A Lesson In Giving

Not long ago, I was very fortunate to be cast in a film where I worked with two veteran, Academy Award winning actors.  I have worked with celebrities before and some have been great actors who were amazing to watch.  Not because they possess some special magic, but because they do the work.  The work is the work is the work.  I enjoy watching their commitment and professionalism take after take.  They are givers.

On this most recent film, these two people came to set with certain idiosyncrasies that you may imagine might befit the stereotype of famous film actors.  However, once we started working it all became about the work.  We were filming a large courtroom scene and there were five actors who all needed coverage.  In the end, we filmed about two pages of dialogue easily over fifty times.  In this particular scene, I had almost no dialogue.  Because of this, I was surprised when the camera was moved in on me for a closeup… for the whole scene.  After those takes the director moved in again even closer.  What made this so great was that everyone in the scene continued to give.  Take after take.  With the camera on me, each actor played the scene like it was the first time.  You may be saying, “of course.”  But, believe me, I’ve worked with many actors who dial it down when they are not on camera.  In fact, in the past, I’ve even had a production assistant read an actor’s lines to me for my closeup when the actor felt they didn’t have to be there because they weren’t on camera (This is a horrible and common practice).

The real beauty came on the last setup.  The scene really centered on the two stars’ characters.  So, when the camera was ready, one actor moved her chair right next to the camera to provide the perfect eye line for her partner being filmed.  She then proceeded to give 100% each take… with tears streaming down her face.  I was so touched, not by her performance, but by her generosity.  In the end, I have no doubt that it is this kind of work ethic that creates truly great work.

Always be a giving actor.  Always.

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Another On Set Lesson

I was shooting a television episode of an hour long drama this week.    As a guest star, you are lucky if there is an arc to your character.  What happens if you’ve been hired as a recurring character, especially a series regular?  Many actors find it challenging, if not frightening, to keep track of a character’s back story.  During a break I had a chance to discuss acting process with a couple of the series regulars.  It was interesting to see how these two actors dealt with this same issue.

One of the regulars had just been added to the cast and it was her first series regular job, and her biggest acting responsibility to date.  She had recently butted heads with the writers on an earlier episode because she felt some of her dialogue did not match her already established character.  “My character wouldn’t say that,” she told them.  She shared that she immediately regretted saying that because they just looked at her with not too kind expressions on their faces.  Eventually she said the lines and felt frustrated because she struggled to make it “work” for her and her character.  After 8 weeks she said it just kept getting harder.  Many actors work this way.  It must be very hard indeed.

The other actor said that she used to struggle with the same thing (She had been a series regular on another show prior to this one).  And then she realized that if she just said the lines the people watching would believe it.  At first she thought she was being lazy, but then she realized the futility in having an elaborate back story and keeping track of all these character traits.  I said to her, “So, what you are saying is ‘Just play the scene.'”  She said, “Exactly!”  And I smiled.

Television characters change slightly from show to show.  Those changes can be more pronounced over a season.  If it has a long life, you can bet a character will evolve or devolve in ways you never prepared for.  Play the scene.  You don’t get to control your character – that’s the writer’s job.  Be prepared for anything.

What I Learned: From the Audition to the Set

“…you learned to make the other actor look good so you looked good…” – Bill Murray

I recently returned from ten days in Dallas shooting an episode of a FOX one hour episodic show.  I want to stress the fact that I do the work that I preach.  I hold myself accountable the same way I hold my students accountable.  In fact, I’m probably much harder on myself, which I’m sure doesn’t come as a shock.  Since I’ve returned I’ve worked with several people on auditions.  Without exception, the actor shows up “prepared”.  Unfortunately, this means memorized.  Now, my students know I’m not a fan of starting with memorization.  If real work hasn’t been done, then the memorization is a waste of time.  In fact, it is usually a hindrance.

The last actor I worked with memorized words without truly knowing what he was saying.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have any emotional connection to the words or the scene he was in.  When we started working, he became even more frustrated because he kept saying the  lines wrong.  No matter how many times we ran a scene, he used the memorization process as an excuse to not really commit to the scene.   Now, I was watching an actor totally removed from the scene and sabotaging himself with a bad process.  We are not wired to effectively memorize a string of words.  Actors must understand the ideas and have feelings about what each sentence is trying to convey to have the words stick to our brains.    So, I say it now:  DO NOT MEMORIZE WORDS.

This needs it’s own paragraph.  So, one more time:  DO NOT MEMORIZE WORDS.

Discover the emotional content of the words.  In other words, know what you are saying and how you feel about it.  This process is often more effective when you work with someone, but I rarely work with anyone on my own auditions.  It is vital the person you are working with let you make those discoveries, so be choosy about who you work with.

For my audition I had to prepare three scenes including a nice size monologue.  Now, I love monologues.  Many actors fear and even dread them.  I really can’t relate.  For me the process is usually easy and enjoyable.  I enjoy finding a way to connect all the ideas and emotions.  This particular monologue I connected with very easily and in no time I was spot on… with my intentions… and my words.

When we were filming that scene, we had done at least a dozen takes for the master shot and the coverage of the other actors in the scene.  Each take was fueled with the intentions that had become a part of me and I was spot on each time.  However, when the camera was turned on me for my close up, the director decided that a totally different read on my monologue would better serve the scene.  Without batting an eye, I nailed it on the first take.  If you know what you are saying and take responsibility for each and every line, you can make adjustments with far more ease.  I knew that I could trust the work I had done and it was a part of me.  In other words, the original intentions I had found solidified the words into my memory.  The words will always be there regardless of any change in intention.  In fact, playing this way often brings out creative gold.

So, to summarize:  Know the scene and know how you feel about it (now you are on your way to feeling how your character feels).  Then, work line by line understanding and taking responsibility for each line.  Work on committing to the feeling of each line and how the line before got you there.  Pretty soon they all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Who Is Paul Schackman?

“I don’t care how you think X, Y or Z would do it, I don’t care how you think it’s supposed to be done, or what’s the right way to do it.  You take responsibility for that line. That was a concept that suddenly made it tangibly an art form.  ‘Oh! It’s about me.’  And I have never wavered from that.  It’s about taking it personally.” – Kevin Kline

Born in Tacoma, WA and raised in Southern California, Paul is a graduate of The University of California, San Diego where he began studying acting.  A veteran of Los Angeles stages, he has starred in and directed numerous productions, including the critically acclaimed Pauly and Paddy Show, an evening of original solo pieces that he co wrote, directed and starred in.  In 2006 he was nominated for an LA Weekly Theatre Award for his role as the Doctor in Will Smiths’ production of Medal Of Honor Rag.   This acclaimed production had Paul starring opposite Heavy D, with Delroy Lindo taking the helm as director.  From his first role on the original Beverly Hills 90210, Paul has gone on to appear in numerous feature films and television programs over the years playing an eclectic range of characters.  For more information and a full list of credits go to www.paulschackman.com or check out Paul at IMDB here.

Paul Schackman on Acting

“I have studied many methods of acting over the years and I’m continually surprised by how dogmatic and restrictive they often are.  As artists, we should be totally free.   As an actor I am committed to one thing – telling the truth.  This often seems like a daunting task when our heads are filled with ideas about what we are supposed to be doing.  If we have spent hours rehearsing, then it makes sense that the audition or performance should be exactly how we have worked it out.  Thus, we fall into a trap.  This trap blinds us to our feelings, our imagination, and our instinct.   On stage, it is easy to spot the well rehearsed but uninspired.  I used to think it was bad acting, but I have come to believe it is just misguided training.

As an actor, we are required to play a role onstage for weeks or perform the same scene on set for often dozens of takes.  Knowing the lines, the blocking and emotional arcs throughout each scene or take are not enough.  Unfortunately, that is where most actors stop working.  Most actors will do the job well enough but ultimately are forgettable.  Those that do a scene over and over again, always finding something new are the ones we can’t take our eyes off.  They are artists.   We watch them and know they are being truthful.  That should always be our goal; otherwise, really, what’s the point?”

… And So It Begins

“You never know what you’re going to do until you do it.” – Meryl Streep

Thanks for stopping by.  It has been a long time coming, but the timing seems perfect for my blog and workshop.  I started studying the craft of acting 20 years ago.  From the beginning I was horrified by how many “teachers” of acting were doing nothing of the sort.  Some would argue that acting is an ego driven art.  I think it is often the ego of the instructor that undermines many acting classes.

It is no secret that early MFA Acting programs, which were limited to a handful of esteemed institutions, took their talented young actors and spent at least the first year of instruction tearing them down before building them into “proper” actors.  I have friends today who still comment on spending the first several years after receiving their MFAs “unlearning” what was now getting in the way of their talent.  I firmly believe structure in the study of acting is utter rubbish if it prevents creativity from flourishing.

Today, I see acting teachers exploiting the insecurity of young actors and taking their hard earned dollars under the guise of sharing some secret process that all the stars use.  It makes me sad and it makes me angry.  It is Bullshit.

As in any art form, there is no right way.  Anyone who tells you that will take more than your money.  There is however a wrong way.  Any way that doesn’t get you to where you need to be is the wrong way.  Overwhelmingly, most great actors have trained, and they have trained hard.  Most can’t put a finger on how they get from point A to point B.  They may be able to talk about how they prepare, but once the curtain goes up or the director yells action they are no longer thinking about how to do it.  The great ones let go and become awash in imagination, emotion and instinct.

This is what I teach.  How to let go.  How to trust your training and your talent.  How to truthfully take responsibility for every line, and every moment between them.

Auditions

“I hate the audition process.  Having experienced it as an actor, I found it demeaning.  As a writer and director, I find it damn near useless.”

– David Mamet

“In the audition room, the actor is a supplicant…  He is allowed, encouraged, and, if gifted, driven to cast himself in various enjoyable, demanding roles and situations. These situations may not be noble, but the work, and the joy of exploring them, is.”

– David Mamet

Very rarely do I encounter an actor who loves to audition.  It is the most frustrating and nerve wracking part of the job of acting.  For the actor, nothing will cause more sleepless nights,  amplify the voice of self doubt, and encourage self sabotage like auditioning.  In his book, “Bambi vs Godzilla:  On The Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business,”  David Mamet includes a wonderful essay, “Good In The Room:  Auditions And The Fallacy Of Testing,”  which breaks down the psychological process of auditioning from both the acting and casting sides of the room.

As actors we love and need and want to act.  When we audition, generally we are not driven by that love, need, or want.  We are instead driven by a desire for a job.  We are not acting, but interviewing for a job.  The casting directors, producers and the director are not there as audience members to see a performance, rather they are judges on a jury.  They are not there to see if you can act, they are determining if they can see you “act the part.”

The Audition is the job.  One more time for good measure… The audition is the job.  Long ago I discovered that the key to auditioning successfully is to approach auditions differently.  I use the audition to act.  I see it as an opportunity to do what I love.  How ever many people are in the room, they are my audience.  I will often get frustrated when I don’t get hired after I know I have given an amazing audition.  In fact, I would call my agent and say, “How could they not hire me?”  He would respond with, “Your problem is you think you actually have some control over that.”  That is the truth and it is valuable information.  I do not concern myself with getting the job (usually – we’re all human).  That is out of our control.  Proper preparation and having fun are the keys to the castle.  I usually leave an audition thinking, “Well, they get that one for free.  If they want another it’s going to cost them.”  It’s more important that I like it more than they do because eventually they will decide I am the right choice, and then they’ll pay for it, and then they’ll film it.

One last thought for the actor.  Remember, if your agent got an audition for you, that means two people think you are right for the part; your agent and the casting director.  It’s real easy to sit in the actors waiting area and look at the other people reading for the same role and start doubting yourself.  Stay focused.  You are not in casting so don’t start casting someone else in your role.  Play the part.  You are an actor.  Whether you get the role or not you are perfect for the role.  I can’t think of a role that I couldn’t imagine myself playing.  Some roles take more work and are more challenging, but that is the fun of it.  That is what we do.  At the audition, that is all you should do.

Don’t Always Listen To The Writer

“I don’t honestly think people know what acting is.”

“Somewhere in your career, your work changes. It becomes less anal, less careful and more spontaneous, more to do with the information that your soul carries.”

-Ben Kingsley

One of my pet peeves is writers that feel the need to do the actor’s work for them.  There is a big difference between a writer giving an actor the words to say versus giving direction on how to say it.  Sometimes these directions are subtle and show up as over eager punctuation.  Sometimes they are more obvious and are laid out very specifically in the stage direction.  Either way, unless the writer is the director (and often even then), the characters are no longer his.  The story is his, but the characters now belong to the actor.

I saw an interview with Christopher Walken who said that the first thing he does when he reads a script is to cross out any and all punctuation.  That way, he can find his own rhythms of speaking the words.  But wait, you say!  What about the writer’s intentions, you say?!  The writer’s story will be told, I promise.  Once a director takes on a project, he or she might respond to the material in a way different than the way the writer originally intended.  The writer is no longer in charge.  The end result will be that the writer’s story will be told, they just may not be happy with the end result.  Oh well.  To all writers out there – If you don’t want to give up your scripts to the collaborative process that is film (and theatre), then write a novel.  If you still disagree with me, then consider this, Christopher Walken won an Oscar.

Let me give an example.  Here is a line of dialogue:

“We decided… just to talk to each other, but in the process we have created for ourselves a whole new life — possibly.”

The scene where this is from boils down to a man asking a woman to take a chance with him.  The writer added the ellipses, “…”,   and the  em dash, “–“, so that the actor knows to  pause.  Here is a Wikipedia definition of an Ellipses, “An ellipsis can also be used to indicate a pause in speech, an unfinished thought, or, at the end of a sentence, a trailing off into silence.  The ellipsis calls for a slight pause in speech.”  Here is what Wikipedia says about the em dash, “It can be used instead of an ellipses to indicate a sentence stopped short not because of interruption but because the speaker is too emotional to continue.  It also often demarcates a parenthetical thought.”

So, now we know what the writer wants us to do.  He wants you to pause twice in the sentence, the second time, perhaps, to add some emotion.  I would approach that line differently.  I know where the scene is going and I know how to drive it there.  But I’m going to go my own route.  How I pause and how many times is my business.  My job is to connect to my instinct and play the scene.  All that bogus writer direction needs to be flushed down the toilet or it gets in the way.

Now, if anyone reading this is still fighting for the writer, let me leave you with one final thought.  I recently was talking about this same subject with a casting director friend of mine and as I made my arguments she asked if I wasn’t afraid of upsetting the writer by clearly ignoring his intention.  I thought about it and said no for two reasons.  First, 9 out of 10 actors auditioning for the same role will do exactly what the writer says to do.  One or two might actually do it proficiently and the rest will look rehearsed and stale.  If I find my own way of getting to the finish line I know it will stand out in the minds of those in the room.  Which brings me to my second point.  I said,  of those in the room who are doing the hiring, I’m betting that the writer has the least amount of say in who gets the job.

She looked at me for a second and then her jaw dropped a little.  “Oh my God, I never thought about that, but you’re absolutely right.”  You see, everyone agrees that the actor must serve the writer.  What they don’t get is that the ones that don’t do it, often actually do it better.  Think about it.

Make It Matter And Tell The Truth

“An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.” –  Sanford Meisner


I love the quote above from Meisner.  I do not teach Meisner, but I admire the wisdom of his philosophy.  I am a firm believer that the words are secondary to the actor.  When I say this I’m often confronted by people who argue that the actor’s job is to serve the story that the writer has given us.  The writer’s words should suggest our character and our behavior, and our work should start from there.  I disagree.  In fact, I think that approach to the craft of acting is the reason why so many actors succumb to mediocrity.  I guarantee that if you make wrong emotional and character choices, the story you are acting in will still end the same way – every time.  The words will never change.  The words are the story.  The words are the character.  Once you accept that, you never have to think of it again.

Let me use an extreme example to prove my point.  If you are cast as a serial killer with minimal dialogue, how would you approach it?  Most would try to connect with the brooding intensity that most of the famous on camera psychopaths have had.  The story line may even suggest a traumatic childhood to justify this approach.  If this is a feature film there will most likely be the perfect music as a backdrop to heighten the creepiness.   But, what if you made a “wrong” choice.  Ideally you weren’t even conscious that you were making it.  For example, lets say you are experiencing great joy in the moments where your character actually had to speak.  Maybe you were even beaming like a fresh Lotto winner.  This might seem odd. It would be wrong wouldn’t it?  Absolutely not.  If you played that joy truthfully throughout the scene, I believe it would have the potential to be even more disturbing to witness than the stereotype already mentioned.  A smart director will guide you down the path of your choosing, not his or hers.

The key to charismatic, honest acting is to tell the truth.  Tell the truth as you listen and as you speak.  The words should convey your emotions and behavior as well as the writers story.  Just by being there and saying the lines you serve the writer.  So, serve yourself and learn to express yourself honestly.

This workshop focuses on doing just that.  Stop thinking about it.  An actor that can live within his imagination and use his instinct can play any role. Any Role. Once you decide you can’t do a role, then you are right.  The moment you work from trust, instinct and imagination the thought “I cant” will never even occur to you.

I should say even the best actors find certain roles intimidating.  We are all afflicted with self doubt from time to time.  Nothing will serve you more than to go after the roles that frighten you.

What About You?

“You have to find out what’s special about you as a person, and you always have to be developing your point of view.” – John Turturro

I was at an audition recently and I ran into an actor that I’ve seen many times over the years reading for the same part as me.  I could tell by his posture and body language that he was not confident in the audition he was about to have.  He eventually said to me,”I haven’t got a shot.  Did you see who else is reading for this?”  Well, I understand this train of thought very well.  Many acting jobs have been won and lost in the actors waiting area.  I once had an actor try to ease his own anxiety by very loudly saying to me, “How come you are so damn calm?!!”  I was calm because I knew what my job was and how to do it.  He didn’t affect me in any way other than making me chuckle.

It’s easy to get caught up in waiting room antics.  It’s even easier to get lost down a road of negative thoughts.  Ultimately, it’s not about the job.  It’s not about who else is reading for the role.  It’s not about who might or might not be in the audition room to give or not give  you a job.  The actor who thought he didn’t have a shot went on to say that knowing he wasn’t going to get the part relieved the pressure.  If he hadn’t been trying to convince himself of that he would have been right.

The only thing that matters is how you feel about the role.  If you can put all the bullshit aside and breathe life into your work then you have succeeded.  Focus on the character – your feelings and your point of view.  That is your job.