I met Jennifer McCabe in 1995 when we both were grad students at the Actors’ Studio MFA Program in Manhattan. We became friends, of a sort, during our 9 a.m. dance classes at the Alvin Ailey Dance Studio when we both managed to always be the first ones there. We were not in the same acting classes that first year, although we took the weekly Friday workshops together. We ended up moving in together, pretty much not knowing each other, but knowing we liked each other, a year later. We were then roommates for nine years. We worked together, we did shows together, we acted in a short film together, we collaborated, we shared everything, and, oh yeah, recently we drove to Memphis and back. She is now a busy actress and teacher, working on her own craft, and passing that craft on to her many students, all of whom I hope realize are so lucky to have her at the helm. In my writing on this site and elsewhere, I have done my best to make the actor’s process (whatever it may be) explicable to those who read me, and those who watch movies. You can appreciate what an actor does, but when you know how he or she does it, the mystery sometimes deepens, and your appreciation grows. Or at least it should. Acting is a lifelong passion for both of us, and I have wanted to take the opportunity for a long time to sit down with Jennifer McCabe and talk to her about process: how she understands it, how she uses it in her own work, and how she teaches it. This is stuff that is rarely talked about outside of actor-nerd circles, and it was my goal here for us to be free to really go there, to have her explain her teaching methods and what she wants to impart, the struggles of the actor (specific and general), and ways to work through those struggles. Acting is an important artform and not readily understood. People know what they like. “Oh, she was good.” “Oh, he made me cry.” This is a universal experience. But HOW do these actors do this? And what does it take for them to be able to open themselves up like that to the material or to the character? I thought it would be interesting to dig deep into process, to give those of you who may not know this world an understanding of what goes on, a glimpse into the vocabulary and the hard and courageous work done by actors in the trenches. I thank Jennifer McCabe for her openness in all of her answers. Her contribution is a great gift. It is difficult to put these esoteric concepts into words, but that is what a teacher must do, and that is what Jennifer does.
The two courses Jennifer McCabe teaches at Stonestreet Studios are called “Directing the Actor” and “Screen Acting & Character”. Stonestreet Studios is one of the advanced conservatories of NYU Tisch Drama, where students earn a BFA in Drama. She also directs the advanced students in films that are professionally shot and edited at Stonestreet Studios and directed by faculty who are also film directors. The scripts are written specifically for Stonestreet’s actors by the NYU Tisch/Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing screenwriters.
SOM: I wanted to interview you about process, because not only are you an actress but you teach it, so I wanted your perspective on all of it. Could you tell me about all of your different teaching gigs?
JM: Right now I am teaching at NYU in the undergraduate film and TV department through Tisch and I am teaching two classes there. [One is] called Performance Strategies and it’s part of a lecture that another teacher teaches. She teaches all of the concepts that they then practice in my class. They are young freshman filmmaker majors, so they don’t know what they’re doing yet. Some are interested in animation, some are interested in editing, some are interested in sound design. Many are interested in directing. Cinematography, documentaries, all sorts of different things, so they don’t necessarily have their eye on the prize yet and it’s their first year away. So they’re 18, 19 years old, and they practice with open scenes in my class, which are scenes that are composed of six lines that have no given circumstances at all, and often don’t make any sense.
SOM: An example?
JM: An example would be: “Where did you put that?” “I’m hungry.” “You always say that.” “This is a really difficult problem.” “I’m gonna go out.” “Oh, that’s just like you.” There’s a random conflict that takes place. Later on in the semester, they get a more fleshed-out scene, 2-3 pages, 2 people, and what they do is they apply the things they are learning in the lecture class. It’s really a class about practicing how to work with actors on a set. They have a glossary of terms they are learning: what is a beat, what is a physical action, what is physical activity, what is an objective, what is spine, what is organic blocking? They are learning these terms and then applying them in a mock rehearsal session in my room.
The other class that I am teaching there is called Rehearsal Techniques which is a sophomore and transfer class and it’s more of the same but it’s a little bit more demanding. They have less time, they have to do a table read and get it up on its feet. They’re still working with multi-camera in certain classes. [It’s] a technical class [so it’s] more, “How do you go from A to Z and get your cameras up and cover this thing with 20 minutes to do it.” They have to really learn how to have the collaborative conversation that actors and directors need to have so that the actors feel they are contributing just as much as the director, and the director’s vision is still getting in there but [the actor is] being heard [too.] It’s very difficult for these kids to know how to do that. They have a really hard time with it. Some of them are naturals.
I also teach an on-camera acting workshop at Stonestreet Studios, to the junior and senior Tisch actors, the BFA majors of NYU in acting.
I also teach graduate school at the New School for Drama. I am teaching a first-year acting class, called Contemporary Technique and I have 13 actors, between 23 and 33 years old. I am in love with all of them. I am basically teaching what Gary Swanson and David Gideon taught me when I was in graduate school, at the same school but when it was affiliated with the Actors Studio.
I have been teaching at a company called Enact, and they do arts and education, focusing on drama therapy and social emotional skills. I have been there for about 15 years now, and I go into the public schools and at-risk areas of all of the 5 burroughs. I work at detention centers and alternative learning centers, I work with special ed populations and general ed pop. Huge classrooms where chairs are being thrown and wands to make sure they don’t have guns. I can’t give up that work. I love it so much. Many of [these kids] are hurting, they come from a place that hasn’t always supported them in the way they need to be supported. We play games, we do scenes, and we work with them.
I also have private students and group classes and retreats and stuff like that. I am slowly seeing where the holes are in modern acting classes, in particular that the young acting student is a different kind of young acting student than when we were growing up, with the advent of the internet and technology. It’s just a completely different sensory experience for them so you have to get in there in a way that’s more creative. You almost have to pound your way into them and you have to get them to see their will and experience their will. It’s hard for them to do that when they’ve got their faces in their phones all day.
SOM: They can’t be present in the room?
JM: Barely. How do you get information and then receive it and apply it, this reciprocal cyclical experience you are having with your teacher. They are a different generation and it is palpable. You know, as an actress yourself, you know when your will is at work onstage. You know when you are literally in a primary thinking place where your will is running around the stage, and you’re trusting it. The creative juices are flowing. [These kids] are more secondary thinking, they are more logical, things have to make sense, give me the information so that I can then either write about it or blog about it. It’s almost like the Doing of it is the part that gets lost. The application of the work gets lost.
SOM: You said that you are taking what you learned from Gary and David, and I wanted to ask you about that. All the people from the Group Theatre took Lee Strasberg’s interpretation of Stanislavski and then went and taught what worked for them. Adler, Meisner, Bobby Lewis. They all have their little camps, but really what I see is they were teaching what worked for them as actors. So I was wondering about the teachers who had an impact on you, and what you took from them.
JM: Vivian Nathan was doing these weekly workshops, and she was doing her thing, talking and saying something, and Cheryl was reading the New York Post or the Daily News, and Vivian Nathan said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Get the fuck out of my classroom. If what I am saying is less interesting than what’s in the Daily News, then clearly this isn’t the place for you. Other things probably would interest you more than this, which is okay, but just get out.” That is the first thing that comes to my mind because I feel that if you don’t know for sure as an actor that every piece of information that’s coming out of a teacher’s mouth is potentially gold – not always, I’m not putting myself on a pedestal or any of my teachers that I had – but if you don’t approach it from that perspective, if you have a skepticism about it, or “oh, this part doesn’t apply to me so I’ll go back to my Daily News” you must not study acting. You don’t have to leave the business, you just shouldn’t study acting. And then you can trample over every set or play that you’re in, and then just hope that someone wants to work with you again. So I think that moment helped me understand work ethic in a way that was very cut and dry, black and white. There was no grey area, and that’s how I ended up approaching every part of my professional life as it relates to acting and performance.
I took my first improvisational theatre class in undergrad. The teacher, Arthur Siegfried, was a very eccentric awkward antisocial guy. He always smelled like garlic and had yellow teeth and an awkward gait, and loved what he did. That was where I first began to realize that my imagination was the thing that probably should be running the show.
Stan Brown, also in undergrad, who is now a dear friend of mine, came [to] the University of Oneonta where I went for undergrad and was a speech artist-in-residence. It ended up being an intense love affair between him and all of his students. He was amazing because I began to explore with him the power of my voice, as a young woman, and that it was okay to be loud. I don’t mean volume-wise, but to be heard, be present.
In grad school, Gary Swanson was my first Method acting teacher. He came on the scene like gang-busters. [Gary had] studied with Lee Strasberg for 8 years and had all of these tapes of him in classroom with Lee, and so he is a direct descendant from Lee and taught us everything that Lee taught him. Gary is very old-school, very traditional Method, and that was where I opened myself up emotionally as an actress. I started to deal with the shit in my life that was holding me back from being able to access the creative life necessary for me to be able to be an actress. Dealing with my issues with my father, all sorts of stuff. I did affective memory for the first time, sense memory for the first time, character work, sculpture projects, animal work, song-and-dance.
Song-and-dance is the main exercise that I think an actor can do that will get them in touch with their will.
SOM: Could you explain what song-and-dance is, for those who don’t know?
JM: Lee came up with song-and-dance to help with dancers and singers because he found that many of them had habits. They would move in symmetry, they couldn’t separate moving and speaking so he developed this exercise. Basically what it is: the rest of the class sits in a horseshoe and the actor doing song-and-dance stands in the center in front of them. They begin to sing, one syllable at a time, A very simple song. Typically, the teacher will assign “Happy Birthday”. Even before they start that, they take in everyone visually, they look at everyone, one by one. They begin to take note of how they are feeling and the teacher coaches them: “What are you aware of?” That’s the question that’s asked a lot. “What are you aware of?” “I am aware that my left hip is tight, I am aware that my hand is starting to claw up, I am aware that my breathing is short and labored, I am aware of the fact that I am insecure that people are watching me.” And so they just take note of it. They have to be very still, they can’t move around. Then they begin this song where they sing one syllable at a time in a very full open sound, and make eye contact with someone. Then they go to the next syllable and they go to the next person. Typically, what happens is they will have an emotional response, whether it’s laughter or tears or shaking. The teacher will say, “What’s going on for you? What are you aware of?” And then they move into the second part of [the exercise] which is the dance part of it. The student has to also continue with “Happy Birthday”, but now in short plosive sounds, like “HA! PEE! BIRTH! DAY!” While they’re doing it, they are doing a repetitive movement back and forth, with full energy. Swinging their torso, full extension, and then the teacher will say, “Change” and they’ll change to another movement, and so on and on. There are a number of purposes this serves. One of the things that you get to notice is that they move whenever they say “Ha”. Whenever they say a sound, they move. So the idea is to break that up, to break habits, to get them to move in ways that are not habitual or, if they’re a dancer, pretty, or controlled. And after [the dance part of the exercise] they’re pretty exhausted and they have to go back to the song and sing it again. It’s an opportunity for them to open up their emotional lives, their physical lives. It’s a very profound exercise.
Dennis Hopper on Inside the Actors Studio. He demonstrates the song-and-dance exercise at the 19:42 mark.
SOM: So you felt very comfortable in Gary’s class, opening all this stuff up. How did he do that? I’m just curious because you are a specific person and everyone has different responses to teachers and I wondered if you felt he saw something very specific in you or that it was his teaching of the technique that was so good – or if it was both.
JM: I think it was both. It was the planets aligning, I was in the right place at the right time. I was a first year acting student, learning this stuff for the first time and Gary was incredibly skilled. I felt that he was paternal, which at that time I needed. I felt that he explained this work in a way that was extremely user-friendly for me at the time. I was receptive to the sense memory work. It was something that worked for me. He also had a sense of humor and that was huge turnon for me as a student, because I love humor. It’s probably my favorite thing in the whole world. I could receive him better because he kept things light. When Jay was doing his cheetah [during the animal exercise], and he was literally drooling, Gary was cracking up. Meanwhile, it was the most serious cheetah that Jay had ever created in his life. It was the only one, really. And Gary was sitting there laughing, and I think the thing that now I realize I definitely have in my work as a teacher is: You approach it from a serious way and then once the actor makes those connections, then you can lighten it, and you can get them to see that they don’t have to be so self-important about it, they don’t have to be precious about it. You have to be very strict in how they learn the technique: it has to be this way, do it this way, I see that you’re doing this with your relaxation lately, do you know why you’re doing that, are you aware that you’re doing that. And once the refinement of the technique is there, then you can lighten it up. It’s all about refining the technique for each individual actor, and each actor works differently, so you have to customize this work for them, and that’s what I felt Gary was doing with me.
Gary has a tremendous amount of passion and dedication, as you know, to Lee’s work and he has a passion to preserve it, as does David Gideon. It’s kind of like Martin Scorsese with preserving film and how he honors that history. Gary and David are dedicated to preserving what Lee was trying to teach, in the more traditional sense. I felt very safe. I felt like if I was going to do an affective memory, I would be okay on the other end. I wouldn’t get lost and never come back, because I felt like he really knew what he was doing. Sense of humor, passion, seriousness and then lightness. It just worked for me. It did not work for everyone. Heather resisted Gary right to the very end.
SOM: How do you deal with students who resist?
JM: That’s a very tricky thing.
SOM: Have you had a Vivian Nathan moment?
JM: Oh, many. There’s one course I have where the kids cannot keep it together for two hours. They cannot keep their phones off for two hours. It is unbelievable. Many of them can, but many of them can’t. It’s unacceptable. It’s interesting because everyone pops at a different time.
SOM: What do you mean by “popped”?
JM: The “A-ha” moment where they “get it”, and then how that gets streamlined. “A-ha”, and then “Oh NOW I get the thruline of all of this, and how not only I can apply it, but know my place in it”. There are a few students in my graduate class that are still afraid to go there, and what I mean by that is: They have all sorts of varying issues around this work. One of them thinks it’s self-indulgent. I had a fight with one student. He was doing a scene from True West. And I said, “Do you have any idea how NON-specific your answers are? I ask you what you’re working on and you give me a circuitous answer and it takes me 20 minutes to get an answer out of you. That is not acceptable anymore. We can’t do this anymore.” I stood up and I said, “I want you to fight with me.” Normally, with any other student, I’d say, “Don’t argue with me” but with this student I wanted him to fight. There are certain actors that you have to tread more carefully with, or you have to go at it in another way, because if you yell at them then they’re gonna shut down and you’ll never get anywhere with them. You have to watch and see when they’re ready to receive the information.
I can’t beat myself up that I’m not getting where I need to get to with this student, yet. I have to be patient. I have to say, “Okay, he’s not ready yet. I think I can go in right now, now’s my time …” It’s like an animal when they choose to go for their prey.
He is still struggling with specificity and what I’m noticing is that he might be a different kind of actor. He may work a little bit more holistically. I haven’t figured it out yet. I’m getting there. I have a couple other actors I am slowly making progress with. Did Sam Schacht talk to certain actors in one kind of way and the other actors with more reservation?
SOM: Sam Schacht did not think in terms of correctness of process, which worked for me – he didn’t give a shit. If he believed it, good job. Honestly, he would let people slack off because, fine, you want to pay all this money and sleep in the class? Fuck you. He would write people off. But if you were already there and present – that was why I flourished with him, that’s why Tom did well in that class. But he would not draw you out. He was very specific in what he had us work on. I wanted to talk to you about scene-choices as well. For example: The first week of Sam’s class, we picked scenes that we wanted to work on ourselves, without his input. He wanted to see who we were, what we were drawn to on our own. And then he assigned scenes based on that. Like: “Oh, I can see that you like to do this one thing, so I’m going to assign you something where you don’t get to do that.” So, for example, Stephen could have had a great career playing psychopaths and serial killers and that’s what he did best. And Sam was like, “You’re amazing, you could make a million bucks, but I want you to work on Philadelphia Story with Sheila.” And Stephen had to be witty, jaunty Cary Grant and it was painful for Stephen to do that. It was so painful for him to allow himself to be funny and light. It made him realize how much he was held back in his life, how damaged he was. The first time we did the scene, he showed up and he was wearing an ascot. Think of Stephen and what that took for him. He was holding a cigarette, and being bitchy to me, and I was being flirty, and I am sure it was an awful scene, but Sam said, “I recognize how difficult this was for you, Stephen. I get how this was not fun for you. But I am not interested in you doing serial killers, you will not be doing Sam Shepard in this class.” And Stephen dropped out that semester. Unless he was doing what was coming easy to him, he had no interest in acting. Let’s say you have someone like Stephen. What would you do with someone like that?
JM: I have a student in my class right now who has a relationship with his anger that is underdeveloped. Not only does he not like to get angry, it is holding his process back. So I assigned him Birdbath. That character is extremely volatile and my main goal with him on this scene is to [have him] not make [the anger] systematic. What I mean by that is: “I am going to show THIS kind of anger, I am going to have a controlled expression of my anger”. He must have an unpredictable feeling in his experience of this scene. And then he can craft it and hone it, because then he has facility around it, which is why I gave two other actors True West because they are both way TOO angry. They don’t have any control. They’ll throw a chair. So now their work is to have the experience of the anger, feel it fully with the sensory in place, and develop a craft around it. The Philadelphia Story is a great story because it’s reminding me of the difficulty in doing that.
And then this one other actor in my grad class has never taken an acting class before. So he’s not a stage actor. He’s not an on-camera actor either. He has terrible habits. He’s breaking a lot of them, which is good. He has a righteous attitude. “Why are you teaching this …” His concentration is building. It’s all about the building of concentration because without it you can’t do anything. You can sort of do it and wing it, but it doesn’t have any staying power.
SOM: Looking back at your experience teaching acting students, I am sure you have had moments where you have brought someone to a new realization about themselves and their work? Can you describe a moment where you were witness to that, or helped engineer it, because this is the process stuff that nobody talks about.
JM: Last semester I had two students work on a scene from Snow Angel. This one actress comes from a background of Suzuki, so she has a systematic movement process. When she does relaxation, she would move in symmetry and it was very controlled. And when she did her song-and-dance she could not let go physically. She had to be in control of her movement. And it was showing up in her work because what was happening was: she was performing, and that is already one step removed from yourself. A ballerina can look free onstage but everything is controlled and intentional. And when you’re in a training program you have to get rid of this stuff first to be able to apply the work, and then you can bring the nuance back on top of it. So she’s working on this scene and she is acting an Idea of the character, Connie. The movement is controlled, and her sensory is somewhat alive for her, but she is not listening. She is removed because these are the choices that she has made regardless of what is happening in front of her, which is a phenomenon that I find fascinating. I stopped her and said, “Okay, I actually want you to do this scene as yourself.” Very simple statement. Doesn’t really require that much analytical process. So she did it and the whole scene came alive for her, and she started to actually be in the scene, she started to hear what was being said to her. She still had the qualities that she was wanting to go for, but she was hearing this other actor, and responding to him, and as a result, the entire scene came to life. And then after it was over, she looked at me and said, “I kinda think you just changed my life.”
When actors get called out on being presentational, when a teacher says “You’re showing now” – then they can have a visceral experience of what it’s like to show, and then you give them an alternative, and then they practice that alternative, and then they feel that and understand what it feels like to NOT show.
I had a couple more moments with her like that, particularly around her movement. I would say, “Are you aware that in every position you’re standing in onstage, you look like you’re about to go into combat?” That was the Suzuki training. Her identity was wrapped up in her physical life as an actress and as a result we weren’t getting HER. We weren’t getting the authentic Her. By no means do I promote actors doing nothing but getting up and being themselves, because that’s boring, but that’s the foundation. You have to be able to present yourself as yourself first. And then you can add. And then you can really disappear [into the character]. But if you don’t do that first, then it’s going to be an extremely vacant and lonely experience onstage. It’ll feel isolating.
SOM: I know that you grew up with parents who were doing shows so you were surrounded by theatre people. When did you know that you wanted to do it? Did you have a performance that you saw, either by one of your parents, or a movie, a TV show, whatever, where you thought: Oh my God, I have to do that.
JM: Nope. I think that I was somebody who needed a babysitter because I was too young so I ended up going to the theatre and watched rehearsal after rehearsal for years. From the ages of 2 to 13. So I saw my mother do Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, Chicago. In some ways, I didn’t feel I belonged at all because I wasn’t there for a reason. I was there to basically watch my mother and my stepfather, too, who was acting and directing. There was no indication at all that there was a reason for me to be there, theatrically speaking. I remember watching my mother do Man of La Mancha and feeling scared and embarrassed that she was getting raped. I was a tiny child and I remember that I was very embarrassed. And then I remember [my parents] doing King and I together, and I remember how much I thought my stepfather was very powerful in that role. But I didn’t have a relationship to acting myself at all. I never acted when I was a kid. I played soccer in high school. When I went to college was when I started to really enjoy acting. But there wasn’t a defining moment.
I have one memory of when I did Blanche Dubois. I was a senior in college and I had already done many many shows. I think I did about 13, 14 shows, from Balm in Gilead to Baker’s Wife [in Into the Woods] to Fiddler to original plays where I played a 65-year-old lady. Then I auditioned for Blanche and I thought I wouldn’t get it because I was a brunette and I was hefty in college, meaty, really curvy. And there were two girls who literally looked like Blanche Dubois, they were thin and pale-skinned.
SOM: Had you seen the movie at that point? What was your concept of Blanche?
JM: I don’t think I’d seen the film, but I must have seen pictures of Vivien Leigh. But my improvisational theatre teacher was directing the show and I got the part. That was the role that I felt that I disappeared into the most, I had the most engulfing experience with that play. I dove into the world of Blanche in a way that I had never done before with any character and the director was a guide, for lack of a better word. I think essentially that’s what a teacher and a director does, they move the ship around. That was the play where there were a lot of firsts for me. That was the first time I had to disrobe onstage, that was the first time that I had many many speeches, that was the first time where I had to pull all sorts of focus because I was the lead, that was the first time I had to do a rape scene, first time I had to do a love scene. There were all these firsts. I felt like I represented Blanche in a way that was enough, for me at that time. Like, Okay, I think I did this play enough justice at 21 at a state university in a little black-box theatre. I’ll never forget: The stage came out to a thrust so center stage was at a point and that was where I sat and I delivered the monologue about the husband. And I hadn’t had any training at this point, I didn’t know what I was doing. And I remember saying the monologue and feeling people’s listening. I almost could feel and hear people breathing in the audience.
I was in the middle of a couple of different worlds. I was in my world, I was in Blanche’s world, and I was in the audience’s world. That was definitely a turning point for me. I guess what I walked away from that experience feeling was: Huh, I actually might be okay at this. I might kind of know maybe what I’m doing a little bit. And I’m interesting enough to be a leading lady in a play like that. I could hold the audience. You have to hold the audience and that was my first experience with that.
Then, I saw a little ad in The NY Times for these Actors Studio seminars, and my mom was like, “Hey maybe you’d like this”, so I went down and watched the tapings. It was there that I started to hear … I don’t remember who was there the first year before we were students.
SOM: Dennis Hopper. Paul Newman.
JM: I was attending the tapings and taking notes and I suddenly felt like I was surrounded by a world that was very foreign but that I knew that I wanted to be a part of. And I had never ever experienced anything like that, because I never felt a delineation between myself and another world. But I wanted to go figure out why they are explaining what they are explaining. So then I auditioned with my mother with the play ‘night Mother and then I got in, and that was where I met you. Another experience I had was when I befriended you and Lesley, but mostly I think at first you, because I had seen you act, and I remember that for the first time in my life – in my life – I was having conversations with a female, there was something really intimate about it being a female, about acting. We were sharing a passion about the same stuff and we could talk about it, and I had never had that. People would just do shows in college, we never talked process. It wasn’t until grad school that we were talking about process. I remember knowing that you had come from Chicago and you had a background in Meisner and sense memory and I knew that there was something that you knew that I didn’t know yet, even though we were all in the same boat in terms of academia. But then I started to feel like I was getting some information from Gary and from Arthur Penn and John Strasberg, Susan Batson. Unfortunately, the voice program left much to be desired.
SOM: What don’t you like in a teacher or a director?
JM: Laziness. Somebody who stops caring, which gets manifested as laziness. And someone who is too dogmatic. Someone who tries to make every actor the same in their class, and give them the same exact formula that then they have to adhere to, regardless of the kind of artist they are, which is, to me, a death sentence for any actor. That is the worst thing you can do to an actor because of this whole idea of primary process and secondary process thinking that I keep going back to. It’s a Freudian theory that Richard Hornby talks about in his book The End of Acting that I keep going back to and applying with my students. It’s this whole idea of the imagination and how we have lost our primary process thinking, particularly in this generation, that they go right to the secondary, they go right to the logical and analytical aspects. Secondary process thinking is necessary but not before the primary. That’s the most interesting process-oriented thing right now I could share with you because it relates to the development of characters. For example, you read a novel, like your favorite novel Possession – and I’m sure upon the first read of that book you literally went away, you went on a journey, you were in the world of the novel. You had no requirements to analyze this main character and interpret them onstage. You are gone, you are in your primary process thinking. And then, if someone says to you, “We are going to adapt this to a screenplay and you’re going to play this character” – your first read of it has informed you. Your first read of it has given you 95% of what you will need in order to create your character.
That’s why kabuki masters will stare at their masks, although that’s more of a mystical psychological relationship that they’re creating.
But I do a version of that with my students where I have them grab a picture of someone they don’t know and they stare at it for five minutes without speaking. And then they get up and I interview them as that person in the picture. And they show up as full characters with full emotional lives and accents and behavior. A director could never ever get that from an actor by asking for it. Behavior is the most fascinating to me because it comes out of the imagination, it comes out of that place of non-thinking, which actors ultimately want to get to. They want their behavior to come out of their character. So this [exercise] affords them the opportunity to explore that because they are literally in front of the camera and they are doing something based on seeing a picture for five minutes. [The exercise helps] to re-ignite that childlike imagination.
SOM: In Actors at Work, Meryl Streep is pretty inarticulate about acting, which I remember from when she came to the Studio. She is so entertaining but she really doesn’t talk about how she does what she does. All she says is “I prepare too much. I take 8 months of riverdancing for 40 seconds of film-time because that’s the only way I feel I can do it.” But in that interview she says – the clearest I have ever heard her get – “I know how to pretend to the level of belief”, which is what kids do. I call it the “Bang Bang You’re Dead School of Acting”.
JM: I call it the “Sandbox School of Acting.”
SOM: I think, too, with television, the physical side of acting can get lost if you’re waiting for your closeup … But you watch someone like John Wayne … William Holden is the quintessential Bang Bang You’re Dead actor. He has one scene that is literally Bang Bang You’re Dead at the end of Sunset Boulevard. He’s shot once in the back, he stops, he’s shot again, he turns around, is shot one final time, and he whirls around and his feet are perfectly placed on the lip of the pool and he goes in, all in one take.
JM: You wanting to interview me about process because nobody talks about it or nobody knows how to talk about it is so true. It’s a difficult thing to articulate, even though there’s a gazillion books on acting and there’s even more teachers out there teaching. I always say to my on-camera students – they’ve been studying Stella Adler or Strasberg over at Atlantic or Playwrights’ and they’ve been studying stage technique for years, and then they come in front of the camera and what they do is they end up giving the audience way too much information. What I have found the major difference between stage and screen – at least the thing that’s the most teachable – is that with film you want the audience to be the detectives. They want to put on the detective hat and the pipe and the notebook and figure it out. They don’t want to be told what’s happening, because if you tell them and show them what’s happening then they have no reason to be there at all. They already know how you feel, they know your opinion on it, they don’t think you have any conflict around it at all. So when actors are doing scenework in the on-camera classes, that’s what ends up happening, they end up acting the line, literally.
Stanislavski is not just about incorporating physical activity and saying the line at the same time. That’s not acting. But it is a means to an end. It’s one of the ways that an actor can begin to experience anything other than what they’re saying. Anything! The tea in my mouth, the blanket on my lap, you here, the light, what do I feel about the situation I’m in, what am I afraid to say, anything subtext, anything other than what is coming out of my mouth. That is one of the things that all of these books and teachers try to get at: If you literally act the line, if you have nothing else going on except what you’re saying, then you’re not experiencing acting on all the levels you could be experiencing it. Every actor has their own set of things that would be useful for them. One student may have to do a physical activity every time they get up onstage, otherwise they will stay on the line, and they will show us every emotion they have and we will be bored out of our minds. Another actor may need to only deal with whatever they’re feeling. Any number of things.
SOM: Do you have your students watch movies? Do you assign them to see things as examples of what you’re talking about?
JM: Not often, but one that I used to show a lot is [one of] the special features of the film House of Sand and Fog, which is the audition of Shohreh Aghdashloo for her role.
They put her audition on the special features and [I assign it] actually just to illustrate an audition process, not necessarily to address performance. She is auditioning with four sets of sides that she does consecutively without stopping, and the camera is on her and she is seated in a chair and it’s a relatively tight shot. Essentially, she is completely off book but still has the script in her lap and has planned out every aspect of her given circumstance for all four of her sides. So she’s placed her son that she’s talking with off-camera, she’s placed her husband in a particular place. She has given herself a particular physical activity that she is doing at the top of the first side, which later, in the film, is her cleaning the glass on the table but in the audition it actually looks like she’s peeling potatoes. You can’t even see her hands, but she’s doing something with her hands. She’s doing nothing, actually, she’s playing with her hand, she’s got a script on her knee, but she’s doing a physical activity and she’s got her given circumstances and she has them for all four. And in the fourth side – it’s the most fascinating thing I have ever seen. Before she transitions to the fourth side, she creates – in five seconds – a window – that she later looks out of. It’s so incredible. So she’s done the third set of sides, where she helps the Jennifer Connelly character barf in a toilet because she’s overdosed, and she is creating the whole scene, essentially by herself. She’s in a chair, but she’s shouting offscreen, she has created the entire event and she’s just sitting in a chair! It’s an opening night performance. Then that side ends, and she takes a second to create this window before the fourth side starts. The fourth side is such that she gets woken up because her husband comes to bring her tea. So she’s got her eyes closed, and she’s got that deep throaty voice, and she gets woken up –
SOM: And she’s reading with a casting director, right?
JM: Yes. She’s reading with a young girl who sounds twelve. And she opens her eyes … and she’s having her conversation with her “husband” who is literally this 12-year-old girl across the room and it is so palpable that it feels like Ben Kingsley is leaning over her in bed. And she takes in the light – meanwhile her eyes were only closed for ten seconds – and she takes in the light, and she’s talking in Farsi – and I can’t understand a word she’s saying, and then she looks over at the window she created – in the 5 seconds that she had to prepare for her fourth scene – she looks over at the window she’s created and bursts into tears. THAT’S sense memory. That is the application of sense memory. It serves a very specific purpose. You never want to abuse it or overuse it, you never want to be a victim to it or let it have ownership over you. It’s there for you. You have control over it and you use it or you don’t. So she looks over and she bursts into tears and she does the rest of the scene, and it is phenomenal. That is a scene I always show them and I tell them, “You must prepare this way. If you don’t prepare this way … ” I say it for a number of reasons. Her preparation and her creation of the given circumstances and how important it is to create your imaginary circumstances that then become given so that you can then dive into that world and make choices creatively as an artist as the character. It’s freeing.
SOM: I remember John Strasberg saying, “Good actors can transform who they are. Great actors can transform where they are.” I remember watching Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, years ago, before they were famous, literally create a 60s mod fashion studio out of thin air. Cameras appeared, costumes, cocktails, and the two of them were in shorts and hi-top sneakers on a bare stage above a bar, and I saw an Austin Powers world erupt, sheerly because of the belief in what they were doing.
JM: There’s a scene from The Apartment that I’ve been using as an illustration for one of my classes and what I have come to realize from watching this film – it is such a beautiful film – the thing that I love the most about it, if I had to pick one thing, was the idea of this leading man.
Jack Lemmon is like no other leading man I have ever experienced. He is an open boy, he is a joyful nonjudgmental open book, and he’s the lead in this film. I could go through a gazillion and one leading male actors but I can’t think of anybody who could do that part that way. I can’t. I’ve tried. It’s remarkable to me that Billy Wilder saw that.
The other movie I encourage all my students to watch is Young Frankenstein, particularly Gene Wilder in it.
To me, that performance is a combination of Bang Bang You’re Dead and total authentic acting. It’s a perfect blend. If you take yourself too seriously you are gonna have a big problem, and yet you know that all of these actors were very serious about their craft. It’s my favorite film. I think some of the finest acting moments are comedy moments because you almost have to believe more in comedy than you do in drama, as the character, as the actor. You have to believe that this is the worst thing that could happen in the world. When the experiment fails, and Wilder says, “We need to handle this with grace … and dignity …” and Teri Garr is like, “God, he is such a man” and Marty Feldman is literally waiting for the house of cards to fall. The ensemble! They’re all in one shot! And then Gene Wilder turns his back to the camera – and his hair has this flip-over with huge puffy curls on the end of it, and he turns back and starts pounding on Peter Boyle’s chest. He is destroyed. He goes from knowing how fucking funny it is, to total seriousness, to complete Bang Bang You’re Dead devastation, and we are out of our chairs with laughter.
I make them watch the Taxi Driver scene with Jodie Foster eating the toast with jam. The spine of the Travis character is that he wants to be a hero. He’s nuts, but he wants to save the world, like Batman or Superman, he wants to save the world, he wants to save this girl. And so we get to see how he engages in a social conversation in a public place inside the character that he’s created. So it’s multi-level: it’s the actor at work, it’s the actor and their creation of character, and then it’s the actor and their creation of character in a set of given circumstances that could potentailly cause conflict. He’s in a public area that’s not necessarily comfortable for him, that’s one part. and then the other part is Jodie Foster’s physical activity with the sandwich which I think is fascinating.
She puts jelly on it, and the choice to do that – if you read the lines you’d go to the common thing which is to make it a lot more serious than it is.
One of the things that I use as illustration is thirtysomething, and it’s more for the idea of the camera, actually, because [in that show] there are these wide establishing shots, continuous, and all the action takes place with the characters walking in and out of frame, and we get behavior, we get life, we get it all.
Today it’s all about tight shots, closeups, and high drama, so you don’t get to see the behavior, you don’t get to see the activity.
SOM: Acting is mysterious, in some ways, and in a lot of ways, depending on who you talk to, it’s the least respected of that particular collaboration. People don’t understand acting, and the directors get the credit. So I try to remember these moments, especially when I’m writing reviews, I’ll remind myself: “Remember how she touches the window” or whatever. It’s like Jodie Foster pulling apart that sandwich. Whatever she is doing is so specific and it helps make that scene.
JM: It’s the choice of jelly and no butter that is so fascinating to me.
SOM: And she has a whole ritual before she even eats it. She pulls it apart, it’s very involved, and she’s not even aware she’s doing it, really. It also is so little girl-ish, she’s a picky eater who’s a child but she’s also a hooker, and it’s very touching and perfect. James Dean has a moment when he comes home after this big fight in Rebel Without a Cause, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, his father is waiting up, these oppressive parents worrying. But he’s by himself and it’s dark in the house. This was my “A-ha” moment at 14 when I saw it and then of course I had to research it. So he opens up the fridge, takes out a glass bottle of milk, takes a big gulp, and then rubs it all over his face.
SOM: The director, Nicholas Ray, saw him do it and thought, “Well, that’s brilliant, I’m gonna keep that in” and when I learned that Dean was in charge of that, he did that on his own, that was a choice made by him, it totally reorganized how I thought about acting. It was also a practical choice: “I’ve been hit, I’m sweaty, I’ve got to cool down.” It was a gesture that is unforgettable and powerful on many levels, the smart-ness of a smart actor. He didn’t go to the sink and splash water on his face, which would have been a cliche. There was something poetic about it.
JM: I think one of the things in general that I tend to find most interesting to use as illustrations to students is seeing an actor create a role and a performance that is almost not found in the script. That is, to me, the most interesting, because then they get to realize not only what kind of work is in store for them and what they have to do, but where are they getting these people from, where are they getting these characters from? And if you go only to the script… you’re gonna get most of your information, yes, but you’re not gonna get all of your information.
For example, the character of Dexter. He is a serial killer, but he’s also kind of a regular guy. He’s a little antisocial, but he’s just a guy. And you can imagine the pitfalls that an actor would fall into with that role. A director will make those same mistakes because they don’t understand, they don’t get it. They don’t have the mind of an actor and I think that’s the biggest mistake: when a director thinks that they actually have the mind of an actor, when they think they can get into the character better than the actor can get into the character, and that the character is actually accessible within the first five minutes, which is not the case.
I tend to gravitate more towards roles and characters … like Ripley in the Alien movies. Sigourney Weaver is working with puppets and machinery, and yeah, I get it, green screen, I get it, but this actress created – I mean, come on. And that is the combination of Bang Bang You’re Dead and yet literally I believe she is this person on this fucking ship with these monsters. And I know it’s a collaboration, director, production design, but this woman – it could not have been done without her.
SOM: If you think about the first Star Wars episodes and how dead they feel at times, people are not engaging on that level. Ewan McGregor said it himself, he said, “At times, I did not know what I was fighting.” That’s Lucas: “Just wave the saber, and we’ll put it all in later.” And so Ridley Scott left a giant space for Sigourney Weaver’s performance which a lot of these new CGI directors don’t. She is like the actress in the audition creating the window. Could you talk a little bit about Jim Carrey? I know you love him and I want you to talk about why.
JM: I think the film that I most appreciate is Liar Liar. And there’s that outtake with Swoosie Kurtz calling him an “over-actor” and him laughing and saying, “They’re onto me.” He was known for his rubber face, his standup, he was an impersonator. A standup comic who did impersonations. He was on In Living Color, the fire chief – he was just a comic! He was a young punk who basically was able to take his huge enormous face and put it on the screen and make a lot of money doing it. I love his physical comedy. He’s like Jerry Lewis.
In Liar Liar when he wrote all over his face: Firstly, we have suspended any disbelief that in the three seconds he was out of frame, his entire face was written on, and then by rubbing a towel three times it’s all off. He can do that and we don’t have a problem with it. I think the thing I love the most about that film, especially that “goddamn pen is blue” scene, is his adrenaline. I can feel the amount of adrenaline, it’s kind of like Jack Lemmon in The Apartment. I can feel his creative juices flowing on camera, and the camera is capturing it. He is not containing anything. Gene Wilder was more contained in his comedy and then would let loose at certain times, but when Jim Carrey beats the shit out of himself in the bathroom at City Hall, he takes the toilet seat and pounds his own head with it, and then when he comes back he looks like a droopy little puppy. He is transformed. I miss him doing that kind of stuff.
SOM: When you’re directing these short films with these students and you’re helping them bring their project to fruition – you’ve been the actress on the other side of the camera and now you’re in charge of this little ship. Is it difficult to become your own dream of a director?
JM: Interestingly, I was trying to crew these latest shorts and this one DP who I asked to work on this film with me agreed and he said, “You need to tell me what kind of color saturation you’re thinking of, and what kind of palette you’re interested in.” I didn’t go to film school and I don’t come from a background of being a film director. And so I thought,”This is either an opportunity for me to make him wrong or it’s an opportunity for me to learn.” And I was like, I’m gonna learn. And so I thought about what I wanted, and I thought of the “Watch the Hair” scene in Saturday Night Fever.
I realized that that was the palette that I wanted. Then I was thinking of what I wanted for the second scene which is a completely different style, and so I went to Enchanted – high saturation, depth – so for me, the approach that I took with the DP was: I can definitely work with the actors and give you ideas about the kind of mood I want with the scene. And in terms of working with the actors on the set: You can result-direct after you’ve established trust. If you have worked with the same director for years and they know you, they could look at you and go, “Happier” and you would feel free and open to make a gazillion choices. So it’s not so much that you have to tiptoe around every single piece of direction that you give, but rather you’re establishing trust. It’s a collaboration. I laugh my way through these rehearsals because I love what they’re doing and it’s authentic. I’m not laughing because I want them to know I love them, I’m laughing because they’re hysterical. I love actors. So I’m in a position where I get to figure out ways for them to show me what they do best, and that’s really fun. And then if I see something that I want them to keep, then I’ll say, “I love that, keep it, and let’s see if we can continue to go in that direction because it’s hilarious.”
SOM: What is Jennifer McCabe Studios going to be all about?
JM: Character development is a huge component of my teaching. It’s really fun. I’m in the process of developing a course around it. It’s so important. I find that also young actors fall into the trap of delivering monologues as monologues, rather than pieces of dialogue. So they are devoid of given circumstances, and an inner life. It’s a strange isolated moment. It feels so useless to me. So I’ve been exploring with that, with the idea of how to approach monologues and break some industry habits and patterns that have been set, because why not, that’s what we’re here for. If you’re not gonna be a trailblazer in some way… and I’m not tooting my own horn, I don’t think I’m doing things that haven’t been done before – but it’s like the vessel: you’re gonna teach someone something, and they’re gonna learn it, as opposed to someone else teaching them maybe a very similar thing and they’re not gonna learn it because you happen to be the vessel that works for them to learn. I think I can safely say that I struggle with the thought that I have anything special to offer but I think what I am bringing is my personality. Certainly, there is content, there are tangible things, you can take notes in my class, but my personality and my approach to actors is the thing that is most evocative for them.
I officially launched Jennifer McCabe Studios in 2009. It’s still forming. I have my website that is almost ready. The logo tagline is “Bring Yourself” which is easier said than done, but I think it’s important. I have my mailing list that I’m creating, so we’ll see what happens. I’d like to do something in the summer, a retreat or something. I guess I want to bring the play back, and the joy back, into acting. The other thing is that I think with university-trained students, they are missing the industry part of it, so that is the other thing that I’m teaching now. Students have to understand what is going on out there right now, what the trends are, what is going to be expected of them, what they have to be prepared for and ready to do.
I think if I had to say what is my main gig is that I never look at an actor and think to myself, “Oh, they’re a lost cause” or “They don’t deserve to be doing this”. I think there are many that I’ve come across that don’t have talent, and when you don’t have talent: #1, it’s not your fault. There are certain things I have no talent around, it’s not my fault, I just don’t have it. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to have a process. If they have chosen to be here and they look as if they are dedicated, then I need to deliver to the best of my ability. I absolutely love actors.
The will has been a big theme for me this past year, because the will doesn’t just relate to the actor, but it relates to the will of a human being, and how far that can stretch. The will to be alive. When I had the near-drowning experience last year, my will to live kicked in, and it was part of me, but it was also separate from me.
And so you have to get out of your will’s way until it can come back and be part of you. But you have to get out of its way.