Wednesday, October 31, 2007

ON ACTING: An Acting Mantra

"Think before you act; think after you act; but when you act, just live."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


The student's acting was firm and assertive. She pursued her character-goals with a purposeful force...but she left no room for doubt. Her characters were always perfect; always right; always certain of victory. She knew how to win; but not how to lose. Her path was Godlike in its omniscience. Her characters were idealizations of people: people as they should be, not as they are. Her acting, her characters, were Godlike...and emotionally uninteresting...and therefore emotionally unidentifiable by an audience.

God is very boring; at least in drama. Perhaps that is why there is so few movies and films about Him. Since His primary incarnation among the early Jews (who are credited with inventing/finding Him in His monotheistic form), He is always right, never wrong; 'always was, is and always shall be'. The one time He really was interesting as a dramatic character was in the story of Jesus, when God came down to earth and became human, God as Man, susceptible to doubt, pain and death. In fact it is often called the Greatest Story Ever Told.

(I am reminded of Milton's "Paradise Lost", in which God plays a prominent role, but the Devil steals the story.)

I am also reminded that before there was One All Powerful God, there was many Gods--and they were the 'stuff' of many stories and myths. They were divine, but also susceptible to 'human' frailties...lust, anger, jealousy, etc. As such, they were central to the storied origins of Western Drama, the great Greek plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; not to mention the stories of Homer: the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Good actors are never God; rather, they are human, uncertain, susceptible to all the human emotions. Their characters may aspire to divinity; but their path is wrought with human weaknesses and vulnerabilities. That's what makes them interesting; and their stories mesmerizing: they are not all-powerful, they are not all-knowing. Rather, they suffer pain, lust, love, fear and doubt; and they are sensitive to the agony and ecstasy of living life to the fullest.

I told the student that: she listened, considered and absorbed; and on her next read through of the scene, emotion spilled into her performance. I thought: perhaps that's why she plays characters as Gods; she is so very, very human; perhaps frighteningly so.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

ON ACTING: Character/Script Analysis

To begin with, there is no definitive character to analyze in a script (I've never seen a character's picture/photograph on a page; have you?): there is just a bunch of black and white straight and squiggly words on a white piece of paper that we choose to recognize (we have learned to interpret) as letters, words, phrases and sentences...and from that initial visual intake of those word/sound symbols, WE MAKE INTERPRETATIONS OF the emotional inner behavior (character) that WE ASSUME goes on into creating that language.

My central point is: from the very beginning of reading a script, there is nothing fixed and certain...there is no absolute "according to the script my character is..." The process of acting a character is from the very beginning subject to the actor's interpretation, estimate, knowledge and assumptions about human behavior...and the LANGUAGE that motivates and reveals it.

So the actor who aspires to be a good actor, and who, even more, wishes to analyze a 'character' well, had better be language/talk/verbal smart. They better be a great listener and absorber of how humans talk in everyday life, and why (the inner emotional urgency) that makes them talk how they talk. And the cheapest textbook on human behavior I know is the actor themselves. That book of knowledge is always available, and at hand. Actors: Watch how you talk, why you talk, when you talk...and what is going on inside you that initiates that talk.
All knowledge proceeds from self-knowledge...and that includes by default the knowledge of 'character' that is revealed, hinted and implied in the language/dialogue written on a white page of a script.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

ON ACTING: The Desire to Win AND the Possibility of Losing

In an earlier blog (October 15th), I said that an actor who does not enter a scene with a belief in the possibility of winning is at best a boring actor, at worst, a dishonest actor.

Just so, and concommitantly, an actor who enters a scene without the possibility of losing will be equally boring and dishonest. Life contains neither inevitable winners or losers.

The good actor tries hard to win in a scene; but, being all too human, faces the unavoidable fact that all eventualities are possible. Each step in a scene is an outer and inner balancing act, fraught with inherent dramatic tension: the character walks across a tightrope of possibility, trying to get to the other side, while fighting the pull and danger of gravity and tumbling death; courage battling fear, the desire for success struggling with the possibility of failure.

Thus is drama; thus is life.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

ON ACTING: Simplicity and Courage

Acting in simple; conceptually.

What is difficult--and complex--in acting or any other endeavor, is excellence. So in my teaching I have always emphasized the logical simplicity of acting, freeing my students to focus their energies on the more complex task of achieving excellence.

It does not take the IQ of a rocket scientist or a neurosurgeon to understand acting; or for that matter, to act well. Some of the finest and most successful actors I have kown have had very ordinary IQs. Which is not to denigrate the benefit of intelligence in accomplishing any task; its presence is extremely beneficial. What is primary in acting, however, what the best actors and actresses have in abundance, is the extraordinary couage and insight to live honestly, fully and intensely in public: to face and accept the deepest truths about themselves, and by extension, humankind in general, and then be willing to really live out those truths in a real manner before an audience.

That is the genius of an actor.

That is the goal of all acting theory, training, and practice.

Monday, October 15, 2007

ON ACTING: The Essentiality of Believing One Can Win

One of the most essential qualities actors/conflictors/characters must have in any scene is a belief in their capacity to win.

Even the pessimists among them are believers in victory; pessimism being a mere self-protecting armor, a disarming ploy.

Pessimists prepare themselves for the pain of engagement by preliminarily assessing a low probability of success; unlike the optimist who fortifies himself with an extraordinarily high possibility of goal achievement; but both are mere tactical choices, not true estimates. Like in horse racing, some horses like to front runners, confidently leading the pack in the early going, whereas others like to initially linger in the back of the pack, playing 'losers' until making their final move toward the front--and the finish line.

But what ever the character's tactical style, pessimist or optimist, running back in the pack or out in the lead, both entrants in any scene enter the race believing they have a chance to win. Only a foolish human (or a horse) enters a race sure s/he is going to lose. Ergo; in acting an interesting, honest actor, always enters a scene believing s/he has a chance to win, and believes she has the ability to convince the other person in the scene of her point of view. That's what makes an honest and interesting scene; or race.

Friday, October 12, 2007

ON ACTING: A Performer's Resonance

A great actor's performance resonates with profound emotion. That's why we want to watch great actors througout the performance--or for that matter throughout a career: because their emotional experience in performance is so multi-layered, multi-dimentional and multi-echoing that it grips us--the audience--to extent of our humanity.

In a great performance we see a piece of dialogue, an event, occur in the world of that actor, and we sense a great emotional registering, not merely on the actor's surface--in their surface overt response--but down deep, as it were, we see it in their eyes (the windows of the soul) most especially, as if the event has struck such a chord so deep within the person/character, an experience so critical, so profound, that we get a sense of their past as well as their present...and in some instances, the yet to be formed, future. (After all, what is one's present but an accumlation of one's past--and intimations of one's future--as expereinecd in the present, registered, recorded and filed away in one's emotions.)

Emotions, and emotional responses in actors, are either (1) like a small cave--single chambered and mono-echoing (and in those performances forgetable), or (2) endlessly reverberating, carved, seeminly without any sense of beginning, middle or end.

If you make a sound/event at the entrance of a single chambered cave, the sound resonates only singly, and superficially at that. (This is the pattern for average actors, whose performances are forgettably competent.) But when a sound/event occurs in a great actor, as if at the entrance of a hugely hollowed out cavern, who has become a multi-chambered mystery of endless rooms, the response echoes repeatedly, over and over again, as if though time and space and every cell in the actor's body. We stand at the entrancee of that kind of cave, or in the presence of the great actor, with awe, fascination and appreciation. We, in the audience, resonate equally.

The actor's chore in becoming a great and memorable actor, therefore, is to make sure s/he has carve out, through scene analysis, emotional exercises, and a life time of experence, the chambers of their own--and the character's--emotional past/nature, so that when the events of the performed piece strike against him/her during the performance, those events will resonate with a depth, breadth and profundity that will leave them, and us-the-audience through them, mesmerized, moved and monumentally affected.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

ON ACTING: Joaquin Phoenix; and 'Preparation'

David has left a new comment on your post "TV REVIEW: "Entourage" (Plus, an addendum for actor..."):

"I'm glad you like Entourage. It does for me what LA Law did in a previous life.

"But I'm writing with a question. From a story about Joaquin Phoenix:
When [the interviewer] asked by phone how he prepared for his role as a drug-addled nightclub manager in 'We Own the Night,' Phoenix responded, 'I never prepare. I think that's completely overrated. It's a very simple job. All you have to do is . . . stand in the right spot and say the line. So I don't really believe in preparation.'

"Is this bravado or what?"

Cliff Osmond replies:

If the quote is accurate, and truly represents Mr. Phoenix's feelings, it could be that Mr. Phoenix personally needs no preparation to play a 'drug-addled' character...or any other character, for that matter: because perhaps Joaquin Phoenix is already sufficiently emotional "unbalanced" from living life (SEE my October 9th blog, on the need for "'Unbalanced' Actors") that his lifetime acting 'preparation' work has already been accomplished. In that case, all he has to do is "say the lines", and resonate in performance with uncommon feeling. Lucky him.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

ON ACTING: An Actor's Response

Referring to my Sept. 19 blog, "An Ocean of Emotions", Lynda wrote:

"Cliff, I am so glad you shared this list with us. I often find myself searching for new ways to interpret and explore characters, deeper than what my instrument chooses by default. Human emotions are neither black nor white; rather shades of inbetweens. Our goal is to find those inbetweens."

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

ON ACTING: "Unbalanced" Actors

Years ago, when someone refer to someone who was having noticeable mental/emotional problems, they often used the word "unbalanced": "Joe is unbalanced; he's having problems," (which suggested Joe needed time for a visit to the shrink, or priest...or a visit to the beach or woods; hopefully away from work and/or the pressures of family; some corrective action to reduce the emotional dilemmas).

"Unbalanced" implies balance; we infer reasonable people have balance: there is a balance in the operating nature of everyday 'put-together' people, between their reason and passion, emotion and control; they exhibit a flat (as opposed to imbalanced) teeter-totter of emotional/unemotional behavior that seemed poised over a fulchrum; with either side, emotion and reason, carrying equal weight in their operative living equation.

I miss the word "unbalanced"; it was a good word; especially in its suggestive possibilities to actors. A good actor's emotional preparation before a scene, is an act of imbalance, creating such emotional weight on one side of the personal teeter-totter, on the emotional side, that reason, the other co-operative 'balancing' side--represented by the character's objective--is made more interestingly urgent (must be given more weight?), to enable the character to re-assert an easier living, less tumultuous, corrective.

Drama is 'Unbalance'--->'Balance'; the operative plot line in all drama.

Drama (and good acting) is about characters who enter a scene emotionally 'unbalanced' by prior events (whose time line of imbalance can go even as far as birth...or even further back: genetic inheritance!) and are seeking a corrective solution; or who enter the scene balanced but are soon imbalanced with an other's words or deeds in the scene...and spend the rest of the scene seeking to re-assert balance, trying to attain once again a level ride through life on their personal teeter-totter.

'Unbalanced' people, while perhaps needing to be avoided in everyday life, are the proper 'stuff' of drama. Actors should work very hard to get character-imbalanced before a scene

Sunday, October 07, 2007

TV REVIEW: "Entourage" (Plus, an addendum for actors)

I saw HBO's "Entourage" again the other night; in fact 3 episodes (Emmy Award Academy submission-DVD) in one sitting, and I continued to love it. Wonderful. Funny, sexy, fast, extremely well conceived, structured and written...and the acting ...especially the acting, is marvelous. Adrian Grenier (the Star), Jeremy Piven (the Agent), Kenin Connolly (the Manager), Kevin Dillon (the Houseboy and Cook ...and wannabe/almost-is actor), and Jerry Ferrara (the Driver), and Debi Mazar Connolly's girl friend) are all outstanding. The show is a spoof of the Hollywood 'star' system'; yet like all fine spoofs, incisively true.

The addendum for actors: The other day I asked the actor who came in to work with me on his upcoming specific comedy audition for a series: "Are you trying out for the role of 'the axle' or 'the spokes'?" Off his questioning stare, I explained. Are you auditioning for the character through which the audience views the show--the axle--the central 'relatively stable' character--who holds all the pieces of the wheel together, or are you auditioning for one of 'the spokes': the other comedic supportive roles who surround the axle, the inevitable outrageous extreme characters-moving-in-and-around the lead character?

The actor said he was auditioning for the central character. Okay, I said, you are auditioning for the Mary Tyler Moore character on "The Lou Grant Show", the Raymond character on "Everybody Loves Raymond, or further back, Desi Arnaz on "I Love Lucy" or Judd Hirsch in "Taxi".

We prepared accordingly, and I added: Y"ou will have a more difficult (and generally less appreciated, less award winning) task: You must be incredibly real, convincing, and plot-driving character...while you must also be also be funny.

"You will be the eyes and ears of the story, the tether-character which connects the wildly-comedic actors (the hot-air balloons of individual sparkling comedic performances) to the story's credibility and reality, without which these extravagantly funny characters would inevitably spin off into space, unfunny and eventually unwatchable.

I advised him to watch "Entourage'; especially Adrian Grenier, who performs this stabilizing 'axle' acting task in "Entourage" admirably, admirably well. He is the glue which connects the cast, the cement turning their supporting comedic turns and bricks into a solid series.

I added an important truth to consider: the 'axle' acting talent will probably be under appreciated. The ease with which Grenier performs his 'axle-to-the-wheel' task in "Entourage" reminds me of Cary Grant--another exquisitely handsome man--who never got an Academy Award. Why? Actors like Grant and Granier so busy keeping the wheel together--and with such seeming ease--that they do not draw attention to themselves...and are often under appreciated by everyday fans and critics. They are 'actor's actors' in the best sense. There is some justice in life however. They do get the big, big money...if not the Awards.

Friday, October 05, 2007

ON ACTING: Genes, Hard Work and Luck

Acting success--like much success in life in general--is primarily a matter of three factors: Genes, Hard Work and Luck.

Most of us can't do much about changing our genes (that is, so far...who knows what stem cell research will eventually uncover and develop; the gene replacement to include genes for acting excellence?...but...sigh...until then...).

You can't do much about luck; except perhaps be as prepared to take full advantage of it when it occurs.

Which leaves us inevitably and directly to the third factor: hard work. The 'Serenity Prayer' for Alcoholics Anonymous has application here for actors as well: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

In terms of acting, the 'prayer' implies the following: You cannot change what you cannot change: genes or luck. So, accept that dual fact with serenity. Which leaves (and this is the important thing when it comes to a successful acting career) wise enough to know the thing you can change; which is--if you have the courage--the amount and quality of hard work--effort--which a smart actor is willing to expend to learn and practice how to improve their acting craft beyond the given gene factor while you wait for luck to strike.

Genes and luck are an uncontrolable givens; but all other changes and improvements are possible with hard work.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

ON ACTING: On Chess and Acting

In an article in the Oct. 1, 2008 New Yorker magazine, on Garry Kasparov, the legendary chess champion, I came across a quote by a friend and biographer of Kasparov, Fred Waitzkin concerning what it takes to be a great chess player. I thought it had application to great acting; with particular resonance on the actor's need to forget in performance all the most assiduous preparation and practice and be able to allow spontaneity to occur (SEE italics below):

"To be a world champion in chess, the amount of what you have you know, what you have to fit into your brain and master, is so big that it is incomprehensible to a normal person," Waitznik said, "You have to know more than a nuclear physicist or a brain surgeon knows. You have to know more stuff than virtually anyone on earth. Then you have to have the facility of mind to process it and then forget it so that you are free to improvise and be imaginative."

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

ON ACTING: ...and 'support'!

'A' wrote me:

"what advice would you give to some one who's life is acting and they have so much passion but no one supports her. and her mom wont give her money for acting but she needs acting this is what she really wants."

I wrote back:

Sometimes passion must support itself. In our lives we can't always expect that loved ones will automatically support us with money or encouragement. My mother didn't support my acting when I was young and starting out; so I went out and supported my own passion. (She finally supported and appladed what I did; probably even more so because I had gone out and done it on my own!)

True belief requires one true friend: yourself.

Good luck.

Regards, Cliff

MOVIE REVIEW: "Eastern Promises"

The New Yorker magazine's summation of the plot serves well:

"The new David Cronenberg film, set among Russian mobsters in London, stars Viggo Mortensen ["History of Violence"] as Nikoli, a part time chauffeur and full time threat. He takes care of business for Semyo (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a soft-spoken restaurateur with frightening blue eyes, and Semyon's whining son (Vincent Cassel). Into this murk comes Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife, who is trying to trace the family of an orphaned Russian [newborn] child. What Cronenberg and his screenwriter, Steve Knight ["Dirty Pretty Things"], want to engineer is a collision between worlds, that have nothing--no social habits or moral norms--in common. The result, despite the modern setting, is a strangely old-fashioned fable, with a redeeming innocent thrown among evil men."

The New Yorker goes on to (mostly) praise the film, with a few critical remarks added.

I, on the other hand, have no critical remarks, except perhaps warning about some extreme violence. It is the best film I have seen this year, the best since last year's German film, "Lives of Others" (Best Foreign film; Academy Awards). Both films share a modernity of style with and uncommon (in today's films anyway) conundrum: a hero's moral complexity and a moral dilemma.

The acting is superb...up and down the line; powerful and elegant, animistic and restrained. Mortensen is brilliant; Naomi Watts is excellent as usual...a chip off the old Cate Blanchett/Meryl Streep block. Everyone else in the cast is of the highest standard.

There is, as I said above, violence...bordering on the unnecessary...especially in the first 10 minutes. You may very well turn away. But hang in there. Seeing this film is well worth it.

Later in the film, there is a gruesome physical fight with some heavies in a bath that Cronenberg and Mortensen pulls off brilliantly; Mortensen is nude. The choreography of the violence is poetic: a tour de force, balletic, graceful in its extreme bloodletting. I never dreamed I could appreciate that kind of sequence. I did.

See this film.