Wednesday, November 05, 2014

REAL actors

How can you tell the really good actors from the mediocre ones or former models?

Watch what they’re doing when they’re not talking.

Generally your attention is on whoever is speaking and ping pongs around the room to whoever has the next line.

But the real test is what they’re doing while others are speaking.

This came home to me again while watching my play. I go every night. How often do I have a play in production? Plus, I’ve gotten the chance to meet a lot of you who've come to see it. And since you stopped to introduce yourselves instead of running to your cars I suspect you didn’t hate it.

It’s fun for me because I love my cast and thoroughly enjoy just seeing them perform (okay, and hearing laughs). Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert both do an extraordinary job and must carry the entire play on their backs. I wanted to land a helicopter on stage like in MISS SAIGON but it turns out the Falcon Theatre’s helicopter had been loaned out. So I had to just go with two actors and lots of dialogue.

For a little variety I try to watch in different locations. My favorite spot is down low, close to the action (isn’t everybody’s?). Having the actors only a few feet away I was able to really observe and appreciate all the little things they do… when no one is supposedly looking.

They’re always in the moment, relating to each other, listening to what each other is saying and reacting appropriately. They never break character. They never rush through things. They never lose focus.

Directing and producing numerous sitcom episodes in a multi-camera format, in the editing bay I see all the coverage. There are usually cameras on the actors not talking at the moment. We show their reactions and the cameras are in place for when they do speak. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll have a nice close up of an actor and by his facial expression it’s clear he’s just waiting for the speaker to finish so he can say his next line. Sometimes they’re not even looking at the other actor.

Comparatively, actors who are classically trained know better. Their dedication to their craft, their desire to find the truth in a character or moment, and their skill to pull it off really separates the men from the rubes who board buses to Hollywood to become major movie stars in two weeks.

For the serious actor, a national commercial means subsidizing all the theater work that pays crap. For the wannabe celebs a national commercial is the endgame.

I could never be an actor. Just the auditioning and rejections alone would kill me. And then the time, effort, and thankless hours that are required to really get good are way more of a sacrifice than I’m willing to make. And if I can’t become a good actor then what’s the point?

So if you should go to the Falcon Theatre to see my play and you’re close enough – forget about my words. Watch what’s going on “between the lines.” Boy, I got lucky with Jules & Jason.  They're real actors. 

By the way, only a few more performances are left.  If you're interested, reserve your tickets now.  Thanks. 

28 comments:

slgc said...

Do you have any plans to bring A or B? to the East Coast for a run? Maybe somewhere like Princeton's McCarter Theater, which is often a pre-Broadway stop for shows?

Scooter Schechtman said...

"I wanted to land a helicopter on stage like in MISS SAIGON" Really?
"And The devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all glory of Andrew Lloyd Webber."

Carol said...

I agree that there is a big difference between actors who love acting and people who want to be famous.

Actors who love acting will act in anything. They'll constantly push themselves so they can learn their craft. Personally I think they are the ones that wind up more successful, because they aren't relying on the fame - they just want to act.



Jeremiah Avery said...

If the play ever comes to D.C. I'll be so there!

Great post, Ken. What you say about "Real Actors" reminds me of something I read about regarding various roles going to British and Australian actors over American actors. Several casting directors were interviewed and they were blunt in saying that those actors aren't just wannabes with a "look" but can actually perform. Most of them have theatre and/or local tv experience so there is a degree of professionalism present that they weren't seeing from so many others coming in for auditions.

I'm glad the actors in your play are doing a wonderful job of bringing your work to life. May there be a future collaboration between you and them again!

An (is my actual name) said...

The best for this is Shelley Long in Cheers. Even in the background across the room, she is fully in character, fully engaged, even if it's just chatting up an extra/patron, and her listening and silent reactions are spot on-- always involved but never pulling undue focus. Watching her is like a bonus episode within an episode.

Hamid said...

Ken, please see if you can bring the play to London. Plus, there are always American actors over here performing in plays, so you'll feel at home. Right now there's the awesome Richard Schiff in Speed The Plow, co-starring...Lindsay Lohan. So, like I said, the awesome Richard Schiff is performing here.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

My favorite example of this came when I went to see A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT here in London, starring Jack Lemmon and featuring a wonderful cast (including a young Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallegher - you can see the list here: http://www.drivingmrspacey.com/LDJIN-London.htm). Lemmon was that astonishingly rare thing, both star and character actor. There is a scene late in the play where his character's wife has a lengthy monologue while the rest of the cast listen. The actress who performed it, Bethel Leslie, was mesmerizing, and you forgot anyone else was on the stage. Suddenly, at the end of her speech, I became conscious that Jack Lemmon, who I had after all come to see and yet had completely forgotten was even on the stage, was leaning on the back of her chair with tears pouring down his face.

In all that time, he was reacting, and yet so subtly that he never stole a split second of her thunder. This is a great actor and a generous one.

wg

RockGolf said...

Speaking of Richard Schiff, I read recently that casting for Toby on West Wing came down to him versus Eugene Levy of SCTV fame.
Had Levy won out we could have seen Schiff as Stifler's dad in American Pie.
Frankly each nailed their roles, but I'd probably have said that had the roles been reversed. Literally.

Dodgerdog said...

Ken, I saw this play last weekend and enjoyed it thoroughly. Your two actors are outstanding as either "a" or "b." It is remarkable to watch them switch between the two conditions so fluidly and believably. I was impressed by the way that the actors' attitudes, the angle of the neck even, reinforced the subtle changes in the dialogue (of course the cute red and blue dresses helped too)!

Brian Phillips said...

It has been said about Bob Newhart that he "listens funny". If you look at "The Bob Newhart Show" or "Newhart", you find abundant evidence of this.

Also, Akim Tamiroff said (paraphrase), "I am twice the actor that Gary Cooper is. I can act circles around him, but when uo look at the screen, you can't help but notice Cooper!"

Bud Wilkinson said...

Your point was driven home to me when I saw Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in "The Producers" on Broadway. It wasn't during the original run, rather when they returned to help boost box office during the winter. They each got paid a bundle and the audience got a treat. It during during a segment in which Broderick had a long scene - maybe "I Want To Be A Producer" - with Lane off to the side out of the spotlight. For some reason, I glanced at Lane and noticed how meticulously he was reacting - in the moment and spot on, but never upstaging Broderick. I was mesmerized by his professionalism and generosity. I would say it was worth the price of admission, but as luck would have it the tickets were comped.

Dave Wilson said...

In college, I had a director who would tell an actor to skip a line to see if the reacting actor was actually listening. It was amazing how many times the reacting actor would speak the line following the actual text rather than the line required. The director's great words of wisdom: "Listen to what's being said and react accordingly." Valuable lesson learned...

Anonymous said...

Name names.

Mike said...

Jeremiah, A or B in DC, huh?

Diane D. said...

I agree with An (her actual name) that Shelley Long is a great example of this, which is why it was so delicious to notice one time when for a nano-second she did break character. It was the episode that took place at the bowling alley. Ted is guiding Woody back to the bench, still holding his bowling ball, smiling that goofy smile, and Shelley has to stifle a laugh. She looks down and rubs her nose to recover.

I would never have seen it, but I had just read
something (on this blog, I think) about how amazing Shelley Long was at being fully engaged at all times, and how much fun it was to watch her when the focus was elsewhere ("a bonus episode within an episode"). It was a great excuse to watch all five seasons again!

chalmers said...

Shelley also might have been stifling a laugh there thinking of what might have been my favorite line delivery of hers.

Diane's explaining that she's proficient at bowling because she needed a PE credit and it was the most palatable option despite having to spend a semester sweating in a bowling alley.

Carla interjects that bowlers don't sweat, and Diane huffs resoundingly, "They DO when they're wearing TWEED!"

Diane D. said...

Indeed, that line delivery equals, in the first episode, when Sam asks Diane what work she is qualified to do, and she answers, "NOTHING!"

Michael said...

I see from her IMDB page that Jules guest-starred on a sitcom that starred a former swimsuit model. It would have been interesting to see that and compare their performances.

Tom said...

Seeing it tonight!

Tim W. said...

When I've had to cast something, the trick I use is to watch the video of the audition, and then turn the volume all the way down. I find it amazing how the authentic actors will jump out at you when you do that.

I figured it out when I was having a tough time deciding between the two lead actresses for a short film, and decided, on a whim, to just turn the volume down. Suddenly, the more natural actress jumped out and the decision was easy.

Cat said...

I'll add to An's comment about Shelley Long, the entire Cheers cast is very adept at listening, they are engaged in each other's conversations, and they "act" even when the camera is not on them. I'll also point out that Ted, in particular with his interactions with Shelley, is superb at this, I'm just astounded anytime I watch him in season one, he's just so great.

Canda said...

In fairness to Lindsey Lohan, the woman's role in SPEED THE PLOW is not as developed by Mamet as the male characters (no surprise there). I saw Madonna play it, and when she wasn't doing well, I assumed it was her fault. Then, when I saw her replacement, the very talented Felicity Huffman, she struggled with it, too.

One of the great pleasures in the theater was seeing Ron Silver and Joe Montegna in the original cast. Those two are true Mamet actors. Miss Ron Silver a lot.

Wayne said...

Got tickets for A or B for Sunday.
Ordering online was a breeze.

Jabroniville said...

This is something I noticed while watching WICKED once- if you pay attention to most Glindas at the beginning of the play, you can tell they're crying & mourning in the opening scene, even though everyone else is celebrating. You won't figure out why until later, but they NEVER do this while the "focus" is on them- others are always speaking during these moments.

I've heard that David Hyde-Pierce always did this on FRASIER too, often staring longingly at Daphne while others were speaking. I've noticed it a couple times.

Hamid said...

One of the most enjoyable aspects of rewatching favourite films is catching nuances of facial expression I might have missed before. The one that comes to mind is a wonderful moment early on in Back to the Future at the dinner table with Marty and his family. When his mother finishes her anecdote about how she and George met with the line "It was then I realized I was going to spend the rest of my life with him", George, who's been watching The Honeymooners, bursts into his weird laugh. Marty's reaction is priceless. He's to the very right of the frame, which makes it all the more delicious, as it's not the focus of the shot, and Michael J Fox does this wonderful bemused raising of the eyebrows. It's a tiny moment but I cracked up the first time I noticed it.

And here's the scene! It's right at the end.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e18eE33juE8

Greg Ehrbar said...

Absolutely Especially if you've seen a movie or show more than once, it's fascinating to watch what the other actors do when the focus is not on them and how they lend support (or not).

"For some reason, I glanced at Lane and noticed how meticulously he was reacting - in the moment and spot on, but never upstaging Broderick. I was mesmerized by his professionalism and generosity."

Gene Kelly is such a commanding presence in movies it's not often noticed how he supports the other performers. But we often marvel at how controlled he is when Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds and especially Jean Hagen are the focus.

In the scene where Hagen's character is struggling with her misuse of microphones and pronunciation, Kelly is listening and keeping his reactions subtle, where the temptation might have been to express so much more to remind the viewers who the star was.

That's what made Jack Benny such a giant. He knew that allowing others to shine made his work better.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Forgot to mention which Kelly movie I was referencing. But do I have to?

Diane D. said...

I would hope not, Mr Ehrbar, to anyone on this blog!