Reach Oscar Potential

Be Yourself In Order To Be The Character

The personality of the actor is nine-tenths of the performance. This is a terrifying prospect for many actors hoping to completely disappear and hide within a role. With inferior training, there is so much effort, emphasis, and time spent escaping from the immediacy and danger of facing ourselves in the moment. A common sentiment among actors is feeling like “I’m not enough” or “I’m not interesting enough” as just themselves. So we gravitate toward the safety of warm and fuzzy techniques or complicated, confusing methods that allow us to hide or create a tangled web away from ourselves and the high stakes of performing.

In a “MovieMaker Magazine” interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman early in his career he was asked, "Of all the roles you’ve played, which one is closest to you as a person?" Hoffman said, "Everything I play is close to me in its own way. But I think, character-wise, the role where I just kind of showed up to work and didn’t do much, is 'Magnolia.' It’s more just kind of me than anything. 'Magnolia' and 'Love Liza,' really. They’re both parts where I didn’t do anything behaviorally or characteristically; I just kind of left myself alone."

"MovieMaker Magazine" also asked him, "Is it easier for you to play a part
where you can more naturally relate to the character?" And Hoffman responded, "It’s not about 'relating.' I think I relate, or partly relate, to a lot of the parts I play. But for those two parts, I didn’t have to do anything technically to myself: I didn’t really change the way I dress or talk or move. I just kind of left myself alone for each of those roles."

I’d like to point out that Hoffman mentions the idea of “leaving himself alone” twice in this short excerpt—and what a brave thing for this revered actor to admit. Obviously, there still needs to be a tremendous amount of digging and work done first. In responsible training, the work should focus on tuning your heartbeat to the heartbeat of the character. One’s own personality and humanity must never be discarded unless you desire to strip the character of its soul. I’d only recommend doing that if you’re going to be playing a robot. On second thought, robots have been able to convey some truly nuanced emotions on screen, showing the most fragile humanity (think Wall-E), so I’d only recommend abandoning your own humanity and character if you’ll be playing a can-opener.

Naysayers may ask how you could possibly bring your personality to roles where you’re playing monsters, like Heath Ledger’s Joker or Mickey and Mallory Knox in “Natural Born Killers.” Or, when you have to play unsavory, abusive, stupid, or lower class characters, and you just don't see those qualities in yourself—or qualities you don't think you possess. This is an excellent point, but don't we all have an inner monster—something we'd never admit in public? I think we all possess the capacity to relate to everything and everyone. We just find ourselves choosing not to relate. The mumbling homeless man peeing into a garbage can seems so far removed from the rest of us civilized people. But what happens when you have to play that guy?

One of the hardest parts about playing a monster or playing a low-status character is admitting that this evil or derelict might exist inside you—even if it’s just a faint whiff. Playing characters who lack heroism can be a struggle for some actors because it means looking deeply inward to the part of you that would feel justified in cheating on your partner, hitting a child, or dropping a racial slur.

In the early stages of your preparation for a character, draw two boxes. In one box, write down all those elements of behavior and attitudes that are just like you. In the other box, write down those behaviors and attitudes you cannot relate to. This exercise is private—no one’s business—so really be honest with yourself! Those items in the first box are things you don’t need to act. The items in the second box are handled by simply adopting a different attitude. This can be serious fun if you let yourself go down the rabbit hole without judgment. If you love children, but your character finds kids vile and offensive, your work is to vocalize and commit to a new statement of truth. In this case it begins by viewing children through the eyes of your character—dirty, annoying, loud, obnoxious, whiny, needy, draining, and demanding. Looking at the world through this new lens can help you arrive naturally at the sentiment, “If I hear another kid cry on this plane, I’m going to scream.”                                                               

Great acting preparation is like a properly packed parachute, which prevents the skydiver from falling to his or her death. Though scared for your life, you must bravely walk into the audition room, slate, and dive into your piece. All you do is pull the ripcord and let the parachute do the work, trusting that you’ve packed it correctly. In the audition room, this translates to leaving yourself alone and letting that parachute of preparation guide you.                                          

After all work is complete, what if your best work felt as easy and effortless as if you were simply playing yourself? Or as easy as yanking that ripcord? Sometimes great acting is just trusting that you’re interesting enough.

This article was originally posted on Backstage


4 Tips For Upping The Action In Your Scene

We’re all familiar with the concept of action, intention, and objective in acting. It’s a staple of most acting classes and conservatory training. And frankly, if it’s not being discussed, it’s a red flag to consider leaving that class. However, the way “action” is commonly taught to actors is unfortunately a one-dimensional technique that can deliver narrow results.

In most acting classes, action is often defined as, “What do I want?” or “What am I trying to get?” or “What am I doing?” The real question that must be asked is: When in real life are we ONLY trying to “get” something or “do” something to another person? What if, God forbid, someone does something to you?!

Can’t a large menacing spider on your pillow just as easily freak you out as you may endeavor to freak it out? Or, what’s to stop you from having the need to freak it out or the need to be freaked out by this naughty arachnid? If this is true, why are we limiting our actor’s toolbox by only employing such crude and basic outwardly directed actions in our scene work?

Here are some ways to incorporate action of all types into your performance.

1. Keep It Moving! Most of what we experience in theater, film, and television writing is real life with all the boring parts conveniently stripped away. The scene can’t dawdle—it must move along! Finding a suitable action is essential to keeping any piece progressing with proper pacing, but it may not be the obvious “do/get” action so frequently taught. We don’t have to be trying to change or impact our partners every second for the dynamic to work and be interesting. Sometimes it’s our skill in choosing what the other person is doing to us, or, an internal “need” for something that propels a performance from “cool” to “WOW!”

By realizing the full potential of action/intention/objective, we’re upgrading our actor’s toolbox from a basic flat and Phillip’s-head screwdriver to a sharper, more advanced set of tools.

2. Action is multi-dimensional. It’s not always something you’re doing or trying to get from someone else. Let’s rephrase the old concept of “what is my action/intention/objective?” to “what is the action in the moment?” Some actors will resist this because they’ve been taught that they must always fight for something. However, that’s simply not realistic. Some of the most common co-star roles that actors will go out for on TV are victim roles. Many of these victims recount traumatic events or speculate on the criminals they’ve met when under questioning. And, many of these character lines aren’t going to be attempting to “get something” from their partners or “fight” for something. These lines may also express a need to be comforted—and in committing fully to this action, one is able to effect great change in their partners.

In “The Dark Knight,” the Joker’s explosive entrance into the party scene is a perfect example of an action inflicted by Heath Ledger upon the shocked and terrified guests—the guests being the recipient of the action. Christian Bale’s Batman adopts a very different action/attitude. Disgusted by the Joker, he engages in the need to protect the innocent.

3. Be in the moment. You must find your specific action(s) for the start of every scene—what you are actively doing in the moment. In doing this, you need to remember that it’s okay to not always strive to do/get/accomplish something—trying to do so may produce work that looks and feels unnatural and smells too much like “acting training.”

Here’s an example, using the word “comfort,” that illustrates the multidimensional action.

- To comfort – actively attempting to comfort your partner.

- Comforted by – everything your partner does comforts YOU.

- The need to comfort – an internal driving need to act upon your partner.

- The need to be comforted – an internal driving need to receive this from your partner.

Carefully examine the first moments of every scene and then choose the most specific action to fit the start. You may be surprised to realize it’s really your partner who’s doing something to you.

4. Keep a literal toolbox. Use your thesaurus to find a fun action that turns you on! While actors aren’t roof-repair specialists, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a toolbox—a literal one, not the metaphorical “toolbox” of techniques. I’ve heard that Kate Winslet always has a journal and a tape recorder on set in her literal actor toolbox.

What you keep in your toolbox is up to you, but consider adding a thesaurus. A thesaurus can help open you up to more fun and specific ideas to what your character is experiencing in the scene. Making the shift from the far too general choice “my character is sad in this scene” to the specific and fun choice “my character is inconsolably heartbroken in this scene and reaches a very desperate place at the end of this scene” can’t help but lay a foundation for a more nuanced performance.

Sometimes in acting it’s okay to just be affected by your partner. In a New York Times interview, director Paul Thomas Anderson acknowledged that in casting “The Master,” he knew he had to find “a formidable opponent for Phil.” Apparently, the idea of just working with Joaquin Phoenix was an exciting prospect for both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson recounts, “I remember Phil saying, ‘Joaquin scares me, in a good way.’” What a tremendous gift to be able to give your partner. It’s nearly impossible to receive this type of gift when you’re too busy trying to “do/get” something in a limited trajectory of action.

This article was originally posted on Backstage


Don't Act From The Neck Up

Certain red flags signify green actors. They can be as obvious as shoddy headshots or rookie questions. That’s fine. Every expert was a beginner once. However, one sign that really spotlights an actor who either has a lot more work to do or who is currently facing a brick wall in his/her technique is the plague of acting "from the neck up."

It creates a stiff, stilted, narrow, and unrealistic performance.

Unless an actor is paralyzed from the neck down, there is absolutely no reason to act from the neck up. As actors, we’re seeking to create real people and surely those real people should live in their entire bodies as we do.

I dare you to watch any brilliant acting performance where the performer is not using the instrument of their whole body. In fact, watch any scene from "The Godfather." As regal and as stoic as Don Corleone could be, Marlon Brando never acted from the neck up. He gave this character a royal yet sociopathic aplomb, but one which used his entire instrument as an actor.

There seems to be a generation of actors that learned a very bad habit: only acting with their eyes. This is so problematic because it gives the actor the impression that they’re “being simple,” when in reality the performance looks incomplete—and it is. There’s an overt denial of the actor’s entire tool—that of the whole body.

However, the issue isn’t simply that the actor’s entire tool isn’t being used; this situation means that the full experience of the character is unable to come through the actor. It creates a bottleneck in the river of the character from flowing fully through the veins of the actor.

Part of the reason this can happen, I believe, is based on fear. Living the character fully with one’s entire body might feel or look scary. Alternatively, it might feel or look seriously disturbing. However, if Heath Ledger had never done that disturbing, full-body exploration in his technique, we might not have ever had his earth-shattering performance as The Joker.

As an actor, you signed up to be fearless. Though sometimes you can get in your own way; I encourage my students to stop acting from the neck up by helping them eliminate the internal obstacles creating the phenomenon. There’s a stage of my character work with actors where I ask them to locate a specific emotion within their body. As always, it’s important to be very specific as to where it’s located, what size it is, color, shape, texture, etc.

I coached a dear client of mine on a film with a very difficult scene. A husband and wife needed to figure out what was left of their marriage after the death of their only son. Although this actor had children, she never experienced the loss of a child—thank God. After some intense work on the scene, I asked this actress where she felt the loss of her son. Without thinking she instinctively pointed to her throat and upper chest. I then asked her to describe what she felt there: color, shape, texture, etc. She said it was “Hard, green, solid and heavy.” I then asked her, “If it could speak what would it say?” Again, without thought, she said, “Please let me go.” As soon as she uttered those words, a surge of emotion erupted from deep within her body. Without hesitation I said, “Now go into the piece without delay.” It was the best acting I’ve ever seen her do.

Should you find yourself on-set or in an audition acting from the neck up, take a breath, there’s an easy fix. Immediately start to “paint the picture” with your body as if you’re trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language.

Let’s not forget that we think in pictures. Rather than appealing to the intellect or ears of your audience members, appeal to their eyes. As a million and one acting teachers have said throughout time, “show, don’t tell.” This remains some of the best acting advice you’ll ever encounter—hence its staying power. Again, just one minute into "The Dark Knight" the audience sees The Joker for the first time—but it’s just his hunched figure standing on a street corner, mask in hand. And with his back to camera, Heath Ledger still manages to create a sense of menace and madness—letting the character come through his entire body.

This article was originally posted on Backstage


6 Steps To Giving A Memorable Performance

These elements are always present in every piece of “great” acting.

1. Have Fun. If you are not having fun, you can be 100 percent sure it’s not working. Christoph Waltz’s recent Oscar-winning performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is a perfect example of this. You can see the fun poring out of his eyes every moment onscreen—it reminds us why we chose this profession.

I recently coached a tremendously talented client on a period piece where she had to play a slave on a plantation. In this particular scene, the character was tortured, raped, beaten and left for dead. The actor heroically made it to the end of the scene with the battle scars and raw emotion dripping from her face and body—it was a fantastic performance. I waited some seconds before asking her, “So…was it fun?” Her response, “Oh my god…yes…I’m embarrassed to say it was.”

Many method-based or “technique” acting classes sap all the joy and fun out of the process. It’s a tragedy to see actors flattened and deflated when this happens. Just as it’s your job to act truthfully, it’s also your job to figure out how to have more fun in the work. I often tell my students, “Don’t be afraid to look like an asshole or be a freak!” If a technique isn’t working for you—the human actor—look to the animal world, nature, art, or fantasy and find something that corresponds best to the character you’re trying to play. And when you pinpoint what that it is, don’t be afraid to crawl around on the floor hissing like a tiger or jumping from tabletop to tabletop like a lemur to prime the pump of your creativity. It can often help, and it’s definitely fun. 

2. Effect Change. This means breaking through the Plexiglas barrier between you and your scene partner to impact them while also allowing yourself to be impacted by them. There’s a great temptation to be too timid while acting. Irresponsible training has paralyzed actors with the irrational fear of being “too big.” Life is sometimes big—even huge at times!

Working to effect change in your character and in your partner can also give you an advantage in booking the role because you’re making the writing look as good as it possibly can. Screenwriters know all characters must have an arc and have to effect change in one another. They’re not always confident that what they’ve written is accomplishing that. As an actor, you can empower the writing, and when you do, it’s more interesting to watch, thus making you look like a more attractive hire. 

3. Bring Yourself to the Role. This is not be confused with playing yourself. Bringing yourself to the role is using your actor’s instrument (personality, voice, physicality, etc.) to express the character. It’s acknowledging that YOU are the instrument through which the character is expressed. The character must be expressed as the role dictates BUT the personality and humanity of the actor is the heartbeat of the role.

Zooey Deschanel’s character Jess in “New Girl” is a pure expression of Zooey’s own sense of nerdy fun and offbeat personality. What’s completely revolutionary about Zooey is that she strikes the almost impossible balance of sexuality and oddity without all the baggage of looking like another supermodel. She’s an oddball—and she hides none of it in her acting. She’s doesn’t choose between being funny or sexy, she blends them both into Jess, appealing to men and women, while giving herself verifiable staying-power in a fickle business. 

4. Be Committed. Commitment is the ability of the actor to take the audience by the hand and yank them down the rabbit hole. Just as a roller coaster commits to a 600-foot drop no matter what, you also have to commit to the actions of your character just as irrevocably. And the difference is palpable, as it’s the difference between an actor who is acting, and the actor who is living truthfully under imagined circumstances. Commitment, among many other elements, meant that Marlon Brando never had to raise his voice in "The Godfather."

5. Find the Danger. There’s nothing like the exhilaration of watching work that feels like it’s teetering on the edge of danger. It takes an audience’s breath away. You can never “try” to make the acting dangerous—it comes as a by-product of all the above elements. Danger doesn’t always have to be fear of violence or bodily harm; there’s just as much danger present in watching an actor playing a character who is about to go up to the person they have a crush on and drunkenly profess their love for him/her.

6. Put Yourself at Ease. “Great” acting should feel easy and effortless—like there was no “work” involved. That’s a hard pill to swallow for those needing and expecting every moment be like birthing a calf.

Here’s a huge secret: The best pieces of acting should feel as comfortable and easy as if you were simply playing yourself—even if you’re playing an axe-wielding maniac. And that’s a great gift, as you never again have to worry about how your performance was—you know in your gut that it was connected and focused.

There are only two rules in acting. 1. You can’t actually harm another person. 2. You can’t actually have sex with another person.

Anything else is fair game! That should give you a sense of tremendous freedom as an actor. If there are only two rules—and those two are pretty easy to follow—then the world is yours and the colors and shapes you’d like to paint on the canvas of your character are truly up to you.

This article was originally posted on Backstage