Awards Watch: SAG
An education is just part of what shapes an actor's work"I really swallowed that pill."
Those are the words of Peter Sarsgaard, looking back at the Actors Studio and the ideas that most shaped his early days. "I was a real devotee of that school of acting," he reflects.
Today, he acknowledges a far broader range of influences. As a supporting actor in "An Education," the little English film about a young girl's relationship with an older man that is fast gaining traction as an awards contender, he says he culled from a host of other sources to create his morally ambivalent character.
For one thing, he drew on fellow actors -- something he has done ever since working with Sean Penn on "Dead Man Walking." "Just watching him go through different takes, seeing the way he found things, disregarded things, held onto things -- there's some fantasy about a certain type of actor that might do it completely differently every time. Well, he still sat on the chair, he still took a drag on his cigarette at the end. I learned a lot about letting something evolve, pacing yourself, allowing yourself to look however you look."
Sarsgaard's words are interesting in that they mark a shift away from his own education and also from the school of acting that has dominated American theater and movies for so many years, whose influence has been felt from Marlon Brando on. In part, that's inevitable given that it has been 27 years since the death of Actors Studio principal Lee Strasberg, and given that some of the helmers most associated with the Actors Studio -- men like Elia Kazan, Sydney Pollack and Martin Ritt -- are no longer with us.
Speak to many working actors today and they'll cite a host of different approaches, often cobbled together from previously rival methodologies, rather than any single ideological approach -- and that includes several Actors Studio veterans.
"I keep it really fucking simple," says Bradley Cooper, who gained an MFA from the Actors Studio during its residency at the New School before starring in "The Hangover." "I have to do whatever I can so that what comes out of my mouth, I believe. If I don't believe it, no one else will."
Live performance, rather than one school of thought, is what "30 Rock's" Jane Krakowski singles out as most influential.
"We've all done live performance, whether at Second City or in the theater," she says. "Even 'SNL' is basically live performance. So we all think on our feet; we all have that look in our eye. People who perform live have a certain energy and that is not lost when you start recording."
Throughout her childhood, she says, her parents took her on regular trips to see shows in Manhattan, and also to their own community theater productions. "That (also) had a large influence on me," she notes. "I'm not sure, at that young age, if I knew the difference between my parents' shows and Broadway. (But) because it was in my backyard, I felt like this world was very accessible to me."
It was also accessible to theater veteran Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays the eponymous hero of the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" and who was classically trained at Juilliard. He says he still draws on lessons learned there, "from script analysis to technical aspects, like physical comedy." In "A Serious Man," he says, "I was reminded of a clowning class I took, being thrown up against the blackboard over and over again without hurting myself."
But, like Krakowski, he speaks of his experience on the New York stage -- starring in roles like "Hamlet," which he played at Shakespeare in the Park -- as yielding tools that he has brought to bear on his film work.
"These characters are often the eyes and ears through which the audience experiences the play," he notes of large leading roles. "You need to be somewhat accessible and simple so that they are unafraid to come on the journey with you, and you have to remain somewhat of a blank page, to allow people to dream on you."
Stuhlbarg's co-star in "Serious Man," Fred Melamed, who plays the extraordinarily patronizing neighbor who is having an affair with Stuhlbarg's wife, studied at Yale, just like other some awards contenders this year -- not least Meryl Streep. The main thing he learned was preparation, he says, and "having a strong enough idea in your head of what you want to do with a character that, when you get to the set, you can be open to the other things that happen."
Such a technique worked with the Coens. "They like to see what you have to bring," he adds. "They don't give you a lot of instruction unless they feel you're going wrong. They write these fully realized, rich characters, then spend a lot of time casting people in whom they have faith."
Like most directors, the Coens are relatively uninterested in how an actor reaches the emotional core of a role. But reaching that core is essential.
"Once you get into the emotional truth of it," adds Brendan Gleeson, who played British icon Winston Churchill in HBO's "Into the Storm," "it has to be your emotional truth, otherwise the camera will see through it in a flash."
Gleeson, who had no formal training and who in years past may have identified more with an Actors Studio approach, turned to a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art instructor/voice coach Joan Washington to get other aspects of the role right, in particular nailing his Churchillian delivery. "I worked very hard to sound like some of the public speeches," he says. "You can't speak like that at home."
Gleeson's blend of emotion and technique reflects a new pragmatism permeating many actors' sensibilities. It seems to combine the emotional roots of the Actors Studio with the more technical aspects of such British schools as the Old Vic and RADA.
The purely technical form of acting is what Olivia Williams, who co-stars with Sarsgaard in "An Education," calls "the school of tricksy actors." It's an approach, she says, "where you would plan your performance thinking about the effect it's going to have, rather than becoming the character -- 'It'll be great if I balance on the edge of this table, or eat a boiled egg while I'm doing this scene.' "
Does Williams identify with that? "I say I'm a very technical actor," she says. "Then I find myself weeping for no logical reason, other than that I've been thinking about tragic things and crying all day on set. I'm not an impermeable surface."
Williams respects technique, but she says -- even more -- she values the pragmatism she learned at school. "One thing I pick out (from fellow Old Vic alums) is the practical attitude -- turn up on time, say the line, move on. It's about turning out students who would always work and be reliably employed at any time. Looking presentable and learning everybody's name as much as mastering iambic pentameter or emotionally becoming the person you're playing."
Not surprisingly, a sense of pragmatism runs even deeper among actors who have no training.
"I kind of know how it works," says Paul Schneider, who studied editing and worked as a grip and script supervisor before taking roles in films like "Lars and the Real Girl" and most recently "Bright Star," in which he plays John Keats' friend Charles Armitage Brown.
"I don't need to be thinking, 'I love you,' when I say, 'I love you,' " he explains. "I could be thinking about what I'm having for lunch and that might be better. In editing, you learn pretty quickly that it's just as much the juxtaposition of images as what the actor's thinking or feeling that tells the story. Sometimes the dialogue and the costume are enough."