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. Part of the thrill of it is watching actors succumb to/create the reality of each moment, not anticipating whatever is coming next. The actors know of course 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. Or, you have to trick yourself into not knowing the end. This is what is known as Playing Make-Believe.
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 (I can’t find my copy – so much for indispensable – ugh!) was talking about some of the problems with playing Chekhov, in particular. Actors gravitate towards the tragic, the melancholic, and in so doing slacken the tension and stakes, making Chekhov’s plays seem hopeless, meaningless, aimless, which is the opposite of the effect Chekhov was after. And Shurtleff writes 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. If you already know how it all turns out, then why watch the play (even if it’s Hamlet, or The Three Sisters, or some well-known work)?
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 when I was a kid. I’ve written about it before (most extensively here), and I have tried to find out the actress’ name to no avail. No matter. Maybe it’s best not to know. Her performance is a high watermark for me, in terms of acting, and I will never forget her. It was the ultimate in not anticipating anything. I was young when I saw it, so I didn’t know the play. Unfortunately, my father (who stayed home with Siobhan, who was really young) had said, “Look out. She kills herself at the end.” The humorous thing about this is that he messed up Doll’s House with Hedda Gabler, so through the entire play I was on the edge of my seat, knowing that that woman up there was going to kill herself! Then, of course, she doesn’t. She walks out the door at the end, and the curtain fell. Although the ending is terrible enough (and a triumph, too, but a bitter one) I felt a wave of relief that she hadn’t killed herself! It gave a strange focus to the entire play, because even in her happy moments I was thinking to myself, “She’s going to kill herself? Someone should stop her!!” But 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 the happiest woman alive, a woman who loved her cage so much she didn’t even realize it was a cage. Her slow unraveling over the course of that brutal play, then, was as much a shock to my system as it was to hers. Her ruin became inevitable. And all along the way, this actress played it at the fever pitch of panic, exactly as you would feel if you slowly began to realize that you had been living a lie, and that the circumstances of your marriage were rotten to the core, and that it was no one’s fault – at least not your husband’s fault. It was society’s fault. No wonder Ibsen’s play went off like such a bomb when it first opened. Nora, through the play, realizes that her sneakiness – which was an essential part of her survival – was what was holding her back from being an adult, an equal in her marriage. She had to be sneaky in order to be married. Torvald must not know how sneaky she had been. The stakes could not have been higher. And up to almost the very last moment of the play, this actress made me feel, out there in the dark, that there still might be some hope. Because she had hope. It was a harrowing experience, and was an object lesson in how to play a story out in real time. What a journey she went on each and every night. She couldn’t “know the end” when she made her first entrance, breezing and singing about her parlor wielding Christmas cakes and presents for the tree. She had to actually go through that every night.
Film is shot out of sequence, obviously, so you may play the last scene on the first day of shooting. You have to know exactly which part of the river of the story you are stepping into on any given day
Film is also different because it’s broken down into miniscule chunks, sometimes only seconds long. Rarely does an entire event get to play out in one take. It can’t. It’s film, it’s a different medium. You need more people to make a moment come across.
Often “moments” are created in the editing room, through cuts and closeups, splicing together the disparate elements of what could be mounds of footage. You can futz with different moods, different reactions, ie: Do we want her to be openly upset at the bad news, or sort of dumbstruck with grief? It could go either way.
But sometimes a director chooses to let a reaction play out in real time.
I love movies, but I love actors more. Directors sometimes take credit where they shouldn’t. They are masters of all they survey. Every decision goes through them, yes. It is their baby. But I love the directors who know that they are in charge of something that, at its heart, is quite miraculous and mysterious: an actor’s power of the imagination, and power of make-believe in the moment. You can futz with that all you like, and try to put your stamp on it – after all, the STORY is paramount – 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 enough that all he had to do was get out of the way of what Brando wanted to do (the taxicab scene in On the Waterfront being a prime example), and to do what he could do, as a director, to highlight the genius of his actor in the best way possible. Many directors (especially now, when they all come out of film school as opposed to the 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 a little bit of 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 something in real-time, no cuts, a moment where she starts one way and then, in one shivering breath, transforms entirely … a moment that seems completely true-to-life due to its spontaneity, and would have lessened in impact if it had been put together with a couple of cuts. It might have been “easier” to cut away to a shot of the Colonel leaving (as opposed to him just exiting to the left of the frame), and then cut back to Shosanna as we see her entire demeanor change once out of his presence. 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 we see before us.
And again, the trick of it for the actress is to not allow the end of the moment to bleed into the beginning. The moment can’t seem anticipated. The character has no idea what is about to happen to her, which is so often the case with delayed-stress reactions.
Mélanie Laurent, as Shosanna, sits at the table as the Nazi, Colonel Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz) gets up and leaves her, after a smiling cool conversation about using her cinema as the premiere of a Nazi film for the top Nazi brass. The scene plays out cordially, although the undercurrent of ominous terror 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. 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, a disturbing image, and he bids her farewell. She smiles up at him. She’s not shooting daggers at him with her eyes. The smile is, perhaps, not gushingly real or warm, but she’s not showing her cards at all.
The camera remains on her, and we hear/sense Landa exiting off to the left. The following is what happens next:
That is being in the moment.