Golden Globe nomination for Christoph Waltz

Golden Globe nominations are out, and Strasberg alum Christoph Waltz has been nominated for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds! It is a well deserved recognition, and we’ll be pulling for him. He has already won for best actor at Cannes.

The film also was nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay (Tarantino), and Best Director (Tarantino).

Published in: on December 16, 2009 at 11:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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Method Acting In The LA Times

I have gotten a lot of nice messages today from folks who read the Charles McNulty story on the cover f the Arts Section in the Sunday LA Times. They ran it with a huge half-page picture of my dad on the cover over the headline “SO METHODICAL,” and on the interior another full page with a picture of me and my mom in front of the school with the headline “TECHNIQUE STANDS THE TEST OF TIME.”  Thanks to those of you who sent me notes – double thanks to those of you who actually read past the headlines before sending me the note!

Lee Strasberg, photographed in L.A. in 1978, perfected the best-known American adaptation of the Stanislavsky "system" commonly grouped together as the Method. (Los Angeles Times)

It is an interesting experience to talk about our work. Of course as a journalist McNulty is interested in finding drama. News needs either “New” or “Conflict” so they have to search for one or the other to make the article interesting. That said, your best bet to understand our work is to study it, use it, live with it. We work better than we talk.

People like to talk about theories of acting. But we are not theoretical. My father said our work is not a theory because a theory is something which has not yet been proven. So far, no interview has ever been able to capture that element in our training. How do you explain or describe the change in your life when you gain knowledge of yourself? When you learn discipline? When you learn a new skill? These moments are not accomplished by sitting around talking. The sky does not open up, and the angels don’t sing (usually, at least).

The power of training as an actor – or as anything else for that matter – is the momentum of countless hours spent getting better. How do you capture the grandeur of THAT in a tape recorder?

You need human material to paint that picture…. Hmmmm… Maybe we need a Method movie. 😉

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 5:43 pm  Comments (2)  
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Those who CAN DO, Teach!

Here is a nice little reel of clips from some of my dad’s films. This series includes material from The Godfather: Part II, of course, where he plays Jewish mobster Hyman Roth (inspired by real life mobster Meyer Lansky). It also has a scene from one of my favorite films Going In Style – a funny and warm movie with George Burns and Art Carney. he does some wonderful comic work in this one. It also has a scene from And Justice For All with Al Pacino. All in all, it is a great taste of my dad’s film work. Godfather II was his first film role, and he had been teaching, not acting, for decades. Pretty amazing.

Coming up, I want to share a few projects that we shothere in LA recently with our students. For those of you who can’t help yourself, you can jump to our Youtube channel and see them in advance of me posting them here.

Published in: on November 20, 2009 at 11:47 am  Leave a Comment  
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What is Method Acting: A straight answer

Most actors are afraid to admit that they don’t really know what Method Acting is. They don’t want to look stupid so they don’t ask.

But they should.

Method Acting is the search to find  a moment of actual experience in your acting – a moment of living – as opposed to the outward appearance of living. An actor who does our work actually experiences something when they act, rather than looking like they are experiencing something.

Stanislavsky committed his life to this pursuit of truth in acting, what he called “Perezhivanie.” Lee Strasberg, my father, picked up the baton and devoted his life to the same quest.

Konstantine Stanislavsky

Konstantine Stanislavsky

The russian word used by Stanislavsky, strictly meaning “experience,” is usually translated as ‘living through,” meaning the desire for actors to, as my father said, “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Instead of an actor indicating what he or she wants the audience to understand, the actor should experience those things that he or she wishes to convey.

That is why we talk about truth. It is more than reality. It is more than being natural. Those are issues of style rather than content. Truth is about the undeniable experience of really living something. It is powerful and magnetic, and it is an ability that all of our greatest actors have mastered.

This answer is not just a matter of theory. It is the explicit goal of our training, and it is the measuring stick that each actor should look to in order to evaluate their work. Are they experiencing a truth, according to their own senses, while they work or are they just faking it? If you can experience something with great conviction, then you are already probably in the top echelon. You can move on to the more stylistic issues of character, genre, and storytelling.

If you are faking it, it’s back to the drawing board.

That is what every actor should be asking themselves. Am I just acting the lines? Am I telling you what I think I  should be saying in a manner that conveys the way I think the character should be feeling? That is what most actors settle for.

Method Actors want more. We want to contribute something creative to the process. We have the guts to share our unique response to moment rather than being boxed in by cliche or convention. We are determined to give some of ourselves to the role and to the story in that very instant of “living through.” That, after all, is what Perezhivanie is all about. All the other wrangling aside, that is what Stanislavsky sought. That is what Lee Strasberg insisted on without compromise. Its what makes us special, and it is why our actors are the best.

Published in: on April 11, 2009 at 10:16 pm  Comments (4)  
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I’m here in Mexico supporting a former Strasberg Student, Alberto Sosa, who has put on an arts festival, and “Concentrar” is a Spanish word I have used more in the past the past two days than in my entire life prior.

Our challenge has never been to find talented actors – there are lots of them – but rather to train, convince, cajole those actors to really focus.

In the comments section of the prior post I said that concentration is THE tool for the actor. OK, most people would agree. It is a good and necessary thing, but it begs the question, “what do I concentrate on?”

This is where my father, inspired by the work of Stanislavsky, made a great contribution. If you teach acting, you will notice that most actors think a lot about their scene and what is going on. The idea of given circumstances is fairly widespread at this point. But that is where most actors stop and settle for mediocre or uneven work.

You need to do more. To be more specific and more detailed (especifico y con mas detalles, for those scoring at home). I train actors to concentrate on one small aspect of their circumstances. Don’t worry about the argument that is about to happen – you only know it will happen because you read the script. That is not part of the circumstances. Don’t worry about what you think you should be feeling. That is territory for discovery rather than decision. What you DO need to do is to focus on the small details of LIFE. Pay great attention to the little things that make up the act of living.

Richard Boleslavsky [see the recommended books] described the way in which a human being struggles for everything. You wash your face – you struggle with the cloth, the water, the soap. These challenges are much smaller than, but essential to, the greater struggles and conflicts of a story. It is here that an actor must do his work. The writer may work with grand ideals and concepts, but the actor must supply the essential ingredient of life. And life is made up of all of these minor struggles.

So this is where you must concentrate. Don’t just go and randomly take action. Put your attention, your full focus on something as you work. Where are you? Where are you coming from? Where are you going? What are you doing there? If the other actor did not enter or never started the scene, what would you be doing? These are the small realities of life that unlock your humanity.

My father said, ‘you don’t need to give me the whole ocean, just a few grains of sand.” Take it to heart. Don’t give the whole story. Don’t give me the scene, and don’t show me what it all means. You just find those few grains of sand that you can experience and you are on the road to great acting. 90% of a movie is all about that. Only in very few moments do we need a heightened intensity (the waves crashing on he shore, to continue the metaphor).

As an added benefit, if you are directing yourself as most actors do for auditions and scene work, this concentration often leads to behavior and activity that will block much of the scene for you.

By the way, if you want proof, just go and watch the Godfather films (either of them). These are well-trained actors across the board, and you will notice the scenes are quite simple. My father greets Pacino while they are watching a game and eating lunch, or cutting a cake at a birthday party, or brothers eating around a table, or guys cooking or playing cards. The entire movie is made up of these small moments – each one of them a minute struggle for an actor – that all add up to some of the richest and most captivating stories ever put to film.

Method Acting Works

I was laid out with the Flu recently, and it gave me a little time to search the internet to see what is out there on Method Acting found this article written pre-Oscars, that suggests that Method Actors are more likely to win in Oscar season.

Specifically, the writer does a tally that concludes “more than 100 Oscars have been won by Method actors…..” Further, it offers the following statistic: “Since 2000, around 75 per cent of Oscar winners have been Method actors….”

I will admit to not having done the research on those numbers, but intuitively they sound about right. So does that mean that classical training (the preferred option in much of the UK and the rest of Europe) is no good? Of course not. A great actor can come from anywhere, and our work only ADDS to the technical skills that a classical training can build.

What it does suggest, though, is that the kind of connection to your work that Method Acting encourages makes for a strong bond with the audience. I mention this because some people mistakenly believe that an actor’s focus on their own reality somehow takes them away from the story and away from the audience.

In practice, we see the opposite. The more focused you are on what you are doing, the more the audience watches, understands, and connects to you and your character.

Have you ever watched a room of people with a baby crawling around? Eyes are immediately drawm to the small creature. We are fascinated. The baby couldn’t care less about us or what we are doing. It is completely immersed in its world, and we cannot pull our eyes away. That kind of focus is powerful, and it is a skill we actively build.

I once ran an audition where an actor brought her young golden retriever puppy into the theater with her. Big mistake…. The director and I could not stop watching the dog! Every time she would speak, the dog would move its head slightly or wag its tail and we were mesmerized. It led to the director suggesting that we cast the dog instead!

Concentration is the muscle that we begin to exercise in the very first class, and it leads directly to the kinds of results that move audiences.

Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 2:23 pm  Comments (5)  
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“If you cannot be on time, be early.” – Lee Strasberg

The Obama administration is considering lengthening the US public school year. Even if you are not a kid in public school (or the parent of that kid), this still matters to you.

One of the things we find over and over again is the nothing great happens without hard work. You want to improve your academic performance? More time in school helps. More studying helps. More attention to your homework helps. That Makes sense.

You want to be a better actor? Same rules apply.

“I used to think as I looked at the Hollywood night, ‘there must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me, dreaming of becoming a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.'”
– Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn had it right, and she didn’t just dream. She worked hard. Despite commercial success as a film star, she took a break and moved to NY to study with my dad and improve her acting. It worked. Her talent blossomed and she started to take control of her career. She had talent and beauty, but she also had the courage to commit herself to getting better at her craft.

As someone who was notorious for being late, she once famously told me dad that she was ‘incapable of being on time.’ My father’s response? “Darling, if you cannot be on time, be early.” And she was. For his class she would come early and wait.

But what if you are already in class? Then what?

1) Get there early. Prepare yourself while you wait. Look over your scene, begin to search for tension in your body that you can release to improve your concentration and expression. You can squeeze hours of extra time out of your training just by not wasting the first 20 minutes of time settling in. Come ready to work.

2) Don’t just wait for class. Find more to do. Many actors are in class only one or two times a week. Some lucky ones might have class 5 or 6 times a week. But even that is not enough. I recently finished a book, Outliers: The Story of Success, by my current favorite writer, Malcolm Gladwell. A central point of the book is how success comes out of moments when special opportunity meets a person who has put in a tremendous amount of work to become great at what they do.

It is not enough to get the mythical Lucky Break. Yes, you need a break along the way, but you also need to be really good at what you do so that when you get a chance you are ready to deliver. If you are an actor you need to be an actor more than 4, or 10, or even 20 hours a week. You are an actor every day. So rehearse, practice, and don’t stop.

3) Make yourself great. Find extra time to enhance your abilities. When you brush your teeth, pay attention to what you feel in your body (your gums, but also your lips, your hands, your feet – really look at yourself in the mirror). You can make yourself more aware and more observant.

Try out accents. When you can talk to your grocery clerk without him/her looking at you funny you are making progress.

When you watch a movie, don’t be a passive fan. Watch as an actor. Pay attention and note what you see and what you feel.

Read books in your spare time (there is more of that than you think). Learn to dance. Inspire yourself with art.

The bottom line is that if you want to be a great actor (or a great anything), you need to work at it. You need to live it and work at it for as long as you can. That is the edge that Marilyn Monroe, and so many others, had that no one talks about. That is what separates the “Lucky Ones” from the rest.

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 11:37 am  Comments (1)  
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Oscar reaction, and why acting is like skiing

First of all, did you know who was shrieking with delight over the Oscar results? Kate Winslet? Danny Boyle? Sean Penn?

How about Rachel Hopkins. Rachel, a brand new student at Strasberg who commutes to LA from San Diego, is the winner of the Strasberg Oscar predictions competition. Don’t let her low-key SoCal vibe fool you, this is one driven young lady. She won with an amazing 83 out of 100, and she is still regretting missing out on that “Best Animated Short” category. For inquiring minds, your overly competitive blog-host is still smarting from an awfully mediocre 62. Congrats to Rachel.

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I just got back from a few days on vacation. There I was skiing down a beautiful mountain in Colorado, dark green pine trees lining either side of the steep, powdered-covered run when I thought about acting.

It was something the ski instructor said when he noticed me leaning back to keep my balance on the faster parts of the mountain. His name is Don Jones, a good-natured guy who retired from North Carolina to teach skiing in Colorado. What Don said was, “David, sometimes you just have to have Faith.”

Faith. Its a big word and charged with all kinds of meanings. Don meant Faith as in Courage. You lean downhill in order to better guide and control your skis and keep your balance. Problem is, when you point downhill you go faster which makes you FEEL out of control. That’s where Courage comes in. You need to keep leaning downhill even though it feels like you are going to fall. Channel your speed into your turn. Trust the skis, they will respond.

A good acting class is not about just doing a scene or performing. It is also not just about feeling good. It is about creating a process that works for you regardless of the material. A process you can rely on to get you through any terrain. It’s not always easy.

Acting should be fun and exhilarating, but it can also be hard work in the same way skiing is. It may feel awkward – scary even, just like leaning downhill. Many actors avoid the rush of a real moment just like some skiers fight gravity in order to feel safer.

Our work encourages you to build new habits. It is best used by actors willing to be brave. We teach you to use your most creative impulses. Don’t judge them, express them. Channel them into your scene. Trust your skis.

All it takes is a little Faith (in yourself).

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Blog note: Keep an eye out for the updated reading list. I will be adding some material to it in the next few days, so check back.

Published in: on February 26, 2009 at 5:29 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Low-Down On The Emotional Memory Exercise

Funny stuff. But after I stop laughing, I wonder, really, John, you were working on your dog dying?!?! You’re Strasberg-trained and one of the edgiest and most interesting actors around. A personal favorite of mine, and the best you can come up with is your dog?

[Sigh] Well, I guess it’s as good a place as any to start with Emotional Memory (often interchangeably called ‘Affective Memory’ or ‘Emotional Recall’). First of all, what is it? It is a technique by which you experience the reality from some moment of your life. You live through the sensation of that moment and trigger an honest emotional response as if that something were happening right now.

Actors have tried this without training throughout history with mixed results (usually in a desperate attempt to cry on cue). People think of a dead relative or a sad moment. Most untrained folks don’t get very far – the body rebels, muscles contract, the voice changes and restricts expression. Tears? No. Usually dry as the desert. The great Stanislavsky is famously reported to have said that he could not make the Emotional Memory work consistently.

But if that’s so, then what the heck was Lee Strasberg going on about? How do trained actors get in touch with real and powerful emotions despite the well-conditioned human tendency to repress them?

Here’s how: You start by releasing physical tension in the body (Relaxation will be a topic for another entry). You place yourself at the time you wish to experience and you ask questions: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I taste? What do I feel on my skin? Is it hot? Cold? Where do you feel that temperature? What part of the body? What am I wearing? Can I feel the fabric? Is there anyone else there? Can I see them? Hear them? What do they look like? What does their voice sound like? And so on.

That is the exercise. Really. That’s it. There is the scary secret uncloaked. Like most great things, its genius is in its simplicity.

We keep an actor’s attention purely on the physical sensations they can experience. You may say a woman wears too much perfume, but we want you inhale the cloying, too-sweet assault on your nose and let the gag reflex kick in. We want you to actually smell, not narrate.

When you do this, you light the match that sparks your own latent emotion  – stuff that is already in you. Plus you build the intuitive skills necessary for all great acting. Even when you are not doing an exercise, you become more observant, more attuned to your surroundings, and more responsive to stimulus, whether imaginary or otherwise.

We don’t push actors to be emotional, or create emotions. My father said emotion is like a little child, if you chase after it, it will run away. So we don’t chase. We simply look, smell, listen, taste, and touch our world, and Emotion comes out to play.

I was going to discuss the Affective Memory exercise….

But the day is only so long. Today is February 17, the anniversary of my father’s death, and we are celebrating my father’s life this evening in NY and LA. Here in LA we are screening “The Last Tennant,” a remarkable film staring my dad as an elderly man living along. There is some great work in this movie that stars Tony Lo Bianco, Christine Lahti, Danny Aiello, and our own Anne De Salvo (who is introducing the film tonight) among others. It was nominated for a couple of Emmy Awards, and we managed to get a DVD from CBS which was exciting since it can be hard to find otherwise.

In addition, I am teaching a class this afternoon from 2-6. Somewhere along the way, those actors will probably get an in-person rendition of my thoughts on the proper use of affective memory since it has been on my mind in preparation for a write up in this blog. I will include some of their thoughts and responses in my post here tomorrow. Stay tuned….