Rumors are going around that George Clooney is positioning himself for a run for political office in California. Like clockwork, the chorus of boos can be heard. Many of the voices stem from the idea that actors are ill equipped, too vain, too egotistical, too unintelligent, too selfish, too amoral to be considered worthy of higher office. I call bullshit. The best actors I have had the pleasure to work with and know, have an uncanny blend of ego, world view, intelligence and empathy that would seem to be the very attributes that would make up a perfect public servant. But the argument against actors as incapable of greater action than being an “entertainment puppets” goes much deeper. It speaks to the idea of actors as unintelligent, ego driven, and childlike in their desire to not grow up; that we somehow devalue and lower the public discourse and poison the youth of America. For anyone that has truly pursued the craft and business of acting as a vocation knows, it is second to none in requiring you to bring so much of yourself to the table to succeed. The dedication, hard work, sacrifice, and soul-searching is extraordinary; and the scorn that befalls actors on a daily basis, be it from family or co-workers or friends, is a heavy burden to bear. Acting is truly an honorable pursuit. At it’s simplest, it entertains. At it’s most profound it changes the discourse of an entire population. I can think of few other occupations that would better serve the public trust.
I teach a lot of people who come to Los Angeles from fantastic training programs. Most of these people come out of schools and conservatories that focus heavily on theatre and acting’s application for that medium. And then… I hear their stories. From the CD who tells them to “ tone it down”, to the director who reminds them to “ do 50 times less” to the acting teacher who reminds them to trim, cut, strip away, hide, swallow, shrink, actors get rid of the size and scope of their passion and expression. It hurts like hell to hear this. We have been told to let it rip so constantly in classes leading up to this and have become proud (and rightly so) at the freedom of spirit, that this feels like a kick in the groin to have these words and admonishments come at us. Truth is, what these professionals are saying is absolutely correct. It’s how they say it that, while expedient, is hard to deal with.
We need to find a better set of terms to define the stage actor’s need to “tone it down”. In a recent class I found an analogy that speaks directly to this. Acting is like a light. On stage, you need a flood light to illuminate the inner fire and life of character and self. On camera you need a laser beam. Both illuminate, both shine and both have the power to open the eyes of an audience, but one is full blast and one is more focused. One is hot, fat and white and one is piercing and thin. But make no mistake, both lights come from the same source and serve the same purpose. So now, every time I hear “cut it back,” I think: focus the light. Every time I hear “Less Less Less!” I think: less refraction and more efficiency of beam. In the end, like the light from these two instruments, our acting is merely broader or more focused. We still need to keep the illumination bright and hot regardless of the medium.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the film All the President’s Men lately. Why? Well, besides it being one of my all-time favorite films, it is an incredible snapshot of what I think of as the Golden Age of American acting. In that cast and crew were (and would be) 10 Oscar wins, 18 nominations and double both those numbers for the Tony Awards. What’s really interesting is the various schools and generations of acting that were present: students of Miesner, Strassburg, Adler, Uta Hagen, the school of hard knocks. Actors born in the early part of the 20th Century to the 1950’s, all bringing their craft in the name of something greater and at the highest level, all American. The talent on screen in that picture is second to none. In this era of acting’s version of “The British Invasion”, where we find ourselves incredulously saying after so many great performances “ Really? He’s British?” We need to remember movies like All The President’s Men; that we were the bar setters and will be again. We need to value acting here like they do in England and continue to lift what we do both as a business and a craft. They Knight Actors! Wouldn’t it be great if we did the same? And if we did have Knighthood, I’d like to think there’d be a roundtable just from the cast of this great movie.
So often I see actors “polishing their stone”. They polish them in auditions, in class on stages and soundstages. They cherish that stone so much. But they have to remember that the stone, just like the craft, they are polishing so beautifully has to be skipped across the water, thrown away to see where it’ll land and not worry about the stone itself but the act of throwing.
I flew back from New York recently and as I was standing in an extremely long line to board, looking at all the people ever so slightly tensing before boarding, I couldn’t help but see how much like acting the act of flying is. We understand the mechanics and safety of flying, understand that your chances of falling out of the sky are 100,000,000 to 1, understand all that goes into commercial aviation, understand that there is a clear path to our destination. And yet some of us still white knuckle it for 2500 miles. Then you look across the aisle and see the guy sawing logs from takeoff to touchdown. Like flying, we need to give over control and let another pilot do the flying; one that’s much more capable: our unconscious. We need to start embracing the joy of flying and the fact that 99,999,999 times we are going to succeed and stop focusing on the one time we fail. My methodology will guide you toward enjoying a nice nap during the long flight.