Actors on acting

MUCH as I try to efface this habit of making cinema actor-centric, the areas of performance on-screen and onstage have always seduced fans and admirers of the two arts. The recently concluded Academy Awards, to cite a more popular example, brought to the fore the fact that standards on acting vary. Comparing, let’s say, an Asian actor with an American or Italian really defies logic and rethinks any notion of comparability.

And yet, here is an old book I found and it is about acting and, strangely enough, it is not about acting in the showbusiness or workshop sense of it. The book has a formal title—In the Company of Actors: Reflections on the Craft of Acting. It is written by Carole Zucker, a professor of cinema, and is a product of a four-year research, which involved funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the British Council, among many other institutions and individuals.

The book promises to be an academic endeavor but I am relieved that it is written in a breezy style, less stodgy, and certainly devoid of the arty-fartsy tone books on acting assumes if only to drive home the point that acting and being actors are no less than divine gifts.

The foreword, written by Richard Eyre, who has Iris and Notes on a Scandal to his credit as a filmmaker, demystifies actors and acting immediately with these words: “I don’t know a good actor who is not intelligent, but an actor’s intelligence is like a musician’s, to do with timing, rhythm, hearing, sensibility, physical coordination rather than with cleverness and ability to express ideas.” The filmmaker, who also directs operas, stresses that acting is magic but it is also handicraft.

The book is a compilation of interviews that asks about each actor’s backgrounds, training, preparing for a role, British acting, and, most intriguingly, the difference between classical acting and the Method. First, in alphabetical order, is Eileen Atkins (Equus, The Dresser, Gosford Park). With each interview preceded by a quote from the actor, Atkins has this to say: “…I never understood why people get into such a state about nudity. For God’s sake, it’s much more, much more difficult and revealing, and incredible, to show your soul, and that’s what you’ve got to be willing to do. Why anyone should want to be an actor without being prepared to do that, I have no idea.”

But there is more to acting than baring one’s soul; there is also the sexual politics.  Atkins recalls how when she was just starting, she was told, “If you’re a woman, give yourself eight years, and if after eight years you are not working steadily, give it up. Men, give yourself five years, and if you are not working steadily, give it up.”

There is no single approach for all actors. In the case of Alan Bates, who was big in the late 1960s and 1970s (remember his nude wrestling with Oliver Reed in Ken Russel’s Women in Love?), he is almost experimental in his approach: “You just have to keep yourself very free, very loose so that something can happen, even if it’s not what happened the night before [referring to a theater performance], even if it’s not what you thought would happen.” He ends this quote by saying “something must remain alive and flexible.”

Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot) has a most unique take on getting into character. The actor confesses that when she receives the script, she goes through it in different ways.

She “reads a script the first time, and if it interests me, I will then read it is if I were the director, and then read it as if I’m each character. If there are 10 characters, I read it as if I’ve been offered that part and that part and that part.

Fricker also recounts how she and “Daniel [Day Lewis] did a huge amount of research.” And because My Left Foot “was just so well-written,” all she had to do was love the boy and believe in his character.” Brenda Fricker would go on to win the Oscar Best Supporting Actress for My Left Foot in 1989, the first Irish actor to win an Academy Award.

In this all-star cast of respondents composed of 16 contemporary actors working in theater, TV and film, two interviewees are, to me, most interesting. These are Stephen Rea and Simon Callow. The two actors adore Robert Mitchum. For Callow, the American actor is a “wonderful actor, sensitive and complex.” Rea is specific: “What it is I admire about his [Mitchum’s] acting is that he is one of the great narrative actors. Nowadays, everybody wants to show ‘emotion’; everyone since the post-Brando Italian actors wants to scream the house down and show their innards, and Mitchum simply thinks [italics by Rea].” He articulates this further by proposing how it must have “been wonderful for a director, because all you do is cut to Mitchum and he thinks something, and then you can take the movie in any direction.”

When Rea mentions Mitchum, down the line he lists the names of other “narrative” actors like Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, and Brando.

Rea has some eight films with Neil Jordan, including The Crying Game and Interview with a Vampire.

Simon Callow, who has four films with Merchant/Ivory, with A Room with a View and Maurice as the two most popular, strikes me as cerebral and funny. He also has some “nice” words about critics. Here he goes: “It’s a little hard to speak temperately about criticism, because of the sensation that you labour and labour…then you stand up on the stage…or show your film to a select group of people, people who write whatever comes into their heads, really, on no known standard, no method of computation.”

There are more items in the book by Zucker. The nonsensical, sometimes meditative, wildly pragmatic approaches of each actor to acting are in themselves lessons not only in acting but in presenting truth.

I dream of doing this kind of book with some of our esteemed movie actors, as well.


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