Letter to Trump From An Acting Teacher: Why Actors Speak Out

By Henry Godinez

Source: The New York Times

As you sit on your hands tonight trying desperately not to tweet about the Academy Awards ceremony that you won’t be watching, secretly wondering why so many actors and filmmakers speak out against you, ask yourself if it’s simply the closeted wannabe actor within you that is feeling rejected.

Recently on national television I saw you question the authenticity of Senator Chuck Schumer’s emotional address regarding your recent Executive Order on Immigration.

You asked about the New York Senator’s acting coach. While I am not Senator Schumer’s acting coach, I am an acting professor at Northwestern University, and have also worked for thirty years as a professional actor and director in theatre, film and television. So, as a service to my country, I am sharing my professional observations with you.

One of the most fundamental and important things I teach is grounded in a technique I learned from the great Russian acting teacher Dr. Bella Itkin. It is the importance of kinesthetic response to good acting. Kinesthetic response, from the Greek kinesthesia, is basically an involuntary movement response to stimulus, or as Dr. Bella put it, “various parts of the body are activated or stimulated through a sensorial/psychological response.”

It is the spark that, given good preparation and absolute belief in the imaginary given circumstances, can generate believable human behavior.

While I think that you might agree that the given circumstance that Sen. Schumer was reacting to, your dehumanizing immigration policy, were not imaginary, but instead a reality that you yourself imposed, his behavior was nonetheless completely believable. To my professionally discerning eye, his was an expression of real emotion.

Sen. Schumer’s kinesthetic response was made possible by another basic tenant of good acting, which is the need to respond honestly to the stimuli that you’re receiving. In Sen. Schumer’s case, his stimuli came from those gathered around him who were bearing witness to the effects of the given circumstances imposed upon them by your executive order, and the consequences it has imposed on their lives.

The result of Sen. Schumer’s openness was a kinesthetic response that caused a physiological chain reaction: a tightening of his throat, constriction of breath which resulted in difficultly speaking, and finally, a tearing up in his eyes. In other words, Sen. Schumer had an involuntary emotional response as a result of his empathy.

Empathy is the most essential element for any actor, what Webster defines as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

That definition describes exactly how an actor is able to truthfully create believable human behavior on stage or on camera. Without that most basic human capacity, an actor cannot do what Shakespeare describes in Hamlet’s advice to the players:

“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

You see Mr. Trump, actors are compelled to create as a means to illuminate the potential goodness of mankind, even if it means reflecting humanity at its worst. Actually…especially when it means reflecting humanity at its worst. It is for many actors, an assumed charge, an avocation not unlike that of a priest.

Since there are as of yet no films or plays about you, actors during this year’s award season, have felt compelled to “hold the mirror up to nature” by addressing you directly. Because in spite of Howard Stern insisting that you love Hollywood, actors feel it is their calling to show “scorn her own image”, and to defend the basic goodness of humanity.

In my professional opinion, it took considerable courage for Sen. Schumer to allow himself to respond honestly to what he was getting in the given circumstances of that press conference, something every actor is taught to do.

The actions he took to make his remarks were a spontaneous response to what he was getting. The emotions you witnessed were an honest and uncensored kinesthetic response. It takes courage for a performer to be so open, vulnerable and honest.

To be sure, President Trump, you have performed in several well known films, and have been a reality TV star, so surely you must be aware of the power of empathy. Then seeing how turn-about is fair play, please allow me to offer you some feedback on your performance so far as President, free of charge of course.

That you elected to mock Sen. Schumer reveals a basic insecurity about your own emotional availability, and by extension, a total inability to take the focus off of yourself, both trademarks of a performer reluctant to openness of moment to moment give and take epitomized in the spirit of ensemble. Performers of this nature have a tendency to fabricate reactions that deny the reality of the world around them and do what we call, solo acting. These actors tend to make excuses rather than acknowledge a weakness, poor choices or lack of preparation.

Any good actor must be willing to accept responsibility for what is not working in order to grow. That is why good performers must by necessity be selfless and open to change.

Most significantly, your reaction to Sen. Schumer’s emotional availability revealed your absolute lack of empathy, something you have demonstrated repeatedly since you began your presidential campaign.

As an acting teacher, I relentlessly point out an actor’s tendency to choose the same action in all performances. In your case, the action you chose to mock Sen. Schumer, has consistently been evident in your performances, like when you mocked the parents of a slain U.S. soldier, and again when you mocked a disabled New York Times reporter.

Acting teachers identify this as habitual behavior that is indicative of an actor of limited imagination and range, which even Fox News has labeled as your tendency.

People often ask if acting is something one can teach, or if it is simply a God- given gift. To be sure, there are many skills that a good acting instructor can teach, and that a courageous and gifted actor can learn, but empathy is not one of them. That is God-given.

Henry Godinez is resident artistic associate at Goodman Theatre in Chicago, a professor of theatre at Northwestern University, and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.