Sunday, 9 February 2014

To be The Actor's Actor

The acting world lost one of its greats this week. With the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a leading light in the world of entertainment was extinguished. Because he didn’t court publicity or lead a particularly celebrity-orientated life, it’s easy to overlook the significance of his passing but to many, this New York actor, was a mighty talent. This week I’ve heard him described as an actor’s actor. To me, that means an artist who other performers looked up to, whose work ethic they sought to model, a man committed 100% to acting and not the trappings of fame or notoriety.

The process I’ve been in over the past few months has allowed me to appreciate the enormity of what Hoffman brought to the table in every role and perhaps even why addiction and mental health concerns can be part and parcel of the actor’s lot.

This year I returned to actor training here in Los Angeles at the Howard Fine ActingStudio

Howard, who I’m lucky enough to be working with, has worked with some very accomplished and successful actors. You may have heard of some of them - Brad Pitt, Michelle Williams, Bradley Cooper and Jared Leto to name a few. Basically, I’m in pretty good company.

For some time I’d been looking to supplement the actors training I took ten years ago however, I had no idea where to go for this extra training. Unsurprisingly Hollywood is awash with acting coaches or people claiming to be as much. People who declare they’ve created a 15 step technique to help you book auditions or quick steps to help you create a character. In fact the second biggest business in Hollywood after movies and TV seems to be parasiting off of actors - offering lessons, headshots, video shoots, and all kinds of other lucrative (for everyone but the actor) schemes. Needless to say it can be a minefield when seeking products and services that are as good as people claim. Then there are places such as Howard Fine’s studio. This is the real deal. So good and solid is his training that the studio never advertises. In the early days, the phone number was ex-directory. That way he knew that if a student found him, they were serious about their training.

Now-a-days he’s not quite so militant but he does have a very clear ethos at his school and it’s been this ethos I’ve been completely enveloped in for the past several weeks and illuminated quite what it is actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman's do.

In the end, it wasn’t Howard’s impressive alumni that drew me to the class, but something he said on a panel regarding preparing for pilot season. Howard is passionately opposed to people trying to find easy techniques or quick fixes to their acting and also those actors who create a character that exists independently of themselves. In this talk he told the assembled actors that your job is to find the character in you.

One of the most important things he advocates, in fact insists on, is using yourself as your source when creating a character. This in itself was a revelation to me. When acting, I more often than not, imagined the person I was playing as being outside of me then tried to recreate them. 

I gave little thought to their back story, thinking about it enough to make sense of the lines but little more. To me, acting was learning your lines, standing in the right place and not breaking anything. At the studio, I’m learning it’s so much more.

Another important part of the actor’s process is to take an inventory of your life. It’s a private process where you revisit emotionally charged events to use later in scenes where you need to generate that same experience. It is a demanding process which requires both a vulnerability to allow that emotion to surface once again no matter how painful but also a mental toughness to not indulge the experience, allowing it to leave you once you're done.

Howard speaks extensively about mental toughness and how it is the prerequisite for a good actor – to be able to “go there” and bring yourself back without getting lost. This task is made doubly challenging when you remember; your limbic system makes no distinction between an imagined experience and the real thing. Basically, if you do this correctly your body will feel as though it’s experiencing the situation for real.

Another aspect of the training is staying in the present and not preshaping your performance. By preshaping he means, don’t make a decision on how you’re going to say a line before you’ve even heard what your scene partner has said to you. He reminds us this is actually just common sense. When we, as humans, interact, we check in with the person we’re talking to to ensure they’ve received what we’ve said, that they’ve understood us and even if it’s affected them.

To act effectively is to recreate authentic human life on stage or screen as it really is, not an idea of what we think it should be (which bad acting can descend into). Audiences instinctively know if what they’re being presented with is inauthentic even if they don’t have the language to describe it. They lose faith in a character and their decisions or simply disconnect from their portrayal.

Howard is providing us with a technique that helps us tap into our humanity so that we don’t so much act like a character but like us, in the very particular circumstances.

It's actually really hard to recreate normal human instincts. A case in point is walking. Most of us have pretty much nailed walking to the point where we don't really think about it but if we're asked to walk from one side of a room to the other before a group of people, we can barely put one foot in front of the other. We immediately feel awkward and self-conscious.

This is why, when people dismiss certain actors as “just playing themselves” in every role, they’ve grossly underestimated the amount of work it actually takes to just be you! It’s tough. The temptation is to think that you are not enough and to embellish what you are doing but this loading on of affectations disconnects the audience. We call it "being over the top". Less is truly more. Equally, what separates good actors from great ones is the ability to empathise with a character and ask not, would I do this thing or that, but what would make me do that. In each of us is the capacity for every human action and therefore accessing that means you can play everything from a president to a vagrant truthfully and sympathetically without judgement. For example, when Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal, he doesn't play "the villain" he plays a man (with a taste for human innards but a man nonetheless).

You must, however, be willing to take stock of your whole life (the personal inventory I mentioned earlier). You have to be willing to put all of who you are on the table and allow it to be available to your characterization and that’s hard too. Howard often shares a quote on this very subject which is that, we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. That is to say,  our self-image is one that often doesn’t include negative actions, emotions or behaviours however the actor's job is to look at all parts of who you are and make it all available for the role. It really calls on some very dispassionate honesty with yourself, something I really hadn’t appreciated.

Another insight I’ve had in the few short weeks I’ve been working with Howard is that story tellers, which actors essentially are, have a particular social responsibility. The reason we need expert story tellers is because as humans we need to see humans try and overcome, we need to see life reflected on screen and on the stage to connect us to our own humanity. Without getting overly dramatic, we need it to lessen the weight of existential crisis that sits in all of us (to a greater or lesser degree).

That’s the responsibility of the well told story and I’m not talking high art here either. Access to our humanity is available to us through everything from Ghostbusters to Gravity, from Frozen to Fargo because these are simply human stories, expertly told. Who hasn't had a sniffle at movies like Up and Toy Story? They chime a chord in all of us in relation to our own experiences. Loss, hope, betrayal. They're not just cartoons!

This is why I believe great actors are revered. Because they are willing, and have tuned their instrument, i.e. their being, to be able to channel, reflect or represent humanity so that we many see it in all its rawness and have an experience of our own in doing so.

And the broader a performer's life experiences, the more of humanity they're able to place on the table for the viewer to experience. Some of our greatest actors have known the greatest darkness of the human condition and are brave enough to share it. There can be a cost to this however. Those deep experiences can almost be too much to carry. They create a hole, or at least the perception of one in our being that the actor may feel they need to fill or medicate themselves against the pain of and that may be the combination, the perfect storm, that manifested in someone like Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Sometimes the greatest artists bear the greatest pain and therefore need their strongest pain relief.

During my recent studies, I’ve developed an even greater respect for those artists among us who are willing to put their lives on the line and make them available to the film or production they’re working on.

The people who do this are the vulnerable souls among us. Perhaps the slightly odd one at school, the person who’s behaviour couldn’t always be explained, sometimes the larger than life character, sometimes the tiny voice that boomed only when on stage but channelled something exquisite in that moment. They are never the ones who make being cool more important than being authentic. Those guys don’t become artists, they get sensible jobs and that’s OK but as a side note, it’s very easy to attack an artist because to be one automatically means to be vulnerable and exposed.

I’m not even halfway through my training and already I’ve learned so much. I’m glad that I’m familiar with Philip Seymour Hoffman's work and that I’ve been given a context in which to appreciate exactly what he did and to no longer dismiss the actor's process as being indulgent or self-involved. There is deep and difficult work to be done to realise a role fully and I’m looking forward to the next thing I work on so I can apply the newfound knowledge and understanding I’ve been given.

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Actors’ actor. 

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Others you may be interested in: Thoughts on Amy, Really Love Film  and What's Happened At The Movies?


  1. He was a great talent and not afraid to take on a diversity of roles

  2. Such a vital post Andi and you are so right, actors are shaymanistic in the way they take on a character and by being you and relating that character back to yourself (the closest person you know or should know) is the way forward in creating truthfulness on screen. As a director I always feel the greatest actors I've worked with always listen to the line before and acting is about reacting. It sounds like the process you are going through is incredible, thanks so much for sharing. Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the greatest actors, such a loss for all. He will remain immortal through his work...


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