One of the things I notice in young actors is that while often they are emotionally available, they do not know what to do with their bodies. This may be more noticeable onstage, where you see the full body at all times, but it affects film work as well. I’ve talked about this before, with “closeup actors”, actors who wait for the closeup to do the heavy lifting. When seen in long shot, they either disappear, or their gestures are unspecific, not well chosen or thought out. The character is not illuminated. Now, being able to do an effective closeup is not an easy thing (you try being open and raw with a camera one inch away from your face), but creating a full character, who seems to live beyond the frame of the cinema screen, is very difficult. That’s why you don’t see it often. By talking about “gesture”, it may seem that I am talking about a very deliberate type of acting, more theatrical, but I am not. Roger Ebert, in his review of Silkwood, gives a perfect example of the kind of gesture I am talking about:
Silkwood is played by Meryl Streep, in another of her great performances, and there’s a tiny detail in the first moments of the movie that reveals how completely Streep has thought through the role. Silkwood walks into the factory, punches her time card, automatically looks at her own wristwatch, and then shakes her wrist: It’s a self-winding watch, I guess. That little shake of the wrist is an actor’s choice.
A gesture like that works on the audience subconsciously. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, you don’t, but you will certainly get the character. Gestures like shaking your wrist because you know that your character would probably have a bum watch is the type of thing that separates the men from the boys (women from the girls) in this business. On the flip side, an actor can be too facile in these kinds of things, and those actors want for damn sure to know that you NOTICE all of the work they have done. What’s the use of working on your character so hard and making all of these choices if the audience doesn’t get how hard you, the actress, has worked? Meryl Streep is obviously beyond those concerns, and while her ease with different accents usually gets the most attention – it is those tiny character elements I treasure her for. She is so damn OBSERVANT about other people. And she never seems to want to be congratulated for it. Her attitude is (and remember, she’s a genius, so she skews the sample): “Well, that’s the job, know what I mean?” What IS the job except playing make-believe as hard as you possibly can?
The more earnest let-me-show-you-all-the-hard-work-I-have-done actors don’t know how to “play make-believe”, and so their work suffers, you can see the gears moving. There is no ease. My favorite kind of acting is what I call the Bang Bang You’re Dead school of acting (I go into it in detail here). Word to the wise: This type of acting should be left to the professionals. Children do it automatically. Children play cops and robbers in the backyard, one kid holds up his finger as a gun and shouts, “Bang Bang You’re Dead!” and the other child automatically swoons to the ground in a brilliant death swan-dive. No thought of HOW to do it, no deep pondering of what it REALLY feels like to get shot, no need to do eight months of research. The point is the make-believe. Die. NOW. The child does. Adults are supposed to leave such games behind, but actors, of course, never want to give up those games, that’s the whole point of life. But most actors need to re-remember how to play Bang Bang You’re Dead. That’s why there are such things as acting classes, or relaxation techniques. Much of it is nonsense, but much of it is essential. Relaxation and concentration help you let go of the adult side of you that has forgotten how to play. Relaxation and concentration help you say Yes with more ease.
The geniuses, naturally, need very little of any of this. Because they never forgot how to play Bang Bang You’re Dead. They don’t need to “remember” anything, they never forgot it. (There’s that great quote from Stella Adler about Marlon Brando: “Sending Marlon Brando to acting class was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”)
Occasionally I go see thesis projects of young actors in graduate programs. It’s a treat when you see someone who just knows how to be onstage. They know what the job is. Many young actors don’t. They think it’s about emotions. (As my great acting mentor used to say, “Remember, the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.”) Many teachers lead young actors to believe that if they can bring up emotions, then they can act. And yet these young actors, who can cry, and weep, and rage, don’t know how to cross the stage and look like they belong there. They don’t know how to counter (I could write an entire paper on the Stagecraft 101 importance of countering – we had it drilled into us in undergraduate college acting classes. Great, if you can cry, but if you don’t counter? You look like an amateur, you’ve got nothing.) Stagecraft needs to be taught. All of that technique needs to be invisible, and accessible to you automatically. It takes practice.
This is the nuts-and-bolts of acting. But the other thing, which is how I started this post, is knowing how to inhabit your body, and make the character visible to the audience. Without seeming like you are telegraphing, with a series of tics and deliberate gestures. Maybe because of the dominance of television, with its reliance on closeups, and the medium of film, where the story is broken up into tiny pieces, many actors go straight into television without theatre training. When you’re in your closeup, you need to be able to bring up the emotion required of you. But the “waiting for your closeup” school of acting can also generate lazy actors, or actors who have never had to build a character, through gesture and posture and mood and shape. But when you’ve seen a great live performance, so much of it is in the full-body. I remember Natasha Richardson’s wildly flapping arms during her final rendition of “Cabaret”, the adrenaline and panic of the character breaking out of the cool flapper exterior. I will never forget it. I remember Christine Ebersole’s delicately drooped shoulders in Grey Gardens, her hands cupped around her face dramatically. I was in the front for Natasha Richarson, and I was in the back for Grey Gardens, but in both cases, the gesture was big enough for the cheap seats. I remember Kathleen Turner’s heartrending scream of “Oh, NO!” during Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as she fell to her knees, clumsily, awkwardly, the complete shattering of a woman. It was one of the most awful (as in brilliant, nearly unwatchable) moments of live acting I’ve ever seen. I will remember her gestures in that moment until my dying day.
It may seem that those things are hard to “get in” to film, when you’re shooting out of sequence, and a lot of it is chopped up … so where do you “get the chance” to show your work? But, as Roger Ebert observed, shaking your wrist to jumpstart your watch is something you do in long shot, it’s something that’s not made into a “bit”, and through such small detailed moments, Meryl Streep has built her character, meticulously, with great care. And once the camera is rolling, she no longer needs to think about it. She is not deliberating about any of it. Once the camera is rolling, her work is already done, so she is free to enter the Bang Bang You’re Dead zone.
That’s the zone you want to be in.
Mia Wasikowska is a young actress. I saw Jane Eyre and The Kids Are All Right in close proximity to one another. I actually didn’t know it was the same actress until I looked it up. And in The Kids Are All Right, she was effortless. And in Jane Eyre (my review here), a period piece which, in worst case scenarios, can bring about a kind of stuffy preciousness, she is also effortless. And yet completely different. She has done her work before the camera starts rolling. The costumes help. The importance of a good wig and a good corset cannot be underestimated. Because of the restrictions of Jane Eyre’s wardrobe (and the restrictions of all womens’ wardrobes at that time), her shape is affected. She is erect, angular, and tense. There is no difference between the wardrobe and the emotional effect of the character. Jane Eyre is trapped in a life she did not choose, and yet she is the ultimate survivor, in terms of a healthy vibrant sense of self-respect and autonomy. It is one of Jane Eyre’s most marked characteristics. Life batters her about. She takes some harsh blows.
In The Kids Are Alright, Wasikowska is breezy and intelligent and American (which she is not, she’s Australian). A modern hip kid. Innocent and curious about sex. With two overprotective parents. Starting to push out on her own, but with the support of a good family. If that was all she had done, I may have thought she was good, and perfect in the role, but nothing to scream to the heavens about. Her Jane Eyre changed the game for me entirely. She is smileless and grim, and there are moments when she literally vibrates with emotion. When seen in her nightdress, she seems childlike, she looks adolescent (which Jane Eyre is supposed to be, almost. Still a teenager, anyway.) Her face, in some angles, isn’t even attractive. Jane Eyre is supposed to be plain. Mia Wasikowska, a beautiful young woman, looks plain. Sallow, pale, with serious heavily lidded eyes. In the couple of moments in the film when she smiles openly, it is so free and joyful that it takes my breath away, because of its rarity. I worry for her. She is so little, so fragile. Encased in corsets where she can barely breathe. Women fainted all the time back then. No wonder. Nobody could fucking breathe. Because of the tight corsets, her 21st century shape has completely altered into an entirely 19th century shape. But Wasikowska doesn’t let the costumes run her performance, she doesn’t rely on them (as is often the case in period pieces: “I put on a bonnet, therefore I am in the past! Voila!”). They inform her, work on her, and there are times when her shape is so specific that I cannot imagine it is not a deliberate choice – either on her part or on the part of the director. There are a couple of moments when she literally seems to step into a portrait on a wall. She fuses her shape with the imagined reality and world of the character. Jane Eyre is unconscious of “being from another time” because, of course, to her she isn’t from another time. She is in her own time. Wasikowska does not seem modern. She holds a candle like she has been holding candles since she was 8 years old. There are moments, many moments, where she puts her hands on her tiny bound-in waist, arms akimbo, and it gives her a strangely peaked look, severe, like a scarecrow in her own image. The elbows jutting out, the hands clasping the tiny waist (fingers almost touching) gives her an entirely period-specific SHAPE. Nobody stands like that now. It is not a gesture that one would associate with NOW. There could be many things working on her to create that gesture. As I said, the costume suggests it, and actors are the most suggestible people on the planet. You put a crazy hat on an actor and the actor will automatically start to feel crazy. If you are wearing a bone-corset, your rib cage cannot move, you cannot move freely. Your breath will remain high and shallow. Putting her hands on her waist, jutting her elbows out, looks like a steadying posture, a way to brace herself for life. It is also a good way to relax. Letting your arms dangle would be uncomfortable if your torso is encased in tight bone; without the ability to move freely, your arms would be useless. You don’t have many choices. Putting your hands on your waist may not be the most delicate or ladylike of poses (none of the other ladies in the movie stand that way), but Jane Eyre is not delicate or ladylike. She is a lady, but she is strong and self-reliant. She is self-possessed, and maintains her boundaries, even when everyone around her tries to encroach upon her (either cruelly, like the headmistress at the school, or kindly, like Mr. Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax). Mia Wasikowska’s gesture is part of the character: I might even say, even with her exquisite emotional work, that it IS the character. I noticed it immediately on my first viewing. With all of the memorable scenes, and with the smoldering sexiness of Michael Fassbender, what I remembered from the movie after I saw it the first time was her staunch tiny little figure, elbows jutting out in triangles, hands gently placed on the bunching out of her skirt. She stands over the globe with her young French charge, and for one breathless moment, nobody moves. It is a portrait. On a wall. It is a vision of another time. Jane Eyre, whose nature was created to be soft and loving and supportive, has not found a world that encourages her essence. So she has learned to cover it up. She does so by jutting her elbows out, creating a stark figure of all angles. Her soft heart and womanly nature must be hidden behind those angles.
As an actor, you need your emotions to be fluid and available. But you also need to explore your angles and the shapes they can make.