Fine Acting

Without going into specifics, I recently saw someone perform who accomplished that skill of Fine Acting. To me, it can’t exactly be defined in a textbook way, but there are specific ingredients that make it up.

I can tell you what it definitely is NOT: It is not LOUD. It is not SHOWY.

From what I have witnessed from most people who leave a theater or film who don’t normally interact with actors on a regular basis..people think acting means a big part, where someone is loud and yells their emotions. In film, if they have a lot of close ups, they must be good. Or if they are on stage and they are the loudest, they are the best. Not so much.

A performer who can stand there and suck you in by virtue of that charismatic, full, emotional quality of inner life and hold you there, often without many words, is someone who understands what it means to be a fine actor. it doesn’t mean “doing a lot of stuff” on stage.

I remember in college that sometimes our professors would throw water bottles or say things like “That was crap” by virtue of running out of different ways to cajole a performance out of a group of actors. They’d say things like “You guys, Acting is EASY. Just do it.”

And in many ways it is easy. But it takes a finesse to trust that all of the work, research, backstory, etc will be there on stage for you and come out as it needs to. It is much HARDER to make the emotion come out of you by yelling and contorting your body in all sort of actor-y ways in order to draw attention.

But my money is on the wo/man on stage who lifts the quality of the entire show up simply by being there and filling the empty space of the stage with something real. Even the other actors can’t help but be better in their performances because there is no denying it when an honest performance is staring you in the face.

As time goes on, I find myself feeling the need to express much more often my appreciation for work that is fine. It is fine not necessarily because it is uncommon, but because it’s elevated. It makes you work for it. It’s not so over-the-top, punch-you-in-the-face that you jump back in your seat.

Those moments where the audience leans in to meet the actor me, those are the biggest successes.

When you see it, you know it. Not every show or film has it, but when it does, you won’t want to look away.

Speaking Up

Staring into the eyes of a potential future employer, she asked, “Does everything sound good so far?”

I felt that icy feeling expand across my stomach. You know the one. Well, it may come in a different form for you, but for me, it happens when I’m “saving face,” or, in non euphemism terms, telling a lie.

I said, “Yep.”

You know those nights when you’re having the time of your life? You’re in a good mood, playing the perfect host, dressed nicely, everything’s great…and then someone says something “off color” or in non euphemism terms nasty. bitchy. RUDE. You find yourself stammering, playing with your napkin, taking a sip of your drink to wet your suddenly dry throat. The person walks away or changes the conversation and you can’t help but kick yourself for not defending yourself or another person right there on the spot? Later on in the evening, when you’re cleaning up dishes you have a flash of insight into the perfect comeback. “Why couldn’t I have thought of that THEN!?”

Apparently there is a part of our brain, that when sensing a threat (caveman days this meant a tiger, nowadays it’s just about anything socially threatening), causes our bodies to move blood flow to our limbs, away from our critical thinking centers of the brain. We get prepared for Fight or Flight Mode. The problem is, obviously, you don’t need to run away from an asshole at a party, though you may be inclined to. So literally, you are stuck with not enough critical capacity to form a compelling comeback.

Okay, back to my interview the other day. No, the person I was speaking with said NOTHING that was mean at all. However, after being asked that question, I felt myself panic. And it’s easier for me to pretend that my brain wasn’t allowing me to be 100% true to myself at the time. It was a simple question. I could have just said, “No, sorry. It was great to meet you, but I’m going to leave now.”

Instead, I nodded my head and proceeded to audition and perform in a bunch of fun ways that were all overshadowed by the fact that I knew I would not be accepting an offer if given one.

Was this the right thing to do? Looking back, I’m pretty sure it was the best option for me at the time. But it was also a good learning experience. What’s the big idea?

As an actor I was always taught to believe, “Try your best,” “Take everything you can get your hands on and DO IT.” and “Be happy they offer you any money at all.” And perhaps, had this been right out of college, I would have felt differently. But I’ve had too many experiences, both good and bad, to know that “Taking anything I can get” is not good enough. And that is okay.

I have reached yet another critical cycle in my career that I shall lovingly call “Speaking Up.” We all go through these periodic shifts as actors and artists throughout our careers.

Here’s an example that just popped into my head.

I was on set doing some driving as background for the day. I had arrived to set on time, been told to get breakfast, and then was immediately whisked away to set. No big deal. I didn’t eat for several hours, but that’s not my point.

At the end of the day, when I was in line to be wrapped by the PA, I overheard some comments spewing from his mouth that were not very kind. He was condescending and rude, particularly to a gentleman much older than he. When it was my turn, I handed him my voucher and he proceeded to complain that I hadn’t marked down my non-deductible breakfast (If this makes no sense to you, it’s not that important). I explained that I had never eaten that morning. He rolled his eyes, sighed, and said, “I told you to take one.” I smiled until it hurt and said, “Yes. You did. And then you told me to go to set.” He said, “Well, I need to write it in.” And I said, “No. You don’t. If you write it in, I am going to complain.” I heard some nervous rustles around me. And that pissed me off more. Listen. I know that doing background isn’t what I went to school for. I know that it’s a mostly thankless job and with reason. But there is nothing I tolerate less than one human being holding some sort of made up hierarchy over someone else simply because they are on a film set. Give me a break.

I persisted and he swore under his breath and signed my voucher. I stood there, and he looked up at me with a mixture of anger, frustration and a dash of fear. I didn’t move.

I said, “You don’t need to talk to me that way.”

He mumbled a, “sorry” and I walked away. As I started for my car, a few people asked me to look over their vouchers.

In this instance, I said exactly what I wanted to. I did have a few moments to prep, but I reached a point where I was all, you know what? This is BS.

And I think these are crucial times in our careers. It’s when you have to decide to speak up and do what’s best for you. NOT what you think you are “supposed” to do, or what everyone else thinks you’re “supposed” to do. It’s speaking from that place of truth in your solar plexus and just being real with yourself.

Now, back to my interview. At the end of the interview I had another opportunity to say, “You know what? You are a fun person. I enjoyed auditioning for you. But I don’t think this is for me.” I didn’t say that.

Instead, I beat myself up the entire way home. Not because of my performance. But because I didn’t stand up for myself by just being like “No, thanks.”

Most of my experiences in this business have been fun and exhilarating and just overall a good time. But there have been little bumps along the way when I knew it was time to speak up, or at the very least, say no and maintain my integrity.

Not interested in nudity for yet another role that proliferates women as sexual objects.

Not interested in doing that for negative dollars.

Not interested in you representing me after I called your office and you called me “Sweetheart” multiple times.

Not auditioning after reading that script.

The real lesson here is to check in with yourself often. Yes, it is important to be flexible, especially as an artist. But you have to know what your limits are. It’s a great idea to have some questions and expectations in your head, or written down before you walk into an audition or interview. And it’s okay to ask about them.

For some reason, this time around, I didn’t do that.

So I say again, know your worth. Value your experiences. And when someone calls and offers you a job you don’t really want to take, as was the case with me, don’t take it. It’s okay. There will be other opportunities. Speak Up for yourself, and everything will fall into place.