Reprinted from an article in The Soul of The American Actor by Penny Templeton
“There is vitality, a life-force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
A vital part of the artist’s journey is the path to finding his own “light”. To hone the essence of his core to shine through and uniquely illuminate his work. We are Trans-ported by the power of the actor who is brave enough to let go of masks he has used to cover his true self. To be ignited by the power of finding and embracing who he really is.
Take Off The Mask
Very often the actor is embarrassed about what makes himself unique: his insecurity, pain, her sexuality, etc. However, those are the actor’s most powerful tools. You want to uncover and show the real you. Embrace who you really are! Many actors are afraid that they themselves are not enough. That they are “too nice” or “not nice enough” and try to mask themselves with a “confident”, “nice”, or “attitude” cover. When in fact, what they really need to show is their truth.
An actor was in a feature film, playing a character that was a perfect role for him. When I went to see the movie, I saw a very pale version of who this actor was. After the mixed movie reviews came out, the actor called and asked frankly what I thought. Trying to be diplomatic but honest, I said I wished he had shown that unrelenting side of himself that he could have brought to the role. He said, “People in his life didn’t like that side of him.” But it was that “center” of him that got him the role in the first place. The role actually required it.
You might not want to show that side of your “inner you” in your every day life. However, the things we regret most in our lives are often the most powerful and useful experiences to use as actors. When you bring that essence of “you when you’re like that” to the character, the actor often fears that people will think, “ That’s what he’s really like underneath.” In fact, the audience is most likely thinking, “Wow, he’s fantastic!” Those parts of themselves that actors are often embarrassed or uncomfortable with are what audiences connect with: The craziness of Jack Nicholson and Nick Nolte, the shyness and insecurity of Diane Keaton, the haunting humanity of Benicio Del Toro, the everyman qualities of Tom Hanks and William H. Macy, etc. These actors have great range, but we also hire them because they bring their essence to every role.
Embrace What You See
Who are you? How do you put your finger on the pulse of who you really are? Step outside yourself, search your soul, and examine this character you’re living in real life as you would for a character that you are playing on stage or screen. Go on the hunt! Ask your closest friends to be brutally honest, “How would you describe me in three words?” Be even braver and ask your family! Dig into yourself to search, “What are my secrets that I’m afraid to reveal?” Do not be afraid of judging or categorizing yourself, either consciously or subconsciously. We do it every day in real life, audiences do it from their seats, and casting directors, producers and directors do it from behind the table.
Karl Malden was recently asked in Screen Actor’s Guild Magazine, what the biggest lesson was that he learned from studying acting at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre School. “The biggest lesson I learned was that I wasn’t a leading man, that I was a character actor. Because everything they put me in was the brother, the father, the uncle or the friend, never the leading man. So I said, ‘If I am going to stay in this thing, I’d better be the best character actor I can be’.”
Hone, Purify, Develop Your Unique Qualities
You must take responsibility to be sure that you grow and challenge yourself. How much do you value you? Get into class. Master your craft. Get yourself into physical shape. How you take care of your body is an indication of how you really feel about yourself. Your body is your temple, it needs to be honored and prepared to endure the physical demands of a role on a stage or set. Also as an actor, your appearance and talent reflect on those who represent you. Train to be your own best creation. As an artist, you have a responsibility to the audience to illuminate truth. If you have something to say as an artist, you want it to be clear and heard. Your strengths affect people. Your weaknesses dilute your strengths and lessen the effect of your performance. Train to form an impenetrable foundation as an artist. Perfect your talent so that you are always growing, reaching and never satisfied. Any work of art is special and should be nurtured and developed carefully, like a magnificent sculpture or oil painting. This is an ongoing process that flows over time. Training isn’t about meeting people that might get you work. Become the best and the work will come to you. Look for teachers who work on strengthening your traditional acting skills, while guiding to bring your unique “you” to the work.
Bring Yourself To The Role
The most valuable component to creating yourself is knowing how to bring the center of who you are into the room. Most actors don’t want to be “pigeon holed” or “typecast”. It really means they want to see your essence, that which makes you special and different! For example: your sense of humor, quick temper, insecurities etc. A lot of actors resist bringing themselves and these unique qualities to a role because they feel they’re just playing themselves and not the character. However, when an actor brings himself 100% emotionally to the role, he becomes the character, and the character becomes him. This mining of the actor’s own emotions expands his range and creates a powerful presence. Elizabeth Taylor once talked about Tyrone Power’s emotional intensity, saying: “Doing scenes with him was like sitting next to an electric chair, the power of his emotions were so intense.”
When the character is very different from the actor, the actor must find those parts of himself that are like the character and expand upon them until he has a fully fleshed out complete human being. These must evolve from the actor searching, “When am I like this person?” If you can’t find the truth in yourself, how are you going to bring the truth to the character? Is it more inspiring for an audience to believe the actor is the character in the moment, or to watch the actor acting like the character?
Psychologist Philips Shaver has proposed that all emotions evolve from five primary types: love, joy, anger, sadness and fear. There are only so many types of emotions, and we all feel these to a lesser or fuller extent. For example, you may feel anger at your boss but would not act on that anger to the extent that you would commit murder. However, as an actor you must fan these embers until you feel the fullest intensity of your character’s emotions.
Plays and screenplays are often about the heightened reality that a character is going through. In this particular scene what is this character feeling at the moment? Take those emotional sparks to fuel the force that really brings the material to life. Find the greatest truth that will affect and inspire others. Igniting these sparks requires you to dig deep within yourself, using your acting technique to help these emotions combust. There are several good techniques for doing this. One effective way is to start by finding substitutions for characters and situations. Then improvise with those substitutions until the emotions combust and begin to burn out of control.
Knowing who you are and what it is you have to offer is a very powerful force. Many actors have used this power to create roles for themselves based on their uniqueness: Bill Irwin, Whoopee Goldberg, Lily Tomlin and Nia Vardalos are only a few examples. Billy Bob Thornton even took control and created his perfect screen role when he looked in the mirror and developed the character of Karl Childers in Slingblade.
Although an art, acting is a demanding and challenging profession. It is up to the actor to see himself honestly, without compromising his artistic ethics and ideals. It comes down to the power of knowing who you are. Isn’t that a creative idea?