JUST TALK TO ME: An actor's breakthrough
I must share a breakthrough last night while coaching a young actor, because I think it will help actors of any age. It has to do with authenticity in acting. If that's what you aspire to, read on.
First a snippet from the book, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, where the actor and director John Cassavetes talks about his favorite teacher at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts:
“And there was one named Charles Jehlinger, who was, I think, the greatest teacher that ever lived. He was a terrific man. He was a man who said only two things: he said, ‘You’re not talking,’ or ‘You’re not listening.’ He said, ‘You’re an idiot, child. You went to college and you didn’t learn a thing. You didn’t learn to think, to talk, and you didn’t learn to listen.’ That’s all he taught, and he was teaching for some fifty years, and he never said anything more than that to the actor. One day he kept me up on the stage for two and a half hours to say my entrance lines, and I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. He said, ‘But you’re not talking, John.’ I said, ‘But I am talking, Sir.’ He said, ‘No, you’re not talking.’ Finally, five years later, I understood what he meant. Most actors today still don’t know how to talk and how to listen.”
Last night I worked with Alexia on a monologue she'll share for her drama school audition. Alexia’s on her way to getting ‘A-Stars’ in her final year of high school. For those outside the UK it means she’s a brainiac who would do well at anything that she sets her mind to. But she’s smart enough to have no Plan B, because it’s an actor she wants to be, and she WILL make it.
I decided to try Jehlinger’s approach (I did not use the word ‘idiot’!). Jehlinger's rant has been on my mind for months because I think many actors don’t know how to talk or listen, and after three decades of acting and teaching, the universe has just told me why. I’ll tell you the reasons why later. But with Alexia, I prepared her for what I was about to do, and I asked her to start her monologue - a gritty piece about a downtrodden young woman who has to confess her accidental pregnancy to her abusive mother. And we played the game: she ran her lines, I said “Hold please, Alexia, just talk to me.” We did this several times, and out of exasperation she said, “I don't know how to talk!!” Amazing humility there. I said, “Surrender the idea that you have to do anything except to let go of control, open your heart and let the words come out.” We continued with the exercise and it finally broke through the facade that all actors think they have to maintain to act. She was fragile but strong, and absolutely heartbreaking.
She could then use that intimacy and play the score that we created:
Here’s why I think we don’t know how to talk or how to listen:
One: we think that playing a character is an ‘act’. In other words, when I’m offstage I’m Bryan, but when I’m onstage I’m the character. That’s so 19th century.
Two: we don’t listen because we think our Ego is more interesting than the person whom we’re acting with, and we’d rather stay with that play partner. That’s a lie told to us by the Ego: “I must protect myself and my need to be in control of everything including my feelings and inadequacies. I must be entertaining, because as a person, I’m not enough.” That was Meisner’s whole point in his approach, and I think if you look at your favorite actor (Alexia’s is Timothy Chalamet), you’ll admit that they have the courage to lay themselves bare.
I think young artists need to decide whether they’re going to be a facade, a brand, an ‘act’, a fake - or they’re going to be an actor. You can choose the first option - it’s much easier and requires no courage. But I’m convinced you will never truly move an audience and you will never be fulfilled in your work. The Ego won’t let you. Have the courage to let go, surrender the Ego and celebrate yourself as a unique individual who has the right to be heard. They will listen, you will move them, they will love you more for the courage to do it and you will love yourself more as an artist.
"I had to decide early on whether I was to be an actor or a personality."
Robert De Niro
Bryan Bounds, creator of the upcoming online course 'NeuroActing', is the founder of American School of Acting and an actor and teacher with thirty five years experience in the profession.