The toughest assignment for an actor is to remain natural.
As a young director, I was warned by my mentors to try to stay away from asking an actor to be themselves. I was told that many actors haven’t a clue to who or what they really are. In fact I was also told that many actors think they know but are under a misguided conception of what their truth really is. Others might not want to know.
So here’s a very broad statement to chew on. If you don’t want to discover and practice your own individual truth, your chances of becoming successful as a professional actor will be unmercifully diminished. It may not make you happy to discover your truth as a human being, but knowing your truth will definitely give you a tremendous leg up as an actor.
There are times in my travels when an encounter with an actor in an everyday situation is disappointing at best. I’m referring to a chance meeting at some sort of function or during a casual coffee shop conversation. Coming away from the encounter with the feeling that this guy or gal came across as being rather shallow; they didn’t have the ability to share their true feelings with me. And then to meet that same person in the actor/director environment, only to be elated as well as surprised by their total ability to tell the truth through the eyes of another. That other person that I refer to is the character they happen to be portraying. What they don’t want to give into is the fact that, whatever they may think of it as, playacting is still a way of telling the truth.
Perhaps one of the greatest actors of all time said it as succinctly as any actor I’ve ever heard when he responded when asked during an interview what his acting method was:
“Well I just look the other actor right in the eye and tell them the truth. The truth was always evident in any role portrayed by that actor.” – James Cagney
Many actors who had the opportunity to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock usually were in for a big surprise when they discovered how little direction he offered in the way of acting. One day, when Carey Grant asked Hitchcock for some advice on how to interpret the meaning of a particular scene, Hitchcock responded with: “You’re here because you’re right for it.”
In his own way he was telling Carey Grant to be himself. That was the end of the acting direction. Hitchcock sought the truth and that’s what his actors gave him. During another incident involving Mr. Hitchcock, a visitor to the set had the guts (or the stupidity) to endanger his life by, without warning, asking Hitchcock to explain why he wasn’t looking at his actors during a rehearsal of the scene. Mr. Hitchcock’s reply: “I can hear what they look like.”
That response has become a major part of my professional career. For many years, I have earned my living listening to actors. As your audience, if you tell me the truth, I will buy from you, and I will allow you to influence my life.
Just as a reminder, the Kalmenson Method was derived by the means of close study of the most successful actors in our industry during the course of more years than I desire to call attention to.
Many of the attributes the foremost talents have in common became apparent to me. By and large these weren’t the actors that the general public described or held in esteem as celebrities. These were and are the journeyman actors.
John Houseman expounded on his credo for success. He advised us to be journeyman actors, to practice and study our craft, to search for a way to grow everyday, to be an observer with our eyes and with our ears, and to find a way to tell someone, anyone, a story that they might believe.