There has been a lot of discussion in the media of late about “Method acting” and its legitimacy. In a new article in the LA Times, actor Andrew Garfield defends Method acting, and talks about his experiences preparing to play a Portuguese Catholic missionary in Japan for Martin Scorsese’s film Silence.
The “Under the Banner of Heaven” star recalled employing Method acting in Martin Scorsese‘s 2016 religious drama “Silence,” in which Garfield played a 17th century Portuguese Jesuit missionary who ventures to Japan. For the role, Garfield studied Catholicism with renowned Jesuit priest Father James Martin and took special note of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.
“It’s basically a 31-day retreat that you do where you actively meditate on the life of Jesus Christ and you place yourself, using your imagination, into every single stage and scene and moment of the life of Christ, from his inception to his resurrection,” Garfield said. “It’s a transformational process. I had a relationship with an imagined Christ in my head by the time I had finished this retreat.
That is not the only thing he did to embody the life of a priest.
“I had some pretty wild, trippy experiences,” Garfield added, “from starving myself of sex and food for that period of time.”
What Garfield is describing here is his effort to “live the part”, to live as the character he would portray had lived, or some approximation of that. It seems that this idea of “living the part” has become synonymous with Method acting in our public discourse, as has the practice of staying in character while not performing. These practices may or may not have merit, but they don’t have anything to do with Method acting, at least as it was originally conceived.
Stanislavsky, whose System is the antecedent for the Method, once tried “living the part”. as described in Isaac Butler’s book The Method How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.
Whenever Stanislavski felt lost, he researched his way forward. Perhaps, he thought, he could understand the Miserly Knight’s solitude by experiencing it himself. So he tried a kind of research that, a century later, would become standard practice in the long line of actors who claimed to follow in his footsteps: He tried to live as his character lived. He traveled to a castle and had the staff lock him in its basement, but all he picked up was “a bad cold and despair … Apparently, to become a tragedian it was not enough to lock myself in a cellar with rats. Something else was necessary. But what?”–
That was the only time that Stanislavsky ever experimented with anything like “living the part”, and he rejected it as a failure.
Nor was it a part of the teaching of Lee Strasberg, who was the American heir to Stanislavsky and is the teacher most associated with the inception of “the Method”. The hallmark of Strasberg’s work was the pride of place that it gave to a technique pioneered by Stanislavsky called emotional memory. With emotional memory, the actor attempts to relive some episode in their past life as a way of supplying the needed emotional content of a scene. Giving this priority to emotional memory became a significant point of contention with Strasberg’s contemporaries such as Stella Adler and Bobby Lewis, who felt that it encouraged self-indulgence in the actor and detracted from the presentation of the writer’s vision.
While I don’t usually teach emotional memory, I can see that it may have its uses. Actors may be called on to start a scene in an extreme emotional state, with no “runway” or stretch of scene that will help them to reach those peaks by going through the character’s experience as suppled by the writer. Emotional memory could be very useful under those circumstances. Also, I think emotional memory may work in another way: not as a rehearsal technique, but as a practice that helps actors get in touch with their emotional life and bring their emotions closer to the surface. The writer Franz Kafka once remarked that a book should be an axe to break up the frozen sea within, and I think emotional memory can function in that way as well: it can help to resurface emotions that have been repressed or buried and make them more available to the actor. I think emotional memory has to be practiced responsibly; it’s not a way to deal with traumatic experiences. That is the proper purvey of the psychologist or psychiatrist.
Regarding living the part, I am not sure. I can see how Garfield’s study of Catholicism and exploration of ascetic existence might have helped him prepare for the role, and he certainly seems to feel that it did. I’m a believer in doing whatever works, and I think every actor’s process is an individual, personal thing. I suppose I am less convinced by the idea of staying in character on a movie set while you’re not acting. It seems to me that it would be well-nigh impossible to sustain the pretense that you are a 17th century priest while hanging around on a movie set between takes. But again, whatever works.
A couple of interesting things here. First of all, Lacy’s insight that “the funniest thing is the truest thing.” Someone once remarked that “comedy is serious business.” What I take that to mean is that the humor is found through the deepest possible commitment to the given circumstances. By taking the character’s situation to heart as seriously as possible, the actor finds the humor. This recalls for me an earlier post I did on something Michael McKean of Better Call Saul said:
I don’t think that a comedy performance—You know, it’s essentially the same job, no matter what. You find out what your character wants and then you go for it. That’s really how to do anything. They’re just going to write more jokes for you if it’s a comedy.
Finding out what your character wants emerges from the given circumstances, so it all comes back to those.
The other thing is in reference to Lacy talking about
the honesty of someone seeing something they didn’t think they’d see and not knowing what to do and just being like– ahhhhh!
This reminds me of something I read recently in Isaac Butler’s book The Method How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act. Butler was talking about one of Stanislavsky’s associates, Vakhtangov, and the classes he taught in the wake of Stanislavsky’s creation of “the System”. Butler says that Vakhtangov’s classes centered on “focus, relaxation, and naivete”. The mention of naivete caught my eye. Lacy is talking about someone encountering something surprising and being genuinely disarmed by it. This is a challenging thing to achieve, as when we work on a script, we know what is going to happen in the scene. Yet somehow we must be genuinely surprised by surprising developments. I often find myself asking actors to allow themselves to be more surprised by something someone says. and I think this is because the foreknowledge that comes with having read the script is often more difficult to overcome than might be expected. So the actor needs this naivete, this ability to “not know” what is going to happen next. This in turn puts me in mind of the book Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, or the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn of the Kwan Um School of Zen, who taught the importance of cultivating what he called “don’t know” mind. When we “know”, we close ourselves off to the reality of what is happening. The actor needs this ability to “not know” in order to stay truly open to the moment.
By Andrew Wood|2023-05-19T14:00:02-07:00August 10th, 2022|Categories: actors on acting|Comments Off on Jake Lacy on how ‘The White Lotus’ reminded him that ‘the funniest thing is the truest thing’
In the approach to acting that I teach, we talk about characters as having a “gaping hole” in themselves, in their psyches. Not just holes, but wide, gaping holes. And these wide, gaping holes amount to a crisis for the character who has them.
We think of there being two types of contributors to the gaping hole. The first is called a gash. It is an episode that occurs at a point in time that robs the character of vital stuff and contributes to the gaping hole. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois has experienced the loss of the home that has been in her family for generations, Belle Reve. This is a gash for Blanche. It’s a devastating loss that contributes to her gaping hole. The same with the suicide of her husband whom she shamed for being a “degenerate”. This is a gash that widens her gaping hole.
The other type of contributor to the gaping hole is the tumor. A tumor is a condition that a character lives with over time. In Streetcar, Stanley Kowalski lives in New Orleans as a second class citizen: he is Polish, and has lived with being seen as a dirty immigrant or the child of immigrants all his life. This condition of living with this second class citizen status is a tumor; it widens Stanley’s gaping hole.
The gaping hole is important because it points to the underlying objective, which is what the character will pursue to try to fill the gaping hole. We want the underlying objective to be a “hot” need that defines the character’s motivation across different scenes. So Blanche could pursue love to try to fill her gaping hole which was created in part by the loss of her family home and the death of her husband. Stanley could pursue respect to try to fill the gaping hole created by living as a second-class citizen.
Characters form plans to try to harvest as much of their underlying objective as they can. We call these plans plot objectives. If Blanche is pursuing love, she can try to get Stella to welcome her into her home and to apologize for leaving Blanche to handle the old age of their elders on her own. She can try to find a husband. These are plot objectives she can pursue to try to win her underlying objective, love. Plot objectives change as the character’s circumstances evolve, while the underlying objective remains a constant “true north” that defines the character’s priorities moment to moment.
NPR did a nice interview with Rami Malek about his work on the role of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. I particularly like this bit:
Malek speculates that the singer’s showmanship sprung from a desire to find his place in the world. Born in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury had buck teeth and was called “Bucky” by most of the kids at the boarding school he attended in India. When Mercury returned to Zanzibar after boarding school, the country was in the midst of a revolution and his family had to immigrate to London. “At that point, trying to identify himself, [he] feels like a fish out of water,” Malek says.
But in front of a crowd, it was a different story: “When [Mercury] gets out on the stage, he holds everyone’s attention and says, ‘Hey, I may have been an outcast and a misfit, and I may feel like I don’t belong, but here on this stage, we belong together,'” Malek says. “It is the most beautiful thing to see realized.”
You see what he did there? He identified a couple of gaping wounds from Mercury’s past (having buck teeth and being teased for it, having to immigrate to London as a young adult and feeling like a fish out of water) that produces a need (for belonging) that he as the actor can pursue throughout the film. This is exactly how we break things down in class: we look at the character’s past to identify moments or periods of profound loss (which we call gashes or tumors, respectively), and also moments of triumph or completeness (which we call trophy moments), and then try to articulate what the need is that arises from those past events. In this way, we find a need that can be pursued under all circumstances, which we call the underlying objective. Then the question arises, with regard to a particular scene: how can this underlying objective be productively pursued in the situation of the scene?
Anyway, one of the things I liked in the profile was her discussion of coping with anxiety:
Do you still struggle with anxiety?
Meditation has really, really helped me, and just getting on a workout schedule. Working out is something that really helps with my anxiety. But I know that the minute I fall off of that, for sure.
But I think as a woman, it’s very difficult to deal with the hormonal fluxes that we deal with monthly. I deal with so much anxiety hormonally from my cycle. Your cycle doesn’t know when you are going to be on the red carpet for a gala. So partner that with a lack of sleep and jet lag, and it’s like a total spiral.
So for me, I just make an effort to make sure that I give myself 30 minutes a day to walk away. That just means shutting a bathroom door and just standing there for a second and focusing on my breathing, and focusing on my brain, and reconnecting to my heart and understanding who I am. That gets rid of the anxiety for me. But I think that, yeah, as an adult, it’s never not going to be a struggle. There’s so much societal influx around you, and there are so many people who need something from you.
Performing is a kind of test: we want to be found to be a good actor when we’re done. In that sense, our identity as an actor is at stake every time we do it. This produced anxiety in many of us, and we each have to go on our own journey in learning to contend with that anxiety. A former student and working actor I know created a whole regimen that she does before every audition to help her with her anxiety, a regimen that involves yoga, eating bananas (for the tryptophan), and even medication.
What I liked about Moretz’s comments is that they remind us that success doesn’t mean the end of anxiety. In fact, it can often exacerbate it: if I screw up now, everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve will be taken away. So finding out how to face down the demon of anxiety is something that most of us performers will have to contend with our whole lives long. It’s not something that we graduate from. I remember hearing a story about Josh Brolin and George Clooney making plans to get together at Clooney’s house to work on the Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar! together. Brolin, so the story goes, drove to Clooney’s house, parked in his car, and then sat in the car for an hour trying to muster the courage to go in. When he finally did, he confessed his anxiety to Clooney, saying “I’m scared to work with you. You’re George Clooney.” To which Clooney replied, “I’m scared to work with you. You’re Josh Brolin.”
Moretz’s open discussion of her struggles with anxiety is generous in that it makes room for the rest of us to feel ok about having similar struggles. If someone with her talent and skill still feels scared, then it’s no wonder that we sometimes do as well.
In a press conference, Most Valuable Player Nick Foles of the Philadephia Eagles had the following to say about failure, when asked what inspiration he wanted people to take from his journey :
Don’t be afraid to fail. I’m not Superman. We all have daily struggles in our life. Embrace the struggles and grow.
Instagram, Twitter- it’s all a highlight reel. Failure is part of life. It’s part of building character and growing.I wouldn’t be up here if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times, made mistakes. We all are human, we all have weaknesses. Without failure, I wouldn’t be up here.
Such a profound message. Actors get told that they need to have the courage to fail, and they might think “Yeah, I get that”, but actually doing it, actually failing, sucks. But it’s through that painful, disappointing process of failing that we are invited to confront our limitations and transcend them.
Being in a class in which everyone is patted on the head and told that they did good work will not afford you the opportunity to experience this kind of productive failure. This is not to say that acting teachers need to administer feedback in a harsh or cruel way. Not at all. But teachers do need to hold students to a high standard, a standard that is high enough that they will not always be able to meet it. It’s only in this kind of environment that people really grow.
We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery,
If you’re in a class where you’re not being told when you’re doing strong, fulfilled work and when you’re not, and further, what you can do to make work that is lacking better, then it’s time to find a new class.
By Andrew Wood|2023-05-19T14:02:15-07:00February 8th, 2018|Categories: inspiration|Tags: Nick Foles|Comments Off on Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles on the importance of failure