Monday, May 14, 2007

Breakthroughs in Acting

I love actors. I mean, honestly—actors have a lot of guts to get up in front of a group of strangers and pour out their most intimate of moments. Few know I'm a member of S.A.G. (Screen Actors Guild) because I'm not very interested in being in front of the camera anymore. Still, I've had some great learning experiences while working on stage and screen...

The play was Wrong Number and I'd landed the role of a Desk Sergeant who begrudgingly takes an emergency phone call from a panicked bedridden woman. Our director took me through my dialog over and over and could tell I simply wasn't getting it. Finally, she stopped. Thought a moment.

"I saw you doing a card trick earlier. Would you be able to teach it to us?"

Puzzled, I fetched my deck of cards.

Turning to the cast, our director said, "I want all of you to act like Kindergarten kids: you have almost no attention span." Turning to me, "Your job is to keep our attention. Go ahead."

After about five seconds, I knew I was in for a bad time. After 20 seconds, the "kids" were banging on the ground and crying in boredom. And at 30 seconds—I snapped.

Can't quite explain it, but something inside went a little berserk. I screamed at my director, furious with her for putting me in this situation, for humiliating me like this. I got up in her face, livid. Everyone in the room was wide-eyed and still. Out of my peripheral, someone even glanced at the nearest exit.


"Now do your dialog," she said.

And I did. And it was awesome. That day I learned how to tap into my emotional side... without doing card trick for kids.

To improve my onscreen acting, I also took acting classes at Weist Barron. If you're a theatrical actor, it's easy to forget that film is an intimate medium: instead of projecting to the top balcony, the actor must frequently play to a close camera. Weist Barron was good for teaching you that, but also useful for rehearsing videotaped monologues and sides.

One time, they gave everyone sides to memorize for the next day. When it was my turn, I still wasn't totally off-page and stumbled all over the place. Worse, my nervousness was compounded by my growing self-inflicted humiliation. I re-started my read. And then started again. And again. It was awful.

Then our coach did the best thing possible for my acting—she told me to forget the lines, to freeform, to act as if there were no lines and nothing I could say was wrong. Absentmindedly, I clicked into a conversational tone and all the "lines" came naturally. Using freeform was like a door had been opened inside me.

My mother, an actress in her own right, used to drag me along to her acting classes, some of them held at the once famous A Night At The Improv and other classes with our agent. One poor actress from the Bronx said the word "saw" like "sore". Our agent, Gloria, stopped the class immediately—"Say that again."


"There's no R in saw. Say it again."


"Can't you hear that? You're saying sore, not saw. Try it again."


That's when it hit me—acting is like being a mirror. Life looks at you and your reflection should be indistinguishable from reality. When you can't reflect reality well enough, people become distracted by the "smudge" on the mirror. Your job as an actor, then, is to mimic reality with zero deviation. If you can't do that simple task, you're fighting a hard battle. I suppose you can learn to hear nuances you've never heard before, but you have to be somewhat talented to do it past the age of seven—most major learning slows down after that age, as I understand it.

Years later, I had the good fortune of getting accepted into LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, which was a treasurehouse of acting tips and tricks. Because LAMDA specialized in Shakespeare, we performed the Bards' plays after learning all our new skills. One helpful acting tip was "translating" all our lines written by Shakespeare into modern lingo, into lines we would have said ourselves. If we wanted, we could even memorize those lines as well. The point was not only to understand the meaning of the words, and then feel that meaning, but to pay attention to our inflections, our cadences, our natural emphasis. After that, reciting Shakespeare was easy.

I'm not ashamed to say I'm a formalist when it comes to an actors knowing their lines for a film. As a writer, you write lines, you anguish over the number of syllables, over punctuation, over awkward dependent clauses... you get each word just right. And then, as a director, you do rehearsals and realize that the lines don't work perfectly so you go back and incorporate your actors' natural rhythms and expressions. And when you finally strike that balance, you finally lock down the script and insist the actors know every line in their sleep.

Some writers don't want their words mangled. Some directors don't want to diverge from the script. Some actors don't want to overrehearse. And none of those people are me—films are neither stage plays nor novels: they are organic and collaborative. And knowing lines doesn't quash creative choices, but liberates an actor from poor choices. When you learn anything new, you struggle to find the pattern that works, but once you do, your brain shifts into autopilot and you find the zen of the moment. Frankly speaking, acting is no different than golfing or typing: you learn the technique through massive repetition so you don't think about the technique while you're creating art. Of course, improvisation can get great results, too, but that's more a hope for a happy accident and I believe more happy accidents happen as a result of extensive preparation, rather than in spite of it.

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