An actor's musings on the how and why of acting.
There are a lot of people out there, we think, “Ooh, he’s an actor. If he’s not Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, isn’t on the cover of People or Us Magazine, he can’t be earning a living.” And that’s not true. There are a lot of actors out there, guys like me, earning a regular middle-class living, sending their kids to school, paying the doctor bills, getting health insurance through the union, who you will never hear of, but they make a living as an actor.
So, it’s a viable career to pursue, as long as you remember that if you wanted to be a plumber or an electrician, you can be a plumber or an electrician and earn a good living without anybody ever hearing of you. You can earn a good living as an actor without anybody ever hearing of you.
Uta Hagen and a lot of teachers who came around in the ’40s started to have another idea about what actors do. And the idea that they had was that every character that you might play, every character that you might play at any point in your career already lives inside you in some way.
Rather than try to imagine how would some theoretical person behave in the circumstances that this character is going through, what you do is you look at the circumstances that the character is in and you say, “That is like the time in my life when this happened or that happened. How did I behave? This character is scared. This character is scared that his mother and father are gonna get divorced and he’s gonna be left alone.”
Now, okay, you may say, “My mother and father didn’t get divorced and I wasn’t left alone.” But when were there some circumstances that were parallel to that in some way, that brought up those same fears of abandonment for me? Maybe when I was five and my dog ran away, or my best friend at school suddenly was best friends with my enemy. When did that come up for me?
And you think about that. And you use memory techniques to think about that. And then the behavior comes back. And because you’re relating it to real experiences for yourself, the behavior becomes authentic, the emotion becomes authentic. I teach public speaking to attorneys. And they all say to me, “We don’t wanna learn the techniques that you use as an actor, because you guys are faking it. Actors are fakers. And I’m an attorney. I’m in court. I need to be authentic.”
And what I tell the attorneys is that good actors are not faking it. If you and I are playing a scene, a love scene, the situation is false, the emotion is real. You may find me physically unattractive, you may not like my personality, but you find a way of thinking about somebody who makes your heart sing. When you’re on stage with me, you think about that person. You superimpose them over me, and then the emotion becomes real.
Or you may be doing a play with your best friend, but you have to come to blows and hate each other. You superimpose, you think about, you remember the times in your life when you have had those thoughts, and feelings, and emotions, and you bring those up. And then the anger that would be going back and forth between you and me as we play that scene, the situation is fake, but the anger will be real.
Another idea that I think is interesting, that we talk about all the time, is believing that it’s really going on right now. It’s called emotional transference. You say, “This is what’s going on this scene. This was the event in my past that emotionally is identical to that scene.”
I think back to that. If I can remember what I was wearing, what it felt like, if I can remember the smells of the day, the weather; things like that will hook you into the emotion and bring you back to that time, and let that emotion start running through you again.
People come to me sometimes and they say, “You know, all the people in that movie are great actors. How did it turn out to be such a piece of crap?” How many times have you gone to see a movie and go, “How did this happen? 10 million dollars. Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox behind it. Anthony Hopkins and Gene Hackman. How did it happen?”
The answer varies from situation to situation. I was in a play once off-off-Broadway for next to no money that I was basically kinda doing as a favor for a friend. And this guy had written a play about a true event that happened between his dad and his uncle, and whole bunch of friends of theirs.
So, there were these real guys from the past. And they were gonna come see the play, all these guys. And they had been mixed up in some scheme, and a couple of them had gone to jail for a little while and not spoken to each other. Now, they were all friends again. And it was a very traumatic event for this playwright when he was a kid. His dad went to jail for a couple of years.
Now, everybody is grown up, everybody is friends, it’s all in the past, forget it. But this guy has written a play about it to sort of get these feelings out. And we’d be in rehearsal, and he’d be coming up to me, saying, “No, that’s not what he was like.” And I’d say, “I don’t give a good goddamn what he was like. It’s on the page, or it’s not there.”
And he was also directing it, which caused all kinds of problems. My personal feeling is, if you’re writing the play, if you want total control, go write a book, write a novel. This is a collaborative art form. You write a play, you get to build the skeleton. And that’s your job, and put it on the page. The director’s job is then to come up with an overarching view of what this evening should be like, thematically, stylistically. The director gets to decide all of that.
I, as the actor, I usually try pretty hard not to think about what the play is about, because I can’t act that. I can only act, “What do I want right now?” Who’s familiar with the Angels in America? It’s a play that dealt a lot with issues of homosexuality in the ’80s in the United States of America, sociopolitically, economically, a huge, amazing piece of work. It won the Pulitzer Prize.
I can’t act that. If I’m playing Louis in Angels in America, I can’t act, “Hi, I’m here to tell you about what was going on sociopolitically around the issues of AIDS in the United States of America in the ’80s.” I can’t do that. I can only act what Louis wants and how he moves through his day. The playwright has to make that reflect the issues that he’s talking about.
That said, I will now prove myself a hypocrite. There have been times where I’ve said to a director, “I don’t wanna do it that way.” “Why not?” “Because, if we’re doing it that way, then the play is gonna be about something else. It’s gonna be telling a different story. And I’m not interested in telling that story.”
So, there are a couple of things going on when you’re an actor. One is your day-to-day work in rehearsal, and the only thing you can do on stage is go after what your character wants, your character’s objectives. But then, at a certain point, you step back and you go, “Wait a minute, I don’t wanna do The Merchant of Venice and do it stylistically as if anti-Semitism is okay.”
I’m not interested in portraying Shylock as an irredeemable villain. I’m interested in portraying villains and showing their humanity. Even if you’re playing Hitler, I think your job is to show his humanity. Because the minute you play a villain and make him the other, make him completely the other, then we don’t have to take any responsibility for the human condition, and we don’t learn anything. It just becomes, you know, “Ooh, Afghan terrorist equals demon,” right?
What do we learn if we say that? We don’t learn anything. And there’s no possibility in theater or film for learning, for growth, and for reconciliation if that’s how we play our villains. But if we play our villains going, “Oh, my god, young Afghan boy grows up and sees all this terrible stuff happen because of the Soviet Union, and then because of the United States’ complicity in this kinda stuff, and all that terrible stuff turns this person into a terrorist,” I’m not gonna say terrorism is okay, but I understand how that happens. Then we can learn something. And we can communicate it to somebody else. And we can feel compassion. And we can learn. And we can grow.
And that’s the kind of art that I’m interested in taking part in. So, sometimes, even though I will, on the one hand, say, “Ooh, not my job to decide what the play is about,” there are other times when I’ll say to a director, “Go to hell. I don’t wanna tell that story. I don’t think it’s socially responsible to tell that story.”
I’m often fond of saying the toolbox that we carry to work is our past and our experiences. That’s what’s in my toolbox. I open it up, and I look in there, and I need to know as much as I can about my personality, how I appear to the world, what my emotional state is.
You’ve gotta know these six things about every scene and exercise you do. Uta [Hagen] calls them the six steps (See A Challenge for the Actor, by Uta Hagen, Macmillan 1991, p. 134): Who am I? What is my present state of being, how do I perceive myself, what am I wearing; What are the circumstances? What time is it, the year, the season, the day? Where am I, what city, what neighborhood, what room, what’s the landscape like? What surrounds me, the immediate landscape, the weather? What are the immediate circumstances? What has just happened in the room that I left? What is happening in the room that I am in? And what do I expect to happen in the room that I am going to; What are my relationships? How do I stand in relationship to the circumstances, the place, the objects, the other people; What do I want; What is in the way of what I want; And what do I do to get what I want?
So, you need to know all of those things. And what’s amazing is I sit there in class and watch students come in and do these exercises [from A Challenge for the Actor]. And I swear to you, each and every one of you would sit there, you wouldn’t be able to tell what the difference was, but you would know instantly who knows where they’re coming from and where they’re going, and who doesn’t know where they’re coming from and where they’re going.
It’s metaphysical. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can feel the difference when somebody’s done their homework and when they haven’t. It’s just crystal clear.