Reach Oscar Potential

Tune Your Heartbeat To Your Character's Heartbeat

The actor’s job is to find ways to relate to the character. You need to be able to create a connection so strong to this fictional person, that you and him/her become a Venn diagram together with zones of overlapping qualities and zones of separation. 

Developing a role into a nuanced individual should feel like you’re developing a close relationship with another person—it should be intimate and a little terrifying, as you’re allowing yourself to be exposed, while looking into the shortcomings and oddities of this new individual that you’re helping to shape. 

Michelle Williams’ reflection on playing Marilyn Monroe so fabulously in the film “My Week with Marilyn” clearly demonstrates the importance of aligning your heartbeat with the heartbeat of the character. As one L.A. Times journalist recounts, “‘This is nice,’ she [Williams] says at one point. ‘I miss Marilyn, and talking about her keeps her close. I'm still not ready to let her go.’" This sentiment clearly reveals an actor who has been able to synchronize heartbeats—so much so, it’s as if they had forged a real relationship. Creating that connection is significant as it makes the character you work on more and more authentic.

Many doctrines and techniques offer seemingly warm and fuzzy escapes from the dangers of facing this fictional person in the moment, as it’s far less scary to dance around the rabbit hole than to dive in headfirst without a safety harness.

Here are a few ways to connect with your character.

Own them in the moment. 
This work starts with four simple words, “I am one who…” This work can be done anywhere you like: car, subway (only for the brave), home, etc. This is the time to start wading into the deep end and confronting the aspects of your character that might be charming, or those which might be disturbing. For instance, this exercise might cause you to say things like “I am one who has sex for money,” “I am one who saves all my fortune cookie messages,” or “I am one who brings a flask to work.” This exercise is extremely effective as it allows one to shine a flashlight towards the darker areas of a character’s psyche, allowing one to come face to face with some of their demons, quirks, and golden tinges. Often times, this work gives the actor courage to make the more dangerous choices—the ones other actors may be too afraid to make.

Coming face to face with these details of the character allows you to own them in the moment, and begin to forge a lasting rapport with this flawed, but fascinating human being.  

Backstory exercises are boring; here’s an alternative.
Go to a website like Pinterest and create a visual backstory board, which, essentially, will be an online collage of all the things related to your character. You will have millions of images to select from, so you can be very precise. The importance of this exercise revolves around the fact that you are developing a visual rendering of the influences which have shaped and continue to shape your character’s world. For example, you can find images of their abusive parents, or the tenement where they grew up, or the boarding school they were sent away to, and the heartthrob or movie star they adored as a kid. 

By creating these visual renderings, you can develop a much deeper and more intimate understanding of where this fictional person has been and why he/she does the things he/she does. You’ll also get a more lucid sense of where you end and where your character begins. 

Go on a date with your character.
This is one of the more wackier exercises that one can do when seeking to create this deeper level of intimacy with a character, but it is effective. Clear an evening and leave the house, going to all the places your character would want to take you on a date. Where would you end up? A dive bar? A five-star restaurant? A train yard? A movie theater? Would the night be fun and a non-stop adventure, or would it be more predictable and safe? Visiting all these places and going through these activities while looking at everything through the eyes of your character can’t help but foster a deeper sense of how your character views the world, and what he or she wants from it. 

The goal of all these exercises is to foster a tangible sense of overlap with the rhythm of your heartbeat and that of your character’s own heart. These exercises will allow you to get to a place where when you no longer have to play this role, you will in fact, like Michelle Williams, miss this person. 

This article was originally posted on Backstage


Permission To Make The More Dangerous Choice

John Cusack. One of the bravest and most versatile actors in Hollywood. A line from an interview he did in 1998 always stayed with me, as it illustrates one of my strongest beliefs about acting. “Cusack was 23 when he made ‘Say Anything.’ Now, some eight years later, he says that working on that film is still one of his most treasured memories: ‘Lloyd Dobler was simply the best part of who I could ever be.’ And so who is John Cusack, really? He smiles that killer smile. ‘You know how in The Grifters, my character, the con man Roy Dillon, had such a dark heart? I'd have to say I'm right smack in the middle of Lloyd and Roy.’”  

What Cusack reveals about his approach to acting in this sentiment is that he is not afraid to use his personality to create a character. The most shockingly powerful truth in acting is that 90 percent of the performance is the personality of the actor. Why this statement is so terrifying is that at first glance it seems like I’m professing actors should just play themselves—I’m not. The work that goes into that 10 percent is enormous. What I’m proposing is that our personality is the instrument—or clay—with which we can compose an infinite number of characters. All of those characters will have the scent and soul of our own personality.

The 10 percent of the character which is not you, needs to revolve around the most dangerous choice—something that Cusack also instills his characters with. When playing Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything,” Cusack constantly made the most dangerous choice—putting his heart and his feelings out there again and again (only to be rejected again and again—until the end, of course). 

When playing Roy Dillon, John Cusack consistently stepped into the red mist of danger, from lying to people in the intricate web of con artistry with a smirk and a sense of entitlement to making out with his mother in a haze of repressed incestuous desire. With each character though, the careful viewer can still see the foundational traces of Cusack apparent. Cusack is always drawing upon his personality to give these brave but damaged people an authentic place to originate from. 

Permission to Use Your Personality
Here’s a question I pose to my new students and clients:

“After all the work is finished, what if your best acting felt as easy as if you were simply playing yourself? Would you feel you were interesting enough?”

The temptation to hide behind doctrine or technique is so seductive because it allows us a way to escape from the danger and fire of facing ourselves. This comes from a multi-faceted place: on the one hand, many actors don’t feel like they’re interesting enough. On the other hand, many actors do have a latent amount of fear connected to the act of drawing upon themselves—which means using their own perversions, flaws, moments of dishonesty, and manipulative qualities. Sometimes the act of using one’s personality is actually the act of admitting to oneself, as Cusack did so boldly, that one does in fact have a dark heart.

The 10 Percent That Isn’t You
This is one of the more challenging parts of developing the character and it helps to be able to write it out with a pen and paper. Make a list of the attitudes, qualities, actions, feelings, or thoughts that are connected to this character that genuinely are not you. When you’re done with this list, take a long look at all the things on it and really be honest with yourself: are all of these aspects things which are not part of your personality or blood memory? 

This might be an easy yes for many actors, but with this exercise, many will find that there are still areas of overlap. 

With the attitudes and character traits that are completely foreign to you…find a way to embrace and adopt them so that you are in fact, making the most dangerous choice. For Cusack, this meant instilling every action, moment, whim, and line that his character Roy Dillon made in “The Grifters” with a sense of deeply buried desire for his mother. This choice was underlying every single thing his character did in that film, and it was one of the bravest choices an actor has ever made.  

This article was originally posted on Backstage

Why Actors Need To Let The Lines Do The Heavy Lifting

“Throw it away more.”

Nearly every actor has heard this direction either on set, in acting class, or during an audition, but how many actors really understand what this particular piece of direction is getting at?

Telling an actor to throw away their performance, their delivery, or certain lines of the script more simply means that the actor isn’t letting the writing do the work. The actor isn’t placing enough trust in the writing or in their self. Thus, the actor’s performance becomes too much, putting the actor in danger of overacting, of getting bigger, louder, and all in all, not delivering the nuanced performance that they are capable of.

One of my clients went in for a role of a tough street punk on a popular Showtime dramedy. Granted, the office she went in for was notorious for being nasty to actors, but the note she received from the casting director was, “Stop acting tough. The lines are already tough.” While I wasn’t there, and while I have confidence that my client is a gifted actor, I got the impression that nerves took over during the audition and she felt the urge to do too much, trusting herself less, and essentially, over-acting to an extent. 

My client got over her disappointment from this audition with the resiliency of a professional. But I urge us to now examine how the act of auditioning and the high stakes involved can too easily stir up one of an actor’s greatest fears: the feear that you’re not interesting enough as yourself. This greatly increases the temptation to give the acting a little something extra—to push it.

There are times when you must take your foot off the acting gas and let the lines do the hard work and heavy lifting in the scene. In other words, stop pushing the acting! I’m not telling you to do less—I’m saying, sometimes the best choice is to actually do nothing. 

A great example of doing less is with Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada.”  I thought the film was great and that all the actresses did a wonderful job. However, it was only when I read David Ansen’s review in Newsweek about the film that I realized how brilliant and smart Streep’s performance was. “Never raising her creamy voice, Meryl Steep is scarily sensational as magazine editor Miranda Priestly, the tyrannical, all-powerful arbiter of New York fashion.” A lesser actress would have yelled, and would have punctuated each line with explosive venom in order to create an “intimidating character.” Instead Streep infuses each line with a soft, lingering poison, the lilt of her voice evocative of the quiet shake of a rattlesnake.  

Performances like these are a manifestation of how the more physical and emotional space you create inside yourself, the more room you open up to invite the character to be expressed through you. Much of the work I do with my private clients is focused on opening up space inside them to create room for the character to come through in the most natural way possible. This way, actors can leave themselves alone and let the lines do the work.

The most beautiful and skilled writing can often stand alone, without an actor imposing upon it.  But what about if the writing is bad? In such cases the actors generally feel an even more aggravated need to inflict their mark upon the writing in order to make it better or “more believable.” I’m of the opinion that this is the wrong instinct. With bad writing, I say throw it away even more (after you’ve done your preparation and have allowed the character to come through you of course). Think of the cheesiest, most soap-opera-esque line you’ve ever had to deliver (“You’ve turned our love into nothing but lies. Lies!”). This is a prime example of how, really, any imposition on the writing by the actor is just going to call attention to how awful the writing is. It’s kind of like dabbing a stain on silk with a damp washcloth and creating a big watermark that’s even more noticeable than the stain ever was. In such a case, you need to approach the moment from a place of honesty, with all the work you’ve done on the character, and just speak the speech.

The difference between “good” and “great” acting is just a few millimeters of focused and specific work, and the ability to trust that it’s firmly rooted inside you before the call of “Action!” That little bit extra is often the difference between a strong audition vs. a booked role, or being nominated vs. winning the award. 

This article was originally posted on Backstage


How To Stand Out In The First Moment Of A Scene

There’s discussion and debate on the importance of the “prior moment”—or “moment before”—in acting. Rarely is the “moment of” ever discussed. My work with actors is sharply focused on that first moment of the scene. It’s one of the most important parts of your preparation, as it launches you into the reality of the scene.

Have you ever noticed that most audition scenes never start at the beginning? They usually start somewhere in the middle of something—an often awkward and uncomfortable situation yet emotionally full.

I once coached a client for a film audition scene that started in the middle of the most awkward and uncomfortable sex. (It wasn’t a porno, I promise.) But try to picture all the physical and emotional sensations that are going through you in the middle of the stark act of sex; this is what this woman had to successfully prepare. I mention this for the next time you get a “tough set of sides” for an audition. Are those sides as tough as starting a scene mid-intercourse?

It’s the first moment, or moment of, that can either save or sink the scene. I call that first moment the character’s “hook” in the scene. The hook is the very specific attitude you adopt at the top of the scene, after you’ve safely chucked your acting preparation out the window.

The most effective hooks are best expressed in four words or less. I recently coached a very talented young client for a juicy guest star role on a gritty hit cable drama. He played a fearless 15-year-old, the youngest of four brothers, who would gladly fight to the death to protect the honor of his highly dysfunctional, backwoods family. The scene opens with him and his older brother slowly tossing a firecracker back and forth with the intention of not flinching. My client, clearly the more dangerous and powerful of the brothers, distilled his attitude or hook—in relation to his brother—to be “Bring it on, bitch!” Saying those specific words lit him up to the truth of that first moment in the scene. After that hook was expressed, his emotional sail was so full of wind that all he needed to do was start the scene and enjoy the ride. He was able to function like an emotionally full-but-blank canvas and engage with his scene partner—moment by moment—not knowing what was going to happen next.

This is important to keep in mind because so many actors will go into the audition room, having planned out every single moment, like a chess player planning eight moves ahead. This is so problematic because it’s so transparent. The casting director can tell; the actor’s work seems over-prepared and far too safe.

Like life, every scene must ultimately be entered as if you’re a clean slate—you might know what you want and what you’re afraid of, but you don’t quite know what you’re going to do, and there’s absolutely no telling how your partner will react to it.

In order to approach the scene from this perspective, you must ultimately discard all acting technique and preparation. Acting technique/preparation is like a band-aid. You need to apply it to the work before you perform for obvious reasons, but if you keep it on too long, it will pollute the acting process at large. Thus, you need to rip off that bandage before you go into the audition room.

Have you ever watched a performance that reeked of acting technique? It’s the unmistakable odor of safety and predictability, free from the danger and fire of the moment. Most of all it’s boring.

When was the last time you consciously executed a beat change while hanging out with your best friend? What actions were you aware of playing when you last fell in love? You can tell someone you’re not in love with them anymore and that you’re leaving and try to predict how they will react to this news, but your likelihood of predicting with absolute accuracy is very slim. This is largely because natural actions and reactions happen in life without planning. You owe it to yourself to instill your acting with such riveting qualities. 

This article was originally posted on Backstage


Why You Need To Break Out Of Your Acting Technique

I describe my work with actors as bridging the gap between prior training—be it conservatory or otherwise—and what it’s actually like to work on-set or to prepare for a major audition. The goal: to create inspired work that doesn’t “reek” of acting technique. To do this, you must ultimately be the creator of your own method or technique—one that derives solely from the strength of your own character and personality. This is essentially an “anti-technique” or a “self-made” technique, rather than an attempt to force your unique skill-sets and talents into the rigid dimensions of a famous technique some other artist developed. This is a one-size-fits-you method, and it’s designed to help you respond to your individual needs so that you can make the performance your own completely.

Being the creator of your own technique begins and ends with giving yourself permission to bring your personality to every audition and every role. The success of this depends on accepting the fact that you are far more interesting than the cumbersome weight of character and technique. This isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience. Dealing with yourself—your flaws, quirks, weaknesses, oddities—can be uncomfortable, and it can seem ideal instead to avoid oneself by diving into a “character” or the false security of an intricate acting technique. However, the danger of not bringing your fully flawed self to the role is your work can be stripped of its humanity and can become a mere series of successful gestures, as F. Scott Fitzgerald would say.

Giving the performance your own flavor is essential, and it’s your responsibility to deliver it without the scent of someone else’s dated methodology. What may have (theoretically) worked for that acting “guru” in the 1970s may not be effective for you in today’s game. Due to the predominance of new media, motion capture, taped auditions, etc., there has been a landslide shift in the industry. The demands and skills required of actors are constantly changing and in need of innovation and updating.

Multi-camera sitcoms and motion capture are examples of styles that require acting to be lifted up to a higher level of fun—method based approaches train actors to see this as potentially “overacting." Spending an afternoon on the set of a single or multi-camera sitcom should be a prerequisite to a degree at any acting conservatory or school.

Think of acting technique or conservatory training as a scaffolding or blueprint that is necessary for learning how to create characters and to start the journey of living truthfully in imaginary circumstances. Rather than clinging to that scaffolding for dear life during a scene, audition, or performance, the final step is kicking it away when you’re finished with it. The process unveils the difference between acting which smells of technique and the kind that does not. Masterful acting never seems safe or planned. Instead it oozes an organic quality and a sense of danger. This is in part because the scaffolding is gone.

Another issue that tends to be problematic with traditional conservatory training is that it never addresses the need to make the work your own—to leave your “stamp” or “mark”—after you've constructed the technique scaffolding. You will often leave your stamp or mark without even trying; it will occur by just being yourself. However, the confining nature of traditional acting technique often won’t allow it to come through as fully or as powerfully as possible. That’s why you have to be grateful to the training for the foundation it provides, but also have the good sense to jump into the ether when the time is right.

Putting your stamp on your work begins by asking of every line, “What am I saying in my own words?” or “If this were me in this (imaginary) situation, what would I say to my partner?” These are the types of questions that can help you to be emotionally primed and ready for the fictional circumstances you’re about to confront. This type of emotional preparation is essential and should not be underestimated. The difference between “good” and “great” acting is the great actor is always “lit up” emotionally and specifically at the start of every scene. Ultimately, you’re the only one who knows the triggers that light you up and what’s going to work for you in your own method.

As I mentioned in a previous article, there is no one-size-fits-all path to an acting career. Your path to your dreams will be your own. Don’t let anyone sell you a system for success that doesn’t come solely from you. You need to be the one swinging the machete and carving the path through the jungle. This starts by honing your very own anti-technique that begins and ends with you.

This article was originally posted on Backstage

3 Ways To Make Your Acting Dangerous

Even non-actors can spot acting that has an element of danger to it—even if they can’t articulate that it is in fact the sense of danger that keeps their eyes glued to the screen or stage. One of the major dynamics at work which makes “Breaking Bad” such a phenomenal show (aside from brilliant writing and great casting) is the element of danger that all the characters commit to fully. The actors on the show either commit to instilling their acting with such danger or to being visibly affected by it. These commitments can’t help but foster the very palpable sense that something really terrible may happen at any moment—which makes it truly glorious to watch.

It’s your job to figure out where the danger in the scene is and to consistently ask yourself where and how you can add a more genuine element of danger.

1. Surprise Your Partner. Surprising your partner is one of the simplest ways to infuse your acting with some danger: doing this is akin to knocking your partner on his or her ass. Everyone needs to be knocked on his/her ass once in a while; when it comes to professional acting, it’s practically a necessity. Many people in the industry know the story of Robert DeNiro’s notorious improvise in “Cape Fear” when he surprised Julliette Lewis by sticking his thumb in her mouth before he kissed her. “‘Before we did that scene,’ Lewis recalled, ‘(Scorsese) said nonchalantly, 'Bob is going to do something.' But he wouldn't say what. I'm sure they didn't know how I was going to react, if I would stay in the scene or lose it’". Pushing your partner to the brink—to the teetering balance of either staying in the scene or losing it, is truly a gift bestowed upon them as you’re doing your job and your best at injecting the scene with verifiable danger.

2. Because You Wanted To. This tip can be particularly helpful when playing very disturbing characters or a character who has done something you truly believe (accurately or not) that you would never do. Forget the amateur psychology involved in looking at why your character did whatever he/she did. Just decide that whatever it was your character did, it was because you wanted to—and say it over and over. This can help in removing a great deal of the extraneous crap from your mind regarding your character, and it can help simplify your view of the character as someone who takes a certain pleasure in what us civilized folks regard as pure evil.

3. Fool Your Partner. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting someone who’s different from us mere mortals—such as a remorseless criminal, or a real true psychic-clairvoyant, people who have special abilities or unique pathologies that separate them from the ordinary folk—you might notice that they often look at people differently. When I say look, the actual, physical use of their eyes is different. There’s a certain lingering quality that can be loaded with a great deal: the criminal calculates, assesses, and determines weak spots. The psychic clairvoyant can be weighed down by a sense of you and the bigger picture of your past and present not accessible to others. Give your partner a look when the cameras aren’t rolling and when the curtain isn’t up that is just meant to slightly alter his/her reality or perception of you. For example, if you’re playing the sadistic boss that humiliates your partner at the end of Act II, find that sadism in yourself, and communicate to your partner through your eyes, when you’re not acting. In this sense you are suggesting, only through look, that you just might in fact be the sadist, the psychopath, the adulterer, the child molester, or the liar that you’re playing.

Consider how the element of danger in a scene would be different if you gave your partner a look off camera while he’s relaxed and drinking a lemonade that said, “Tonight I’m going to fuck your wife.” This look will just last a fraction of a second. Your scene partner may not even consciously register that this has happened. But somewhere in his subconscious, the seed has been planted.

When you let go of the fear of looking like an asshole or a freak, you drag your partner with you onto the thin ice of dangerous acting. On this thin ice, there’s no room for ‘acting technique’ as you shouldn’t feel like you’re ever doing anything; the acting will feel alarmingly easy. The hardest part is giving yourself permission to really go for it, trusting in the knowledge that you’re interesting enough. This trust and the constant commitment to danger is what separates the “good actor” from the Oscar winner.

This article was originally posted on Backstage