Thursday, February 28, 2013

Spencer Tracy, Method Acting and Intensity

The late Spencer Tracy was one of the greatest film actors of all time. He was nominated as best actor nine times and won twice.  He was renown for his natural style and versatility. And he did not subscribe to any nonsense about acting.  Once at a party he attended, several actors were discussing the merits of Method Acting.  After a long and often heated discussion that Tracy only observed and did not take part in, one of the actors asked, "What do you think, Spence?"  Tracy replied simply, " I think it is very important for an actor to learn his lines."  Simple and direct.  An honest reply without any nonsense about acting.  A reply I admire and applaud.

Recently an actor wrote to me and asked me to evaluate a video audition he had made.  In it, he often looked down at his script before saying his line.  I replied that he was too tied to the script to be effective in the scene. As an actor you have to respond to your scene partner, not to the book. So you have to free yourself from the book in order to concentrate on your scene partner. The book and not having the lines down also presented a barrier between the actor and his scene partner. I noted that his emotional responses were not reaching the audience and that he needed more intensity.

Now, here I have to tip my hat to the Method actors. The thing that made Method acting popular was how intense the actors who used it were.  Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgonery Clift, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino give us highly intense acting.  Jack Nicholson does them all one better as he not only has great intensity, but he also is having great fun playing the role.  This gives him the highest charisma that an actor can achieve. An actor needs to catch the casting director's attention with the intensity and fun he communicates while playing the role.

That intensity and fun is communicated to the casting director when the actor feels those qualities while reading for the part. I have always said that acting must be fun and it is very important for the actor to communicate that he is having a ball doing the audition or playing the role.  Then the actor must also feel the intensity of the emotions his character is expressing.  The actor does this by allowing himself to fully release his emotions without inhibitions.  When he does that, the intensity takes care of itself.  Remember that acting is not an intellectual activity, it is an emotional one.  Make sure you are always emotionally in the moment before each scene begins.  Then you need to respond not with words from the script, but with the emotions those words represent.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Is a College Education Worth the Money ?

One of the aspiring actors I advise sent me the link to an article on "The Costs and Benefits of a College Education" by Amanda Charney a student at USC. The article was dated Sept. 18, 2012.   Both aspiring actors and their parents often write to me with concerns about the matter of going to college or opting to go straight into the business of trying to become a professional actor.  As far as I am concerned the entire matter is one of maturity and experience.

If an actor has the maturity and background to jump right from high school into the aspiring actor's life, then that is probably the best idea for him or her.  If this aspiring actor also understands that the goal is to be an actor, not a famous, wealthy star, this choice is an apt one.
Those who go to college want the "security" of a college degree and the statistical promise that it will add to their total lifetime earnings as well as give them something to fall back on.  These are fallacies to the actor,however, who is not concerned with making a lot of money.  Today's job outlook for college grads does not help this thinking, either.   And the actor who knows that he or she will only be happy if acting, could care less about a fall back job.  They only need enough money to keep body and soul together between acting gigs.  They also know that if they have a fall back, they most likely will do just that and give up and fall back instead of pursuing their heat's desire.  These actors also know that they can get a college education anytime, but that they will only be young once.

Some young people and their parents see college as a transition between high school and life.  Teens look forward to the college years of fraternities and sororities, football games and parties and all the fun of campus life while getting and education.  An education in much more that acting.  There are required courses of all sorts from writing to history to math and science --even languages and literature must be studied in classes which must be passed if one is to graduate.  And while a theatre major may offer excellent classes and lots of productions to be in, The professional world is only interested in the professional classes an actor has had and the big names he or she has studied with.  So other young people would rather be acting and taking professional acting classes right out of high school, getting a four year head start on those who go to college and making their youth an asset for their budding career.  Standing between these two approaches are mom and dad.

The aspiring actor's parents are either their greatest asset or their greatest liability.  If they approve of their offspring going right into the business out of high school, even offering the help of room and board while they do it, they are a great asset--so long as they live in or near a city where an actor can get a good start.  They also are helpful if they approve of an acting or theatre major at college. Some parents, like Brad Pitt's mother, work continuously to find their progeny a strong entree into the business. I am afraid that most parents however, play the politician.

The politic parents say they support their child's choice of becoming and actor "after college."  Then they insist on a non-theatre or non-acting major and secretly hope the kid will come to his or her senses and go into business or get married and give up the foolish idea of acting.  Of course not all professional actors who went to college have majored in acting or theatre. Many have not.  It is not a requirement for success as an actor. But it is so easy for an aspiring actor to get side tracked that unless he or she has extraordinarily strong determination to act, it is a sure bet they will take a load of their parents' minds and give up on acting. Many people look back and remember their college days as the best days of their lives.   I have the added perspective of having gone to college and also having been an actor.  I can honestly say that the best days of my life were those I spent on the set as a professional actor. 

Ms. Charney covers two more topics:  Networking and Costs.  She gives the impression that the networking opportunity from college is an advantage over choosing not to attend.  All actors have to learn how to network properly and do it diligently if they are to succeed. The aspiring actor who does not go to college can do a great deal of successful networking in four years. So that topic is sort of even between the two situations.  Costs are another matter.

One of the most recent emails I got was from a dad who was honestly concerned about the cost of colleges.  Tuition of thirty thousand dollars a year for four years is daunting to anyone.  And student loans are of no help to the aspiring actor. Starting to try to crack into the business while worrying about paying off tens of thousands of dollars in loans is not a good situation.  An aspiring actor lives a Spartan life as it is.  Debt only makes it worse. I'd say the cost of college,especially in these uncertain days of employment , make it unappealing.  No one wants an uneducated or stupid actor.  But an actor has time for reading. He or she can easily better their minds by reading the great books on their own.

One more topic before I close.  Professional acting schools with a two year training program often seem like a great choice for the aspiring actor.  Again, the exorbitant cost of such schools make them a poor investment.  No school can guarantee its grads a job.  Certainly no acting school can guarantee their alums a career.  They make it look like a great many who study with them are successful, but the number that are compared with the number that are not is very small.  Aspiring actors need to keep in mind that it is the actor that makes the school, not the school that makes the actor. Talent and drive cannot be taught.  The successful actor is born with them and many other necessary qualities.

Are colleges and acting schools worth the money for aspiring actors?  I'd say for the more mature and highly experienced high school grad, they usually are not.  There are more reasonably priced and more effective training available.  A good mentor can guide his protegees to the best opportunities. The same is true for the student who needs more maturity and experience.  A good mentor can suggest the best way to achieve those goals.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Why Do You Want to Act?

I am indebted to "Ace Your Audition" website for this piece by Frank Langella

The Demon Seesaw Actors Ride

His hands were trembling so much I thought he was going to break into a hundred pieces like a Tom and Jerry cartoon character. He had been sitting at a nearby table in an L.A. actors' hangout and as he got up to leave, he threw me a "We've never met, but I know you" wave. I waved back and asked him to join my table. He hesitated a beat, then came over.
I was having a late supper with an actress friend, keeping a date we'd made in New York earlier that week. We three exchanged perfunctory L.A. versus New York cliches: the requisite "Love your work" phrase and avoidance of the "What are you doing?" question. The trembling hands continued throughout our 10-minute conversation. I resisted the urge to ask him if he was all right because something inside me understood the tremble and knew the answer.
This man had once been at the top of our profession. A series of successful films and an Oscar nomination had capped a hot streak lasting some four or five years in the mid-70's. Things turned bad. He was now 50 and forgotten. Facing me was an actor climbing the ladder again. Lightly tanned, clean-shaven, eggshell thin, in a blazer and tie; the hands trembling to hold onto the bottom rungs once more. He excused himself and said he was off to see a midnight movie. "I want to get lost in the dark of the theater," he said.
My friend and I fell silent, wondered if we could have been more solicitous, and decided it was best not to invade a shell that seemed barely held together. But his tremble stayed with me through dinner and after I drove her home. It awoke a fear in me. It became a symbol of the questions I had been asking myself more persistently each year. Why do actors live the lives we do?
Some basic truths about us, some fundamentals: married, single, divorced, rich, broke, breaking in or holding on, the morning after Oscar, Tony or Emmy, or struggling along without recognition; whether we are newcomers, superstars, an enduring light, a flash in the pan, a has-been or a comeback king, from low self-esteem to insufferable arrogance - we are the seesaw kids. Kids who hold on tight and wait, wait for the call, the audition, the part, the review - and then we do it again. Those are the ground rules. You accept them if you are an actor. And you accept the demons.
One veteran character actor told me he is so excited when the job comes to a close. He takes himself and his wife to Martha's Vineyard and for four or five days he is in bliss. "And then," he said, "every time the phone rings, I am running up the dock like an old fool, thinking 'Oh, God, please don't hang up. I hope it is work.' "I've got money now," he said, "but that's no comfort." Another actor, 34 years old, told me when he's waiting he drives back and forth across the United States calling his agent every few days from phone booths. He has no money and no comfort. And another, convinced each time his illnesses are not hypochondriacal, drives himself to doctors' offices and waits for test results. One actress does health spas, another buys and sells houses, a third designs gardens. "Dangerous things, gardens," she said. "You never want to come out of them." A not unsuccessful man with an Oscar told me that when he is out of work an inertia so great overwhelms him that he is practically catatonic. He could not leave his home during one period for over three months. "Why?" I asked. "Fear," he said.
And fear encourages the demons insecurity and uncertainty. An elderly actress was over for dinner. When we sat down she threw back a straight Scotch and said, "You know what I did today? I did a general get-to-know-you, they call it, at a new agency I've just signed with. Look, I don't expect them to kiss my backside, but I have been at this for 38 years and I sat there as kids younger than my children said things like, 'She'd be great as so-and-so's wife in his new series' or 'How good are your contacts in town? Who do you know personally?' " She was torn between her insecurity and need to be accepted and her anger at expecting and not receiving the treatment she felt her lifetime of achievement had entitled her to.
An agent once said to me when I mentioned I was in my third month of unemployment, "How I envy you! You can sleep late; take the kids to the park; go on holiday." "Why don't I take the keys to your office," I said, "lock the doors, send home your staff and let you know when you can come back to work. Wait until I have something for you." He laughed, but didn't get it. How could he? How could anyone who has not experienced unemployment several times a year every year of his working life. No matter how often an actor may tell himself that a refusal is not necessarily a rejection, the word "No" only deepens his self-doubt.
And, even when employed, the actor is still stalked by uncertainty. A great Broadway star once told me that during the entire rehearsal period of one of her many triumphs, she got out of her taxi 20 blocks before the rehearsal studio and walked the entire way in order to stop shaking. "I was certain I was going to be fired," she said. I recalled that when I was a young actor my famous leading lady asked if I would drive her to the first day of rehearsals out of town. "Sure," I said, too cocky to be nervous myself. She got into my car; we drove three blocks and she promptly vomited. "Wait until there is more at stake," she said. "You'll know what it's like." And, as the seesaw rocked back and forth for me, I remembered her words.
I remembered again when years later a close friend of mine called and said, "You're back in town. Let's have dinner." It had been close to 10 months since we had seen each other. We met at a local restaurant. When last I'd seen him, he and his wife had bought a beautiful Bel Air house, one Mercedes and one Jaguar and put their children in private schools. During our dinner he freely admitted that it had all gone bad for them. As we waited in the garage, he told me the house was sold, so, too, the cars, and they were now living in a two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood. A wreck of a car was brought up by the attendant. "Ah, well," he said, "back to coach. Keeps you humble." He drove away smiling, with a wave.
In between actors' waves to each other there are months and even years of travel to foreign countries, divorces, awards, clinics, love affairs, feuds, and yet whenever we meet we pick up the thread again.
Though sometimes it's more the needle than the thread. Actors can be immensely cruel to one another. There are times when you meet an actor you don't know and he greets you with hostility or condescension or even dismissal. It can be blown away sometimes - and sometimes it develops into downright hatred. A difference in acting styles, position on a set, or being surrounded by too many assistants, can cause actors to polarize. If your career moves ahead or drops behind a friend, the friendship is jeopardized. Your demons against his.
And those demons themselves are competing with an irrevocable one: aging. One strong, up-from-the-floor fighter of an actress said to me, "I won't be seeing you for a while, darling. I'm off to play the mother in a TV pilot. Can you imagine? The mother!" she said again. And then totally without rancor, she said, "You know, I never dreamed it would turn out like this. I thought it would always be Phaedra or Shaw or working with the great directors. I never dreamed."
One lunch by a pool a young friend of mine said of a 50-ish actor walking by our table, "Look at him. A fine figure of a has-been." I laughed, but it stung. A sag in your career or a sag in your chin, and you're a party joke. And, if someone else isn't noticing your graying hair or expanding waistline, you are. The actors' anxiety over aging is more acute than most. Part of the product starts to wear out and the consumer wants a new one.
Several years ago, on the set of a film, eight of us between the ages of 35 and 50 sat around the table. I studied my face-lifted, hair-dyed, overtanned, lipo-bellied, toupeed, capped-teeth and skin-peeled colleagues. One friend said, "I'm making it at last - at 48 - I'm making it. I'm going to dye my hair, pump my muscles and smile my way to stardom."
That smile can be difficult to maintain. In Paris one early morning, waiting to be fitted for a beard, I noticed in the booth next to me one of the world's great beauties. As she was being fitted for a wig, the man attending her said, when an old film of hers was mentioned, meaning no harm, "God, you were beautiful then." She smiled, looked him in the eye, and said, without a trace of bitterness, "Ah, well, we all have our moment, don't we." When the moment passes, it requires of the older actor a profound dignity. Those who age gracefully before the public do so while struggling privately to let go of that for which they were initially loved.
And deeper inside us, past vanity, past fear, past the waiting, past uncertainty and insecurity, there is a demon I can find no name for.
One early morning I looked out the window of the rented house in the country where I was working. Sitting poolside, wrapped in a fur coat, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by empty champagne bottles, was my leading lady. It was 6 A.M. I went down and sat next to her. A long silence and then she said, "I can't. I can't any more. I can't go where I have to go inside to be really good and survive. I hate revealing myself and I despise myself for wanting to be liked."
I fear the demons like every other actor. But more than their existence, I fear their departure from me. I need them. They keep away the nameless one. Actors have a legitimate claim on the word "survivor." But just surviving is a victory with no spoils. I want the spoils, and I'll take the pain that goes with getting them.
With each new role comes a test of heart, mind and spirit. Through the work an actor find his place in society. Up against a task larger than himself, he can transform and overcome. More than suffering, more than success, more than defeat, the work strengthens and illuminates. It calms the tremble. It steadies the seesaw.