Yes, Virginia, another comment on acting

An actor acquaintance of mine, Jeff Still, recently shared on Facebook an Atlantic article about the contortions that film actors have begun going through in the name of creating a character. Surely you’ve heard of a few. Jared Leto acted like the Joker throughout the production of the recent Suicide Squad film, a process that included pranking the cast with used condoms and a dead pig. Leonardo DiCaprio, a committed vegetarian, felt he had to eat real meat in a scene of The Revenant. Adrien Brody starved himself and (by one account) broke up with his girlfriend before doing The Pianist.

This overheated approach to acting reminds me of the way headlines and social-media posts are often phrased these days. The word is “clickbait.” As in “You won’t believe what Jared Leto blah blah blah.” Surely, as the Atlantic article suggests, some of these stunts are less about getting into the role and more about getting attention for the role. By some strange coincidence, the article carries a headline that follows the same attention-getting trend: “Hollywood Has Ruined Method Acting.”

I see no need to comment on this at length. The Atlantic article already says enough. In fact, it tries my patience in some ways. Its author, Angelica Jade Bastién, discusses physical changes—losing weight, muscling up, etc.—as though they were a part of acting, when in my view that’s not even mimicry but only a way of looking right, although it is important, the same as finding a walk or a style of speech or (as Alec Guinness discovered for his role in The Ladykillers) the right teeth. Any actor can tell you that costume, hair, and makeup all contribute to character, but that doesn’t make them a part of acting per se. And I think, within roughly the same length, Bastién could’ve considered our culture’s fascination, which sometimes amounts to a fetish, with authenticity. That subject can be a labyrinth, but how actors approach acting isn’t isolated from how the rest of us think about and express our experience. Nonetheless, Bastién’s essay is headed in the right direction.

Jeff Still’s post was shared only with his friends, so I won’t link to it, but maybe he won’t mind me quoting a few words of his response to the torture approach: “enough with the indulgence already.” As for me, in a pinch, I’d say that acting isn’t about what the actor feels; it’s about what I, as a spectator, can see and sense and feel in the performer. It may begin with appearances, though it goes beyond that. You don’t have to really be drunk in order to act drunk; you don’t have to really be shot to play a scene in which you get shot; to look like you’ve gone without food, you may have to lose weight, but you don’t have to really starve yourself. Why not make things easy? A good way of summing it up is something an actor said to me on Twitter last year, when we were discussing other forms of actorial excess:

Incidentally, Jeff Still was the first respondent of my actor Q&A. You can find that here.

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2 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, another comment on acting

  1. There’s a story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman that fits here. Hoffman showed up on the set of Marathon Man gaunt, haggard, and drenched in sweat after running many miles as prep for the shoot. Olivier looked at him and said, “Why don’t you just try acting. dear boy?”

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    • Yes, that one is very apt. There are things I’ve heard about the occasion that I can’t quite recall, and I didn’t want to take the time researching it, else I would’ve included it. Luckily, you’ve added it to the mix. Thanks!

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