Entertaining Themselves

The blunt summary for those in a hurry…

If you act out abusive or negative behaviors of your character in real life; if you think you should date the girl you make out with in the show; if you have to “stay in character” off camera or outside of performances and rehearsals in order to give a “real” performance; or if you lose control during choreographed violent or intimate scenes because you were “in the moment” or because you want it to “feel real,” YOU AREN’T A GOOD ENOUGH ACTOR FOR THE ROLE. Please stop. Leave the profession or do something easier.

The inciting incident: The Jared Leto story…

* First, a disclaimer and benefit of the doubt…

The sad truth today is that reports are often just reports, not facts. This is just as true when talking about something important, like the latest bombing or police shooting as it is when talking about something that just doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things, like lying swimmers.

But recent “reports” of Jared Leto’s acting method spilling over into real life have got me irritated. Supposedly, during the filming of Suicide Squad, he sent unwelcome, disgusting, and disturbing gifts from “the Joker” to his castmates. There are also reports that he treated cast members abusively off camera and when challenged, replied defensively that “the Joker did it.” There are also reports that this kind of abusive, manipulative behavior was encouraged and even modeled by the director, David Ayer, who found out painful details about the real lives of the actors and threw them in their faces publically on set during shooting to get the reactions he wanted.

It’s possible that these reports are over-inflated by the news media and Leto and Ayers are not crazy self-infatuated [insert your own expletives] . I’ll give the smallest benefit of the doubt for the moment because we are talking about the very same news media that reported how “crazy” Heath Ledger was on set as the Joker, and how he “never broke character,” and how his “diving too deep” into the Joker contributed to his death, and “Isn’t that so freaking cool?”

“No,” I answer. “It’s not cool.” Especially since those reports about Ledger were all debunked by…pretty much every single person who interacted with him on set. They all talked about how he went easily in and out of character, and was his normal, affable self between takes and when not on camera.

It is also possible that all of this abusive behavior and the reports about it are just part of another type of fiction — one perpetrated by Ayers and the producers of the film to keep us breathlessly talking about a movie that by most reports is at best mediocre.

Inviting outrage as a marketing strategy — this is where we are in 2016.

Let’s get real about “getting real” in theatre…

There is a valid debate to be had about whether “being real” on stage is even a goal of the art of theatre at all.

Real? I thought this was art; we want truth, not reality.

There have been many instances regarding actors getting too close — too real — with their characters. Movie actors catch the most press for it because, well, they are movie stars. But it happens in theater as well. It happens during the rehearsal process and it even happens on stage — in front of audiences.

Recently the theater community had to look hard in the mirror as it confronted the story of abuse in the name of art that happened at the Profiles Theatre in Chicago. Profiles Theatre didn’t call it “Abuse in the name of art.” Their motto was, “Whatever the truth requires.” In the end the two statements turned out to be roughly equivalent. And I do mean roughly.

The theater was forced to close in the aftermath of the story breaking — and for very good reason. But then the theatre community, largely, just got on with business as usual. I would say that we haven’t looked in that mirror hard enough or long enough.

Whether you think truth in the theatre is communicated by illusion or by raw reality it is true that doing difficult, challenging stories that involve violence and abuse requires a vigilant, careful, and sensitive approach. I would argue that the rougher the edges of the story, the more sensitive, gentle, and protective artists need to be in order to portray that roughness. Don’t know what I mean? Maybe you should read this article. But not yet. Finish this first, huh?

You might think to yourself that if you aren’t staging hard-edged dramas, like Killer Joe, you might not need to worry about this, but just because a show lacks onstage nudity, or extreme violence doesn’t mean there can’t be an unprofessional atmosphere that can lead to physically or emotionally abusive behavior. I’ve known actors and actresses who dealt with this type of abuse in productions of well-worn, G-rated, community theater crowd favorites.

You don’t have to be acting in a rape scene to feel violated by an actor who is taking things farther than they are supposed to go. You don’t have to be in a stage-wide brawl to be injured by an actor who can’t stay under control during a physical interaction. You don’t have to be in a summer blockbuster to be treated manipulatively and abusively by a director who claims that’s what it takes to “get you there.” This is victim-blaming for theatre. “It’s your fault I need to treat you this way so you can pull off this role.”

One of the major problems of people getting too real with roles is a massive misunderstanding of what it means to be a “Method Actor.”

We are mad about “Method”

If you ask someone what “method acting” is, they will probably tell you something like “it’s about BECOMING the character” or “making it REAL.” Sadly some actual actors and directors will also tell you some version of this same crap. Let me say it in all caps; THAT’S NOT WHAT METHOD ACTING IS.

Explaining what Method Acting actually is, is beyond the scope of this article. But here is a short list of things that are not it.

  • Staying in character all the time.
  • Behaving like the character in real life.
  • Doing drugs because your character does drugs.
  • Dating someone in real life because your character dates his or her character in the show.

That is what the media and society want method acting to be. The press loves it because people love it. I honestly don’t know why people love it. There’s a certain satisfaction some people get when they hear about how HARD an actor worked on a film. And their misconception of working hard is that the actor was doing all the ridiculous things in the above list.

Look. Here’s what working hard at acting is. It is preparation. Lots and lots of preparation. And, yes, sometimes that preparation might be a little weird or unique.

You might gain or lose a bunch of weight. You might learn a new skill, such as dancing, shooting firearms, speaking in a new language, riding a horse, or doing a particular style of martial arts. You might learn about a specific time period or topic or cultural group that is relevant to the story. You might learn about stock trading, or algebra, or the french revolution, or the folklore of strange Southern towns.

But all of that work is just the preparation, the research, the homework. It’s creating a mindset and being mentally prepared. Also, for the most part, no one is ever going to make you do it outside of an educational theater setting. If you are in a professional setting, you are just expected to know what you are supposed to know and not waste anyone else’s time.

Once you get to the actual acting part, that should be the relaxed and easy part. Even in the middle of something intense, if you are prepared, you can stay relaxed and centered and ready for the next thing.

Acting is just waiting for your cue. Saying the line. Doing the thing. Hitting your mark. Getting the timing right. Not wasting time. Acting really should look like what is described in Sir Ian McKellen’s appearance, playing himself, on the show Extras.

Though simplified for the sake of comedy, Sir Ian’s description of acting is precisely the way a professional actor goes about doing his or her job. You are yourself. The director yells action. You pretend to be the character. You director yells cut. You are back to being yourself. Anything more than that is either vanity, madness, or artistic weakness.

Play with the toys, then put them back in the box.

As actors, we do what we do on stage or on camera to create a story for the audience. We are playing a part. Playing — but with a purpose. When actors “lose control” of their characters during performances or when they take their characters off stage or off camera with them and live out that stuff in real life, they aren’t professionals anymore. They aren’t players playing the story for the audience, but for themselves. The purpose is abandoned. Instead of professional “players” they become immature children playing with the character like a toy that amuses them and they don’t want to put it down. And just like immature children, they need an adult to tell them that it is time to put the toys away.

I’ll say it again…

If you act out abusive or negative behaviors of your character in real life; if you think you should date the girl you make out with in the show; if you have to “stay in character” off camera or outside of performances and rehearsals in order to give a “real” performance; or if you lose control during choreographed violent or intimate scenes because you were “in the moment” or because you want it to “feel real,” YOU AREN’T A GOOD ENOUGH ACTOR FOR THE ROLE. Please stop. Leave the profession or do something easier.

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Originally published at garagebandtheatre.blogspot.com.