Eccentric choices. A term that has brought me some friendly fire a few times. Once, directing and acting in a play called Redwood Curtain by Lanford Wilson in New York, the producer was sitting in the back of the theatre listening to me give notes to the actors after a rehearsal. He listened to me give a note about an eccentric moment, a moment of "lightning," as it were. In a breach of rehearsal etiquette he said from the back row, "you can't ask her to be eccentric for eccentricities sake alone!" I stopped the notes and turned to him and said, "yes, I can. I can do exactly that. And that's what I'm doing." You see, he didn't get it. He, like so many others, had bought into the "lowest common denominator" approach to acting. That is to say, the approach thousands upon thousands are taught in the education system all across America and then again later with professional acting teachers that think they need a text book to legitimize their class. My thoughts on this are fairly simple. Whatever your choice is to interpret a line of dialogue, fight that instinct and try and find something not quite as expected. Not always, because sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But be aware that about a gillion other actors will interpret the line the same way. Hence, the lowest common denominator.
Look at the wonderful Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. Think back to his line, "I may not be a smart man, Jenny. But I know what love is." That is a moment of lightning. That is an eccentric choice for the sake of eccentricity. That is why people quote that line so often. Because Hanks actively chose to say it unlike a million other actors. It's a pretty impressive piece of interpretation, actually. Hanks is one of those actors that I forget how good he is until I see him in something again.
I'm using film work in the blog to make points because film is easiest for everyone to reference.
Choices. It always comes back to choices. If there were two separate classes for Naked Face, choices would be the master class. Choices are the sprinkles on the ice cream cone. The added dash. The final ingredient after learning how to say the words without embellishment.
Choices. Returning to Moriarty. There is a scene in Holocaust (If you haven't seen this brilliant mini-series that aired in the late seventies about the NAZI atrocities in Europe, do so, rent it immediately. It is full of wonderful performances from Streep to James Woods to Rosemary Harris to Michael, himself, who cadged an Emmy for it), that is a startling example of what I'm writing about. The war is winding down. It has become clear the Germans are about to lose everything. Michael, as a NAZI murderer, is in bed with his Lady Macbeth-like wife. And suddenly from a man that has been clear-eyed about his desire to eliminate the Jews once and for all, he breaks into tears about his new doubts about Hitler himself. "He loves dogs," Michael says and weeps uncontrollably for a few seconds. The moment is so unexpected and startling it turns the scene instantly from predictable to heart stopping.
Look at the overwhelming evil in Lawrence Olivier when, as Richard III, he delivers the line, "I am not in the giving vein today." Another moment of lightning.
Look at Brando in Last Tango in Paris as he recounts his childhood all the while turning a small lamp near him on and off again, over and over. An eccentric choice certainly not in the script. And ultimately mesmerizing. Later in that film, as he is about to die, watch him place the gum he has been chewing under the balcony railing. His last act as a living person. A moment of lightning. And as unpredictable as it gets.
I have an obscure reference here. In 1955 Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for his work in a film called Marty. It is good work. But earlier there had been a live broadcast of that same script on television. It was saved in kinescope. Rod Steiger does the same role. It's great work. The difference between a good actor and a great actor in the very same role. Steiger is unpredictable and full of odd and interesting choices. Borgnine finds, in nearly every instance, the lowest common denominator for communication.
Had our first read-thru of Praying Small last night at the theatre. A really fine cast has been assembled for this most personal play of mine. There's a good vibe and I am hopeful and optimistic. It opens June 11.
See you tomorrow.