In the theatre, where things play out in real-time, a scene may begin with a happy wedding and end in tragic bloodshed. A calm morning breakfast is shattered by the arrival of a telegram. The actors know that at the end of the scene Uncle Morty is going to put a gun to his head, but they can’t play that knowledge at the beginning of the scene. Anticipation is the death of believable acting. (Wincing before you get punched is the most obvious example, although emotional anticipation is also deadly.) You cannot know the end. Because in life we do not know the end.
If you know the end, then you may PLAY the end. I am thinking of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Treplev in the Mike Nichols’ production of The Seagull in Central Park, with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Natalie Portman. From the second Hoffman walked onstage in the first act, you knew that HE knew that the character killed himself at the end. He walked around with “I WILL COMMIT SUICIDE” emblazoned on his forehead. It was a terrible choice for the character because there was zero tension, then, in his struggle to break free of his mother, get her validation, create a work of art, etc. Why should I care, if he’s already got one foot in the grave? For whatever reason Hoffman, a fine actor, couldn’t get the end of the play out of his mind.
Michael Shurtleff, casting director, acting coach, and author of the indispensable book Audition talks about some of the problems with playing Chekhov, in particular. Actors gravitate towards the tragic, and in so doing slacken the tension and lower the stakes, making Chekhov’s plays seem hopeless, aimless, which is the opposite of the effect Chekhov was after. Shurtleff says something like, “The Three Sisters isn’t the tragic story of three sisters who never get to Moscow. It’s the story of three sisters who fight like hell to get there.” In his simple comment is the clue to “not playing the end” of the play at the beginning.
One of the most amazing moments of live acting I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a ton) was an Irish actress playing Nora in Doll’s House at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin when I was a kid. I have tried to find the actress’ name to no avail. No matter. Her performance is a high watermark for me. I will never forget her. It was the ultimate in not anticipating anything. What I remember most about this incredible actress’ performance was its blazing belief in each and every moment. She didn’t play Nora as a trapped housewife at the beginning (something I have seen other actresses do: they can’t help but try to play Ibsen’s “themes” and “comment” on Nora’s station in life, something that the character of Nora would never do). No, this actress played Nora as the happiest woman alive, a woman who loved her cage so much she didn’t even know it was a cage. Her unraveling, then, occurred like a natural phenomena. You don’t decide how to react to a gigantic wave roaring towards you. You RUN. And up until almost the very last moment of the play, this actress made me feel, sitting out there in the dark, 13 years old, that there still might be some hope. Because she had hope that there might be a way to get back to the happy woman she had been. It was a harrowing experience, and an object lesson in how to play a story out in real time. This actress couldn’t “know the end” when she made her first entrance, breezing into her parlor loaded down Christmas presents. She had to actually go through that transformation every night.
Film is shot out of sequence, obviously, so an actor may play the final scene on the first day of shooting. You have to know exactly which part of the river you are stepping into on any given day. It’s up to you to clock that.
Film is also different from theatre because it’s broken down into small chunks. Rarely does an entire emotional transformation play out in one shot.It’s film, it’s a different medium with different requirements.
“Moments” are created in the editing room, through cuts and closeups, splicing together different elements from different takes of what could be mounds of footage. You can futz with different moods, different reactions, in the editing process, ie: Do we want her to be openly upset at the bad news, or sort of dumbstruck with grief? Should we use the take where she crumples over with devastation? Or do we want the one where she goes as still as a statue? (Etc.)
But sometimes a director chooses to let a reaction play out in real time.
Directors sometimes take credit where they shouldn’t. Every decision goes through them, yes. But I love the directors who trust their actors, who can step back and let good actors be the storytellers that they already are. Hand the story over to the actors. An actor’s power of the imagination, and power of make-believe in the moment is what can make or break your story. You can futz with it all you like, but at the end of the day, it’s the actor who has to do it. Elia Kazan never took credit for Brando. He didn’t “give” him his performance in On the Waterfront or Streetcar. He knew that all he had to do was get out of Brando’s way. Many directors (especially now, when many come out of film school as opposed to a theatre tradition) know more about movies than about acting. You don’t need to “know about” acting to direct well, but you should certainly have respect for what actors can do if you get out of the damn way.
There’s an extraordinary moment that occurs in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds where an actress is allowed to create a moment in real-time, uninterrupted by cuts, and I think what I love about it is that what I see in the final moment cannot be faked. Either you HAVE this moment as an actress, or you don’t. If an actress can’t GET to the emotional transformation on her own, then a director would be forced to cut away to something else. But here: we see an actress who can do it, and we see a director who knows that the moment will be FAR more powerful if he gets out of her way, and lets her tell the story of the moment, the whole scene, her whole journey, all on her own.
It is a moment that feels completely true-to-life due to its spontaneity. It made me gasp the first time I saw it. It might have been “easier” for Tarantino to cut away to a shot of the Colonel leaving the room, and then cut back to Shosanna, already in her emotional catharsis. But then you would lose the element of surprise, and the feeling you get, as an audience member, that something is actually happening to this woman. She’s not DOING it or manipulating it or forcing it to happen. It happens TO her and I cannot stress enough how this makes all the difference.
The trick for Laurent is not to allow the end of the scene to bleed into the beginning. The end moment can’t be anticipated. Not even ONCE, because the stakes are literally life or death. Her poker face MUST pass muster. It is life or death. The character has no idea what is about to happen to her once she is alone (as is so common with delayed-stress reactions).
Mélanie Laurent, as Shosanna, sits at the table with Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), and they have a smiling cool conversation about using her cinema for the premiere of a Nazi film for the top Nazi brass. The scene plays out cordially, although the undercurrent of ominous terror for her is there always. This man was responsible for murdering her family. Shosanna has no idea if he knows who she is, if he is aware that she is “the one who got away”. Through their conversation, they eat Strudel, and she maintains her cool, agreeing with all that he says, never defensive, never fighting back. She plays along. She concedes his demands with no betrayal of contempt. Yes, the Negro will not be the projectionist that night, of course. No problem. Whatever you want, Colonel Landa.
They come to an agreement. Landa puts his cigarette out in the remains of his Strudel, and bids her farewell. She smiles up at him. She does not shoot daggers at him with her eyes. The smile is, perhaps, not gushingly real, but she does not show her cards.
The camera remains on her, and we hear/sense Landa exiting off to the left.
She waits until she is sure he is gone.
And this is what happens next.
That is what it means to be in the moment.