The city of Los Angeles in which I was born, raised and trained, is a film and TV town. Theater is treated a bit like a less-favored, step-child there. So most professional LA-based actors needing to get a “theater fix”, head off to places like The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Steppenwolf in Chicago, multiple theaters in New York or the Seattle Rep among others around the country. I moved to Seattle during the Writer’s Strike of 88 and found that there was a thriving acting population which also did film and television. In fact, there is more theater per-capita in Seattle than in any city outside of New York. Lucky for me as it’s meant that my experience casting in Los Angeles could translate into a casting career here, only with a better quality of life. But the region is not without it’s pitfalls ironically, BECAUSE of the strong theater influence when it translates to film and television work which is an ENTIRELY different being from my standpoint after working here for the past 27 years.
The great character actor Spencer Tracy gave what I think is the most valuable advice to any actor, when he said the following to a young man who approached him saying, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Tracy! I’m an actor too!” Tracy replied, “Great kid! Don’t ever let em catch you at it!” And therein lies the artistry of the craft. Most people understand that because you’ve got to reach the back rows of the theater, stage acting has to be “bigger” than on-camera work. When many stage-trained actors approach film and television, their actions, gestures and voicing tend to be distractingly large and you absolutely “catch them at it!” Telling them to “bring it down” is a useless endeavor. Unfortunately, it’s also overwhelmingly the most-used direction actors receive to counter it. To illustrate why this is a bad idea, there’s a Harvard study entitled “White Bears” illustrating the concept of “Ironic Effect” which basically proves that every time you try to NOT do something, you become much more neurologically prone to do the very thing you’re trying NOT to do!! You can read about it Here and I encourage you to do so. The point is that trying to “bring it down” is a fruitless effort in NOT doing something. Instead, I’d like to invite actors to try to actually move TOWARD something which is much more useful from my experience and also supported by the research I just mentioned.
From my standpoint, the difference between stage and on-camera acting can best be approached from the following qualifier: Stage work is about “Doing”, and on-camera work is about “Being.” From that, I mean that when you are doing stage work, there is an enormous and intense focus on the work over a much longer period of time than on-camera work allows. Especially given the far greater time spent rehearsing theater work. As such, the more “spontaneous” moments of in-the-moment “discovery” an actor can experience just like we do in real life, are minimized in direct proportion to the amount of direction given and the repetition of the same lines over and over. And because you have to reach those back rows, your gestures and voicings usually evolve into “doing” acting! “Being” more real just wouldn’t translate to the farthest reaches of the theater. Next time you’re in a restaurant, imagine the conversation at your table being done for the stage and you can easily see what I mean as it would attract a lot of attention from all the other diners in real life. However, if you were actually filming a scene taking place in that same restaurant, the extras seated even right next to you, wouldn’t hear the conversation at all….Unless you happen to be filming something like the “orgasm scene” from “When Harry Met Sally!” Because I work exclusively in the on-camera world, I’d like to focus on that environment for this blog posting.
Another great character actor, Eli Wallach was filming a scene in a picture when the director mentioned the camera to him. He erupted at the director telling him “What camera!! I don’t know anything about any camera?? All I know about is that I’m having a real conversation with this person , here!! Don’t talk to me about any CAMERA!!” What he meant is that since most of us are NOT on-camera when we engage in our lives, why should we pay attention to something that otherwise wouldn’t be present as a direct distraction to an actor’s imagined reality of the scene. And he wasn’t even talking about “spiking” or looking directly into it. He was just talking about merely being aware of it’s presence which for him would constitute an obstacle to authenticity and a barrier to his imagination of the character and their circumstances. I cast a film called “The Details” which featured Dennis Haysbert among the cast. He told me something I had never heard before but on some level, made great sense. He said he ONLY read the scenes that featured his character so he wouldn’t be aware of anything about which his character wouldn’t otherwise know. Therefore, he would be assured of playing his scenes without any pre-knowledge his character wouldn’t otherwise possess.
The stage term for suddenly acknowledging the audience in a play is called “Breaking the Fourth Wall.” An actor suddenly knocks down the imagined barrier between the stage and the audience that would normally be there in real life and lets them in on what’s going on in the play beyond what they just see. In film and television work, the camera functions essentially as that “fourth wall” and unless the character is supposed to do the same thing and directly acknowledge it (think Ferris Beuller’s soliloqies to the camera) it should be ignored by the actor. On-set preparation is minimal before shooting the scene and largely consists of things like basic “blocking” of the actor’s position and hitting the marks needs to be accommodated. But in direct proportion to the number and complexity of the requirements made of the actors to remain aware of being visible to the camera, their imagination of reality is being compromised. Experienced directors know that if the shot isn’t being captured properly, they don’t talk to the actor about it…..they talk to the director of photography about how to solve the problem. If the sound person isn’t getting things because the actor is being as quiet in the scene as they would be as if it WASN’T being recorded, then don’t talk to the actor about it. Talk to the audio engineer. As soon as the actor changes what they’re doing to cater to the fact that it’s a film, the “organics” of the scene are contaminated and the actor starts “doing.” So an actor’s job is not to “act” the character which would again be “Doing”. It’s to use their creative imagination to channel the authentic emotions the character would be feeling and trust that if there’s a camera present, it will simply capture what’s real! The actor doesn’t “do” anything as much as use their imagination to authentically “feel” what the character is feeling. They just “Be!” The camera does the rest…The director’s job is to first make sure they hire actors who bring creative vision to their roles and leave them alone as much as possible. But if the director needs to change something in the actor’s work, then they should engage in stoking the actor’s imagination of the character so a different but still organic “being” emerges. This concept of imagination was vividly brought home to me in a process that didn’t involve a single professional actor and yet the authentic reactions of the people involved was so incredibly organic, that the memory of it stays with me almost 30 years later! And nothing in the circumstance was real! It was ALL imagined…VIVIDLY! It was an exercise called “Lifeboat” and you can read about it Here.
To further illustrate this idea, I want to mention an audition that exemplifies this concept in action. When Rachel McAdams auditioned for the role of Ali in the film, “The Notebook”, she came in to audition having stayed up reading the screenplay most of the night before. She was so full of the imagined feelings of the character that she didn’t want to ask any questions or discuss the direction at all. She just wanted to “go!” Her imagination had already stoked the organic feelings of the character that were now inside her. And during the very first read, they came spilling out and created a magic that absolutely required casting her in a role she already owned! A role that could only be taken away from her by my old classmate Nick Cassavetes the director of the film, in the unlikely event he lost his mind and cast someone else! You can see her audition Here at around the 2:20 mark.
All creative endeavors require the imagination or “creative vision” of the artist as a first prerequisite. All that’s left in order to qualify as a genuine artist, is the ability to then create from that vision, something of such authenticity that it speaks to us and rings of some kind of shared and common truth from our OWN experience. The imagination is what allows all of that to happen. And it allows the writer to create the story to be told that requires the actor to tell it in the first place. Fostering and being able to create from that imagination as an actor in the film medium, requires “being” as anything less is smelled by the audience as “doing” since the context is so much more intimate. You can also watch directing teacher Mark W. Travis explaining how he teaches directors to help stoke the imagination of the actor as a primary directing tool. His comments at the 5:45 mark, speak to the actor’s reactions to being effectively directed in this way and you can see it Here. Besides conducting the music for the wedding scene in the opening credits of the film, “True Confessions,” my dad was Robert De Niro’s music coach for the film and witness to his intense process of preparation, painstakingly stoking his imagination with the character’s motivations and background to incredible dimensions of detail. The end of the process just becomes simply “being” the character and not really “doing” anything! He sums it up nicely Here in just under a minute. But while he’s talking about the end result of all the preparation when the cameras roll, the intense preparation of imagination necessary to allow for just “being” when those cameras roll, is another matter! So I’ve added a background story about Pop and Robert De Niro which speaks to the character preparations and imagination necessary to bring about the role on which he coached De Niro that you can read Here. Wishing you all good imaginations and creative vision as we need it more than ever!!