Term 4 kicks off 31 October, full deets HERE
To appear on teaching page
It’s true that often-times we feel the obligation to emote very strongly – and we must rise to the occasion if the script’s big print tells us something like: ‘Bill bursts into tears.’ But anything that over-stimulates the actor’s inner censor is bad news. And apart from this there is the fact that when an actor is enjoying an emotion through a scene they may feel great but the performance may well be rubbish. Feeling something is no guarantee of quality of result. Which is why we need directors – they get us back on track.
Even so, through years of correction, some actors will still persist in putting feeling first in their acting. It’s a tough trap to crawl out of. I’ll never forget Cecily Berry’s tirade to some hapless actor in a master-class guilty of this (in her view) cardinal sin. Something similar pops up in one of her books and it’s worth quoting in full: “You must get rid of all the rubbish! By that I mean you have to constantly pare away all unnecessary coloring and tension and the paraphernalia which you feel you need to convince an audience and which, in fact, gets in the way of direct communication. I am sure that one of the actor’s greatest concerns is the fear of not feeling enough and, therefore, of not being interesting enough. The greater the emotion in the part the more he tries to convince the audience of his feeling and so ceases to be specific. You know that this often occurs but it is difficult to trust yourself. You must believe you have a right to be there.”
In a class with American Broadway director Bob Benedetti he once demonstrated to us his take on the place of emotion. At the end of a scene he asked the actors – how did that feel? Great, said the actors. That, Bob pronounced, is the place of emotion in acting.
Sometimes I think you can take this stiff upper lip attitude to emotion a bit too far, as if feeling anything in acting might be some kind of failure. In fact emotion, real human ever changing emotion, is at the heart of what we do. The words in any scene are just our starting point for investigation, clues as to what the writer’s intent might be – a springboard to discovering the real life underneath the words, what the characters are really thinking and feeling – which is often at variance to what they are actually saying. This is what interests any viewer: not what we are saying, but what is REALLY going on. Yet the emotion has to happen as a result of the playing. Emotion needs to be put in its proper place, the place it holds in real life: as a by-product of the playing, the result of what we do – not the thing to go for in the playing itself.
The buzz that we can find in our acting is, like Benedetti says, not emotion as such, but feeling great because we are living in the moment. In performance, when we act well, we are fully alive. We are sensorially more activated than at any other time. Our left and right brains, our conscious and creative sides, are working together. As you play you are discovering insights and seeing moments unveil themselves in ways miraculously in line with the requirements of the scene – all the while meeting the necessary technical requirements, such as hitting your mark or staying in your light – all simultaneously. Actors that get hooked on that other fix – emotion – may not actually be fulfilling their (usually quite simple) obligations to the scene. They are certainly missing out on a better creative buzz than they could have imagined.
When US casting director Tom McSweeney first visited our fair Australasian shores, he was amazed that actors were expected to memorise their lines for auditions. In LA, where he came from, reading, and reading at short notice, was the norm. Tom believes that, after a cursory read-through, a good actor can pick up a scene and make good sense of it in a reading. He put this assertion to a cast of NZ Equity members attending a recent weekend workshop, and then went on to prove his point in practice. It led Jennifer Ward-Leyland, president of NZ Equity, to suggest we institute a “revolution” of reading instead of memorising for auditions in New Zealand. All of the assembled actors were vocal in agreement
The last few summers I have been doing a number of tests for US pilots and in many of these I’ve been “reading” – that is, having the script in my hand. I have to say that after almost 20 years in a working environment where I learned lines for an audition, I prefer the cold-ish read. Not only have the results been satisfactory, I’ve found myself enjoying the audition more. I’m not worrying about lines – and I’m consequently more relaxed – but more unexpectedly I’ve found I hardly need to look at the script, even when I’ve only read the scene a handful of times. Just knowing you have your lines in your hand takes the pressure off and the lines tend to largely sink in on their own.
As they do it all the time American actors are rather good at the art of reading for audition, lifting the words off the page with a glance and working up a performance in short order. At any rate, the script is often out of shot and hardly detectable on film. The attitude implied by the practice is more improvisational; that the actors are there to give their take on the material, rather than a precise interpretation of it.
Perhaps our practice in Australia and New Zealand – of learning lines has evolved because on average we do less auditions and tests than an LA actor. Perhaps, because there are so many more actors in LA, their system has evolved to make the auditioning process faster and allow more actors to be seen. While learning lines is time consuming for the actor, from the casting director’s point of view it is a test, I suppose, of grace under pressure: can they keep their head, remember their lines and still deliver a result?
Against this the atmosphere on any set worth its salt is less reverent and looser about the whole lines “thingo” than in any audition room. We all know that the danger, when we hammer in lines, that we unwittingly cement in a way of saying them. This is the exact opposite of the flexibility and openness to change you want in an audition room or on set.
Yes, we have to know our lines. But in practice actors have their “sides” in their hands usually right through the initial read and blocking. This isn’t laziness, it’s because many good actors are still working out their performance at this stage. The whole scene doesn’t start to come together till the cameras roll, so it doesn’t have a chance to go stale. The knack of acting for camera, and particularly TV acting (where there are so many lines to learn), is to not learn the lines and performance too well, or be too secure. Rather, to be wholly in the moment, letting it all come together in the performance.
It seems to me that in audition the more relaxed LA style, which measures at least to some degree the improvisational quality of the actor, might be a better judge of performance for screen than our current “possum in the headlights” approach, which seems to be about testing memory as much as performance.
I suppose casting directors in New Zealand and Australia have come to expect line fluency from actors, given we have less tests to do than American actors. But it’s not just a time factor. Countless times on DVD extras I’ve seen top US actors testing with script in hand. It’s just a style that the Americans prefer (heck, like us, it’s probably just the way they have always done it). Anyway, it’s not like actors here aren’t busy just because we don’t test three times a day. We’re still rushing from voiceovers to auditions and back to rehearsal (or home again to change nappies in my case); doing all the things we need to do to survive as actors.
If we did change the way we do things in audition rooms we’d have to accept shorter notice for auditions as part of the deal; down from the current 72 hours to 24 perhaps, with the option to be sprung a different part to read for on the day. There would be much more flexibility in the whole casting process. Casting directors could see more actors, which, with shrinking casting budgets, could only be to their advantage.
While most of us would, I suspect, relish not having to expend time on line learning, for a job we probably won’t get, some of us might dislike having less time to prepare for an audition. Actors might find cold reading a challenge at first. And of course some actors – a surprising percentage of us are dyslexic, as it turns out – will have to carry on memorizing no matter what. This aside, you’d be hard put to convince some actors that too much time to prepare – and perhaps over-prepare – is a bad thing for TV and film acting. But having spent some time as a casting director and reader I can tell you: those loose, relaxed, off the cuff takes are always the ones on the money. Ask Harry Sinclair, NZ film director of Topless Women talk about their lives, Price of Milk and Toy Love (I appeared in the latter). He made a virtue out of improvisation by handing out the day’s scenes in the make-up chair. Initially, this scared me half to death. Yet somehow, by the time it came to the first set up, you had the lines in your head. And a less affected performance too.
Given that auditions are in essence a lottery, and that most of us have to do many of them to get one job, changing the rules might bring the benefit that we can focus more on simply enjoying the experience and spend our prep time bringing our interpretative skills to the party, rather than just drilling-in lines.
What would happen if we turned up to auditions with a hard copy of the audition scenes in our hand? Anyone for a quiet revolution?
This article first appeared in the MEAA magazine in 2011
This is NUTS. An interview I did for QuoteUnquote magazine with Michael Galvin, Dr Chris Warner on Shortland Street, in 1996! It was a few months after he left Shorty. I’d just done a one month stint and was to return for a longer stint a few years later as acting head of clinic. Mike ended up banging around Auckland a few more years after this interview, then shipped over to London, from where he was eventually recast in the same role of Warner early in the Noughties. So here’s a wee bit of industry history for ya… [Michael, I hope you don’t mind me republishing this??? Too late now…]
Interview with Michael Galvin, Grey Lynn, 23 October 1996
I kicked off the interview by showing Michael a letter I had received from my very own fan: a woman who worked in a shop on Ponsonby Road: a pathetic sample of the only public recognition I received from my brief appearance on Shortland Street earlier that year.
Peter Feeney: She got my address off the back of a cheque. She’s asking me out, I guess.
Michael Galvin: [Reading letter] Great! Is she nice?
I honestly cant remember.
Have you seen what she looks like, have you investigated it?
What would your approach be?
Oh, walk past the whatever shop it is with dark glasses and check it out and –
– you wouldn’t want to get the wrong girl would you –
– well that’s what she’s done to you hasn’t she, she’s gone and checked you out from afar, you might as well do the same to her and go from there!
You think this is a sound beginning to a relationship do you Michael?
Well is there such a thing as a sound beginning? I don’t know they’re all about as sound as one another I think. Fate has thrown this in your lap! Who are you to toss it aside!
How would you deal with it? Is this how you deal with this sort of thing?
No. If I got a letter like that I’d completely ignore it.
Yeah right, cos you’d get a few of them I gather.
We got a lot through Shortland Street when I was there – I haven’t been there for six or seven months – but mainly the letters we got were from teenagers, mainly girls, really young, and they weren’t like: “Hey I want to meet you and really get to know you” they were like: “Hey you’re really cool and Chris is really cool and my cat’s called Tiddles and my dogs called Muffie and” – it’s really funny – no, really – there’s like a formula they must stick to, they’re all exactly the same, they say:
“Hi. I really like you” – they list your character, they don’t mention you – then they list their friends, then they list their pets and they might list their family.
It’s great they took the time out but it’s so funny… very sweet. Sometimes they enclose a picture or something that is really cute… But nothing like your note.
I want to try and elevate this discussion… but not by much. You were interviewed by some crappy magazine recently, one of the women’s magazines I think, and you said that after four years on Shortland Street you’d got to the stage with Dr Warner where there was so much of you in it you weren’t sure where he ended and you began, he just became more and more like you –
Yeah, yeah –
– but you actually appear different to me, to meet you, actually…
Oh that’s good.
Yeah which is kind of surprising because I would have thought too that if you were chipping away at the coalface like that, for years, you’d end up playing yourself in the end.
Maybe all that happened is that just because of the luxury of actually getting in there and working every day, acting every day maybe I just became more natural at it. So maybe it seemed to me like it was more of myself but maybe that’s a good thing, because whenever you play any role there should be as much of yourself in it as possible: you should use the role as a form of self-discovery, to learn more about yourself and about people, rather than trying to escape yourself and going “Oh well gee what do people like that do?” and “how do people like this behave?”, try to think instead: well what would I do if I was that person, and what would I do if I was in this situation? – and use as much of that of possible. That is how you get truthful performances that are good to watch because the audience are being let in on something. They’re learning something because you’re learning something.
That sounds like that New Zealand actress – the one who was in ‘Shallow Grave’ and ‘Angel at my Table’ –
She said in a ‘Pavement magazine’ interview last year that when she was doing a film she just played it scene by scene, go for the basic situation in each scene, and play that. What you were saying reminded me a little of that.
I do really believe though in seeing whatever scene you do in terms of the whole story. Maybe I’m misinterpreting what you’re saying.
You’re criticising Kerry Fox!
No – god forbid! How could I criticise her she’s got a film career for Christ’s sake, she’s an international star, I’m not going to criticise her, she’s obviously doing it right. But in terms of doing a scene I think you have to be really aware of where it fits into the story with all the other scenes, rather than just goin’ into a scene and seeing that as a little world in itself. It is in a way, but also it fits in to the rest of the story and other scenes, and the way you play other scenes will directly affect how you play the scene you’re playing now. I don’t believe that it’s a self contained thing at all. You really learn that on Shortland Street –
– you’re telling a story aren’t you –
– you are, that’s right, and that’s the main thing about all acting really: just to tell the story as effectively as possible. And that requires often a real sense of the dynamic of scenes. Not to regard each one as equally important – some can be thrown away…
As a guest actor on that show one piece of advice I got was that I was there to feed the core cast characters lines to serve their storylines –
– Is that right?
It’s humbling but –
– No no no that’s not fair –
But there’s something in that –
– No, I disagree with that.
There was something about ‘soap’ acting also in this wonderful book by Shurtleff, a Broadway casting director –
– I read that book, it’s called ‘Audition: Everything you need to know to get the part’.
Terrible title but wonderful book, great book.
Yeah, yeah, I agree. In it he talked at one point about soap actors, given that Shortland Street is more drama than soap admittedly, and much faster than the funereal-paced American Soaps, basically I’m going to say do you think Shortland Street ruined your acting because that’s what he said happened to these soap actors he was auditioning: their reactions had become so slow and they were hugely into what he called ‘transitions’ – going “OK I’m going from angry to sad now so I’ll go through a minute of sortof moving into that new emotion.”
For me it’s exactly the opposite. I think Shortland Street has made me a much, much better actor. No one at Shortland Street regards it as a soap and if any actor does then they’re in trouble and they’ll do crappy work, and it’ll look crappy; and the only way not to do crappy work there is to not regard it as a soato regard it as valuable, to think, there is a potential for this to be really great – a lot of things are against it, ie the time, and sometimes the storylines can be a little, unnatural, shall we say (but sometimes they’re brilliant) – so you just do as great a job as you can.
Were you there from day one?
The initial public reaction was lukewarm…
No it wasn’t lukewarm. It was freezing cold. It was glacial. They fucking hated it.
Well I didn’t want to say that so thanks for your honesty. But what I heard was that that developed a sense of camaraderie on the set and a really good feeling with that original cast and you guys just pulled together and worked harder.
Yeah, it was like that. The way it actually happened was we started shooting it and we were getting lots of encouragement from Caterina De Nave (the show creator), who never stopped encouraging us… she was just such a strong person and such a great producer, she never let us kindof lose sight of the fact that “yes this will be successful don’t worry about it.”
But anyway we started shooting it and we were getting pretty good feedback from people that were seeing the rough cuts and all the rest of it, and then it went to air and it got the big rass. And yeah, the first effect it has on you is to unsettle you and to make you feel –
– “what am I doing wrong” –
– Yeah, but then we all kindof, as you said, pulled together and I think it probably did make the bond between us stronger.
There were technical lessons to be learnt too. I saw one of the early episodes recently and the sound seemed all tinny and echoey. Now they layer in a lot more background noise I suspect in post-production.
Yeah. A technical thing like that can hugely dislocate an audience out of believing.
To continue the saga: what then happened was that someone, be that NZ on Air and SPP and maybe TVNZ decided that all that the show needed was time to work out all the bugs and they put that investment in didn’t they, they just kept making the fucking thing. That was a leap of faith wasn’t it? –
– Yeah –
– so how did that come about?
I think because it was so huge, because we were doing five episodes per week and there was so much money invested into it, I’m not sure if they really had the option – I think they thought there was more to lose by taking it off. But I’m not sure, I don’t know anything about that. But yeah, you’re right. It was a leap of faith.
But there was something about the Shortland Street formula that was basically sound wasn’t it? – and if it hadn’t have been no amount of floor time lavished on it could have made it better…
In December I went to Bali for five days to act in a TVC for a bookings.com campaign. It was a fabulous time, I have to confess. Sorry to skite, but we were spoilt rotten: practically by our lovely producer, Angela Hovey, and creatively by the awesome team from Traktor. I’ve got a travel article coming out with the NZ Herald about my adventures, which I’ll post on my Travel Writing page in due course. But for now here is a very silly clip demonstrating my excellent (not…) golf swing:
Last week I was asked by Phil Darkins of NZ Equity to do a Q&A with Jennifer Ward-Leyland, Britta McVeigh and Miranda Harcourt on the Actor-Coach relationship. Flattered to be included in such exulted company, I accepted. The evening has come and gone, and it was a real pleasure. But the invitation itself presented something of a challenge. I know that an acting coach can’t instill talent. We can’t even magically implant good character or a work ethic (factors in the long run probably more important than talent). And, just because an actor gets a role and you happened to have coached him or her, this doesn’t mean that your coaching was actually responsible. So before I can even discuss the relationship, I feel I have to justify its existence.
The truth is that I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of actor training. Actors may need it at the start of their careers but, wherever it comes from, talent tends to rise to the top. You just can’t stop a force of nature. I’ve always thought there was a lot in David Mamet’s observation that the best drama schools in the world are because they are known to be so and therefore get the first pick. Being the best to start with their graduates are more likely to go on and have successful careers, therefore adding to the reputation of the school.
There are undoubtedly techniques that unfailingly work – inner objects/ internal landscape say, for screen. But I’m deathly suspicious of acting ‘systems’ – the idea that an overall set approach, if faithfully applied to any acting task, will inevitably produce a good result. This idea can condemn actors to wasted years trying to master some school or technique – that will undoubtedly have some benefits, but which cannot guarantee a result: nothing can. Some teachers love systems. And good actors will always do well with such teachers not so much cos the system is good but because the actor is – and perhaps the teacher is. But I do think it is telling that Meisner’s own wish, for example, was that they stop teaching his technique when he died. My experience as an actor myself is that nothing works for sure every time. It’s a slippery fish that can’t be possessed for long. Each role or script makes unique demands and each individual will have a different and eclectic approach to open up the work. Paul Minifie, an Auckland actor, did me a great favour when he told me: ‘only you know what works for you.’ Acting students need to be cautious. As William H Macy has advised: ‘if it looks like doo-doo and it smells like doo-doo – then it is doo-doo. If it sounds like complete nonsense for too long and every cell in your body is saying, “What does this have to do with acting?,” it is complete nonsense.’
So what good are we? Frankly not much if we overestimate our importance… but if we aim to empower the actor, and encourage their own quirky and unique approach, I believe we can be of use.
A start is to compare acting coaching to sports training. There used to be a fallacy about weight training, based on the known fact that a person of smaller size could sometimes perform greater acts of strength than another and bigger person. It was thought that if the smaller person got more muscle bound then somehow they might lose that edge. In fact this isn’t true. The smaller person is naturally stronger. This can be explained because genetically some people are able to activate a greater percentage of muscle fibres at any one time. BUT if that person trains and grows more muscle mass, they will be even stronger. In the same way sports coaching will make a really good athlete even better. And in theory sound actor training should also make a naturally talented actor better – and a strong actor excellent. As well the coach – who will usually be someone who has their own experience in the industry, and has learnt along the way – can save the actor time, money and embarrassment by imparting practical wisdom. Critically the coach can provide an environment that supports the actor, a space that exists solely to improve their craft, free of bitchiness, commercial competition and professional consequence. A place in other words where the actor can make mistakes, investigate their craft, explore their range and inner world.
I believe the actor needs this kind of coaching on occasion because the industry, while it can sustain actors economically, was never designed or interested in our needs as artists. There’s a technologically driven revolution going on in production and distribution shifting us all from a scarcity of supply to a surplus of product screen model. This means that creators of TV and Film will increasingly be able to make what they want and if they can connect with an audience be the direct financial beneficiaries. In the long run that bodes well for our artistry – the middle money folks will be pulled out of the equation. But in the short term the income side is yet to be figured out. This means that for now for paid employment we’re still stuck with the old commercial system. And traditionally, a commercial career holds the risk of consuming but in important ways not replenishing the actor.
Work is of course a fantastic education for actors. But time constraints and commercial pressures encourage actors over time to produce consistent results using tried and true old tricks. This is because producers are risk averse. They are not interested in artistry but what has been done before and can be repeated. Casting directors and many directors can find it inconvenient when actors grow or develop: they want the confidence of booking again a guaranteed, unchanging product. It’s up to the actor whether they abet this, to become stale, commoditized and, ultimately, discarded – as the new cohort comes through – or whether they take responsibility for their ongoing artistic development. A well-intentioned acting teacher or coach can be a useful part of such an ongoing investigation.
The alarming truth is that if I do my job right the outcome should be my own redundancy. It’s also true that the financial gains from acting in this country simply aren’t great enough for actors to be throwing money at their coaches endlessly. And a coach can’t DO the actor’s job for them. Nor should they. The coach must always remember that just as the actor is in service to the writer’s idea, and to the director’s vision, so must the coach be. As Michael Caine puts it, the director is the guv’nor. Just quietly, reading Chubbuck’s own book, The Power of the Actor, I get the sense that not every director has been thrilled to have their will contradicted by her contrary urgings to an actor or actress.
I’ve come to realise that I have to work alongside the actor as they investigate the scene. Otherwise I’m commenting on the surface of the work – the result. It’s up to the actor what choices they make, and over time learn which ones work better for them. I’m there to ask the right questions, helping them see how different scripts and genres make subtly different demands. I tell actors there is no right way to do it. I tend to encourage the individual, even quirky choice, the one that creates a texture and resistance to the situation and words. The choice that is unique of that actor. That keeps the work interesting, different and original.
Yet, while the work I do with the actor has to be about their own empowerment, that doesn’t mean it’s some kind of failure if, after a few years away, they feel the urge to return to classes or coaching. Mere insecurity (a normal part of the profession) shouldn’t drive them to it. If it aint actually broken then don’t fix if I say. But actors should I believe, to borrow Mike Alfred’s phrase, embrace the notion of ‘permanent training.’ Actors inevitably plateau from time to time and need to recharge or re-evaluate. We change and grow as human beings and what works for us changes. Actors rightly feel the need to extend their range and potential by trying new techniques, and be reminded why they became actors in the first place.
I believe that this work should never stop. Those talented actors don’t always last the distance. The profession is a marathon, not a sprint, and actors who are not easily satisfied but not too easily discouraged (who have good character in other words) – those actors tend to endure. Mike Alfreds’ reminds us that singers dancers and musicians know they cannot sing, dance or play an instrument without training. Their lives are accompanied by continuous coaching, study and exercise. But actors settle often for merely ‘competence.’ We diminish our profession when we do so.
Some coaches are ex-actors; some never were. I believe it does no harm that I still audition and work. But I’ve only ever been, or would want to be, a part time teacher. I love teaching and I learn a lot doing it (and for this I am very grateful to my students). But if I can help it’s only because I am also challenged, feed and replenished by other creative activity. I can’t have a superior approach when I myself am habitually confronted with the reality of barely remembering how to act, and pinching myself with surprise every time I pull it off (I’ve never known a better job to keep you humble). I also think it’s not such a bad thing that I don’t really have any importance in the industry. I don’t have any role in casting. Workshops by casting directors definitely have their place: they see so much raw acting and have immense experienced in fashioning it quickly into something better. But it’s hard sometimes not to feel that you might be being judged when a casting director in the room. As I’ve said, an acting class has to be a place where it’s safe to screw up.
A purely actor-coach relationship carries the risk, now I think of it, that you’ll only ever work on the actor’s present material, be it audition scripts or what they’re cast in. But the actor sometimes needs to also work on material better than this. TV – a medium dedicated to selling advertising – has its challenges and rewards. But working on three minute scripts forever may not stretch your acting muscle or excite your soul. Culture is not a luxury: story-telling is a human need that imparts necessary equipment for living. Working with great writing inspires the actor to grasp this and what the profession can be about – service to great ideas, rather than great egos. Fine writing invites actors to investigate more deeply, and they then carry this ethic back to lesser material. This is why so many great actors have strong theatre backgrounds. But it’s something you can also do in group classes. I learnt how to act largely in a scene group that ran weekly for several years with like minded peers, where we largely worked on good material.
At the equity talk I heard Miranda Harcourt and Britta McVeigh speak eloquently of their love for the work, and the actors they coach. I should add I coach a bit, and teach a lot; and I rather expect their workload is the other way around. In any case it is a privilege to able to explore and broaden our understanding not just of what works for people in acting, but what makes people work. I recognize that in class situation you’re experiencing a somewhat purist and rarefied version of acting, free of the necessary disciplines of commercialism. Acting employment should always be where the actor is headed. Only paid work can keep the actor engaged in their profession and – vitally important this – connected with an audience. But pay-cheques and applause alone cannot sustain them creatively. For that, classes and coaching can be a useful weapon in the armoury of the actor’s overall artistic plan for themselves.
So, alongside a mindset of permanent training and self-empowerment, I think acting coaches have their place. The premise of modern sports psychology and therapy is to start with where the person is, rather than where you think they should be. I think all good acting coaches adapt their approach to the actor’s needs, rather than imposing a ‘one size fits all approach.’ And like a good therapist, to be effective a coach needs to be someone the actor can trust. Trust that the coach is there for the good of the work, the good of the actor, and no other agenda. The good a coach can do depends on the quality of the relationship. That comes with trust – plus time.
“The reason I keep making movies is I hate the last thing I did. I’m trying to rectify my wrongs” – Joaquin Phoenix
You don’t have to be a tortured artist to be a good actor. You have a right to happiness, a life long partner, kids, travel, a life, all that good stuff. However I do think it is common for us actors to have a well-developed capacity for self-doubt. I know I do. And I know many actors who do. I believe it is to your advantage to acknowledge and manage your ‘dark’ side. There’s a lot of power there. So let’s dispel some illusions about doubt and nerves.
We are all to some extent infected with the modern day virus of ‘positive thinking’: the erroneous idea that we have to feel good all the time. The concept is of course nonsense. Our original desire to be creative is often conceived from doubt, which is also an understandable by-product of the precariousness of the profession of acting – the occasional (seemingly interminable) stretches of unemployment, the rejection in audition, and so on.
Doubt is also a necessary part of our creative process. We start off with a scene, a script, and it’s chaos: only questions. We work a lot – and don’t even end up with a certainty of outcome. Then it starts all over again with the next role.
After prepping comes the opening night, or the first day on set. If doubt makes sense at certain stages of the work – prepping an audition, for example, or while we are trying to figure out a role – now nerves make you work harder. Actors like Australian Colin Friels are refreshingly honest about this – they know how dreadful their acting can be, and their nerves are around being revealed a fraud. This drives them into serious investigation and good results. But again and again they are surprised if they are any good. The audience are too: they enjoy watching the uncertainty of the actor who truly doesn’t know what’s going to happen. When the actor is surprised, so are we.
Audiences recognize a nervous actor. But it’s a mistake to try and pretend we’re not terrified. If we own up to our fear and bash on, doing our best, even though we are scared, they recognize that courage and reward it. We’re like the steadfast soldier in the Hans Anderson fairy tale; as Hemmingway said: ‘courage is grace under fire.’ It’s no secret that many very fine actors get nervous at times to the point of vomiting: Ben Kingsley, Helen Mirren and Joaquin Phoenix, to name just a few. They know that until the take is done or the opening night out the way there is always uncertainty about how it will turn out.
“I don’t know that I ever find working pleasurable. It’s always an exquisite agony – you’re always eternally dissatisfied with what you’ve done. That’s why you keep wanting to work, otherwise why would you do it?” – Cate Blanchett
As well nerves are the rocket fuel of the work. Acting takes energy – it is exhilarating and tiring to perform – and nerves are a useful form of energy. I wouldn’t want to work without at least some nerves – how often have we felt invincible and done the worst acting of our lives? Nerves indicate readiness: an awareness that you are about to do a difficult task, because you have already explored its parameters. You’d be an idiot to feel complacent! If you are an athlete squaring up to the start line and feel nothing, it’s a sure sign you are unprepared. And nothing will come of nothing, as Lear warned his daughter.
If some degree of doubt, nerves and anxiety is normal and even necessary to our work then surely it’s important to learn to live with these difficult feelings – rather than imagining you can ever exorcise them from your life. We certainly don’t NEED to feel confident to do a good job, and it is a mistake, in my view, to waste energy trying to feel so. If we eventually do good work we’ll feel good, but we have to acknowledge also that it may cost us something. Giametti, the Italian sculptor said that for him all creativity begins in doubt because: ‘my work consists in moving from one failure to the next…’
Watch Johnny Depp at work in the ‘making of’ movie Lost in La Mancha, sitting quietly, watching on-set disasters unfold, holding in his energy, saving it up for his performance. He gets how much energy acting takes, and he’s nursing it. He’s certainly not bursting with glamour and self-assurance, or worrying about how good he feels.
We have a difficult job to do, but at times the fear and longing we approach it with can get tipped too far into paralyzing dread and doubt. These feelings have more to do with our past than our present realities. But the past and the future are equal parts fantasies: what you think happened, and what you fear might happen. If you ruminate on either you’ll stress, and you can’t work effectively when you do. The work entails pressure but it’s up to you to what degree that is turned into stress. The business, the life of the actor, the schmoozing, the unemployment between gigs, the rejection, can be tough: if the actual acting is too unpleasant, what’s the point?
If you’re too full of a sense of dread about what’s coming up you can’t function as an actor – all your prep just can’t get through. Although generally, if you’ve prepped well, that dread is less likely to come along. But in any case if you’re stuck in acting hell try to put your attention outside of yourself. One of Stanislavki’s first discoveries was that if an actor is given something to ‘do’ – a simple action – they relax. He once told a nervous actor to count the planks on the floor. Sandford Miesner based his whole training for actors on this: putting their attention outside of themselves, in this case, onto observing the behaviour of the other actor. They became less aware of themselves, less inhibited. Try that, and try going with how you’re feeling, not fighting it. USE the feelings that are there, including fear, as a way to get in to the scene. They may not be so far from what’s required as you think. BREATHE. Breathing freely frees emotion and supports your voice. Get grounded. Anchor yourself into your acting position firmly, push your energy down into the roots of the floor, as if you were planted in there, standing a foot underground. Focus for a time on getting it wrong: make mistakes! Or do it OTT (over the top) for one take. Or look for the flaws, the ugliness, in the character. Go for the dark side – there’s a lot of power there.
A final useful thing you can do in your prep, if nerves and doubt are something of a recurring theme, is to incorporate your feelings of dread/ doubt/ nerves in your preparation. Personalise them by making them an emotional obstacle in the scene, working against you getting your intention, and coming up with reasons, such as character traits, back story or given circumstances, that make sense of why your character would be wrestling with doubt, fear etc. This can be very effective, as you use the feelings to actually make the scene better (high obstacles make you work harder to attain your scene objective), rather than pretending those difficult feelings are not there. And it’s empowering – you’re turning a liability in your acting (and maybe your life!) into a plus. To give this obstacle meat and also make it about the character (not you) in the playing you could write an inner monologue running through the scene full of the character’s self-criticism/ doubt.
I just now happened to watch an audition I did a year or so ago. I wondered why I enjoyed watching it (a rare occurance for me I assure you!) and then realised it was because I was enjoying myself! If you are enjoying acting the audience can relax. This is just as true if you are playing a villain, a romantic lead in a comedy, or a psychopath. If you prep well – not necessarily obsessively, but imaginatively and intelligently, and appropriately for the scene/ script/ genre – you CAN relax, be confident, and enjoy yourself. You cannot exorcise fear entirely. It’s part of the job, and it’s part of the reason you became an actor – that delicious excitement, that intoxicating mixture of dread and longing. But you’re allowed to have fun.
I’ve just posted this after one of those wonderful teaching and learning experiences that comes along once in a while, a weekend spent working with some established as well as up and coming Hawkes Bay acting talent. A happy collision avec moi made possible via a combination of the hard work of the organisers (H@BYT & Expertise) and the diversity, talent and spirit of the group they put together. Thank you so much guys – it was a blast!
For any actor Hollywood’s sheer existence is a dare, exerting a near fatal attraction. I’d steadfastly resisted it’s heady allure until, at 40, ancient by Californian standards, curiosity got the better of me. To insulate myself from hard knocks on my first visit and possible ridicule on my return (should that be empty handed) I decided that my visit would be brief (one week), that I’d stay in the best hotels, that I’d have a darn good holiday and that as a goal I’d just keep one question in mind: not, did LA like me, but what did I think of LA?
On the flight from New York I made a mistake only an actor would – of saying ‘thanks darling’ to a flight steward as he showed me my seat. He hit on me, with an admirable but doomed mutton-headedness, for most of the eight hour flight. I donned sunglasses and pretended to be asleep, taking in the superb view of the Grand Canyon and gleaning the smallest inkling of just how gigantic this continent called America really is. Longing looks from my unrequited paramour chased me off the plane, his phone number pressed clammily against my palm as he gripped my hand.
Kate, my photographer for the trip, picked me up from LAX, whisking me off to my salubrious accommodation, the Fairmont Miramar Hotel Santa Monica. After taking some arty shots in my room (involving me making imaginary phone calls to important producers) we headed down to the Santa Monica pier. Kate, Australian by birth but thoroughly international by inclination, snapped me gingerly jogging along the beach. I was mindful of used syringes but she assured me they might pop up at Bondi beach but never here.
We got a better view of the picturesque beach and some of the hardy souls braving it’s polluted waters from the Ferris wheel on the pier. We then drove to AXE´ (pronounced Ah-shay) for dinner, a low-key Venice celeb hang-out and first class eating establishment that – incredibly – didn’t break the bank. I discovered the interesting anomaly that in LA restaurants they call mains ‘entrees,’ and entrees ‘appetizer’s.’ If you draw attention to this the waiter think you are insane. Keeping sane turned out to be a theme of the trip.
I sat back and sipped a tasty local Pinot while Kate gave me the low-down on the LA film scene. She warned me that this was a ‘yes’ town: no-one would ever say ‘no’ to my face. Instead they would lavish you with praise even if they loathed you, disappearing effortlessly like a World War Two German surface raider behind a smoke-screen of PA’s who would forever take messages which would never be returned. Why? They don’t know what they are doing, so every meeting in LA becomes a successful meeting: no one wants to be the manager who blew off the next Heath Ledger. The number of people actually doing or making anything was tiny. Most were putting their energy into chasing the next big actor, script or film. Madder than calling a main meal an entrée.
Undaunted, the next day I toddled off to meet the first of several prospective managers I’d strong-armed into meeting me. He’d just signed young Kiwi talent Anna Hutchinson, so HE wasn’t stupid. He even knew where New Zealand was, perhaps because he also represented Ozzie John Polson, the founder of the legendary Sydney Tropfest.
Steve’s address on Colorado Boulevard looked a hop skip and a jump away from my hotel on my tourist map, so I decided to walk. DISASTER. My map didn’t include the eight side streets running between each boulevard, and the ‘stroll’ took 90 minutes. The baking streets were packed with cars, but I encountered only three pedestrians. Desperate for directions I ignored the first, who was talking loudly to himself (definitely nuts I figured, but no, actually he was taking a phone call on his hands free…) The second I approached directly and was utterly ignored – he was tuned in to his IPOD. The third lay right outside Steve’s office suite: a barefoot and filthy homeless man who looked so near death I had to stop and volunteer him a ten dollar bill. His reply was quintessentially American in its stubborn self-reliance: through broken teeth he politely refused my money. Collateral human damage in the pursuit of happiness, he was not the first kink in the American dream I witnessed in LA.
It was a Jewish holiday, and Steve Caserta cut a lonely figure, seemingly the sole gentile in the employ of this talent management company. Our conversation was upbeat. He’d not only received but even watched my show-reel. I left elated. His signing me clearly remained but a formality.
I called him about ten times before I left town, but each time, by some amazing bad luck, he was unable to take my call. I cleared a courteous message from him on my last day: he regretted that he could not take me on at this time… ah Kate, I should have taken heed.
It turned out that I was to get very sick in LA (from a Strep infection I caught in Ireland) so by the time I heard the news from Steve I couldn’t have cared less. I was barfing into a bowl at the Wiltshire Grand surrounded by solicitous hotel officials. They were concerned I’m sure about the legal ramifications of me dying on the premises, but there was more to their civility than just this. By then I’d learnt that Americans, and perhaps especially Californians, really are nice people. They have a genuine old world kind of courtesy in their manners.
For myself, a child of the Kiwi welfare state, this makes the American tolerance of poverty in their society the more incomprehensible. Because alongside the ethos of old world charm easily sits another ethic: the self-made man. You can make it on your own merits and if you fail, well, that’s just your fault.
What did I care? I was holed up entertaining in the nicest hotel suite in LA. It was all affordable so long as I stuck to my hand made peanut butter sandwiches and avoided pillaging the mini-bar. Hayley was in town for a week promoting a low budget film she had starred in, ‘Hidden’. Thanks to a combination of astute use of public transport, back-packer accommodation and shameless bludging she was living off just US$50 PER DAY in LA – about the price of the diet coke I’d recklessly bought her poolside. Then Actor – now up and coming Film director – James Napier turned up lugging a two gallon water cooler to combat dehydration. He’d been resident in Santa Monica for six months, and put down his continued sanity to surrounding himself with a few good people and sticking with them.
Next day Kate and I teamed up again to do the tourist thing. We visited The Getty Museum, Schindler house and the Disney Centre. Schindler’s abode in West Hollywood hosted a stunning Isaac Julien photo exhibition but the house itself failed to amaze. It was charming but looked like it had been thrown together from a pile of old wooden packing crates; no good for a clumsy Kiwi: I was scared of putting an elbow through a wall. The Getty, perched in the hills above the city, was part art store house, secular monastery and Zen garden. It was Kate’s favourite spot in LA, and she contended that its real glory was the building itself, not the exhibits. She was right. The architecture of the building regularly framed each slice of urban landscape perfectly.
LA had started to feel a bit like Auckland: sprawling and car-obsessed but, surprisingly, more laid back. The super-sizing of body mass is supposedly endemic, but I didn’t notice more obesity than you would in, say, any Auckland street. Maybe all the weight challenged were propping up their sofas dialling up infomercial weight loss programs. The average Los Angelean appeared tanned, slim and – frankly – rather gorgeous.
They should be fatter. Everyone drives everywhere. I’d recommend a talking GPS unit for anyone planning to hire a car here, given that the place is flat and featureless. Unlike Manhattan, where the prevailing breeze keeps the air clear, LA car fumes tend to collect in the basin locked in by the Hollywood hills. You can forget the place is built on a desert: the air is dry, rehydration essential. The streets are grid-locked by day and almost deserted by night. LA is so big and it’s so time-consuming to get anywhere that much of the social life occurs in peoples’ houses. The city is less a group of communities than a collection of self-sustaining cliques.
For this reason it’s a town that can feel hard to break into – yet one that exerts a certain allure. As Orson Welles famously said: ‘I sat down in an armchair in Los Angeles when I was 23, and when I got up I was 61.’ Tinsel town promotes itself as the land of dreams and so attracts more than its fair share of the naïve and the potty – as well as the truly talented. The tricky part is telling the difference. As Lucy Lawless (of Xena fame) puts it, if your bullshit detector is set to 10 you’ll be alright.
LA’s contradictions were highlighted for me by a trip Kate and myself made to the Music Centre in downtown LA to see a revival of the Broadway 1930’s hit – Dead End Kids. The Music centre takes in venues for dance, theatre and opera and the extraordinary Disney Concert Hall – its conception and construction in itself a study in the insidious relationship of artist and patron. Across the road is the newish Cathedral of Our Lady of The Angels, testament to the virility of religious belief in America. We dined at the Pinot Grill in the MusicCenterPlaza, a fabulous choice. The perpetual summer here can drive some East coasters potty, but it does allow el fresco open air eating all year round.
‘Dead End Kids’ was a play that in it’s day – the 1930’s – shocked the White House into slum housing reforms. But as a period piece about the bad old days, of wrongs since put right, this revival served not to challenge it’s well heeled audience, but to reassure it. Many a tear was shed, reminding me of Cicely Berry’s comment (voice coach of the RSC) that ‘sentimentality is the prerogative of the rich.’ The power of the original piece was diluted by time and a slick production into a dangerous complacency: I doubt that anyone left that theatre angry – or even thoughtful.
Yet they had plenty to be thoughtful about. Hopeful buskers and well-mannered beggars had collected on Grand Avenue to meet the departing theatre crowd. A throng 100 strong of uniformed theatre workers crossed First Street from the Disney Concert Hall on their way home. As they picked their way between the stretch Humvee limo’s, Kate observed that there was not white face in their group. There was barely one non-white face in ours. 20 minutes walk from this intersection is a suburb called Biltmore. I drove through it the next day and found an inner city slum where the homeless pitch tents, rows and rows of them, on the sidewalk. It was a scene out of ‘The Constant Gardener.’ But this wasn’t Africa, but a suburb in one of the richest cities on earth. It was an American philosopher, Joseph Campbell, who said: ‘participate joyfully amidst the sorrows of the world,’ a saying raised to an art form (forget cinema!) in this town.
My sojourn to LA had been for most part at the Pacific Ocean end of it – Santa Monica and VeniceBeach. Hard, when you’ve been brought up by the ocean, to avoid it. So it was appropriate that my stay ended at the pleasant Farmer’s market in Santa Monica, and that I should run into an old actor buddy from Sydney there: Tank. Virtually ignored in his home country he’d upped stakes and headed for Tinsel town. With no film credits and no show-reel he had, at customs, nothing but a three month tourist visa and his talent to declare. And now, 12 months later, he was acting in a regular role in a TV series.
We lunched at the Urth Café – healthy food, a 3rd world friendly ethos and a non-smoking policy, even on the balcony, where I had wanted to light up a cigar in Tank’s honour. Instead we toasted our Ice decaff Americano’s. It had started to rain, an event which the locals, sprinting for their cars, were unprepared for: not an umbrella in sight. Tank contrasted his innate self-confidence with tales of knock-backs and self-doubt. He had become a little Hollywood himself, spinning and exaggerating what was already, unadorned, an impressive story of success. He flirted with Kate unashamedly, even though he knew she had a partner. He admitted how tired he was. With much back-slapping and swapping of emails we parted. I admit I haven’t been in touch.
I had one week in LA, and in no sense was this enough. We all know the tired clichés of Californian superficiality, of beaches, banality and botox – they are exported to us daily on our TV screens. But the town is vastly more complex and interesting than this. I flew back because I’d been cast in Jonathan King’s Black Sheep, playing a sheep shagging farmer turned dodgy geneticist. OK, so it’s not ‘Gone with the Wind.’ But hey, it’s a living!
I’ll end with yet another cliché, one from the mouth of one time US State Governor – I’ll be back…
Big fat tip: Visit www.seemyla.com and down-load or receive free their excellent visitor guide – it’ll help you plan your trip. Wish I’d done it.
Places to see
- For a city with a reputation as a concrete jungle there’s some incredible architecture, from the GettyCenter and Villa (admission free), to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and the CapitolRecordsTower. They are very proud of the Disney Concert Hall, although it looks to me like the Aotea Centre wrapped in tin-foil. Judge for yourself.
Where to stay
- The FairmontMiramar Hotel Santa Monica, 101 Wiltshire Blvd. Hmmm… we liked this very much. Has the luxury thing going (marble baths, pool, all rooms techno wired) but a casual beachy feel as well, with lotsa surprises – like the turtle pond! Average room price a snip at US$330 per night.
Things to do
- Farmers Market, Santa Monica. Nothing spectacular, just a reasonably priced slice of normality. Cheap fruit and veges, pony rides, nice jewellery, and close to the beach and several nice eateries (like the Urth Café).
- The Theatre: all the Broadway offers are on at the Music Centre in downtown LA, but for theatre that entertains AND makes you think, you can’t go past the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice. It’s won more awards than any other company in LA. Time travel masquerading as theatre.
Where to eat:
- AXE, 1009 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. Rustic, loft-like, with often just six menu items on offer. Unpretentious but classy, you can celeb spot if you’re feeling desperate. Just a short stumble to a very nice local bar. I forget the address, but if you drink a bottle of wine with dinner your legs will know the way.
First published in abridged form in the NZ Herald, 2008