Most of us watch an actor’s performance and think that we are somehow getting a glimpse of the person behind the screen. In a sense we are, and in a sense I always try to bring something of myself to every role. I wasn’t always that way. Initially, back in my high school days, acting was my escape. I could jump into imaginary lives and temporarily be rid of myself. The invented circumstances of the play or movie evaporate inhibitions, as if one is liberated because the character he is playing isn’t him. He can embarrass himself, be a fool, be a villain, kill someone, rape someone, tell a girl he loves her, tell a guy he loves him, play someone of a different political party, a different nationality, a different religion, almost anything because, ostensibly, a performance doesn’t define a person.
I suppose one could look at an actor’s entire career and derive some enduring qualities of the person. But what if an actor was only cast in awful roles? What if we only had John Casavettes the actor and not the director? The actor Cassevetes was an entertaining and wily persona in movies like Rosemary’s Baby or The Dirty Dozen, but the wild, sexual, passionate intelligence that Cassevetes brought to the performances in his own films was something entirely different, derived from the freedom that comes with control. So an actor is his roles and he isn’t.
The actor is his role to the extent that his “instrument” is himself: his body, his movements, and his emotions and his voice and his appearance. He is intimately tied to his art in ways that other kinds of artists are not, so inevitably there will be vestiges of his real self in all the performances he plays. Brando probably revealed more of himself in Last Tango in Paris than he had intended, something that Bertolucci claimed he would pull out of him. Showing an incredibly vulnerable side of himself, some of the speeches Brando gave could have been about his own life. The character of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, a role that purportedly defined Brando and subsequent American acting, was almost the antithesis Brando’s true self. In reality he was a sensitive and intelligent artist, a contradiction that probably made his portrayal of the brutal and sensual Stanley all the more compelling. Of course Brando oozed sexuality—he couldn’t have delivered such a performance if he didn’t contain something of the primal libido that emanates from Stanley. But it wasn’t all of Brando.
An actor might be typecast if he is in a long-running series, plays a lot of roles of a similar type, or is so powerful, electric or just natural in a role that it is difficult to differentiate him from his characters. John Wayne wasn’t a cowboy. He grew up near Glendale and went to USC, but he became a cowboy after playing them for four decades in a hundred-fifty-plus films. He found that the persona worked off-screen as well as it worked onscreen and I’m sure this had an effect on his behavior, speech, opinions, political leanings and aesthetic taste. Who he became also had a lot to do with who he worked with. Director John Ford helped make Wayne into who he was on screen and he molded him off-screen as well. Wayne’s career was kick-started, nurtured and maintained by Ford. He gave Wayne his greatest roles and shaped the figure we remember.
An actor has very little control over a film and is usually beholden to the director, except for the few instances where an actor is also a producer on the film. A director has a ton of responsibility. He tracks the emotional arcs of the characters scene by scene; he makes sure that the characters are realistic (or unrealistic, whatever the needs of the film may be); he is worried about the mise en scène, the pacing, the sound, the dialogue, and a million other technical things, like the camerawork and special effects. Because it is a job that involves so much delegation and juggling, a director must depend on many people, and he wants them all to be cooperatively serving his vision. So if an actor has a conflicting vision, it usually causes problems. I suppose there are exceptions to this. If a director’s vision happens to be inferior to the actor’s and the actor persists in his interpretation and somehow the director allows this interpretation to make it into the final cut, then the conflict could be said to have been useful. But usually when there is a conflict of opinions, the director wins out because he oversees the editing of the film. Even if the actor rebels all through the shooting, the director will have control over how the performance is put together. In the worst-case scenario, the performance is a mess that resembles neither the actor’s, nor the director’s vision. Ideally the actor and director are in synch, so that the actors can deliver what the director wants—and sometimes what the director didn’t even know he wanted.
An actor is in a strange position of being the most visible component of a film with the least control over that final product. He provides a performance, and then the director, editor and producers cut, recut, test, and score. This is the nature of film. There are some actors that have such integrity and creative powers that they are doing much more than just saying lines. Performers like Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Benicio Del Toro actually paint with the characters they create. Not only are they giving full-bodied and multidimensional performances, they are transcending the medium. The performances are larger than the films; they resonate beyond the story they’re embedded in. When a director works with actors of that caliber, I suggest the director just get out of the way. These men are creative forces, and a director’s vision of a character is never going to match the complexity of what those performers can bring.
I’m not even close to those guys. I have been acting professionally for more than a decade. According to the acting teacher Sanford Meisner, I am halfway through my acting apprenticeship, and according to Ezra Pound I have finished the ten years needed to learn my art and now I need ten more years to unlearn it. I think they’re both probably right. When I try to bring my own interpretation to a role, it fails. So I am content if I achieve the director’s vision. If I do that, I’ve done my job. But when I do this, I feel like a craftsman more than an artist. I can never feel artistic exhilaration in that kind of situation. It’s not that I want or like control. I like working with others. But the actor is usually only collaborating on one portion of the film. This is why so many actors want to direct.
Recently, I performed in the soap opera General Hospital. It is easy to make fun of soaps, with their melodramatic plot lines, constant exposition, unnatural lighting, swelling music, and lack of action. Most of these aspects are due to the extreme speed at which soaps are produced. With five episodes a week, at least sixty pages need to be shot in a day. That’s a feature film’s worth of material shot every two days. This pace allows for very few takes, usually one. Soap acting is generally considered inferior to other acting, with the lack of takes cited as the reason. However, there are many fine film performances that are made up of just a few takes: Clint Eastwood is famous for doing one or two takes when directing; Robert Altman was very loose with his direction, always looking for spontaneity and truth; Gus Van Sant does very few set-ups, and very few takes. Innumerable directors of Oscar-winning films have used such techniques. The reason that soap actors look the way they do is context—how they are filmed, what they are saying, and how they are blocked. There is absolutely no way to act in a soap and pull off a performance like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, or Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. These incredible performances are supported by the incredible filmmaking that is behind them. They are given the time, dialogue, space, and aesthetic of films made by great directors.
This isn’t to say that soap opera performers are worse than film actors, or that their performances are inferior. The soap opera performance should always be perceived in context: it involves actors working in a tradition that soap audiences have come to expect and love. Soap actors are delivering exactly what they are supposed to—they are in tune with their audience and they are not attempting to transcend it. If Brando had tried to play Terry Malloy in a soap, he wouldn’t have had the time to sculpt the performance into the brooding, tortured, nuanced emotional force that won him an Oscar. The contender wouldn’t have been a somebody, instead he’d just have been another mumbling dope with bad eye makeup.June 11, 2010