Returning to Acting After a Setback
Ben Mars discusses the accident that led to a setback in his acting career, how he overcame it, and what the experience taught him.
By Ben Mars
In November 2019, I was severely injured in the most mundane circumstances.
It happened on a Dartmoor walk on a cold, sunny Sunday at around 10.15am. I know that was the time because I was calculating how long the drive back to London would take.
Except I wouldn’t get home to London for another year and a half.
My friend Alex and I were throwing Alan Partridge impressions back and forward - really bad ones, which sort of made it funnier. And then there was a jolt, like when you miss a step in the dark.
I put my right leg out to correct myself and as my foot hits the ground there’s a deep, disturbing crack inside my knee. I’m tilting now - that leg giving way - time slowing down - little purple starbursts in front of my eyes. I fall onto the other leg.
Another deep crack. Both give out from under me like snapped lollipop sticks.
Shocked, I hit the wet ground.
Heaving, insane pain bursts through me. I look at my legs. The knees are the wrong shape in my jeans. One leg stuck straight, the other slightly bent. I try very hard not to be sick.
Alex calls 999 and an hour later, just as I was tipping into hypothermia, an ambulance crew stretchered me oﬀ Dartmoor in a haze of morphine and crinkly foil blankets.
In Plymouth, a dispassionate A&E doctor told me that I’d snapped both of my patellar tendons and wouldn’t walk for at least 3-6 months. The patella tendons run from the kneecap to the shin. Without them we can’t walk or stand. They’re extremely strong and very hard to break, especially from such a simple misstep. What happened is extremely rare, but it has a name: A Spontaneous Bilateral Patellar Tendon Rupture.
Orthopaedic surgeons operated a few days later. Heart hammering with anxiety I got into small talk with the Anaesthetist as he was preparing to knock me out. He asked the classic question,
‘Have you been in anything I would have seen?’
‘Casualty,’ I replied.
‘Oh! What did you do in Casualty?’ he asked, squinting at my oxygen levels.
I remember saying ‘Um, I died…?’ before losing consciousness.
The operation to reattach the tendons was an apparent success. I was taken by ambulance to Newcastle to recover under the care of my parents. My legs locked straight in a pair of torturous looking braces. I kept thinking of Forrest Gump.
A few days later as they removed the bandages it became apparent there was a problem. The surgical wound on my right leg wasn’t healing. It just kept bleeding. The knee that wasn’t bleeding was so swollen and painful it wouldn’t bend. The bleeding knee needed fresh dressings every two days. I was sent home for Christmas, a hospital bed set up in my parent’s living room.
Bedbound and ﬁlled with painkillers and nauseating antibiotics I sank into a Tramadol world of ﬁtful sleeps and woozy episodes of Frasier interspersed with injections in my stomach to stop blood clotting.
Then Covid arrived, slowing the NHS to a crawl, eking out timelines and anxiety.
Months later they discovered the problem. I was having a foreign body reaction to the sutures from the original operation. My body was trying to force the sutures out, which it couldn’t. It took a further three operations to remove the oﬀending sutures and graft skin from my thigh onto my right knee.
September 2020 was the ﬁnal operation. Both of my knees were heavily traumatised from surgery, but healing at last. I’d been at my parent’s house for almost 10 months. Unable to work, I was completely reliant on them for the second time in my life. As the pain lessened I started to pick up a little voiceover work again. A huge relief after no income for over a year.
Recovery is mental as well as physical. I found the balance between focussing on recovery while also giving myself space. Space to feel, think and just be. I journalled. Called friends. ‘This too shall pass’ was a phrase I kept at the forefront of my mind. I kept connected with my agents, with social media and took each day at a time.
My knees are going to take something close to a year to fully recover, but I’m walking now, be it cautiously. Walking downstairs is all a bit ungraceful. Weirdly I can’t jump.
I’m picking up acting again, despite my current issues with movement. I’m worried that it’ll stand against me - that it’ll be a reason to put me on ‘not this time’ pile.
My agent Sara has been unfailingly supportive, and is, as ever, unfazed. There’s a choice to focus on what I can do, not what I can’t. I’m still an actor. I might not be cast as a gymnast anytime soon - but that’s ok.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell said that ‘Where you fall, there’s your treasure.’ I didn’t ﬁnd gold in the mud of Dartmoor, but did ﬁnd it in the trials afterwards. Recovery is not a straight line. It was and is important to celebrate every victory no matter how small (they’re pretty much all small) and to not beat myself up when progress is gruellingly slow. I learned to advocate for myself and not to pile pressure on myself to get better faster. Patience is the key. Recovery takes the time it takes. All of those little victories add up and as of today, even limping, I have a level of mobility I couldn’t imagine six months ago.
Life is terribly precious and unpredictable. I’ve got gratitude and humility for my scarred crunchy knees. And acting, doing a thing I love, has never made more sense.
Finally there’s the people. From the NHS, to industry colleagues, friends and family, to people who said hello on social media.
Because what I didn’t expect was to ﬁnd out that should you stumble...should you fall, it’s amazing how many hands reach out.
Ben Mars is an actor based in London. Born in Newcastle, he trained at Mountview and has worked across film, TV, theatre, voiceover and presenting. Credits include The Current War, Coronation Street, Vera, Casualty, Hollyoaks and the Old Vic New Voices project.
Headshot by Brandon Bishop
Main image by Alex Froom