I want to start this article off with a recollection of a historical interchange between the great Sanford Meisner and the great Robert Duvall. Before Duvall ever starred in any films, he was in acting class. Just like you, just like me. However, his acting class was run by the mythical man Sanford Meisner. His approach was to focus on the art of listening and reacting through routines that he created called “repetition exercises”. This technique was called “The Meisner Technique”.
Hearing about the times in that class still inspires me today. However, from all the stories that I’ve heard, there is one interchange that has always stuck out to me. It was a conversation between Meisner and Duvall. Duvall rehashed it when asked in an interview. He recollects that Meisner told him that, “If crying means great acting, my Aunt Tillie could have been another Eleanora Duse.”.
I know, I know. Not as profound as you were hoping. But I’m telling you, it doesn’t get much more profound than that! The reason? Well, the reason is because I actually DID think that acting was crying. Or shouting. Or screaming. Or maniacal laughing. Or violent gestures. Or EVIL EYES! Basically I thought acting was emoting. And so did you.
You won’t admit it.
I wouldn’t admit it.
I’m sure you have heard this all before. And we both probably pretended to agree so that we could sound superior and professional, and prove that we aren’t like the amateurs in this town, but deep down inside we were still convinced that the guy who cried was the actor who survived. “COME ON! JUST GIVE ME ONE TEAR TO FALL PERFECTLY DOWN MY FACE!”.
Lets take it one step even further. Crying, shouting, violently lunging about probably hurts your performance more than it elevates it. Are you even considering the choices that you are making when developing an interesting character? Or do you just want to prove to the audience that you “got skills”.
The Most Embarrassing Lesson on Set
Let’s take a step back and evaluate what I am talking about. And for this I will bring you back to the first lead role I got in a feature film called, “Swipe Left”.
This film was about online dating and the horrors that could come from it. In the movie, it is discovered that the villain of the film has raped and murdered his victims. I don’t want to give away the ending of the film, so I will leave it at this. The lead actress in the film has a scene where she has to reveal to me the horrors of what she went through. Now my job was to sit there and comfort her and take it all in myself. In the few minutes before we shot the scene, I went off set to prepare myself.
This was it. I was going to cry. I couldn’t wait. This was my big moment. Granted, at this point, I had already had years of acting experience, and two and a half years under very very intensive Meisner training, so I had considered myself a pro.
We were sitting there and the director approaches me and says, “Ok Charles. We are going to be in the room rolling. You come in any time you are ready. Let it rip”. I looked up at him with my pre-devastated face and gave him the nod. The nod that said, “You are about to witness greatness”. He gave me a nod back which reaffirmed me that I was a star.
I run down the hallway to confront my damsel in distress. I reach the doorway and I barge inside. There she is. She is crying and next to her is another actor in the room crying as well. I kneel down to meet her eye to eye and I plan on joining the crying ensemble. She reveals to me the horrors that have happened to her and I realize this is my time to shine. I take a deep breath and…
I realize the camera is close on my face, so I try to push out something without letting the cameraman know that I was trying. Still nothing. Well this is embarrassing.
I stand up, look at the director in disappointment. He looks back at me smiling. He follows up with a, “Great!”
“Yeah great! Let’s do another one!”
Ok. He wants to do another one. So I get another shot. And then another shot. And then another shot. No waterworks. I was pathetic. I was not Brando. I was one big phony. The director eventually claimed to be happy with everything and that’s when he wanted to move on to the next scene. I went up to him to chat first.
“Yes, James. I’m sorry, but this was my big moment and I didn’t cry. Can we get one with me crying?”
He said, “With you crying? Why would you be crying? She’s crying the guy next to her is crying. Why would you be? You’re the strong, brave rescuer. You need to keep it together man”.
He was right. Why would I be crying? That would be silly. I don’t care if it was my big moment. I don’t need to have a big crying moment in every movie that I do. This is where I really started to explore what “choice” meant when it comes to acting. Up until that point I wanted to be strong with shouting or deep with tears. However, I was doing it all wrong. Acting wasn’t emoting. Acting is a mixture of GOOD choices and spontaneous DOING.
The Power of Choice.
Earlier in this article, we talked about Duvall and Meisner. Now I want to talk about De Niro and Adler. When I first started off, I was doing so much research that I was hearing things years ago, that I didn’t understand until years later.
Awhile back, I was watching one of my favorite programs of all time, The Actor’s Studio, when Robert De Niro came on and revealed to me a lesson that I cherish today. He recalled a saying that his teacher Stella Adler said to him. It was as follows. “An actor’s talent, lies in his or her choices”. Now I had no idea what he or she was talking about when I heard it, but I knew it was important, so I remembered it for a later date.
What could it mean? You’re telling me that talent is just correct choices? So all I have to do is make the right choice and I am automatically talented?
The answer as far as I know, is yes. Just like a lead guitar player in his band makes the right choices in his improvised solo mid show. Reminds me of a Gary Oldman quote, “The best bassist knows when not to play”.
The reason I was so confused by this, was because I always thought that acting was staying present and doing. It is true that acting is spontaneous, but there is still a very important element of choice. You have to stay present, but in the back of your head, you can make choices simultaneously. At first, this is very confusing, but you will know what I’m talking about when that one day you feel it.
CRYING IS A CHOICE! SHOUTING IS A CHOICE! VIOLENTLY LUNGING IS A CHOICE!
From what I know today, those are usually not the best choices. For me! For other actor’s they actually turn out to be.
Through many more years of learning, I made a transition that I’m sure ALL actors go through. You can’t give a performance to show off your range and your acting skills. You have to give a performance that makes your character the most interesting or that will ultimately ring true with the type of character you are trying to portray.
So What’s Next?
Abandon your need for accolades and just focus on serving the character. It will suit your career better. Audiences will want to see you play someone they can relate to. A character that they LIKE. They don’t need to see an actor that is capable of big emotions.
Ask Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Harrison Ford, and the ultimate straight shooter George Clooney.
Leonardo DiCaprio is the ultimate crier and shouter, BUT THAT IS WHAT WORKS FOR HIM. Every actor is different and it may take some time to find out what kinds of choices are right for you.
Crying, shouting, and moving aggressively doesn’t work for me. I’ve seen myself on screen plenty to know that. I personally, am much more interesting when I am stable, still and strong.
Imagine if Clooney was a crier. Or Brad Pitt. It doesn’t work for them either.
So with that, I will leave you to make your own choices. Whether it be to cry or not.
The power of choice is yours. I’ll let you decide as to what would be a better choice for your character at that pivotal moment in your script, and throughout the whole movie in general.
Would it be to shout or to stare stoically and say nothing at all?
Now the fun really starts.
Be well my friends, and never stop learning.
Charles S. Frank