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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Long Road to Success in LA for Strasberg Student, Christoph Waltz

The Hollywood Reporter is taking notice of Strasberg Alum Christoph Waltz. Waltz has already won the prize for Best Actor at Cannes, and he is a clear front-runner for an Oscar and a bunch of other hardware this aware season.

Christoph Waltz

Former Strasberg Student Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

He has been acting for a long while and shares a pretty healthy perspective that’s routed in his own sense of owning a craft. It is a trait we hope all our students carry with them – a sense of something unique that they have to offer the Industry and the World.

Waltz has been acting for a long while. A German student, he studied with us back in the day and has suddenly found his career booming after his stunning performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. My favorite line is, “In Europe, everybody would say, ‘Well, they just want to squeeze you like a lemon.’ Well, yeah! But, you know, if I have the juice, why shouldn’t they?”

Ha! It’s all about having the juice!

Published in: on November 13, 2009 at 11:59 am  Comments (1)  
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40 Years of Making Legends | NBC Los Angeles

Here is the KNBC piece that aired yesterday. I must say that I really enjoyed meeting and speaking with Cary Berglund. Not only was he friendly and engaging, but he made it very easy to work. You can tell when someone is a real professional, and Cary was very much in his element. All in all, I had a wonderful time shooting the piece.

Since embedding the video is harder than I thought, follow the link and let me know what you think.

Published in: on November 11, 2009 at 12:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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Lots going on!

There is so much going on at the school right now I have had little time to blog. I was in New York and the place was humming. Students who had made it through the auditions were planning their production work for next fall already.

Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden returned to the Institute to speak with our students. She had the whole audience enthralled. All in all, the energy in NY is like no other place on earth. It is a rush every time I am there (and pretty good all-you-can-eat Sushi doesn’t hurt either!).

Here in LA, there is also plenty going on. I will be teaching as part of a Summer Intensive program for 6 weeks, starting July 13 and going through August 21- I am going to work my actors really hard and shake it up. You can’t get too complacent as an actor – or a human being for that matter.

Plus, we just finished casting for a short film project, “Past Meets Present,” that I am developing with Sasha Krane here at the Institute. He and I will be shooting in two weeks with the help of Conor Gass, and Herb Berraza (our in house production SWAT team). We are delaying production in order to finish a photo shoot that will be happening these next two weekends, but while we wait, Sasha and I are planning the next short in the pipeline.When I have some clips to share, I will post them here and you will see our actors at work.

Speaking of actors at work, I will be judging on a panel for my friends at ActorCast. This is one of the biggest things you have probably never heard of. They run the actor database system for some 90% of the major studio TV & Film casting. That is a big deal. What that means for an actor is that they are THE best of the actor sites because the 500 casting directors who tap into the database daily are the ones who run the casting world. Strasberg students can host there for free, but others should check it out as well. I will post more after I review the actors who submitted their audition reels for a special showcase.

On top of that, we are preparing for a screening of one of our student’s short films – a half hour piece that was developed in our screenwriting class and shot over the last semester. I will provide details of that as well as we get a little closer.

All that to say that I have not left the blogosphere. There is lots in process, so that means there should be plenty to talk about over the next few months. Of course, I am still here to talk acting and answer questions about anything. If you have a question, don’t be shy. We can talk Strasberg, Stanislavsky, Mamet (if you are brave), or Meisner (or sushi!).

Be brave. Bring your questions.

Published in: on May 6, 2009 at 8:25 pm  Comments (1)  
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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.