Thursday, June 2, 2011

Method Acting

As a director, I marvel at the skill, discipline, and dedication it takes to be a good actor. I couldn’t do it. To be real, to be convincing, to hit marks, get laughs when required, and make it seem effortless while memorizing pages of precise dialogue is truly a gift bestowed upon very few.

Each actor has his own approach. There are more acting techniques than snowflakes in a blizzard. Some actors need to process a script for days. Some are more instinctual and can do it in ten minutes. Some are visceral, others are cerebral, a few just channel messages from outer space (but it works for them). My job as director is to get the best performance from every actor whatever his process and have them all peak when the cameras are rolling. It’s a juggling act to be sure but the rewards are worth it.

So I try to be accepting of any technique an actor may bring. Half the time I don’t even understand them. One time an actor came to me and asked if he could “activate his choices”. I said sure. I had (and still have) no fucking clue what the hell that means. But the next day his performance was better so activate to your heart's content?

However, the one technique I really don’t get in “Method”. In short, “Method” is a process where actors try to create in themselves the thoughts and emotions of their characters in an effort to develop lifelike performances. In other words, they try to “be” the character, total immersion. This technique was very in vogue in the ‘40s and ‘50s and produced some great actors like Brando and James Dean.

And there is certainly something to be said for totally committing to a character, but sometimes it can be taken too far. And where do you draw the line between art and reality? If you play a killer do you need to go out and actually kill someone to portray your character honestly? What if you’re single and you get a great role but the character is married? Do you become Larry King and propose to the first woman you see at Nate N’ Al's?

I’m sure every director has a few stories dealing with method actors. Here are three of mine:

I once wrote a one-act play with David Isaacs about a Malibu condo that was leaking during a rainstorm. The play was a farce – characters frantically running in and out with buckets, that sort of thing. At one point a character goes off stage to mop up a leak. The actor wanted to know where the leak was. I said, “Off stage. Wherever.” That wasn’t good enough. He needed to know exactly where. So I shrugged, walked backstage with him, pointed to a spot on the floor and said, “right there...no, wait.  There!”. He thanked me and throughout the run of the show he went to that spot, got on his hands and knees, and went to work mopping up. Meanwhile, other actors are tripping all over him coming on and off the stage. The real farce was unseen by the audience.

On the MARY show David and I did (Mary Tyler Moore comeback vehicle 3 of 7) set in a tabloid newspaper in Chicago, the great John Astin played a theater critic. During the filming of the shows (with a studio audience present) John would sit at his desk and actually write reviews. And here’s the thing – the reviews were HILARIOUS. Far funnier than the scripts.

But the best method example I’ve saved for last. I was directing a sitcom episode where the star opens a door to find a woman supposedly in a certain uncompromising position with a man. The camera of course would be on the actor’s face recording his shocked reaction to this scene.

So it’s time for the runthrough, we get to that scene, the actor opens the door and there is this guest-starring actress on her knees, head buried in her scene partner’s lap, simulating a very convincing blowjob. The look on the happy recipient's face was, “Wow! This is the greatest job EVER!”

This actress pops up a lot in TV guest-star roles. And all I have to do is see the back of her head and I pop up as well. It was really embarrassing the time she was on some hospital show playing a terminal patient and I had to put a throw pillow on my lap.

To me the real danger in method acting is how do you discard one character and move on to the next? I know I can’t. Even in her death scene I was drooling like Pepe LePew.

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