Monday, 21 December 2015

BEING LIKED

Re-watching Some Like it Hot I was struck once again by the problem I have believing anything Jack Lemmon does on screen. I simply see him acting all the time in a way that I don't experience with either Tony Curtis or Marilyn Monroe.  It's partly the difference between showing and sharing that I write about in my book: where Lemmon is continually showing us what's going on, with exaggerated reactions that border on gurning, Curtis and Monroe deftly find the line between credibility and the comic hokum of the plot.

But I also see, in Lemmon, an overwhelming need to be liked. It affects almost every performance of his that I've seen, with the one possible exception of Glengarry Glen Ross.  It's something that often seems to affect comic actors, especially those who’ve been stand-ups.  Long before the tragic suicide of Robin Williams it was evident that, having become a star as a manic comic turn, he craved credibility as a serious actor.  As Mrs Doubtfire he was fabulous.  But any poster featuring him sporting a beard moreorless guaranteed an unwatchable performance of toe-curling sincerity, usually in a counselor/psychiatrist/wise-man role e.g. Good Will Hunting and Awakenings, as he sought the audience’s love as well as its laughs.  (To his great credit, in Insomnia and One Hour Photo (both 2002) he seemed to have let go of the need to be liked and consequently delivered a pair of terrific performances).

It’s said that no one who becomes an actor got enough love as a child and I suspect it's true. So most of us crave applause as approval.  But letting go of this is essential if you’re serious about your craft.

Clearly the hero(ine) has to be likeable and most good actors can deliver this with ease.  But likeability alone gets boring pretty quickly unless you’re Will Smith and there’s not many of him around. And even his level of charm wouldn't have been enough on its own to sustain the career he's had.

Much more compelling is the mixture of dark and light that exists in us all.  The actor who is always concerned with being likeable has no room for the dark.  But without the ugly, or at least its possibility, there’s no depth.  Robert McKee makes the point that there's little as interesting as a good character who does something bad or a bad character who does something good.

And in his fabulous book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes how most Hollywood stars subtly use their power to engineer the insertion of scenes that can turn their character's motivation from selfish to selfless.

To allow yourself to be ugly takes a lot of personal maturity.  It's about more than simply being the bad guy.  Terrific as his performance was in Twelve Years a Slave, Michael Fassbender was not risking much in portraying the cruel slaveowner.

Much more impressive were the performances of David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch.  Both played characters who were, on balance, likeable, but who were also messy, incomplete human beings struggling with selfishness, just as we all are.

Perhaps an even better example was James Nesbitt's woefully under appreciated performance in Five Minutes of Heaven.  He played an emotionally stunted failure of a man, struggling to contain his own hurt and anger, at times both physically ugly and morally squalid, in a performance totally lacking vanity.  Incredibly impressive in an actor who has charm and likeability in spades.

And then there’s the devastating performance of Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina.  His character is a super-intelligent but repellant software designer who has succeeded in creating artificial intelligence.  Part of Isaac's brilliance is the inner tension he creates between the character’s arrogance and his desire to be liked.  There’s almost no explicit backstory about his past emotional life but it’s crystal clear that this is a deeply bitter man who has had to create artificial life in order to experience love.  And having succeeded, he both fears and anticipates that his creation will love another more than she loves him, such is his boiling rage at past rejections.

This kind of profoundly imagined and realised inner world is the work of an actor who has moved way beyond his own desire for approval.

Monday, 22 June 2015

HEAT


Further to previous blogs about preparation and playing spontaneously in the moment rather than rehearsing and planning, I was intrigued to come across a description, by Michael Mann, of shooting the famous coffee shop encounter between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat.  It is a riveting scene and a masterclass in screen acting.  De Niro's elite bank robber and Pacino's cop emotionally circle each other, initially vying for superiority, then cautiously opening up before finding a kind of recognition and nascent friendship, before returning reluctantly to business hostility and the possibility of killing each other.

What's extraordinary is how finely tuned they are to each other: probing and responding to tiny nuances of emotional intent.  And yet I had heard a rumour that they were never even on set together at the same time.  How could this be when they seemed so totally connected?

The other rumour I’d heard was that much of the dialogue was improvised by the two actors, although at least this rumour had them in the same place at the same time.

But a quotation from Pacino confirms both that the scene was completely scripted and interestingly that “there were no rehearsals.  I just met him there."

And Michael Mann describes it thus: “I never wanted them to rehearse.  I didn't want to miss a millisecond of Al reacting off Bob".  More than this, Mann cross-shot the scene i.e. with two cameras, one on De Niro, the other on Pacino.  This is almost unknown in movies because it is incredibly difficult to light, so was a huge commitment by Mann to capturing the interplay between these 2 great actors.  And what's in the film is nearly all from the eleventh take. “I knew – we all knew – we’d got it on the ninth, but take eleven had some extra special qualities, little harmonics”

Now, you may not get to do eleven takes and you're very unlikely to find your performance and that of your screen partner filmed simultaneously, other than in soaps or some sitcoms (in which case eleven takes means crisis).  But it does offer some pointers.  Prepare deeply, rigorously: know your character, know precisely where you are in the story's timeline, know what you want and what the history is with the other characters.  Then let it go.  Pursue what you (the character) want and commit yourself to reacting spontaneously to what comes at you.

Judging by this quotation from Joaquin Phoenix, it is how this great actor approaches his work:

“I just like to discover things as they go along.  I try more and more to be receptive to what's happening in the moment as opposed to creating these ideas and trying to impose them on the shoot.  The best feeling is when you don't think you're saying the lines.  You think you fucked it up and you've just been talking.  And you go, oh, did I get that wrong?  And they said no, everything was there.

“I always wanted to be open to finding something that I didn't intend or expect.  To get to the place that's beyond the technical side of finding your light or saying the lines in a particular way and being open to your unconscious because I think sometimes it knows better than you

“Any time I try to implement my ideas, it's always bad.  It's always fucking bad.  And I feel the best stuff is kind of out of my control.  I never quite feel responsible for it.  And that's the state that I want to be in when I work"



Monday, 4 May 2015

PREPARATION PAYS OFF


In the last few weeks I've been working with students at the Drama Centre on scenes from movies.  In previous classes we have covered many of the technical requirements of acting on camera and most of the students have successfully internalised the imperative not to ‘perform’, but simply to ‘be’.  But where many of them have fallen down is on their preparation.

Without the structure and collaboration of an extended theatre rehearsal period, the discipline of preparing alone can be hard for stage actors.  And it requires a big leap of faith that deeply imagining your character’s past and his or her relationships with other characters - both those that appear on screen and those that do not - will pay off.

But without it screen actors are very exposed. The difference between what you see in the eyes of an actor who has done some basic preparation on the lines but who has no real sense of past and one who is totally prepared - having created a character with history and memory and fears and ambitions - is tangible even if it’s hard to define.  One of the things that always encourages me is that when I turn to a group of observing students after a good take, and ask “could you see the difference?” they always can.

I also recently did some work with an ex-student who is preparing for the lead in a feature film.  Despite quite a far-fetched storyline, he has done huge amounts of preparation, creating a very vivid characterisation - not sensationalised, just richly and deeply imagined.  I spent nearly an hour asking him, as the character, questions about his life and history, almost as a counsellor might do.  And not once did I sense any hesitation or gap in his understanding.  When he spoke about some of his (the character’s) personal experiences, it was like watching someone select what to tell you from a viscerally lived past.

The best actors take this kind of preparation very seriously. Al Pacino is reported to have realized, after seeing the rushes of the first day’s shoot on Dog Day Afternoon, that his preparation was inadequate.  “I thought ‘this is incredible.  There is nobody up there’.  I came home, got a bottle of wine, and stayed up all night because I had neglected to work on certain things."  (Quoted by Karina Longworth). His eventual performance turned out to be one of his very best.

As well as this deep characterization, you need to go into every scene with crystal clarity about the timeline of your character’s story: knowing, for every scene, absolutely, unquestioningly where you are, what has happened previously and what you want.  It’s why I spend a large chunk of my book From Stage to Screen discussing how to do this.
In a previous blog (Preparing for a take) I applauded Sienna Miller for what was clearly very thorough preparation for scenes in American Sniper.  Compare this with a film I once shot, in which the central love story turned when the hero saved the heroine from a near–rape.  As we rehearsed to shoot a scene from later in the script, I was horrified when the lead actress asked me “does this scene come before or after he has saved me from the rape?"  I could have wept.  She had clearly had not done her homework and, at one point, she even asked me “do you want it happy or sad?”  Of course her performance reflected this lack of preparation.  Despite being very beautiful and, at the time, much talked about, you will not have heard of her because her subsequent career went nowhere.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

WHAT'S IN A NAME?


Creating the character is central to an actor’s preparation in any medium.   As part of this it’s worth giving some thought to your character’s name.  It won’t have been chosen randomly and will probably provide clues as to the writer’s intention.

In life, we may not get to select our given name, but we do have some choice about how we use and adapt them.  Plenty of people change their names as they grow up, shortening them or adopting a nickname or in some cases taking an entirely different name.  In my teens I made a choice to be Bill, rather than William.  My reasons were pretty banal but the decision felt significant and was to do with finding my own identity.  Exploring a character’s choices about his or her name can open a window into their inner world.

In From Stage to Screen, I use the screenplay Body Heat (you can find it on dailyscript.com) as a case study in preparing a film role, so let us look at a couple of names from it now to see what they tell us.

Specifically in the book I explore how one might prepare to play the two-scene part of Teddy Laursen.  Teddy is a small-time crook, described by the writer as a ‘rock ‘n’ roll arsonist’, who shows the protagonist, Ned Racine, how to set a fire.

The name Teddy has childish connotations and not only through its allusion to teddy bears.  Assuming he was named Edward, then even if his parents called him Teddy, our man could have chosen as he grew up to be known as Ted, Ed, Eddie or some other derivation.  But he didn't.  Perhaps the name was given to him by friends or maybe he just liked the name Teddy?  Whatever you decide, Teddy Laursen has, consciously or unconsciously, settled on a name that inherently suggests childhood and vulnerability.  This makes an interesting counterpoint to his chosen lifestyle.

We have less choice about our surnames.  We are pretty much stuck with them until marriage, at which point women are faced with the choice between sticking with their family name or taking their husband’s.  This decision, of course, says a lot about personality and political beliefs, so a writer who indicates what choice a married woman has made is giving you a steer.  Or you can construct your own backstory around this.

The name ‘Laursen’ sounds Scandinavian to me.  Perhaps Teddy’s family originally came from Sweden?  Given that there is nothing else in the script to suggest this, I think it's up to you to decide whether this is useful or relevant.  If you substituted the name Johnson, would it change anything?  I think not.  It's perfectly possible that Teddy originally had several more scenes and possibly a subplot of his own, involving his background, which got cut.  This is quite common in the development of a script and a name or character trait that seems to have been chosen very specifically, but mysteriously, may simply be a leftover of this, which you are therefore free to ignore.

The name of the film's protagonist, Ned Racine, offers plenty of clues about the character. ‘Ned’ is also a derivative of Edward.  Again it has a simplicity and a childlike-quality to it, but perhaps there’s something darker than ‘Teddy’.  The very fact that the writer has given both men names that come from the same root may be significant.  Is Teddy in some way an alter-ego of the protagonist?

The name ‘Racine’, definitely, has an edge to it.  Not only is it the name of the seventeenth century French writer of tragedies, but there's something darkly sensual about the way it sounds in the mouth with its sibilant S, long ‘i’ and echoes of the words ‘racy’ and ‘obscene’.  It comes as no surprise that its owner is destroyed by sexual obsession.

Almost nothing in a script is there by chance.  Good writers are expert at planting things in the audience’s subconscious.  Names can reveal things about their intentions and can offer you a way in as you attempt to turn words on a page into a three-dimensional person with desires, fears and a history.  If nothing else, it can be worthwhile to pause and register what your character's name suggests to you.  If it seems useful and relevant - run with it.

Remember, though, that there is no Holy Grail of correct interpretation that you must pursue.  Theatre has a tendency to revere ‘the writer's intention’.  Film and television don’t, partly because filmmaking involves collaboration between many more creative disciplines, so change and evolution of the screenplay during production and post-production is normal.  Ultimately the writer provides some words on a page.  They are fantastically important as the genesis of the dramatic work, but the character does not exist until an actor takes those words and creates a human being from them.  Exploring their choices about their name can help you bring them to life.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

DON'T DO IT


I write in my book From Stage to Screen, and in another blog (‘stop thinking, start feeling’), about the emphasis in our education system on analytical skills and a kind of thinking that is unhelpful to actors.

However if I were to suggest that going to school and gaining qualifications is a bad idea for an aspiring actor, I would be doing younger readers a huge disservice.  Those of you still trying to figure out if this is the right career for you will already know the acting profession is wildly overcrowded and you’ve probably heard many times the advice to do something else with your life.  I’m sorry to have to do this, but I’m going to add my voice to the chorus of others who are saying the same thing: acting is a fantastically hard business and you will almost certainly have a happier life if you decide to do something else.

Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning behavioural economist, observes that people who set themselves the goal, aged 18, of making lots of money, usually do make more money than others and, twenty five years later, they are happier than average.  Equally those who say at 18 that money doesn’t matter to them are just as satisfied with life, twenty five years later, regardless of their income: money really doesn’t matter to them very much.  Goal-setting, he argues, is very important in determining happiness later in life.  But, he goes on to say, “there is one goal that is a bad one. Most people with this goal at age 18 are unhappy at age 45.  And this goal is to be a performing artist.  Because so few people succeed.”

Eddie Izzard talks about having deliberately failed exams whilst studying accountancy so that he had to make stand-up comedy work.  Whilst no one could argue that this was the wrong thing for him to do, it makes me nervous to hear him say it.  For every successful stand-up, or actor, there are probably dozens of intelligent but unhappy, embittered, failed entertainers, eking out an existence in some menial job because ‘the acting thing’ didn’t work out and they had no qualifications or other skill to fall back on.

Of course, there may also be a reason that ‘the acting thing’ didn't work out: they didn't apply themselves properly.  And just as not succeeding at school might – might - actually have been about laziness, maybe not succeeding as an actor was too.  I'm not contesting that it's a brutal, ruthless and savagely unfair profession.  But what you hear less often, from the highly successful, is just how damn hard they worked to get where they are. Stories abound of Eddie Izzard spending years doggedly working away, dying on stage night after night, slowly getting better, until finally ‘overnight’ success came to visit.  Listen to Michael Macintyre’s Desert Island Discs for a similar tale.  Even now, at the height of his success, Eddie Izzard is renowned for his deep professionalism and incredibly thorough preparation.  So it is with the great majority of successful actors, stage or screen, who remain successful. They work very hard indeed.  Some like to pretend that they don’t, but they do.

If you decide to ignore the voices of doom and pursue a career in acting, make sure you put in the graft.  It takes great effort to make it look effortless.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: “When you’re first starting out, you have to act wherever you can.  You can't be picky.  You really have to act wherever you get a chance to act.  And that might even be in an audition … even if you're auditioning for something that you know you're never going to get, or you might have read it and you might not even have liked it … if you get a chance to act in a room that somebody else has paid rent for then you're given a free chance to practise your craft.

Because it's always about the work at the end of the day, everybody knows that.  If I show up to work one day and the work I'm doing isn't any good, I'm just a guy who's not acting well.  And you're always back to that moment where you have to act as well as you can.” 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

PREPARING FOR A TAKE


I saw a preview screening of American Sniper yesterday and was struck by two things – one obvious, one less so.

The first was just how much Bradley Cooper had beefed up for the part - hard to miss.

The second was the challenges Sienna Miller must have faced when shooting many of her scenes.  Her character, Taya, is repeatedly on the receiving end of distressing phone calls from her sniper husband, sometimes in the middle of battle.  More than once she can hear the fighting and once it even continues after he has dropped the phone and she doesn’t know if he is still alive.  This kind of scene – hard in any medium – is especially difficult for an actor in the hurly burly of a film set.

Filming a phone call usually requires you to imagine the person on the other end of the phone, as their dialogue will be recorded separately, on another day.  This is harder to do than it sounds and often results in a stilted exchange that is difficult to edit because the actors are not actually having a conversation.  Ordinarily someone else will read in the other character's lines on set, although some actors prefer simply to imagine what's being said.  I’d advise against asking for this unless you’re 100% sure you will be better that way and, even then, be prepared to be overruled by the director.

(Then there are the phone calls in which the other character's lines are not even written.  In a way these are easier.  Because the audience hears only one side of the conversation, it follows the actor’s lead in imagining the other side and is less likely to sense a break in the connection between the characters – the ‘unbroken line’ described by Stanislavski.)

In his Screen Acting Masterclass for the BBC, Michael Caine said that he doesn't need the other actor there during a face-to-face scene, so presumably this applies to his phone calls also.  My belief is that Ben Kingsley's approach of being driven totally by a truthful reaction to what's coming from the other actor will create a much more connected performance.  But phone calls present particular obstacles to this.

I write in my book, From Stage to Screen, about the importance of preparation, not just for the day, but on the day.  For scenes like phone calls, you have to be fastidious in your psychological and emotional preparation beforehand as for any other scene, and then especially careful to manage your concentration and resources in the run-up to a take, since you are working alone.

For Sienna Miller – and I'm guessing here – she is likely to have been the only actor on set.  However generous an actor Bradley Cooper is, it's unlikely he was there: the schedule of a star generally won't allow it.  So she will have had to find her way into the right emotional state prior to the take and then react truthfully to the words of her husband which were, most likely, being read neutrally by an assistant director.

Added to which, she will have been hugely outnumbered by upwards of 30 crew, all diligently doing their job but none of whom are directly engaged in creating the emotional reality of the narrative.

So she will have had to know precisely where the scene lay within the story and, in particular, where Taya was within her own emotional journey through it.  A number of the scenes take place at a time when Taya feels distanced from her husband: angry, upset and frustrated.  You cannot simply ‘act’ this emotional context without making it real for yourself by imagination or substitution or personalization or whatever technique you use.

As each new set–up approached she will have had to draw on whatever preparation she had done to make the situation real for her.  She will have had to protect herself from distraction and intrusion, probably by avoiding conversations with those around her.  What you do in the minutes leading up to a take is massively important.  She will have had to carry out the normal tasks of an actor on set, as part of the team, to make the shot work – rehearsing positioning, hitting marks, taking direction including technical direction – all without losing the emotional connection to that moment in time within the drama.

Between takes she will have had to take further direction perhaps, hold herself emotionally at the right pitch, but without exhausting herself, possibly over lots of takes.  I understand Clint Eastwood does very few takes, expecting that everybody will get it right on the first one, as a means to create focus.  However, many directors like to do lots until it is absolutely perfect.  This may well involve the actor repeating again and again, until there is a collision of perfection between actors and all the various technical elements.  This can be absolutely exhausting and requires deep stamina and really careful energy management.  And it’s something that regularly takes actors by surprise if they are used to the rhythms of working in theatre.

Oh, and Sienna Miller is very good by the way.