Wednesday, July 2, 2008

British actors are dumb.

When I first started acting in the TV series "The Invisible Man", I had my wife (who was also working at the studio) stop by and give me some feedback. I had very little experience in front of the camera and want to make sure I did well. The camera was about 20 feet away from me and so I made sure that when I hit my 'joke' moment, that it stuck.

After the first take, my wife (actually fiancee at the time) came up to me and told me to pull it way down. I was surprised because I thought that I was pulling it down, but she said no, not even close. I agreed and when the I finally saw the scene, not only was she right, but even after she told me, I still couldn't dial it down enough. I spent the next few episodes really working on what I saw as a deficiency in my acting.

We had a hiatus the first season where I got married and I acted in the stage show "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown". The first couple of weeks of rehearsal were really frustrating, because once again, I had to readjust to the stage. Every other note to me was to make bigger choices. These were choices which 6 months ago felt spot on, but now felt bloated and untruthful. After the show was over, I had to transform again, stripping away all that I was to the core so that I could be on the TV show. It was an eye opening experience. One that I brooded upon until now.

Anyone who proclaims that stage and on camera acting is the same is wrong. They're probably British and have a bunch of British theater acting awards to their name and are now in big budget American films waving wands or shooting laser all the while retaining their dignity and booming voices. They tell you that acting is the same no matter where it is done or how it is done, pat you on the head and give you a cookie.

But they're wrong, and either they don't realize it, or they're hiding it from the rest of us. Film acting and Theatre acting is like when Sting and Pavarotti sing a duet together. They are both forcing air from their lungs to sing, but it is totally different in style and delivery and neither would last long in the others arena of expertise. If you want acting proof, watch Patrick Stewart bellow out orders and contort his face for the first season of Star Trek before he noticed that the camera was 2 feet from his face. On the other side, pick any TV or film actor (how about Julia Roberts) that has recently tried to act on stage, but make sure you bring you hearing aid and telescope or you might think you're watching a painting. These are two completely different mediums linked only by the humans passing through them.

But wait, Mike! Ask any British Stage Actor to clarify his beliefs and he will admit that the external trappings will be different, but the internal process is the same. Ha! Check and mate!


This is where I'll really piss people off, but what the hell, they can stop reading this. I think the internal process is different as well, because of what the external product is. On stage, you need to show us what you are thinking and feeling in grand gestures and loud voices, lest the audience continue looking at the set, the other actors or their watches. At best, a stage actor is about the size of your hand in front of you, desperately trying to get your attention because they are so small in your world. So as a result, everything has to be vomited forth onto the stage by the character. You cannot hide anything, it will be lost, so even introverted stage characters must be extroverts to survive.

On camera, you must hide. The camera will root you out, find you and expose you. It is so relentless that you you must burrow within yourself to be interesting. Even the most extroverted character has to hold something back, a few nuggets of interest that he or she will present toward the end of the film. You must approach these characters from the deepest place inside you, inside your soul or the camera will not believe you, and will find someone else more interesting. It essence, it will start looking at it's own watch unless it thinks you have a secret.

So, hold on. What about that British actor? You know, the one who brilliantly preformed all that Shakespeare in England (or so I've heard) and now has made the transition to the big screen effortlessly? What about that guy?

First, check to see if they ever acted on camera in said faraway place. go get their first couple of films and tell me if they chewed up the scenery or not. Second, what roles are they playing now? Wizards? Dark lords? Cannibals? Pretty over the top roles, stage friendly roles if you ask me. Finally, they may in fact have made the switch effortlessly. they may have walked on to a set, looked and the big cameras everywhere and said, "Oh, I get it", and then proceeded to do just that. If this is the case, I contend that it's not because the acting is the same, but rather that the actor is good enough to intuitively make the adjustment. They're probably so good, that they don't even realize they made it, and can now freely walk around proclaiming that the two disciplines are one and the same.

And that's where they screw us all over. Because we believe them, or want to believe. We want to be that caviler, that bold as to speak for every human being when they talk about the intimate process of acting. We really want to think that the magic we see on stage, is the exact same spell cast on screen. In short, we want it to be just a little easier.

But it's not, and we should be okay with that. What we really should do is find the actors who say, "There's stage acting, on camera acting, and about 30 other kinds of acting and you have to train for each of them. " We should then aspire to learn as many forms of acting as we can and wear them proudly. There's no shame in not knowing how to do something, only a thrill at learning it.

As for the British actor, well, he'll probably keep on spouting off about the homogenous aspects of acting. More power to him. After all, he's entitled to his opinion and more importantly, he's a wizard, and I don't want to tick him off.


Anonymous said...

Well spoken. I agree - there are different styles. The one I deal with the most, because of my preferred venue, is in between the two you describe. I direct a lot of plays in small regional theatres. Theatres where the people ARE lifesize, right in front of you. It's very much "camera acting", onstage.

Why do I love it? Because you get the best of both worlds, in my humble opinion. You get the honest moment, the "close up" that you get in film, but you get it while being in the same room with lifesized performances. You get actors NOT forcing something to the 40th row...and you also get the powerful experience of a live performance.

I love working with the actors who have the ability that you describe to adjust to the different styles. As a director, I find myself having to make similar adjustments when I'm suddenly directing in a 600 seat proscenium house as opposed to a 150 seat 3/4 thrust. It's a fun challenge!

Tony Caselli

Sean said...

I assume you've seen the aforementioned famous british actor's appearance on Extras. For any who haven't:

Mike, I've been reading your Myspace postings for the last however many years but refused to set up my own page and therefore couldn't comment. I was a big fan of Invisible Man back in the day, and will buy the DVD set as soon as I stop being poor.

I recently spent the better part of six months not working, and have commiserated with your own job woes. I hope the blog leads to some new opportunities for you down the road, I always found your writing similar in quality and subject matter to Wil Wheaton's, and he seems to have built a large following after years of plugging away at it.

Anyway, nice to see you in a better venue.

Anonymous said...

Aw...many of my favorite actors are British. Of course, that may have something to do with me being a big fan of wizards. All roads in Britain lead to Harry Potter, apparently.

Although I will say that I prefer film/tv to live theatre for the very differences you pointed out (too far away and too over-the-top, primarily), unless it's a small theatre, as Tony talked about above.