What Actors Actually Do: An Open Letter to Critics and Media Writers

What Actors Actually Do: An Open Letter to Critics and Media Writers

Molly Goforth

(Author's Note: the critique below does not extend to OnStage Blog critics, who are generally from performance backgrounds and well-informed regarding the actor’s process.)

As a former actor and long-time acting teacher, coach, and director as well as an avid consumer of entertainment commentary and criticism, I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern among otherwise clearly educated and otherwise honorable and incisive critics, entertainment bloggers, podcast hosts and media journalists.  I’m talking about a persistent misunderstanding of what actors actually do that ranges from unwitting perpetuation of outdated terms to inadvertent stereotyping to misapplied critique to inexplicable ridicule all the way to aggressively unapologetic ignorance.

This is partially understandable.  Consider the training of a professional musician or dancer: while the talent and discipline necessary to achieve mastery on the level of the professional violinist or ballerina is beyond the capacity of the average person, most of us have had enough childhood music or dance lessons (or seen enough film montages eliding years of education and practice into forty-five seconds followed by artistic triumph) to have a reasonably accurate idea of and respect for the grueling work required to achieve professional results.

Training a professional actor, however, is a much murkier process.  Effective, legitimate actor training (more on what that means later) is an often tedious and largely interior process, based not on mastery of a physical skill-set but on a gradual process of shedding inhibition and physical tension in order to become as emotionally vulnerable as possible under controlled conditions.  Acting technique is almost impossible to practice alone, improvement is unpredictable and sporadic at best and excruciatingly incremental at worst, and the process is often chew-your-own-arm-off boring to observe.  Learning to act is, initially, counter-intuitive to what most people think of as “acting”: it doesn’t reference anything that the average person is familiar with from childhood plays or pageants (except, perhaps, moments of intense shame, despair, or panic), and the process is really, really difficult to convey dynamically in a montage.

Furthermore, the words “actor,” “acting,” and “actress” are so inconsistently defined in our culture that even educated, discerning journalists can hardly be faulted for failing to perceive—or take seriously—a standard qualification for these terms, especially when that standard is so often dismissed within the entertainment industry itself.  The deceptive ease with which successful non-actors—such as models and athletes—often appear to make the “natural transition” into acclaimed acting careers perpetuates the idea that acting requires minimal study, when in truth actors who successfully transition from another profession almost uniformly undergo years of acting training while building their careers (an example is Cameron Diaz, who purposely avoided more complex roles while transitioning from model to actor until she felt secure in her training as an actor). 

Further confusing the issue is the dearth of successful, visible actors who speak intelligently about acting.  Many professional actors avoid the topic in interviews for good reason (see #4, below) but in failing to establish a clear, consistent message regarding the standards and practices of technique, American actors ultimately participate in the degradation of their own art.

So in the spirit of clarity and artistic ecumenism, here are eight points to keep in mind when assessing actors and acting as a critic or media writer:

1.     It’s a Myth that Most Actors Choose To Play a “Type” and Prefer to Stick with It. 

The entertainment industry can be surprisingly unimaginative, especially when it comes to casting. (Note here that I am referring to the economic strictures imposed by the Industry, and not to the individual creativity of casting directors and producers in general.)  Actors are imaginative by nature, and most want to explore as many kinds of characters as possible during their careers.  However, if an actor has success playing a certain kind of role, especially at a young age, he will often have difficulty breaking out of that mold in the future, even if he becomes wildly successful.  There are three main reasons for this: 1) Once an actor has achieved success in a role, it’s difficult for him to get auditions for different characters and genres, because producers now view him as a successful type and are loath to mess with a profitable formula, 2) In a popular film or TV program, an audience tends to conflate an actor with their role (buffoon, Lothario, bimbo, Dr. House).  An audience may feel betrayed when an actor changes type in a new project and subsequently reject his performance out of pique, and 3) Often an actor is defined by his first successful role, and if the show or film becomes a pop culture sensation —especially if it becomes popular enough to engender a backlash and/or is romantic, teen-focused, or otherwise considered less than artistically serious—the actor is often punished for his success by being relentlessly identified with his breakthrough job and viewed sardonically by the public and the media for the rest of his career, regardless of the projects he takes on.  I’ve been guilty of this myself—I was definitely among the first to laugh up my sleeve about David Schwimmer playing Robert Kardashian on American Crime Story’s first season.  The joke turned out to be on me: he gave a beautifully detailed performance in a punishingly difficult role.

(Friends, by the way, offers another excellent example of an actor being imprisoned by type: Matt LeBlanc, who, besides being a brilliant comedian, is also a remarkably flexible character actor, as any of the three other people who remember him on Lisa Kudrow’s short-lived series Web Therapy would attest.  He has since gained accolades for his role in Showtime’s Episodes, although he’s done so by playing a burlesque version of himself, and the “Joey Tribbiani” jokes abound, especially in the first season.  LeBlanc suffers from the curse of the great comic actor who famously plays a dumb character and is subsequently doomed to be taken less seriously for the rest of his career, even though comic actors are generally highly capable dramatic actors, while the reverse is often not true at all.  But that is a separate issue. )

Breaking free of Industry preconceptions is also a notorious challenge for actors of color.  In case you missed it, the marvelous Michael Kenneth Williams, of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, engages in a fascinating meta-exploration of the impact of race on type in the mini-film “Am I Being Typecast?” for The Atlantic’s “Question Your Answers” series.  Williams’ meditation on being pigeonholed as different versions of the same tough gangster character has even greater thrust considering that he came to acting from a career as a professional dancer.

2.  Actors Who Play Stupid Roles in Stupid Shows and Bad Movies Aren’t Necessarily Less Talented or Less Discerning than Actors who get Better Gigs. 

I recently re-listened to an episode of a podcast hosted by sophisticated media writers whom I respect and generally find to be fair and thoughtful analysts of popular culture.  The episode included a discussion of Sharknado II, and I remember a great deal of hilarity ensuing as the hosts tried to imagine the creative struggle that Ian Ziering might have endured in deciding whether to take the lead part in the original Sharknado.  Much of the laughter stemmed from the apparently absurd idea that the guy who played Steve Sanders on Beverly Hills 90210 could have sufficient artistic integrity to even engage in such a struggle.  It didn’t seem to occur to the hosts of this podcast that Ziering might have insights every bit as piercing as theirs into the artistic merits of Sharknado, and also might simply need the job because he has a family, and he doesn’t get offered a lot of work because he was a character on a hugely popular teen soap in the 1990s, and will therefore be viewed solely through an ironic lens by both the public and the media until two more generations of adolescents have matured, at which point the show and his performance in it will become legitimate fodder for graduate theses on the semiotics of surf culture and New Yorker Festival panel discussions about the historical representation of fraternities in television drama.  Ian Ziering was pretty great in Sharknado. Do I want to see him play Hamlet?  I don’t know, because he’s had very little chance to show me what he can do as a performer, but he is on a very short list of people who could entice me into a theatre to sit through Hamlet again, I’ll tell you that much.

3. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that an actor is responsible for everything you see in their performance. 

Actors are directed.  Sometimes they’re directed by someone who understands acting thoroughly.  Sometimes they’re directed by someone who understands only one technique of acting.  Sometimes they’re directed by someone who has no interest in the craft of acting at all, and no vocabulary for talking about it.  Regardless, unless an actor is a big star, he has to produce the version of the scene the director wants to see, even if he thinks the choice is wrong, or doesn’t make sense, or feels false.  An actor usually has no control over how his performance is cut, or edited, or which takes are used. Keep this is mind when critiquing a performance, even a live one: if you don’t like or believe the choice the actor is making, chances are good that he doesn’t either.  Especially with smaller roles, hilarious or moving work may end up on the cutting room floor because it doesn’t serve the larger story, or pulls focus from the star.  It’s almost never the actor’s call.  It is astounding to me how many professional media writers fail to grasp this.

4. For some reason the idea of actor training is often portrayed as risible in the media, and it’s considered socially acceptable to mock an actor for referring to his “craft.” 

Perhaps this is because certain kinds of movies and television shows—usually ones where explosions are emphasized over story or relationship—are successful even when they’re cast with untrained actors.  Perhaps the phenomenon of pop stars, models, and athletes routinely taking a casual stab at making a movie gives the public the impression that acting is a simple skill that can be picked up quickly.  Good acting appears easy to non-actors because good actors are living out an authentic experience in real time, reacting spontaneously to each other’s behavior.  In other words, they seem like real people. Acting technique is the process of learning how to react spontaneously and authentically, in the moment, reliably and repeatedly, usually using someone else’s words, under extremely artificial conditions.   For most actors it is an immensely complex and multi-layered process that takes years of practice to perfect.  But when actors are asked about their process in interviews, all too often the attitude is something akin to asking a magician to reveal the secret of a card trick—“How did you pull that off?”  Can you imagine a journalist asking this question of Yo-Yo Ma?  Or even Katy Perry?  “How do you make your fingers do that?”  “How do you make the sounds come out?”  What makes a media writer think they even have the vocabulary or frame of reference to understand an actor’s answer?

Part of the problem comes from within: there are some well-respected actors who are dismissive of formal technique, but the vast majority of professional actors are trained, including child actors or models/singers/athletes-turned-actors, who often learn from private coaches what conventionally trained actors learn in school or studio.  Talented children who have a natural bent for comedy, language or performance or are exceptionally sensitive may need less training because their brains are more plastic and they learn quickly from observation, and also because, as children, the are naturally less inhibited.   Therefore, people who were professional child actors can sometimes be dismissive of formal technique as adults because they may not realize how they learned it, much the way you don’t remember the process of learning your first language.

Also, a good acting coach can coax a talented amateur into a great take—sometimes even as the scene is filmed a set coach will be just out of the shot, talking a novice or limited actor through a difficult scene (the coach’s voice is edited out in post), or even through an actual earpiece.  But trained professional actors are able and expected to be present, alert, open, receptive, emotionally available, loose, line-perfect, hitting their mark, relaxed, aware, unself-conscious, attuned to their partner, in control of their body, aware of the space and the light, and in complete emotional possession of someone else’s words, and they have to get there on their own.  They have to be able to throw out the script and improvise if asked.  They have to be able to change all of their preparation at a moment’s notice.  They have to be able to be physically and vocally creative, adaptable, strong, and flexible.  If filming, they must be to be able to do the same scene fifty times as if it’s the first time.  If onstage, they have to make the same play a brand new experience eight times a week.  This cannot be done without training.  Training is not a joke.  It’s not a bunch of buzzwords that actors throw around to sound intelligent or artsy.  Training is essential, arduous, and hard-earned, and if you see a great performance from an untrained actor, what you’re seeing is either an unrepeatable fluke or an act of accomplished puppeteering by an unseen coach, director, or editor.

5. Please stop using terms like “Method Actor” or “line delivery.”  This drives actors crazy. 

Relatively few people train as pure Method Actors anymore, and those who do don’t want to hear you talk about what you think it means.  No trained actor “delivers” lines.

6. Acting is not The Force, nor The It Factor, nor having “Star Quality”.  It is not some nebulous process that cannot be defined. 

Although professional actors usually hate chin-stroking discussions about “What is acting?” (again, would you ask Misty Copeland “What is ballet?”) a serious actor will be able to answer this question immediately.  Trained actors know exactly what they’re talking about when they talk about acting, even if their definition conflicts with another actor’s.  They will be able to give you a clear, concise, single-sentence definition of acting in the abstract that doesn’t involve the words “heart,” “passion,” “soul” “journey” or “me.” Asking a trained actor “What is acting to you?” is no less ridiculous than asking a cellist “What is the Circle of Fifths to you?” Certainly every artist has his own perspective on his art form, but every art form has its fundamental calculus that establishes the basis for mastery.  If you asked a hundred professional jazz musicians, “What is jazz?” you would expect to hear the some variation on the terms “improvisation” “virtuosity,” “intricate rhythm” and “free-floating melody” over and over again.

7. Actors have a tendency to sound reverent or precious about “the theatre” for good reason.   

In many ways, acting onstage is the decathlon of the art form.  The theatre actor can’t have a coach onstage talking her through a scene: there’s one “take”, and she’s got to nail it.  The theatre actor can’t get by (certainly not for long) singing eight shows a week with an untrained voice, and only hard-core dancers and musicians need apply—there’s no cutting away to the tapping feet or piano-playing hands of a stand-in pro.  When Sanford Meisner said that it takes thirty years to become an actor, he was talking about stage actors: you learn to be an actor in the theatre like the Beatles learned to be a band in Germany—by doing it, in shows and in class, over and over and over.  There is an old and grand tradition of coming up through theatre in both NYC and LA while taking studio classes, from The Actors Studio and the Neighborhood Playhouse to the Beverly Hills Playhouse, and many other legendary studios where great actors would (and still do) train for their entire lives.  On-camera acting is an art form in itself, one that shares many basic tenets with stage acting, but there are distinct differences in the skill sets involved. So many professional actors started out in theatre, whether in high school, college, graduate school or regional theatre.  It’s the crucible where our art was born; it’s the most immediate and high-stakes version of what we do.  Music critics reserve the utmost respect for bands who make great records and are amazing live, but when a television or film actor wants to return to his extremely legitimate theatre roots, it often becomes a punchline in the critical and entertainment media. (Remember when Kelsey Grammer tried to do Macbeth? He barely escaped alive. Kelsey Grammer went to Juilliard and began his career on Broadway as a Shakespearean actor.)

8. British and Australian actors are not better than American actors, they just have British and Australian accents. 

They are trained somewhat differently from American actors, although crossover in training has become more frequent and more thorough in the past fifteen years or so.  A great many of them are absolutely brilliant actors. But they do not possess a unique skill set that American actors can’t access just by dint of their nationalities. What they do possess is a way of speaking that causes many Americans to completely lose their faculties, regardless of the fact that the average professional American actor can replicate almost any British or Australian dialect with little, if any, coaching: actors in general tend to be facile mimics.  The reverse, of course, is also true, as is evidenced by the ever-growing contingent of non-American actors playing major roles in American television and film. 

So there you have it.  Eight simple points to remember going forward when you’re assessing an actor, be it in a review, an interview, an article or a discussion.  American actors in particular are among the least supported artists within their own culture of any developed nation in the world.  It’s the critics, media writers, and entertainment journalists who keep the work of theatre, film, and television artists at the forefront of the public consciousness.  We are grateful to you for taking art and entertainment seriously.  Just remember to take actors seriously, as well.

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