Excerpt from This is Orson Welles, a book-long interview between Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich:
PB: How about radio acting, Orson – would you say that it’s similar to the acting required for movies? I mean, in the sense that —
OW: That you don’t have to make yourself heard in the gallery? The famous difference between stage acting and acting for the camera? It’s all nonsense, you know. There’s just good acting and bad.
PB: You don’t believe in playing down for the camera?
OW: You can play up for the camera. With enough energy behind it, you can’t ever go too high. When it looks like you’re pushing – well, then it’s because you are pushing. It’s because you can’t get up there without pushing.
PB: But surely there’s a limit, Orson. The camera isn’t a theatre.
OW: The camera is an eye. And an ear. It takes you where it’s put. The theatre is where you get put.
PB: OK, but are you saying it’s impossible for acting to be too broad in front of the camera? That there’s no such thing as hamming?
OW: Hamming is faking. It’s opening a bag of tricks instead of turning on the juice. The right actor – the true movie actor – can never be too strong. What he must not be is too broad. What you’re after isn’t spread. You don’t want to smear it all over the screen like pancake batter. Big acting isn’t wide. It’s sharp, pointed, vertical. Power, real explosive power, but never the explosion. The real stuff doesn’t diffuse, it stays right on target. Hamming has no target, its only aim is to please. You can tell an actor from a whore only if he’s totally in the service of his material. The public’s pleasure and approval are incidental rewards.
“Playing down to the camera”? Never play down. Up is your direction. You shouldn’t play to the camera at all. A camera isn’t a girl. It isn’t a mirror to pose in front of. Ham actors are not all of them strutters and fretters, theatrical vocalizers – a lot of them are understaters, flashing winsome little smiles over the teacups, or scratching their T-shirts. Cagney was one of the biggest actors in the whole history of the screen. Force, style, truth, and control – he had everything. He pulled no punches; God, how he projected! And yet nobody could call Cagney a ham. He didn’t bother about reducing himself to fit the scale of the camera; he was much too busy doing his job. Toshiro Mifune: his movie performances would register in the back row of the Kabuki.
PB: But, Orson, don’t you think there’s still something called movie acting?
OW: There are movie actors. [Gary] Cooper was a movie actor – the classic case. You’d see him working on the set and you’d think, “My God, they’re going to have to retake that one!” He almost didn’t seem to be there. And then you’d see the rushes, and he’d fill the screen.
PV: How do you explain that?
OW: Personality. I wouldn’t presume to explain that mystery. It always matters more than technique.