There is a scene in The Town where Ben Affleck comes to the flower shop, run by Fergie Colm (Pete Postlethwaite) and confronts him. It is a dangerous and risky move. Fergie Colm is no one to be trifled with. We know this, we know we are supposed to be afraid of him, we know the power he wields. It’s in the dialogue. But Postlethwaite, in this particular scene, chose a certain piece of business to make the danger manifest: He sits behind the counter, a pile of roses in front of him, and as he talks to Affleck, he ruthlessly shaves the thorns off the rose stems. I would call this a psychological gesture, something that brilliant actors are so adept at. It is not literal, it is poetic, it is psychological. Yes, we know he is dangerous. We see his cronies, we know what he does. But none of that backstory is as frightening, as ominous, as the WAY that Postlethwaite deals with those thorns. The sound design of the scene is fantastic as well, making the sound of the knife against the stems as jarring and scary as a gun shot. But none of that would be possible without Postlethwaite’s talent and deep understanding of his role, and what it signifies, and his commitment to that physical action. His movements are deliberate, and yet jagged. It takes some doing to get those thorns off. You can’t be gentle. You have to hack at it. Postlethwaite keeps his gesture specific and grounded in reality. On the one hand, it is just a task that Fergie Colm, as owner of a flower shop, must tend to. There is a casual everyday feel to it. But on the other hand, it is a warning. A clear signal to his enemies: I am just as ruthless to my fellow man as I am to this rose stem.
This is the type of acting that turns me on. This is the type of acting that I remember.
Psychological gestures of this kind are inherently theatrical. They play to the cheap seats. I love acting that plays to the cheap seats. To me, it is the meaning of generosity. It is the understanding that the actors job is to communicate what they are doing and who they are clearly and without apology to the audience paying to see them do it. That gesture with the roses would work onstage. You would remember it. You would know what it meant. The people in the balcony could see it. That’s what acting is all about.
Lesser actors often shy away from psychological gestures like this one because the gestures seem too “obvious”. That is their misunderstanding of their own craft. Postlethwaite had no such misunderstanding, and you can see it in role after role of this man’s phenomenal career. The way he coughs in Brassed Off, hankie pressed to his mouth. It is so specific, so real, that you actually believe that black-gook is coming up out of Postlethwaite’s diseased lungs. You can smell his rancid breath. You can feel the pain in those coughs, it is there in how hard he presses the hankie to his mouth.
There is certainly a place for subtlety and nuance in acting. None of the big gestures would be possible without it. But don’t skimp on the big gestures! Don’t be afraid to shave off the thorns of a rose stem, making a “bit” out of it, reveling in the bit. After all, the character is reveling in the “bit”. The character knows what he is doing. He has turned a casual everyday task into a warning and a threat. The character is “acting” in that moment. It is fearlessly theatrical. It is terrifying.
Postlethwaite’s career was long and distinguished (NY Times obit here), and he obviously was working up until the end. There are many memorable performances, things that will stay with me always, but right now, I am thinking about those roses. And the way he chopped off those thorns.
Rest in peace, great actor.