Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When is an actor NOT an Actor?

When they are a media personality that just happened to be cast in something. Who qualifies as a media personality? Athletes, musicians, Paris AND Perez Hilton. See where I'm going here?

Serena Williams could be considered a media personality. She is a great tennis player, but she is not an actor. And just saying you are one, doesn't make it so. Alright, alright...I'm not bagging on Serena. And believe it or not there have been (and will be in the future) many famous people who are fortunate enough to find work in film and TV. (Theatre? Not so much.) Duane "The Rock" Johnson is on quite a roll right now and making money for himself, the studios, and entertaining a lot of people in the process. Hell, I even own "The Scorpion King" on DVD! There's goes my street cred, I know....

I have been accused, on several occasions, of being elitist with regards to the acting profession. I am. If you are an actor you should be too. You train, you sacrifice, you work for free, you study, you pay for over price headshots, you suffer incompetent directors, you memorize way too many monologues and you get rejected at far too many auditions by obnoxious casting people. You should take pride in your work and your craft and you should be upset when those in authority cast "famous people" instead of actors in films and TV.

Yes, I do understand how the industry works and no, I didn't just fall off the turnip truck. It's always been this way and always will. That doesn't mean we should just roll over and accept it.

Let me put it into perspective: If I were to show up at the U.S. Open and say, "As of today, I am a professional tennis player, let me in." Don't let me in because I can actually PLAY tennis really well. Don't let me in because I have been at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy since I was eight. Don't let me in because I have a win-loss record to rival Roger Federer. Let me play in the U.S. Open because I WANT to play at the U.S. Open. Never happen. I would be laughed off the property by the minimum wage security guard gripping the scruff of my neck.

There is a public persception, I believe, that acting is easy. Just enough media personalities have become good, accomplished actors to make our moms and dads think that our given career choice is "just a phase" or, even worse, that "any one can do it." My wife was actually asked once (by a very close, intelligent, well-read friend) why she "didn't just go apply for a soap opera job."

I'm a big fan of Will Smith. Queen Latifah is making me a believer. Eminem? Rick Fox? Not yet. I am the last person on earth to suggest that we stifle our creativity and settle for the lot that we have been cast in. Some very hard working actors aren't very good at what they do and work all the time. Some of the best, most talented actors I have ever seen have been in places like Ashland, Oregon and Off-Off-Broadway; in independent films and in silly commercials selling car insurance or Viagra. I know it's not a perfect world and the best are not always the most successful. No matter what we tell our children in grammer school, most of them won't grow up to be President. That would totally screw up the two-party system.

Here's an analogy I use with the actors I coach -- probably too often: I have a pipe wrench, some channel locks and a roll of teflon tape in my tool box. That doesn't make me a plumber. It just makes me a guy that has some tools that can probably figure out how to tighten something under the sink to stop it from leaking. If I want the job done right...I'm gonna hire a professional.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Back from the abyss -- An Actor Prepared.

It's been quite some time since my last rant. Part of it comes from finding the time to make this blog a part of my schedule and part comes from just plain laziness. So for the five of you that give a rat's most humble apologies for being absent. (And remember: A rant isn't always a negative thing. Sometimes it's a joyous romp through a field in your skivvies.)

Actually, since the election, I've had very little to rant about. I'm happy. Sure, the nature of politics still gets under my skin, Prop 8 just pisses me off to no end, the economy is scary, Iraq and Pakistan and Afghanistan are still a plague. But, hey, at least we now have a leader who can and will actually talk to the rest of the world in complete sentences. It's those baby steps that matter.

Oh, yeah, and I think I'm in love (love may be the wrong word) with a lesbian. Yes, my wife knows and kinda approves. Rachel Maddow. She's not a lipstick lesbian like you see on TV, but she's hot in an I'm-smarter-than-you-and-I-eat-Republicans-for-breakfast kinda way. Her show on MSNBC is a breath of fresh air. Watch it. But I digress....

My wife, Elizabeth, sent me a quote the other day from Charles Laughton.

"Method actors give you a photograph. Real actors give you an oil painting."

Charles Laughton was (for those of you don't know) a remarkable British actor. Died way too young as many of the best and brightest do. He also directed a movie -- The Night of The Hunter. One of my favorite movies of all time and, unfortunately, the only film Laughton ever directed. It was a huge flop at the time. Critics panned it, failed miserably at the box office. Today it is considered by many as one of the best movies of the 1950s. It features a completely terrifying performance by Robert Mitchum and a powerfully sensitive performance by the incomparable Lillian Gish. See it. But I digress....

Since about 1951 people who call themselves actors have been having a very passionate, even if not public, debate about what acting is all about. Is there an "American-style?" Is it more effective than the "British-style?" What is "the Method?" Which is better? What the difference? Does anyone care?

1951 is the year that Lee Strasberg took over as director of the Actors Studio. Under his leadership grew what is today known as "the method." So many actors actors have been influenced by the method, it really is impossible to discount utterly -- then Laughton, so simply, throws water on the fire. A photograph versus an oil painting.

For some reason, as an actor and a director, that resonated with me. What is an actors job and how does one do it? Are we out to take a picture and pass it around the audience? Or, are we attempting to use paint and canvas, color and light thereby allowing the audience to stare and wonder -- "Hum, what about THAT?"

And, too, all the arguments in the world pro and con still miss the mark I think. Even my arguments boarder on the simplistic (thank you, Mr Laughton. No, really, thank you). All the talk of "The Method" and the variety of different permutations of it (Strasberg, Meisner, Adler) still fall short of the mystery of acting.

Here's our experiment: Let's put Picasso, Rembrandt and Seurat all in a room with the same paint, canvas and brush. Gather up John Lennon, Mozart and, oh, what the hell, Kanye West in the same studio with the same instuments. Their background, world view, inherent talents, sexual proclivities, physical limitations, manner of holding the brush or fingering the keyboard, personal taste, immediate frame of mind -- will all come to play on what they ultimately produce. Everything will be unique even though the tools were identical.

So it is with acting and actors. We simply cannot boil down such a complicated personal process into a "method." With all due respect to those those who teach such things, perhaps, rather than trying to teach young actors how to become the next Brando, we should be teaching them how to become the first (their name here). Maybe we should be teaching them about the tools they have as human beings: How to breath, how to use their voice, what they can do with their body and their mind. Maybe we should teach them to read and write, to observe and participate in the world. Maybe we should teach them history and literature. Maybe we should teach them to live and love and care for things. Then, once we do that, let them discover how they wish to use this mighty, highly tuned instrument in Shakespeare or Mamet or Chekov or Simon. But, I digress....