What do you want in Actor Training

DSCF2493I don’t know what I’m looking for when looking for actor training! What should I be doing?
Six different people have asked me this in the past 3 days. So here’s another longish blurb from the master of longish blurbs.
The first and most important answer is this: It depends on what you want.
You see there are many different kinds of acting and you need to ask yourself what you want to do. Then you need to ask the teacher or the school what they teach.
Are you one of those people who watch TV and think, that looks easy. I want to do that so I can make lots of money like that Brian Cranston guy or that Colin Farrell guy or that Kevin Spacey guy or that Rachel McAdams girl. If so, there are a load of places that teach what’s loosely called screen acting that can help you to achieve believability in the style of TV or Film Realism.
However, there’s an awful lot more to what Brian and Colin and Kevin and Rachel are doing other than being believable, and that’s what separates them from the masses of other actors in the world who can “be believable”. I’ll get to that in a minute.
There are other kinds of actors out there too. There are actors like Tom Hardy, Daniel Day-Lewis, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Cate Blanchet. These are actors who often work much more through a physicalisation of character and performance.
There’s many other kinds of acting. Many.
Either way, most, if not all of the actors you are watching on the screen or on the stage are doing much more than “being believable”. In fact a lot of the time the question of believability doesn’t even come into the equation or the preparation. It just seems like that’s all they’re doing, because they know that the complex homework and technical work that has been done to achieve that performance has to be invisible to the audience. Otherwise it can break the effectiveness of the story-telling if we can see the actor’s process. And even that is not always the case, depending on the genre or style of the performance.
So the big paradox of all this is that a lot of actors come to be thinking that the ultimate achievement of actor training is believability, when in fact it’s the most basic element of all of it and doesn’t make you an exceptional actor at all, but just lumps you into that huge ocean of other believable actors. Yes, it has to be done. In The Applied Art of Acting we knock it over in the first week. You have to learn how to be believable, but that’s not what’s happening in the acting you’re watching when you watch great actors. That’s just a kind of bi-product of a whole lot of other work that’s being put in.
Ok, so winding back a bit. If you think of all the actors I’ve just listed here and you think of anything you have seen them do, they have CHANGED themselves in order to do what they are doing. There’s a committed set of very specific changes going on. These changes happen in several different ways depending on the project and the character. Again for the sake of ease lets lump these into three categories: psychological, physical, vocal.
The fact is you are never your character. Your character has had a whole other life building up to their current life. They have a different history, probably come from a different culture and have different attitudes and opinions and appetites and all manner of things that make them psychologically different to you. They have another personality altogether as a result of all these psychological peculiarities and details. All of these kinds of details about your own life make you you. All these details about the character’s life makes them them. So even if you don’t change your physical of vocal pattern at all, you will always have some shift to make to actually approach the world from the character’s point of view other than your own. Otherwise it’s just you, saying the lines believably, without any sense of character. Your friends can give you the little golf clap of believability, but that’s all. Most actors find that as soon as they let a set of given circumstances and a basic objective work on them, they begin to feel sensations of doing things and saying things from someone else’s perspective. It’s almost unavoidable. So even if Colin looks like he’s just being Colin or Kevin looks like he’s just being Kevin, there’s a whole lot of other stuff that’s going on within them during that performance that is not to do with them, but to do with another life called the character. Even if they are projecting some part of their own personality onto the work, they are still taking that part and enhancing it to create this new life.
Now some situations require a physical change also, or at least a physical commitment to the character. Again, they are not you. They have a body of their own. It may move differently to yours. Take any physical transformation performance. Tom Hardy in Stuart: A Life Backwards. Daniel Day-Lewis in… just about anything he’s ever done. Eddie Redmayne in most of his most recent stuff. Cate Blanchet in… pretty much everything too.
Vocally, your character has a quality to its voice. It makes a unique sound that probably has its own accent. Obvious examples, Heath’s Joker, Cate in Veronica Guerin, Slingblade. I could go on and on, but you see what I mean. In Ireland, so much stuff is international you’d better be ready to depart from that Irish accent because the next thing you are auditioning for could require Scandinavian or any variety of English or American dialect. And no, often you won’t have a dialect coach on set. You certainly won’t have one before the audition unless you pay someone to help you out.
So let’s not ramble too much. Again you need to ask what you want and then you need to go to the school or teacher you’re thinking of committing your time and money too and ask them what they teach and what you will come away with at the end. If you are aiming to just be believable, that’s fine and yes, necessary. If you are looking to be able to do what those actors you are watching on Netflix or whatever are doing, then you need to think about a place that teaches you a technique that includes physical, vocal and psychological nuanced approaches to acting.
When you are watching those great actors up there on the screen or the stage, you may walk away thinking how incredibly believable they were and that’s what excited you about the performance. But in fact it wasn’t. What excited you was the fact that you were told a story about a living character so effectively that you weren’t thinking about the acting at all.
Obviously I teach my own courses, but I’ve also taught for many other places and I’m not mentioning any by name because obviously I don’t want to be seen to be playing favourites. But even good Screen Acting places bring me in to teach all manner of technical approaches, even some that seem to be, from a layman’s perspective, unrelated to screen training, like classical text for example. Of course this makes perfect sense. With so much epic stuff like Vikings and Game of Thrones out there now, that sense of power and presence that classical text lends you is really important to have. Good screen training isn’t just about filming yourself, looking at the result and wondering if it’s good or not. Screen training is about working out the best way of conveying an immense story of a character and its immense life through the eye of a needle.
Enjoy the sun kids.
PS. If you haven’t seen Stuart… It’s really very good.