Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Method is madness

It’s Friday question day. Today’s comes from reader Chester Carlson:

Glenn Close was new to movie making when filming "The Big Chill." Looking back, she laughs at her inexperience/naiveté. Such as when she told the director her character would never have chosen the china pattern on the plates etc. used in the big dinner scene.

Did you ever have a stage actor or actress bring too much stage technique to a TV set? Or maybe need to tell someone to tone down their Method? How did you handle it? Lawrence Kasdan was polite to Close while she was saying this. What would you do?

First off, I am not a big fan of method acting. You’re “acting”. You’re “playing” a part. The idea of having to “become” the character you are portraying in order to do it justice is fine unless the character is a hooker or serial killer. The “Method” ends when you have to actually turn tricks or shoot fifteen people. The “I was just doing research for my guest starring role on CSI: MIAMI” defense rarely spares the defendant the chair, even with a good review from Tom Shales.

I was directing a show once where a character had to clean something offstage. He asked me where exactly off stage? I walked to a spot and said, “Here. No, wait… here.” During the show he scrubbed the floor in that spot, seen by no one. And p.s., if it helped his performance you’d never know it. And his scrubbing skills weren’t so hot either.

I know I’m generalizing and there are exceptions but often times when actors apply the Method technique they take things and themselves so seriously in their quest for “the truth” that “funny” flies right out the window.

If I’m casting an actor and I see he’s had Method training I tend to beware. Obviously, if his audition is great I’m going to hire him even if his acting coach is Pia Zadora but if there are two equal candidates I would probably opt for the non-Method actor.

As a director it’s my job to get the best performance out of every cast member and have them all peak at once on show night. Each actor has his own approach. I need to embrace that and make each one feel comfortable. On stage, I encourage actors to employ whatever process works best for them, even if it’s Method. I might have to answer more questions, or allow an actor certain freedom to find moments or emotions but that’s what the director is there for. I see my job as being a big net. Actors are free to experiment because they know I’ll never let them fall. I’m always there to catch them.

I would have had long talks with Glenn Close over china patterns because that’s what she needed then. I would listen intently and take her concerns seriously. Then during a break I would go back to my trailer and blow my brains out.

My favorite definition of acting comes from that icon of the theater and silver screen, Benjamin Franklin who said, “The art of acting consists in keeping people from coughing.

What’s your question?


D. McEwan said...

Ah, the wisdom of Ben Franklin. Now I know why that role in my medicine cabinet says "Hall's Acting Drops."

The correct answer to Glenn Close's insistence that her character wouldn't have had that China pattern would have been; "Then you'll just have to give a fake performance." Peter Lorre may have said, "My characetr wouldn't have shot that man; he'd have strangled him." but he never said, "I can't kill Fred. I like Fred."

Alfred Hitchcock, when shooting TORN CURTAIN, was asked by Paul Newman no less what his motivation was for a head movement Hitch had asked for. Hitch said, "Your motivation is so that the camera can see you." Hitch was no fan of the method either.

I think that when Alfred Hitchcock wants you to move your head a certain way on a certain line, it's the actor's job to find how to motivate the required movement. There's a lot of carts in front of the horses, and the horse's asses in Methodland.

And when an actor says, "I can't do that; It's out of character." the proper answer is "Then you are out of a job. Get me an actor who can take direction."

Rory L. Aronsky said...

The quote's also credited to Sir Ralph Richardson. There ought to be a way to mount a supernatural steel-cage match to determine who gets credit.

Cap'n Bob said...

I don't know why, but Glenn Close always looks like she's acting to me. It's so pronounced I can't bear to watch her.

As a veteran of college and community theater acting I can affirm that a good director makes all the difference in the world.

John said...

My favorite response to an attempt at method acting, from Herman J. Mankiewicz and via the Turner Classic Movies website, on the making of the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup"

By the time Duck Soup was in production, Harpo Marx was the critical darling of the intellectual community, particularly around the famed "Algonquin Round Table" in New York City, made up of several of the notable literati of the day, like Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Alexander Woolcott considered Harpo to be the greatest pantomime since Charles Chaplin. Always considered to be the most congenial Marx brother, Harpo nevertheless let the attention go to his head, just a bit. One day on the set, Harpo, in an unusually pretentious gesture, asked producer Herman Mankiewicz to explain the motivation of his character. (As if Harpo was playing anyone else but Harpo...) Mankiewicz, the brilliant writer who in only a few years would co-write Citizen Kane (1941), replied, "You're a middle-aged Jew who goes around picking up sh**."

Actually, I think that was more Harpo's role in "Horse Feathers" than in "Duck Soup", but it was a nice way to get an actor back in line. Too bad Herm couldn't have figured out out to work the quote into "Citizen Kane".

D. McEwan said...

That sounds WAY out of character for Harpo. I suspect Herman made that one up out of whole cloth. As you note, he got the movie wrong.

One of their writers, I forget which and I'm not bothering to look it up in any of the 15 or 20 books on the Marx Brothers (Including HARPO SPEAKS) that are here in my living room, but I think it was Kaufman, said of Harpo, "How can you write for Harpo? All you can write is 'Harpo enters'." I think that pretty much sums up the relationship between Harpo and writers and directors. He was entirely his own invention, and worked wholly instinctively. Motivation was all instinct with Harpo.

Not that reality should get in the way of a good story.

Anonymous said...

Just looking at the picture of Glenn Close got "Heard it Through the Grapevine" in my head. Marvin Gaye version, of course.

Are we allowed to ask baseball questions? If so, what do you think of this Hudson guy? And is DeWitt permanently off the roster for the season?

Anonymous said...

Gah! I hate that, as an actor my job is to find the motivation for what the writer/director ask. I'll make suggestions, but nothing is out of character. That's what your character is doing or saying. If it's out of character you're playing the wrong character.

Gridlock said...

"Then during a break I would go back to my trailer and blow my brains out."

Is that a Ken euphemism for smoking a comically large joint? Only I suspect that would have worked just as well.

selection7 said...

I think some of you are arguing subtly different issues. It's one thing if an actor declares that he/she "can't" or "won't" do something. And yes, an actor should try to find the motivation themselves, but I think unless we're talking about a frequently egregious actor we should assume they tried and now need help, which is what the director is there for.

Also, what is the human experience other than our motivations/desires and the way we try to satiate (or deny) them? Adding in the requirement of realisticly simulating human response to stimuli (which includes emotion) while you hit your marks and nail your lines and function symbiotically with your fellow actors and do all this in a captivating or funny way is what makes good acting really tough. Unless you're just goofing, it seems silly to belittle it.

Lairbo said...

Jon Lovitz did a bit once about opening an acting school. "Lesson 1; Try pretending!"

Tallulah Morehead said...

In my LONG experience as a Movie Star, I can tell you, directors are nuts. You would not believe that INSANE things some of them have said to me, like when Cyril Von Millstone, who directed HEAT CRAZED, the movie that made me what I am today, said to me, "Tallulah, could you not drink until at least lunch?"

What, I ask you, could my motivation Possibly be for THAT? Drinking IS my method! I employ The Drink System!

As for Glenn Close, he should butch up. Frankly, in several of his films, he could be mistaken for a woman! But he won't just be ignored!

Cheers darlings.

Joe said...

The best way to act is to imagine what an enormously gifted Method actor would do with that character and then imitate that.

Eric said...

I would have said "Of course your character wouldn't have chosen that China. But that's what's in her house. Why is that? What does that tell you about her?"

Anonymous said...

"You're perfectly right, Glenn. The Art Director chose it for her".

Michael Green said...

One of the best stories I ever heard about a director dealing with an actor involved the Broadway production of "My Fair Lady." Stanley Holloway had come over from England to play Doolittle and felt that director Moss Hart was ignoring him at the expense of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. Hart supposedly took him aside and said something like this: "Stanley, I have a lead in a musical who has never sung and a co-star who has never acted. Why the $%#@ should I be paying attention to you?" Holloway agreed and that was that.

By the way, one of the great old "Hollywood Squares" moments--that's the original, not to be confused with the horrible sequels--was the question, "Alfred Hitchcock calls them cattle and Otto Preminger calls them children. What are they?" The celebrity answered, "Otto Preminger's children." The correct answer was actors.

Eric Herman said...

I had an argument, er, discussion online with someone once, where I was explaining how method acting is mostly nonsense and doesn't actually show up in the performance, and the best thing you can do as an actor is to study the script, know your part inside and out, and *act*. He said that he could instantly tell the difference between an actor who only did that and a method actor like Anthony Hopkins. I was curious, so I looked up some interviews with Anthony Hopkins and found a quote where he said that he gave up method acting many years ago and now he just studies the script and goes out and acts. Game, set and match.

David Mamet's book, True and False, is a great one about acting in general, and tears down a lot of the method silliness. He says that some method actors give great performances because they're just very talented *actors*, inherently, and because they've learned their lines so well, not because of any of their method nonsense.

Grant said...

So just to be clear, you don't think it was a good idea for Wesley Snipes to use the method on "Blade: Trinity"? It brought so much depth and complexity to the role of a daywalking vampire.

Even if he did alienate the cast and crew... Even if he did actually attack the director... (The latter was craft services fault. No blood!)

It was all worth it so that the performance could be captured for the ages. Forget Heath Ledger as the Joker...

David O'Hara said...

How many of you have done any acting? Any of you done it well? Put a camera 3 feet from your face and just fake it?

Ever wonder why some directors always get great performances - others not so great (from the same actors)?

Ken, ever get notes about your writing from studio execs? Ever had say to the room, "Great joke, but it's totally out of character"?

Any actor that's any good needs to make sense out of the material in order to deliver a decent performance. A good director knows that. A lousy director just wants the damn actor to "Do it".

Of course anybody can get too anal with anything, but the bottom line is its not the director's face upon that screen - it's the actor's who is asking all those pesky, 'needless' questions.

John Badham wrote a great book for anybody working with actors, "I'LL BE IN MY TRAILOR".

Like any good director, he considers the director/actor relationship a collaboration.

Rob said...

Can you imagine how horrible the new Three Stooges movie will be with the highly overrated Sean Penn, who is as big a comedy killer as you can find these days?

David O'Hara said...

Or how truly moving Raging Bull would have been with any of the Three Stooges.

Dhppy said...

I think it's possible for something to be out of character (speaking from a writing point of view). For example, the orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally". Sure, it's funny and now iconic, but there is nothing that Sally Albright says or does before or after that scene that suggests that she would ever do anything so bold as to enact a loud orgasm in the middle of a crowded deli. It's not in character for her. Mind you, it's the most memorable scene of the film, and clearly Meg Ryan was game, and I certainly enjoyed it, but still...

On the other hand, I remember running lines with an actor friend who had an audition for a sitcom. He's a funny guy and tends to crack people up easily, so you'd think this would be a breeze. Nope. He'd go from laughing and joking beforehand to reading the lines in his most stonefaced DeNiro. Every single time. I'd try to distract him and get him to lighten up, and it would work for a few seconds, then came Travis Bickle. Having no acting experience, I couldn't understand why this kept happening and why he insisted that his unfunny version was "the truth". He couldn't be moved. I guess he felt the genre was out of character.

Anonymous said...

That orgasm scene always made me cringe for the reasons cited. It's way too over the top & out of character for my taste.

Anonymous said...

hvin no experience it would seem to me that since each performers character is central to that actor, that barrin unreasonable feedback, good delegating would tell you that if they come back saying "my character would never choose THAT" that it would be smart to at least take a minute to check if that was so or not.
I mean, WHO picks out the dishes, and what do THEY know about the character? I can't believe the writer or director check THOSE details, and those are just the kind of thing that might grab some of the audiences attention.
I find in period pieces, 1800's, 1950's, whatever it seems like more and more authenticity gets put into props, and THAT too can sometimes distract (I get fascinated like "oh...gaslights looked like that eh? Wow...")

Rob said...

C'mon guys, I don't care how out of character it may seem, don't you know this is the way Billy Crystal affects women? I understand that three women spontaneously orgasmed at the first Oscar ceremony he hosted alone.

D. McEwan said...

"David O'Hara said...
How many of you have done any acting?"

I spent 30 years as a jobbing actor. A few small films, a fair amount of TV, a lot of radio, and a hell of a lot of stage work. My job was making the director's directions work for my character. I had good directors, bad directors, and horrible directors.

"Rob said...
Can you imagine how horrible the new Three Stooges movie will be with the highly overrated Sean Penn, who is as big a comedy killer as you can find these days?"

Well yes, it will be horrible, as it's about The 3 Stooges. Talk about your comedy killers. I haven't found them even remotely funny since puberty. Laurel & Hardy I remained in love with, but I outgrew the stooges back while they were still alive. (In fact, I saw the 3 Stooges do a live show, 50 years ago. Without sound effects, they were just three old men hitting each other. Where is the humor?)

Sean Penn didn't kill the comedy in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH or MY THREE ANGELS. And he got the single biggest laugh from me of anyone at the Oscars this year. Frankly, he's far funnier than the stooges. And there was nothing overrated about his performance in MILK. (In which he got a number of laughs.)

About who decorates the sets. My dear friend Jane Morris played Nedda in Garry Marshall's FRANKIE & JOHNNY, she told me that the first time she saw the decorated set for her character's apartment, she was thrilled. She said, "It was EXACTLY what her home should look like." Some art directors know what they're doing. Why, it's almost like they're professionals.

Anonymous said...

Question for Ken - has there ever been a time when getting notes from various parties actually improved your script?

B Smith

Cap'n Bob said...

Now you've gone too far, Doug. The Stooges not funny? I've been watching them since 1959 and laugh every time. What you're saying is heresy. One thing you said is correct, though. The sound effects make their material work, Without the slaps, grinds, and tweaks the humor would fall flat. But not funny with the effects? Bite thy tongue.

Jub Jub The Frumious Bandersnatch said...

"You're a tomato!"

Wayne said...

Acting is Arnold Schwarzenegger saying "I won't raise taxes."

Anonymous said...

"David O'Hara said...
How many of you have done any acting?"

Only for a dozen years.

jbryant said...

Acting is one of those things where there is no one correct way to do it. If something works, it works. That said, I think Method actors should be mindful of the strain their shenanigans can put on a film's budget or their co-workers' patience. If you can't find the perfect sense memory to convincingly shout "Let's get outta here!", then maybe just do it half-assed and move on. Everyone will probably willingly indulge you on the more emotional, interior material, especially if you're known for delivering on it.

Tom Parker said...

Dustin himself had a moment with Sir Laurence Olivier on the set of "Marathon Man".

In method preparation for the infamous "Is it safe?" tooth drilling scene, Hoffman had kept himself up all night to make sure that he would look and feel properly depleted.

As one of the greatest living actors of the time, Olivier shows up on set, fresh as a daisy. Taking one look at Hoffman he proceeds to completely level Dustin with the question "Wouldn't it be a lot easier if you just acted?

Anonymous said...

A lousy director just wants the damn actor to "Do it".

Yeah, just like that lousy Hitchcock guy.

David O'Hara said...

Then Jerad, you probably understand the point I was trying to make.

Anonymous said... (I just love the courage of one's convictions) What Directors say about actors and what they say TO actors can be very different things. Find one person who will tell you Hitcock called Jimmy Stewart "cattle" to his face. Oh, how many best actor awards did Hitchcock's actors win (and he had the best actors of his day - no hacks)?

D. McEwan said...

Did you do your best work for the good directors' or the horrible ones?

I'm not a method actor, but I do need to know why my character does what he does, be dressed appropriately for the character, maybe know something about the era the scene takes place, etc.

Any good director does similar homework before he directs a movie. He has to know what his film is about - he just can't DO IT.

Only a moron would expect different from an actor.


That ought to piss a few people off, but if the shoe fits - wear it.

jbryant said...

I'm not sure I get what the lack of Best Actor awards for Hitchcock's leading men has to do with anything. Joseph Cotten (Shadow of a Doubt), Robert Walker (Strangers on a Train), Cary Grant (Notorious), James Stewart (Rear Window, Vertigo), to name a few, may have been snubbed at awards time, but that doesn't mean they were undeserving. Maybe I'm just missing David O'Hara's point.

David O'Hara said...

They did get awards working with other directors - some known as 'actor's directors' could be a correlation - maybe not.

If great acting can be done by 'cattle', why pay the bucks for the best cattle - anybody will do. Just find the ones that will be blindly led by somebody that's incompetent to do the 'cow's job'. That's gotta be a lot less hassle for the director. "But, he probably won't get what he wants: blind obedience rarely equates to great performance.

Michael Caine put out a great 60 minute DVD on acting. He relates the times when working for inexperienced directors that asked for "more" on his closeups and he had to firmly tell them it was 'enough'. When they saw the dailies, they realized he was right.

What they asked for would have ruined it. Hmmmm....?

Maybe that's why Caine got BIG roles?

Many of the great actors/actresses where not a director's yes-man - but they delivered what the doormats couldn't.

Is this not somewhat similar to great director's battles with studio execs who think they can edit the film better than the director and end up trashing what would have been a better movie?

Like everything, there are two sides to each coin. Usually the best lies somewhere in near the middle. A director, an actor, a studio should respect the professionalism required for each to do their best work. Being a doormat is NOT being professional. If you hire an expert to do a job, you need to let them do their job. An actor's job is to service the character and the story to best of their abilities - that may require the director to give the actor some rein.

monke said...

Is Pia Zadora still the reference point for bad acting? flashback!

Andrew said...

Ken, what is your take on Meisner actors? While not an actor myself, my understanding of Sanford Meisner's techniques suggest it is more suited to comedy, because it is more script-focused. I always thought Meisner was far less serious than most Method actors, although I do know his techniques are thought to incorporate some Method techniques. He once said, "Acting can be fun. Don't let it get around."

rita said...

hi ken,

it's "did-they-or-didn't-they"-time on the german MASH-forum again. this time the big question is, did margaret and hawkeye marry *each other* or did they marry *someone else*? one of the members claimed that in the pilot the sentence, "of course, margaret and hawkeyey got married," was spoken. since about 99% of the germans on that board had no chance to see AfterMASH and since you are the writer, i thought you would be the one to clear up this mystery from the MASH vaults.



ps. even though this is only in german, you might find this whole thing rather entertaining.

Amanda said...

Alfred Hitchcock, when shooting TORN CURTAIN, was asked by Paul Newman no less what his motivation was for a head movement Hitch had asked for. Hitch said, "Your motivation is so that the camera can see you." Hitch was no fan of the method either.

Sure wasn't. Don't know if it was the same actor, but an actor asked him what's my motivation and Hithcock replied your paycheck