Practical Advice for the Actor
It is a widely conceded urban legend that the acting profession is one of the most competitive in the world, and if you look at it strictly as a ratio of available actors versus available jobs, there is enough empirical evidence to convince you of that assumption. But in actuality, the odds of having an acting career are much better than they appear because, although there are an overwhelming number of actors out there, I can attest that, after 30 years of directing movies, there is a dearth of good ones. The question is, how do you get good?
First, ask yourself why you want to be an actor. They say 99% of the human race suffers from some sort of childhood trauma (I have yet to meet anyone in that remaining 1%, by the way), and we spend the balance of our lives either being influenced by or overcoming the culmination of that trauma. (I knew a psychologist once who kept a hand-crocheted pillow on her couch which read, “If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother”). Most issues are related to self-esteem, and certainly one way of self-medicating that particular psychological impediment is receiving the accolades of others — and that’s okay. To deny such desire would be a betrayal of your own humanity. But if receiving that type of attention is your sole motivation for being an actor, please, find another line of work.
In Albert Camus’ book The Fall, the main character Clamence talks about “the fundamental duplicity of the human being.” He complains prophetically, “That is the way man is, cher monsieur. He has two faces: he can’t love without self-love.” Although Camus meant to show this duplicity as an evil to overcome, we, as mere mortals, in all practicality cannot dwell on the vicissitudes of Clamence’s inner struggle. We can only accept it as a standard of our own nature. As such, to counterbalance the self-love, you must have the noble intention of the artist, and be true to it as you carve out a career as an actor.
The purpose of art is to shed light on the human condition. All great film directors have discovered a particular fundamental truth about our world and how we behave in it and the consequences that come with such action, and they use the medium of film to express it. Your job as an actor is to help tell that truth. Without this purpose in mind you will never be great. And along the way, your performances can transcend the specific characters you are playing, and you can tell your own truth about the nature of humanity. That is the makings of a great performance.
This means choosing your roles wisely. Accept roles that are part and parcel of a project that has underlying meaning and moral intent. Avoid the ones that don’t. Your resume is a window into your soul from which directors scrutinize you, so try to fill it with projects you are proud of. I know this is impractical advice when faced with paying rent or putting food on the table, so make it a guideline rather than a rule.
I had the honor of directing Richard Dreyfuss in a film, and he once described how, early in his career, he turned down one role after another because of the superficiality of the projects, much to the vexation of his agent. People in the business marveled at the audacity of a young man and unknown actor turning down work, but the ultimate result was a brilliant career and two Oscar nominations, and being the youngest actor in history to win an Oscar for Best Male Lead in a Motion Picture. Food for thought.
Assuming your intentions are noble, the next order of business is training. Many people think that because actors look natural on stage or in a film, acting is easy. Quite the opposite is true. “Actors” with poor skills are always “caught acting.” In fact, it takes years of study and arduous, difficult work to make it “look easy.” There are no shortcuts. Surgeons can’t take a biology course and think they are ready to perform open heart surgery. Acting, unbeknownst to most lay people, is just as complex. Proper education, training, hard work, combined with a natural ability, are essential.
This advice may sound elemental, but I live in Los Angeles — a city to which thousands of aspiring actors migrate every year after being told by their family and friends back home that they look so beautiful or unique that they should be acting in movies. Most are naively led to believe that they can merely show up, be seen by a filmmaker or casting director, and miraculously they will have a career. But if those “actors” never learn the craft of acting, they will only be disappointed.
When learning to act, there is one crucial prerequisite that separates good actors from bad: a person must be intuitively prepared to study acting, otherwise any technique can be harmful. As Paul Valery states in his Introduction to Poetics, “Achilles cannot defeat the tortoise if he thinks of space and time.” Creating a character is a lot of work, but once created, the manifestation of the result must be intuitive. As babies we struggle to learn to stand upright, but as adults it is hard to say how we maintain our perfect balance, yet we do so seemingly effortlessly as we concentrate navigating around objects while taking a walk. A great performance can be obtained if the principles inherent in it have been identified and then absorbed again in intuitive application. It takes superior mental endowment to not only understand intellectually why and how a performance works, but to then unburden oneself of the mechanics when performing.
Assuming you have this superior intellectual capacity, matching the right training with the right individual is key to whether that intuitive absorption takes place. There are countless acting teachers that all claim to have the definitive “method” — but don’t believe them. There is no definitive method. They are all relative and choosing the right one that suits your particular personality and proclivities is crucial. Choosing the wrong one could result in frustration, angst, and ultimately a suppression of your potential talent.
Despite the plethora of methods, they all boil down to two: Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen are proponents of one method, and Stella Adler, Michael Chekhov and Sanford Meisner of the other. The former relies on personal experience using “affective memory” or “emotional recall”; the latter on imagination and research. Each method caters to particular personalities and you must choose which one suits you best. Most other acting “methods” or techniques are a slight, usually meaningless variation of these because acting teachers know that in order to market themselves they need to reinvent the wheel somehow to set their “method” apart from the competition. My advice is to learn one of the two traditional methods initially, the way a hip-hop dancer first should learn traditional ballet as a “foundation” for their craft, then build from there — although either method is so complete that I doubt you’ll need to muddle your skills with variations.
The Strasberg approach, extrapolated from the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky when he toured the United States in the 1920s, exalts the actor as a human being with all of its flaws. It preaches that every unique individual has something of value to contribute to a character based on his or her life experience and bringing those inimitable character traits to bear can be harnessed to create a singular performance. But it involves reliving your own psychic trauma and never overcoming it. It glorifies ones’ personal imperfections and sees no reason to conquer them. It can create brilliant actors, but at the price of the constant rekindling of traumatic experiences which can, in some cases, affect all other aspects of your life including personal relationships. I have noted through the years that many Strasberg actors choose, sometimes unwittingly, to sacrifice their personal lives for their art. If this isn’t your cup of tea, avoid it.
Adler, on the other hand, approaches character work from the opposite perspective. She felt Strasberg’s ‘affective memory’ approach was torturous, went to study with Stanislavsky in Paris and learned he had abandoned the more personal approach of ‘affective memory’ that had already taken root in America. After Stanislavsky had visited U.S., the brilliant actor, Moscow Art Theater member and later visionary acting teacher Michael Chekhov, nephew of the great playwright Anton Chekhov, had convinced Stanislavsky that imagination should be the basis of creating a character, not personal experience, and the latter then completely reinvented his method. (Michael Chekhov eventually improved and surpassed Stanislavsky’s method in many ways with techniques such as ‘psychological gestures’). Adler took to this new approach immediately and gleaned her own method from what she learned. She stressed using your imagination to create characters that are nothing at all like you personally. If the Strasberg approach is fiercely personal, Adler’s is clinical. As such, her style is complex and requires a great deal of research and demands a strict intellectual discipline. If you’re looking for a quick fix to an acting technique, or are intellectually lazy, Adler isn’t for you.
In my experience, Strasberg actors tend to be typecast, but to some extent all actors are typecast. Certainly a 20-year-old has less of a chance at being cast as a 60-year old (although I’m sure it’s happened). Generally speaking, Adler/Meisner actors are trained to play a broader range of characters, and Strasberg actors specialize in particular types of characters that suit their own personalities and quirks. Although I have my own personal preference, both methods have specific value to a director and both are effective.
Once you’ve decided on the method that fits you, choose a school. Avoid the ones that teach a conglomeration of all methods except to perhaps experience each initially, choose the one that is most comfortable, then concentrate exclusively on that particular approach. And avoid teachers who say they teach a combination of both methods. Trying to incorporate both methods simultaneously results in mastering neither and is the quickest route to confusion and mediocrity.
Beware that in the world of acting schools, there are some snake oil salesmen. To be safe, enroll in one of the schools that bear or evoke the names of Adler, Michael Chekhov, Strasberg, Hagen, Stanislavsky, Meisner/Neighborhood Playhouse (or William Esper, who was a sanctioned Meisner disciple), or that teach those particular methods in their purest form by instructors who have actually studied with one of the masters when they were alive (unfortunately, they’re all dead now, with Bill Esper having passed away in early 2019). In Los Angeles and New York, there are only a handful of schools that fit these criteria, so be careful and do your research. Some schools claim to teach a particular method but hire instructors who are all over the map. The good schools are all two-year programs, and quite frankly, you don’t really learn how to act until the second year, but the first year is crucial in laying a foundation for the character work and scene study in year two. So, stick with it and have patience. I’ve heard of many people who take one or two classes at an acting school and then quickly add it to their resume even though they are not at all properly trained.
Unfortunately, in the U.S., the best acting acting teachers are in New York and Los Angeles (with the exception of some drama schools like Yale or RADA), so if you live elsewhere, but you’re serious about acting as a career choice, move.
It’s better if a majority of the teachers at your chosen school are, or have been, working actors. They are more apt to inject into the classroom practical advice and helpful personal experiences. And avoid “screamers.” Humiliation and degradation at the hands of a teacher is always toxic and counterproductive. If you experience this in an acting class on a consistent basis, run away. No one deserves to be treated that way, and it is certainly a horrible learning environment.
After you have those two years under your belt, don’t stop. Like life itself, you are never done learning. Find an acting coach you trust and continue your studies. By the time you’ve completed those initial two years, you’ll be the best judge of which coach is right for you.
Assuming you have trained well and have shown promise, it’s time to find a job. Every director has his or her own way of casting a role, and I can only speak to the way I do it, although I’m pretty confident that most directors will agree with me.
First, I won’t even consider anyone that hasn’t had proper training. Having an actor on set who doesn’t know how to create a character, break down a scene, and be a generous scene partner to his or her fellow actors is a nightmare. I’m certainly not infallible and have made casting mistakes in the past, optimistically thinking that a person has the perfect look and demeanor for a particular role and I’ll just walk them through their performance — and I’ve always lived to regret it. I inevitably and reluctantly come to the conclusion that I’m simply a director and not a magician.
Second, great training doesn’t necessarily mean great ability. Many students sit through classes and don’t retain much (I hearken back to my high school trigonometry class). And even if much is retained, it doesn’t necessarily translate to ability. So, in an audition, I look for an actor to come in with a bold “choice” for the character (the choice itself doesn’t matter, and if you’re a well-trained actor by this point, you’ll know what I mean by “choice”). If the choice is very innovative and shows some fearlessness, I am usually blown away. But regardless, if the actor shows promise, I always ask them to read again giving them a completely different “choice.” If the actor “gets it” and their second reading is markedly different from their first, and the suggested choice is conveyed clearly and naturally in the reading, I know they have ability and take direction well. I have experienced many auditions wherein I asked an actor to change and their second reading is a robotic rendition of their first. Needless to say, those actors don’t get the job.
Also, if I’ve done my duty correctly, I’ve chosen a scene for an actor to read in which the character has an emotional transition. If the transition is real, believable, natural, and fits with the choice that was made, that actor goes to the head of the line.
Third, assuming the actor is right for a role, they should have a memorable look. Film is, above all else, a visual medium in which the director must hold the attention of an audience in order to tell a story. If an actor is visually interesting such that an audience is captivated whenever he or she appears on screen, it makes the director’s job easier. By “memorable” I don’t mean attractive. I just mean memorable. And there is one exception to this: if the actor has extraordinary ability. If you’re an actor that has the good fortune of both — extraordinary ability and a memorable look — you have the potential for an extremely successful career.
There are just a few things you need to know about auditioning. You need to seem relaxed (which, if you’ve made it to the callback with the director, you should be — otherwise use those relaxation techniques you learned in acting school), come in with an interesting choice for the character as if you would for an acting class, be prepared to take direction well, and don’t do anything crazy. This last point is rather important. If you’re up for a Victorian drama, don’t arrive dressed in period costume. We directors have imaginations — that’s part of the reason why we are directors — and trust me, we can imagine you as the character. Such flamboyance will only make you look crazy — and crazy is the last thing a director wants on set.
That’s not to say that an actor should be unaware of his or her look. If you’re coming in to audition for the role of a successful Wall Street banker, adorning yourself with a single, expensive piece of jewelry and an immaculate haircut definitely helps the director imagine you in the role. But going beyond any of those subtle, almost subconscious visual touches is overkill, and in fact could work to your disadvantage as it would most probably distract from your reading.
Additionally, sometimes flattery will get you everywhere. This may come as a shock, but directors tend to have an inflated opinion of themselves (no exception here). This is especially true when it comes to the underlying intention of their work. If you sense that the subject matter of a script is attempting to transcend the actual story and aspires to make a statement about a more universal truth, ask an informed question about it. At the very least, the director will realize that for you this isn’t just a job, that you have a broader sense of purpose, and you are thinking like an artist. There is nothing more heartwarming to a director than to know that the people he or she is collaborating with are kindred spirits, and that you are motivated by a higher purpose other than just collecting a paycheck, receiving a few accolades, and possibly seeing yourself on a poster. Just make sure you follow through with that attitude when you get the job.
Lastly, and more practically, when you’re first entering the business, don’t fret about finding an agent. Do your own great work and put it out there — on stage and online. If you have talent and a memorable look, or just incredible talent that transcends your look, you will prevail. The only trick is landing your first major gig. Audition constantly, never get discouraged, never relent, and when you are ultimately hired, nail it. Then, the agents, the casting directors, and ultimately the directors, will find you. Remember, if you’re good, the odds are in your favor.