Bryan Cranston schools Terry Gross about acting

Today, in honor of the Emmys, Terry Gross interviews Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston about acting, life, and Van Dyke mustaches. While I don’t regard Cranston as the ne plus ultra of actors, based on what I’ve seen, which is admittedly not that much, there are some nice moments in this interview. For example, near the beginning of the interview, Terry wants to play the scene that I guess has come to be known, among the Breakingbaderati, as the “one who knocks” scene, and she is talking about how Walter White’s wife doesn’t know all of the things he has done, things that Terry characterizes as horrible. Cranston takes issue, a little bit, with Terry’s assessment. At about the 2 minute mark, in response to Terry’s use of the word ‘horrible’ to describe Walter’s deeds:

“Well…you know, horrible to one man is…necessary, to another.”

Acting is about entering into the necessities facing a character, one of the progenitors of the approach I teach said. The actor has to become the person who needs to do and say what it is that the character is given to do and say.

It’s a good interview. I like the story about Cranston’s parents, and helped him to develop the stamina necessary (!) for life as an actor. Give it a listen.

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touching lives

So inexpressibly sad today about the horrific and grotesque execution of American journalist James Foley. His parents spoke about him today.


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I loved what they had to say about why he went back to the Middle East after being imprisoned in Libya: why do firefighters keep going into burning buildings? Because it’s their job. Journalism was James’ passion, his vocation. He was firmly convinced that it was his place in the world, and was ready to risk his life in order to keep doing it.

Being a creative person is an incredibly difficult undertaking. Just ask Robin Williams, or Heath Ledger. Getting the world to pay attention and furnish us with opportunities is difficult, and then there is also the baked-in-the-cake part of every creative person that constantly calls the value of our work into question. Chekhov said that dissatisfaction with oneself is the source of any true achievement. True as that may be, living with that dissatisfaction on a daily basis is wearing, to say the least.

James Foley’s parents talk about how many lives that he touched. Touching lives is the potential of our lives as creative people. That’s something to remember the next time you’re thinking that you should have gone to law school or become a CPA or whatever. With all due respect to lawyers and accountants, as actors, writers, teachers, and other creatives, we have a special opportunity to touch the lives of people, to inspire them, to restore their sense of the wonder of the world. Of course, to be able to do that, we have to be very good. It takes steely resolve, stamina, and faith to make the sustained investment in one’s work that it takes to reach the point where one can consistently offer work that is very good. No one questions how much time a violinist or an athlete needs to invest, over a period of years or decades, to acquire the level of mastery required to be able to touch lives, but aspiring actors often somehow think that less will be asked of them. As a teacher of acting, it’s often my job to help them understand this, and their understanding this sometimes means they decide not to go any further. But the other side of it is this power to touch lives, to have the ability to remind people what an extraordinary thing it is live a life, to renew the spirits of people, to reconnect them to their sense of possibility. And what a fine thing that is, a fine thing to be able to be a part of.

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“But where does the emotion come from?”

I was giving an overview of my approach to a group of students at a local acting school. Near the end of my talk, a student who had had a bit of a Strasberg background raised her hand and posed the question that gives this post its title.

As a student of the Strasberg approach, she had been taught that she needed to use emotional memory to infuse a scene with vitality and interest. Without the actor’s own experience, the scene would be devoid of feeling and therefore of interest, she apparently thought.

At that moment, since all I was doing was giving an overview of my approach, there was little I could do to respond beyond reiterate some of the points that I had already made: namely, that we all have a hunger for connection and meaningful relationship, and that what we would attempt to do was to bring that need to bear on the imaginary circumstances of the character. But I knew that, especially given her beliefs about what it took for a scene to come to life, this wasn’t going to mean much to her. All I could do was assure her that over the course of the class I was beginning to teach with them, she would come to understand what I was talking about. Trust me, in other words.

With this group of students, I was beginning with a so-called “neutral scene”. This is a familiar enough acting class assignment: students have to play a scene with no help from the text or dialogue, which was comprised of utterances such as “Okay–Please—” and “Come on!”. I have a particular way of working with the neutral scene that requires students to invent a fully developed scenario, with characters that have rich pasts and dreams for the future, and also have activities in the present situation that they can pursue independently of the scene partner. It’s a challenging exercise that takes students a few weeks to complete, from scenario generation to approval of the final presentation.

We were looking at such a neutral scene, and it became clear that a prior encounter in the lives of the characters was lacking in definition: the actors knew what the upshot of the discussion between the characters was, but not what had actually been said. I discussed with the actors at length the nature of the relationship, the situation, and the needs in question, and then asked them to improvise that past encounter that seemed to be lacking in definition. They did the improv, and the result was unexpectedly spectacular. Unexpectedly, not because the actors in question weren’t good, but because in my experience such improv explorations devolve into expository exercises, in which the characters explain the circumstances to each other, rather than really pursue from each other. But for whatever reason, that was not the case this time. The confrontation in the scene was painful and involving, in the way that the situation, a fight between best friends, should have been.

I sat for a moment, thrilled at what the students had done, and then I turned to the woman who had posed the question about where the emotion came from, and asked her where the “emotion” had come from in this case. The woman nodded her head, and then answered that it had come from the actors’ understanding of what was happening in the scene. She had understood that it was entirely possible to do compelling work WITHOUT recalling an episode of her own life, but beyond that, that drama was about relationship, about what was happening between people, as much as it was about what was happening inside anyone.

In my experience and in the approach presented to me at Yale, clear and compelling descriptions of the circumstances and needs in a scene are the main fuel for the actor’s work. I do teach transference, a technique for using relationships from the actor’s personal experience to help clarify the nature of the relationships in the script, but this is a technique for preparation, not a rehearsal or performance technique. And I think of transference, if not as something supplemental, at least as secondary to the process of really coming to grips with the circumstances and finding a strong, immediately-gratifiable need to pursue. Transference can amplify an actor’s investment in another character, but without the channels of need and desired outcome to pursue to direct this investment towards, that investment is like an idling engine: full of power, but not going anywhere yet. And often, I think the power of clear, sharp accounts of circumstances, desired outcomes and needs are underestimated: their power to ignite a scene, to imbue it with urgency and vulnerability, is seldom understood. Even as I demonstrate this power in my class, again and again, I find that students often take a while to fully absorb this power and its implications for their work as actors.

“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.)…And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”–Ludwig Wittgenstein

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the ostrich effect

Nice piece on NPR today about something called the “ostrich effect.” In a study, students were motivated by various incentives and penalties to take a test to determine whether they had genital herpes. In spite of having to pay a penalty (presumably from their compensation for participating in the study) if they refused the test, and in spite of the fact that their blood would be drawn regardless of whether they agreed to have it tested, 15% of the students still did not want to have the test, even though, rationally speaking, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by finding out the truth. And yet, some of them didn’t want to know. “For those who didn’t want to know, the most common explanation was that they felt the results might cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety.”

What the article doesn’t mention, and I guess is to important to consider, is that some of the students may not have wanted to know because they didn’t want the responsibility of having to act in a way that would protect others. This means that they would rather be spreading the disease to others and not know it, than know about it and take the necessary steps. Not surprising, I suppose, given that the the subjects were college-aged, and likely fairly sexually active, but still, worth considering. Perhaps the “stress and anxiety” is actually a euphemism for precisely this.

Where am I going with this? Well, I talk to students (and have written before on this blog more than once) about what I call the “get it off my desk” phenomenon. It’s not the same thing, exactly, as the ostrich effect, but a cousin certainly. Essentially, in studying a script, actors will encounter bits of information on the characters’ past, or there will be bits of information that imply other things that are not stated expressly. Many of these things are presented obliquely, or indirectly, by the text, because, well, it would be bad writing if it just laid everything out explicitly. However, acting the role demands attention to these indirectly presented points. Now, sometimes these things go unnoticed, and so actors need to work to “be one upon whom nothing is lost”, as one famous American novelist enjoined other writers. But sometimes, these little bits of information ARE noticed, but they are, for some reason, ignored.

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“towering emotional and spiritual stakes…”

“…that fertilize our soul for quantum growth, irrespective of outcome.”

This talk, by ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll, speaks about the rampant desire to “hack” one’s life, to find quick fixes and short cuts and easy profit. As I have written about many times, this attitude pervades the Hollywood acting culture, propagated by latter day purveyors of snake oil: cold reading classes, audition classes, acting classes that deride preparation, among many other dubious offerings.

Rich Roll’s talk is persuasive and eloquent on sustained dedication to a pursuit as the indispensable source of meaning. You’ll need just shy of 20 minutes, but it’s worth finding the time for.

The talk put me in mind of one of my favorite quotes, from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” –Theodore Roosevelt

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love regained

I just finished the first novel I’ve read in years. What a tonic, what a thrill, what a lark! The joys of total immersion. I had forgotten.

I wrote a dissertation on novels, which I finished in 2010. That left me sated with literary fiction for quite a while, and that’s really the only kind of fiction I am interested in. I keep myself pretty busy with teaching, running a business, writing a blog, keeping an eye on the spectacle that is American politics (somebody’s got to!), directing plays, raising a puppy, cleaning the house, and reading books. Not novels, not short stories, not fictions of any kind. Non-fiction about brain science or empathy or mastering a craft, things that might help me become a better acting teacher or at least a more knowledgeable one, and also give me grist for the relentless blogging mill. In short, I had let fiction come to feel like a luxury I just didn’t have time for.

However, after a while, my conscience woke up, for deep inside, I knew that not reading fiction was a form of self-neglect. Fiction had been a mainstay of my younger self, and had gotten me through some rough patches in life, in a surprising variety of ways. It was perhaps the supreme form of mental and spiritual self-nourishment, I had found. Whenever I moved to a new place, I immediately unpacked my books. They were a constellation of old friends who helped to remind me that although I was in a new place with new surroundings, with new pursuits and new priorities, some element of who I had previously been persisted.

2666 by Roberto BolanoA few years ago, a friend with a taste in books that I found congenial recommended Roberto Bolano’s 5-part epic 2666. What he told me about it made it sound unlikely that I would like it, but I liked its numerical title, its five volumes, and, I suppose, its German connection, which my friend had mentioned. I could also tell that my friend’s passion had been aroused by it: he felt the need to talk about it, and although he was thoughtful enough to restrain himself from asking me to listen to too much about it, his need to talk about it made an impression on me, and I filed the title away somewhere.

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on looking at text

My sense is that much of what goes by the name of “script analysis” today is actually not very helpful. Actors often sense that “not-helpfulness” and end up ignoring their analysis of the text, or skipping over it altogether. This has some dangers, most notably, what my teacher at Yale, Earle Gister, called “playing the language”, which seems to me to be what Howard Fine is talking about in The Common Mistakes section of Fine on Acting when he talks about “acting on the lines”. The actor believes she can just look at a line of text and know what to do with it, how to deliver it. So a line like “How dare you!” should be said indignantly, and “You’re so sweet!” should be said affectionately, and so on. This leads to banal delivery and ignores everything else that might be going on, apart from what is being said.

Then actors will notice that often, the most interesting deliveries are those that cut against the explicit meaning of the line. So they will conclude that they should always speak the lines in a way that cuts against the explicit meaning of the line. But in the end this amounts to the same thing. The actor is being responsive to the line and only to the line, and not to relationship, circumstance, need, or anything else. The difference between this and the first approach is only superficial, at best.

So what’s an actor to do? Knowing what to do with text emerges from examining that text, those lines, in the context of circumstances and need. I have discussed this at length in other posts, but I want to say a bit more about the text itself right now. What the character says is not unimportant, it just has to be viewed in relation to those other elements. But if it is important, how is it important? If the explicit meaning itself does not determine what to do with a line of text, but is nevertheless somehow important, in what way is it important? How does it matter?

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Andrew Wood Acting Studio featured on Backstage

acting studio los angeles  -Andrew Wood Acting Studio profiled on Backstage.comRight here.

Great to receive some attention from such a high-profile website! Thanks to all of my students over the last ten years who have enabled to me to share the insights that I love so much!

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the vulnerability confusion

I was a on website for actors that publishes advice columns from various eminences in the industry: acting teachers, agents, casting directors, and others. I saw one such column from a prominent acting teacher in town who was recommending to actors that they try to be more vulnerable in their lives. This teacher was telling actors that during their day, when something embarrassing happened, an episode of clumsiness or cluelessness or whatever, the actor should make a conscious effort to be vulnerable in such situations: to face the witnesses to the moment of awkwardness, and in the process, maybe form a connection or at least have a moment with someone that would not otherwise have happened. The suggestion seems to be that in this way, the actor practices exercising her vulnerability muscles, and if those muscles get strong enough, she will be able to leverage them when an audition calls for true vulnerability.

But not so fast. Vulnerability is not, at bottom, an attitude we adopt towards a situation. In one sense, yes, we can choose to stay open or close down to someone. So there is something to this. But this is the tip of the iceberg. And we are interested, as actors, when it comes to vulnerability, in more than just the tip.

For an iceberg is an underwater mountain. It weighs tons, literally, and extends downwards into the depths. As human beings, we come into every moment, in which we might decide to throw that switch and make ourselves vulnerable, from somewhere. This is true in a literal sense: we come from Zimbabwe, or from Soviet Georgia, East St. Louis, or from Paris, or we lived across the street, to paraphrase a band I like. But we also enter into present moments from already-existing situations and contexts: our family, our education, our ongoing and discontinued relationships. Because of these contexts that already exist, we have a whole set of commitments or investments: people we care about, political convictions, passions, fetishes, even phobias and prejudices. If this moment when we might choose to throw the vulnerability switch is one in which we are interacting with someone previously known to us, then we are likely invested in that person in a particular way: we look for certain kinds of treatment from them, certain kinds of recognition of who and what we are. We may also have expectations about what various kinds of strangers, of various races, genders and occupations, may offer us. In either case, our vulnerability to the other person is baked into the cake: we are vulnerable to these people, whether we like it or not.

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Does it run in the family? Sadly, no.

From a review of Amy Poehler and her brother Greg’s new show, Welcome to Sweden:

“Welcome to Sweden,” about a man who leaves his high paying job as a celebrity accountant to move to Sweden for the love of his life, was created by Greg Poehler, brother of “Parks and Recreation” star and comedy veteran Amy Poehler. The elder Poehler cashes in a few favors from the likes of “SNL” veteran Will Ferrell and “Parks and Rec” co-star Aubrey Plaza to bring some much needed talent to the show, as well as appearing as an evil version of herself on more than one occasion. She, as always, is a delight — as are most of the celebrity guests, who occasionally save some subpar writing — but a much harsher “d” word comes to mind when watching the character her brother portrays on the show.

Unlike his sister, Greg has no formal training as an actor, writer, or producer (he and Amy serve as executive producers). Sadly, it shows. While plenty of family members are funny in their own right, it appears Amy’s wealth of experience in the UCB improv theatre, years writing and acting on “Saturday Night Live” and many diverse roles in television and film have actually helped her hone her craft and become one of the funniest people on the planet. Her brother, however, did none of these things, instead relying on whatever inherit[sic] charm and perseverance was within him to churn out a comedy series based on his own personal experiences moving to Sweden.

Big surprise: it doesn’t work… “

Hard work. Dedication. Stamina. There are no short cuts.

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