I’m a written-page guy. The writer gives you everything you need.–William H Macy
If you could make a word cloud of the words that appear most often in acting classes everywhere, “choices” would be the word that probably comes up more often than any other. Believe it or not, I think that that is actually symptomatic of a deep-seated confusion about what acting is and how an actor’s connection to a role develops.
Earl Gister, who was the Dean of the Acting Program at the Yale School of Drama for more than fifteen years, and who was my acting teacher at Yale, spoke of the actor “fulfilling” the role. What he meant by that is that in a screenplay or play, a character fulfills a function in the unfolding of the narrative. On the most superficial level, this means that they will perform certain actions that contribute to the unfolding of the plot: a character might steal money, seek someone’s hand in marriage, or sell a house. But beyond the plot, characters, in their interactions with each other, exert pressures on each other that attempt to alter or restore their relationships, to affect the emotional climate in which they travel. It is in these encounters and confrontations that the episodes of the plot become inevitabilities, they become necessary. To the extent that the actor has discovered what pressures the writer needs her to exert in order to make the contribution to the various scenes in which she appears, she has succeeeded, she has “fulfilled” the role.
All of this is to say that first and foremost, work on a role is not about making “choices” but about tapping into the heart of the role as defined by the author, in fact finding the same impulse in the actor herself that prompted the writer to create the character in question in the first place. This impulse will reside “deep inside”, it will be a primitive longing for connection and belonging. Rather than making choices, the actor opens himself to the writer’s creation in the hopes of being being “chosen” by the role itself. In place of “choices”, I would wish that “discoveries” were the word that appeared most often in the word cloud made from acting classes everywhere. This expresses correctly the actor’s relationship to his or her role.
The obsession with “choices” flatters the actor, feeds his narcissism, suggests that he can exert his volition, his will, in the shaping of the role, and by doing so “originally”, “provocatively”, “unpredictably”, he will distinguish himself from all the other busy choice-makers out there. When an actor has attuned himself to a text, intuition is active and impulses arise. He does not “choose” anything. Opportunities bubble up out of his frontal lobe (the part of the brain where creativity resides, IIRC), and he ACTS on them. He discovers them. The “choices” canard invites actors to think that what they do TO a role is what will determine whether they succeed, rather than their MANIFESTING or EMBODYING the role. There’s the rub, to coin a phrase.
Actors do put their individual stamp on a role, no two ways about it. But it is not by making “choices”, which implies a cerebral act of calculation, as if all the possible ways a moment could be played were laid out on a table like a brunch buffet, and it’s simply a matter of deciding whether you like the Eggs Benedict better than the smoked salmon. The audience doesn’t care about the actor’s preference for smoked salmon or Eggs Benedict. It’s immaterial to the people watching. What they care about is: has the actor brought her own humanity to bear on the fictional character she is embodying? If she has done that, no one will be thinking about her “choices.” They’ll be too busy watching the story unfold, and wondering what will happen next.