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Bryan Cranston schools Terry Gross about acting and more...

Bryan Cranston schools Terry Gross about acting

Today, in honor of the Emmys, Terry Gross interviews Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston about acting, life, and Van Dyke mustaches. While I don’t regard Cranston as the ne plus ultra of actors, based on what I’ve seen, which is admittedly not that much, there are some nice moments in this interview. For example, near the beginning of the interview, Terry wants to play the scene that I guess has come to be known, among the Breakingbaderati, as the “one who knocks” scene, and she is talking about how Walter White’s wife doesn’t know all of the things he has done, things that Terry characterizes as horrible. Cranston takes issue, a little bit, with Terry’s assessment. At about the 2 minute mark, in response to Terry’s use of the word ‘horrible’ to describe Walter’s deeds:


“Well…you know, horrible to one man is…necessary, to another.”

Acting is about entering into the necessities facing a character, one of the progenitors of the approach I teach said. The actor has to become the person who needs to do and say what it is that the character is given to do and say.

It’s a good interview. I like the story about Cranston’s parents, and helped him to develop the stamina necessary (!) for life as an actor. Give it a listen.

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touching lives

So inexpressibly sad today about the horrific and grotesque execution of American journalist James Foley. His parents spoke about him today.


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I loved what they had to say about why he went back to the Middle East after being imprisoned in Libya: why do firefighters keep going into burning buildings? Because it’s their job. Journalism was James’ passion, his vocation. He was firmly convinced that it was his place in the world, and was ready to risk his life in order to keep doing it.

Being a creative person is an incredibly difficult undertaking. Just ask Robin Williams, or Heath Ledger. Getting the world to pay attention and furnish us with opportunities is difficult, and then there is also the baked-in-the-cake part of every creative person that constantly calls the value of our work into question. Chekhov said that dissatisfaction with oneself is the source of any true achievement. True as that may be, living with that dissatisfaction on a daily basis is wearing, to say the least.

James Foley’s parents talk about how many lives that he touched. Touching lives is the potential of our lives as creative people. That’s something to remember the next time you’re thinking that you should have gone to law school or become a CPA or whatever. With all due respect to lawyers and accountants, as actors, writers, teachers, and other creatives, we have a special opportunity to touch the lives of people, to inspire them, to restore their sense of the wonder of the world. Of course, to be able to do that, we have to be very good. It takes steely resolve, stamina, and faith to make the sustained investment in one’s work that it takes to reach the point where one can consistently offer work that is very good. No one questions how much time a violinist or an athlete needs to invest, over a period of years or decades, to acquire the level of mastery required to be able to touch lives, but aspiring actors often somehow think that less will be asked of them. As a teacher of acting, it’s often my job to help them understand this, and their understanding this sometimes means they decide not to go any further. But the other side of it is this power to touch lives, to have the ability to remind people what an extraordinary thing it is live a life, to renew the spirits of people, to reconnect them to their sense of possibility. And what a fine thing that is, a fine thing to be able to be a part of.

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“But where does the emotion come from?”

I was giving an overview of my approach to a group of students at a local acting school. Near the end of my talk, a student who had had a bit of a Strasberg background raised her hand and posed the question that gives this post its title.


As a student of the Strasberg approach, she had been taught that she needed to use emotional memory to infuse a scene with vitality and interest. Without the actor’s own experience, the scene would be devoid of feeling and therefore of interest, she apparently thought.

At that moment, since all I was doing was giving an overview of my approach, there was little I could do to respond beyond reiterate some of the points that I had already made: namely, that we all have a hunger for connection and meaningful relationship, and that what we would attempt to do was to bring that need to bear on the imaginary circumstances of the character. But I knew that, especially given her beliefs about what it took for a scene to come to life, this wasn’t going to mean much to her. All I could do was assure her that over the course of the class I was beginning to teach with them, she would come to understand what I was talking about. Trust me, in other words.

With this group of students, I was beginning with a so-called “neutral scene”. This is a familiar enough acting class assignment: students have to play a scene with no help from the text or dialogue, which was comprised of utterances such as “Okay–Please—” and “Come on!”. I have a particular way of working with the neutral scene that requires students to invent a fully developed scenario, with characters that have rich pasts and dreams for the future, and also have activities in the present situation that they can pursue independently of the scene partner. It’s a challenging exercise that takes students a few weeks to complete, from scenario generation to approval of the final presentation.

We were looking at such a neutral scene, and it became clear that a prior encounter in the lives of the characters was lacking in definition: the actors knew what the upshot of the discussion between the characters was, but not what had actually been said. I discussed with the actors at length the nature of the relationship, the situation, and the needs in question, and then asked them to improvise that past encounter that seemed to be lacking in definition. They did the improv, and the result was unexpectedly spectacular. Unexpectedly, not because the actors in question weren’t good, but because in my experience such improv explorations devolve into expository exercises, in which the characters explain the circumstances to each other, rather than really pursue from each other. But for whatever reason, that was not the case this time. The confrontation in the scene was painful and involving, in the way that the situation, a fight between best friends, should have been.

I sat for a moment, thrilled at what the students had done, and then I turned to the woman who had posed the question about where the emotion came from, and asked her where the “emotion” had come from in this case. The woman nodded her head, and then answered that it had come from the actors’ understanding of what was happening in the scene. She had understood that it was entirely possible to do compelling work WITHOUT recalling an episode of her own life, but beyond that, that drama was about relationship, about what was happening between people, as much as it was about what was happening inside anyone.

In my experience and in the approach presented to me at Yale, clear and compelling descriptions of the circumstances and needs in a scene are the main fuel for the actor’s work. I do teach transference, a technique for using relationships from the actor’s personal experience to help clarify the nature of the relationships in the script, but this is a technique for preparation, not a rehearsal or performance technique. And I think of transference, if not as something supplemental, at least as secondary to the process of really coming to grips with the circumstances and finding a strong, immediately-gratifiable need to pursue. Transference can amplify an actor’s investment in another character, but without the channels of need and desired outcome to pursue to direct this investment towards, that investment is like an idling engine: full of power, but not going anywhere yet. And often, I think the power of clear, sharp accounts of circumstances, desired outcomes and needs are underestimated: their power to ignite a scene, to imbue it with urgency and vulnerability, is seldom understood. Even as I demonstrate this power in my class, again and again, I find that students often take a while to fully absorb this power and its implications for their work as actors.

“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.)…And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”–Ludwig Wittgenstein

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the ostrich effect

Nice piece on NPR today about something called the “ostrich effect.” In a study, students were motivated by various incentives and penalties to take a test to determine whether they had genital herpes. In spite of having to pay a penalty (presumably from their compensation for participating in the study) if they refused the test, and in spite of the fact that their blood would be drawn regardless of whether they agreed to have it tested, 15% of the students still did not want to have the test, even though, rationally speaking, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by finding out the truth. And yet, some of them didn’t want to know. “For those who didn’t want to know, the most common explanation was that they felt the results might cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety.”

What the article doesn’t mention, and I guess is to important to consider, is that some of the students may not have wanted to know because they didn’t want the responsibility of having to act in a way that would protect others. This means that they would rather be spreading the disease to others and not know it, than know about it and take the necessary steps. Not surprising, I suppose, given that the the subjects were college-aged, and likely fairly sexually active, but still, worth considering. Perhaps the “stress and anxiety” is actually a euphemism for precisely this.

Where am I going with this? Well, I talk to students (and have written before on this blog more than once) about what I call the “get it off my desk” phenomenon. It’s not the same thing, exactly, as the ostrich effect, but a cousin certainly. Essentially, in studying a script, actors will encounter bits of information on the characters’ past, or there will be bits of information that imply other things that are not stated expressly. Many of these things are presented obliquely, or indirectly, by the text, because, well, it would be bad writing if it just laid everything out explicitly. However, acting the role demands attention to these indirectly presented points. Now, sometimes these things go unnoticed, and so actors need to work to “be one upon whom nothing is lost”, as one famous American novelist enjoined other writers. But sometimes, these little bits of information ARE noticed, but they are, for some reason, ignored.

There’s a play I work on sometimes in scene work in class. In the scene, a woman at a party is being pressed to accept an invitation to go away with a guy to a cabin for the weekend. This is the only scene she appears in. Elsewhere in the script, other characters mention the fact that she was raped when she was eleven. It goes by really quickly, but it’s definitely there. Now, invariably, when a pair of students put the scene up, and I ask the actor playing the woman about the rape, she looks at me blankly. She may know what I am referring to, but she can tell me nothing about who did it, where it took place, whom she told about it and whom she didn’t, etc. Clearly, the incident of the rape is going to bear on someone’s decision to go away to a cabin with a man she doesn’t know well. And it’s not that the actor is a slacker. It’s just that, for whatever reason, she has chosen not to examine the incident in question.

This impulse to NOT examine information furnished by a script, especially information about aspects of the character’s experience that is unfamiliar to the actor, is what I call the “get it off my desk” phenomenon. Rather than examine the unexamined and become acquainted with the unfamiliar, we seem to have a powerful impulse to avoid confronting the unknown. We are “information-averse”, to use the terminology from the NPR piece. We want to feel, it seems, that we can handle the role without doing the extra work. Why do we do this? Good question. I suspect it often has to do with not wanting to confront the limits of our own experience and knowledge of the world, or, more precisely, not wanting to admit that there ARE such limits. Once we acknowledge the existence of said limits, we know we will be asked to go beyond them, and well, here be dragons.

It’s a long journey, but the actor has to train her mind so that she catches herself in such moments of recoil from the unknown, and instead hugs the unknown close, clings to it, tames it, allows it to bear her into destinations unknown, far beyond the borders of her comfort zone. If that’s not an intensely rewarding proposition, albeit a challenging one, then the actor may need to ask herself if she has indeed found the right profession.

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“towering emotional and spiritual stakes…”

“…that fertilize our soul for quantum growth, irrespective of outcome.”

This talk, by ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll, speaks about the rampant desire to “hack” one’s life, to find quick fixes and short cuts and easy profit. As I have written about many times, this attitude pervades the Hollywood acting culture, propagated by latter day purveyors of snake oil: cold reading classes, audition classes, acting classes that deride preparation, among many other dubious offerings.

Rich Roll’s talk is persuasive and eloquent on sustained dedication to a pursuit as the indispensable source of meaning. You’ll need just shy of 20 minutes, but it’s worth finding the time for.

The talk put me in mind of one of my favorite quotes, from Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” –Theodore Roosevelt

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