday when I was doing an online acting class actually which was from LAMDA (The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) of all places. It was just a little medal for my distinction in speech. But yeah, so I did a grade 5 speech course and it was really good and then I started applying for plays. Atarted getting into play, started acting and then I started applying for Drama school and eventually picked the one of my dreams.
➤ Let’s backtrack a little bit. What did you do at the speech courses or speech lessons?
Well it was kind of stable stuff. So pronunciation and articulation exercises, you know, working the muscles, releasing tension in the jaw, looking at my posture, breath, relaxing my belly, letting go.
I love the fact that you think you know how to breathe, when you’ve been a human all your life and you’ve lived in your body all your life and then when you go to acting classes or singing classes they teach you how to walk, what kind of posture you need to have and how to breathe and how to talk and how to sing. And then you’re like, ‘Oh my god I know nothing about being human!’ — the basic functions!
I think it’s why when a lot of people especially when they’re younger, they’re quite talented and they’re quite experienced already, they go there and they come out useless. Because they’re made so conscious of themselves that it takes another 10 to 20 years just to get back to where they were naturally before. And so acting school can hinder people. I’ve seen it happen many times and people give up hope because everything becomes technical. But there is a perio — if they stick with it then they’ll just be amazing afterwards.
You find a lot of actors, like the bigger names nowadays — at least from the UK, like Benedict Cumberbatch — they had five to ten years out of drama school, really trying, playing and learning. And then all of a sudden, they sit very well in their body and they come back to the natural talent they had before.
➤ He has an amazing voice!
He has an amazing voice.
➤ But hey, to tie this whole thing with Finland because Marketing Helsinki is the name of the podcast, when did you come to Helsinki?
Well, we moved here almost six years ago, December 2015. We moved from Zone 1, London where we were living, Elephant and Castle directly to Nuuksio in that wintery wonderland.
➤ That must have been quite a change.
It was a radical difference, yeah.
➤ Did you like it?
Of course, yeah. We’re still here.
➤ You didn’t move to the heart of Helsinki. Why did you decide to go to Nuuksio?
We moved there because my wife’s parents own Hotelli Nuuksio and so there was a cottage there that we were able to use by the lake.
➤ Okay! Do you speak any Finnish?
Mä oon opiskellu sitä!
➤ Vähän hyvä!
Hitaasti mutta varmasti.
➤ Your accent is pretty good!
Oh that’s the first thing I got.
➤Isn’t that always? Like I’ve been studying or I did study Swedish for like six or seven years and the only thing that I got left is the accent. Same with German, I studied German for nine years and the only thing that I have left is the accent.
And that is something that you either pick up or you don’t. And usually you start with that. And you stick with that.
I wish I had more of a need for it you know because we’ve got a son who’s suddenly at päiväkoti and of course his Finnish is already better than mine. He’s three and a half years old but he’s surrounded by it all day. The language I have to speak with him is English, so he picks that up. Monika speaks Finnish but she speaks English to me and I think I’d go a lot further and learn quicker if I had someone to just talk with.
➤ Sure but when he grows older, I think it’s gonna be great for you cause he’s gonna put you in environments where you’re gonna learn a lot more.
Yeah it’s already getting to the point where I need to — there is now a need! We just had a new baby as well so she’s three months old.
➤ Oh congratulations!
➤ So you don’t feel comfortable about having conversations in Finnish when you introduce yourself to the business people here?
No, I wouldn’t do that. I guess because my skill set would be more speaking in English language anyway.
➤ And everybody here loves to speak English.
Yeah, I wish everybody would but yeah I guess maybe in Helsinki.
➤ In Helsinki, definitely yes because our educational level is so high and the quality of our schools is so good. Not everybody speaks English here really fluently but I think most people are just so eager to practice their skills that they forget to speak Finnish to the the foreigners that come into the country and especially the ones that live in this country.
It does seem to give a short hand when everyone understands the language fully and there’s more vocabulary that way and you can get more done in a faster amount of time. And so it’s certainly harder because with learning Finnish and the way it’s taught to outsiders here unfortunately and I’ve gone through a couple of different courses. It’s all grammar first, usability later but I don’t work like that.
I’m kinesthetic. I need to start speaking and then be told what I did, not the other way around because otherwise I’m in my head. I have trouble working that way which is another reason that I’m more in the creative arts and less into mathematics and science. That’s just learn the rules, then go and use the rules on doing something. I’m like, ‘Well I’ll go and do something and then after I’ve done it and embodied it, I know what the rules are.’
➤ As an entrepreneur who’s your competition here in Finland?
You know what? My client base isn’t in Finland really. My biggest client base is in America.
➤ Really? That’s interesting. Why not UK?
Actually there’s a fair amount in the UK but it seems like — because all of my clients have found me through YouTube. So I create valuable videos and that’s why I guess it’s growing; it’s called Improve Your Voice and it’s mainly aimed at speakers and so I get a lot of people from America, a lot of people from Australia, UK but also India and Philippines and China and all over the world, really — very few from Finland. Even before I started the channel because I felt I wasn’t going to be able to work here so much that’s why I went online.
I found that Finland didn’t necessarily have any open doors for me with regard to the speaking and one businessman told me, ‘Why do we need you to teach us to speak when we’ve got Finns teaching us?’ It’s all book learning though, isn’t it? You know the practicality of performing is not the same as understanding and delivery; they’re two different things.
And you know to be fair, I haven’t really put myself out enough. I focus very much online.
➤ But isn’t that like the thing of the time? You have to be online and you need to put a lot of focus there?
Yeah I mean I was pre-Covid so I was kind of fully set when the shit hit the fan.
➤ Yes and it’s actually good because then you didn’t need to lure people in while Covid was booming. They were already in there.
Now I’ve got 300 free videos that are giving value and that’s my marketing. I don’t have to advertise because I’m giving.
➤ How long did it take for you to become a good speaker?
I’m still learning.
➤ But like, you know, until you gain the confidence that you could say, ‘Okay I am a speaker,’ and you could really stand behind yourself and your talent and your product.
It’s funny, that actually really only came recently even though I’ve been doing it for a long time.
I spent two summers as the compère for a battle of the bands just before I moved to acting school and I had to improvise. I met the bands beforehand, I set up the microphones for them and I introduced everyone and there was no script, there was no preparation, I just had to get up and talk. And I think I did quite well. They paid me to do that and I got on really well with everyone there and the audience reacted quite well. Because every time I was scared. I was really out of my comfort zone but I did it and I think having gone through that was a really good backdrop to me being able to just say, ‘Fuck it’.
➤ Yes! I kind of love how in arts fear and being scared is always present. I don’t know if you will ever remove that.
I think when you are present it’s no longer present. So you’re in your head, you’re scared, you’re in your head, you’re scared, and all of a sudden you’re in it! And then it just fizzles away and you are present. And therefore there is no fear, or negativity or no little voices in your head saying, ‘Oh you’re gonna fuck that up mate!’ ‘Look at you!’
➤ ‘Why did you say that? Oh my god!’
‘They don’t like you!’
➤ What do you do when those boogeymen attack you? What do you say to yourself?
I’ve been through productions where it’s been like holding on for dear life the whole way through and I’ve managed to somehow do it. I don’t know how but in a sense I wondered, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It felt a bit like self-harm, you know considering the kind of emotional journey you put yourself through.
And I think — and sorry to bring this word up: ‘spiritual’, but I remember on our first day at drama school, our teacher saying, ‘If you’re here and you want to be a professional actor it’s quite likely that there’s some childhood trauma that you’ve not dealt with yet that’s driving you to want to be in the spotlight, to be seen and to seek validation.’ So what she offered, and what was part of drama school, was counseling and spending time in nature and all these things that help make you more present and help dissolve the thoughts and bring you more into your body.
And that’s something that I think is very important. Brings us back to our first conversation as well on breath, breathing, as you reminded me we have to relearn sometimes. What gave me the confidence was to learn to let go. And so you can do the work physically to make sure your body — your instrument — is fully tuned and in correct alignment and you’re breathing. That plays a massive part. The rest is knowing or understanding what you want to say or what you want to contribute or offer.
And then it’s just letting go of that and being in the moment and trusting that it is there. You’ve done the work, it will come. And that is the most vulnerable thing but it’s also the thing that is magic. That’s the thing that captures people and allows you to express yourself fully because you’re a vessel for these ideas. By blocking those yourself, all you’re doing is hindering the information and the passage from you connecting with another human, which essentially speaking is right. Communication.
➤ That’s that’s definitely what it is.
Let’s talk about your career in acting in Finland.
In Finland, it’s going from strength to strength! I’m surprised.
Yeah in the UK, I worked mostly in theater. I did a lot of background acting in operas which was a very good ensemble way of understanding the technicalities of theater without having the pressure of performing.
In Finland, I got one part I think in 2017 in a TV show called Koukussa – I think it means hooked. I think there’s a couple of series. And I a couple of scenes just as this bad guy.
➤ In Finnish?
No I was speaking in English.
Then I got a part in a movie called Valmentaja which was a cool production. Optipari Oy I think is the film company. And I got to play another kind of gangster-ish sort of role. I always get bad boy characters.
➤ Do you like them?
It’s just what I get. I mean one of the workshops I give is actually on the casting process and and how we bring a story into the room before we even speak, and the way the world sees me according to the media, film, society, casting, branding, would be as someone who’s more aggressive or maybe on the darker side.
➤ Is that your true character at all?
I don’t think so but I think what happens is when people start seeing you like that, they’ll find it in you. And because of stereotypes and archetypes, I fall into that naturally. I’ve got a shaved head, I’ve got tattoos.
➤ Classic bad boy look.
Well it wasn’t a bad boy look when I was 15 and skateboarding. And then then I did Modernit Miehet – I was in the first season of that. I’ve now just been filming for YLE for a new production and I don’t think they’ve actually given out the final name of the show yet but it’s eight episodes, it comes out next spring and I’m in every episode. And I’ve got a really cool character too! It’s the biggest part I’ve played yet on TV.
➤ Can you can give us a little hint what you’re playing? How is your character like?
I think so yeah. I’m playing an American CIA agent. We’re working undercover as a cultural attaché at the American Embassy in Helsinki. So I get to — I can’t tell you too much but I do get to be a bit of a badass and I get to shoot guns and stuff so that’s nice.
➤ Yes! Nice! What is the most exciting thing that you’ve ever done in acting?
It always gets more exciting the more I do it because the characters are getting bigger and I get more involved.
But last year I was in production — again that’s not even out yet, that’s coming coming up. Actually two productions, I was in an American film called ‘Dual’ that was filming here in Tampere as well playing alongside Karen Gillan which was quite exciting. So if I make the cut, I should be in the movie.
There was another one and I played this hitman and they bleached my eyebrows and I looked very cold and weird. I had to go and learn some fight scenes and basically I have to beat up 10 people or something like that, in one go. And so working on the choreography for that with some people who have now become quite close friends, was really exciting. When they filmed it, I was like, ‘Oh my god this is showreell material! This looks great!’ So it’s a different kind of acting. It’s still very physical but it was fun.
As I was doing it, I was like, ‘Oh my god this is just really cool!’ I’m walking in putting no effort and that guy’s flipping over there. I’ve just barely raised my hand and this person flies across the room. Because obviously they’re all professional stunt artists and they’re jumping around me making me look good. That was huge fun!
➤ Do you find it easy to find work in Finland? How easy was it for you to get these spots?
I actually get a lot of voiceover work. I think there’s not a huge amount of competition for my casting who can be a native speaker. So I’ve played a Dutch person an Australian person, an American person, an English person, I can pick up accents. But yeah apart from the American one, I’ve done it all in my own accent.
➤ Really? Even the Danish one?
Even the Danish one, yeah. ‘General foreigner please!’
➤ What would you say is the one or two personal or business philosophies that have taken you the furthest in your career?
The hardest thing for me today but still obviously the most important is knowing when to stop, knowing when to shut down the computer and stop for the day.
I struggle with it because there’s always more that needs to be done. If I don’t [stop], I end up suffering down the line because I put too much energy and effort into things that are transitory and don’t actually create my life.
So striving to move forward, you have to take a few steps back occasionally. Relax, rest, play, sing, dance, watch a movie, have a bath, light some candles, drink some red wine, you know stroke your cat, whatever it is, you can’t just be focused on work all the time. And it breaks my heart that you can’t [work all the time] because I love it.
But it does wear you down and if you want a long career — and if you want a career at all I’d suggest looking at the long run because because life you know hopefully is long for many of us. If it takes you getting some hypnotherapy or some counseling or business coaching that helps you step away and helps you put things down, you will find you become more productive.
And on a flip side to that, I would also say that action trumps planning any day.
Hear the full conversation on the podcast: