An Acting Lesson: John Wayne and the “Reality of the Doing”

An old piece, re-posted for John Wayne’s birthday:

In one lengthy scene in Hondo, filmed in one almost unbroken take, Wayne makes horseshoes in the little outdoor smith in the yard. Geraldine Page hovers nearby. He talks to her about the Apaches, and what they are up to. She argues back, resisting him, standing up for herself.

The thing I want to talk about, though, because it’s instructive and a perfect example of what I want to talk about: Throughout this very tense scene, with tons of back-and-forth dialogue, John Wayne actually makes horseshoes. It’s not a pantomime. He’s actually doing it. He has a task to complete, and so he goes about completing it, all while he tells her how things are, and what needs to happen, and what she needs to do.

I want to talk about the importance of physical action in acting, and how it grounds an actor in reality. This is what Kimber Wheelock, my acting teacher in college, called “the reality of the doing.”

This is a deep subject. It’s about acting technique. This is rudimentary shit for actors, you really can’t act at all if you can’t perform physical actions … but it’s so much a part of acting technique that it is 1. taken for granted and 2. not understood at all by outsiders, by culture critics, by those who claim a love of film but half the time don’t know what to look for (at least when it comes to acting). Acting technique is as much a part of film collaboration as lights and sound … but it remains a mystery. There’s really no mystery about it. Technique is technique. You don’t have to STUDY to get great technique. Experience is all you need (and openness and talent, too). Technique doesn’t mean anything fancy, like proficiency with accents, or acquiring “special skills” like horseback riding or fencing. Technique is practical. “The reality of the doing” is a great way to discuss this, and teach this.

When Dennis Hopper first started out, James Dean was his idol. Hopper came up in a theatrical tradition, through classical stage training. His training and technique was old-fashioned. When he had a small part in Rebel Without a Cause, he watched Dean’s work with amazement and awe. He started copying Dean’s attitude and mannerisms. Dean noticed, and pulled him aside, saying, “If you’re going to smoke a cigarette onscreen, don’t act like you’re smoking a cigarette. Just smoke the cigarette.”

This is crucial. How many untalented actors “act like” they’re smoking – or crying – or singing – or listening. You can “act like” you’re listening and not be listening at all. A light bulb went off in Hopper’s mind when Dean said that to him. Dean’s comment set him free as an actor. It helped him know what to DO. It relaxed him.

thumbs_dennis hopper james dean, a conversation on cool

A quote along these lines from Sam Schacht, my acting mentor in grad school: “Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.”

This reminds me of Wayne’s famous comment about how he did not see himself as an “actor” but as a “RE-actor.” He said that partly because he was invested in the somewhat false narrative that he had somehow “fallen into” acting, that he started out as a prop guy, he had no ambition to be an actor. Uh-huh, Duke. Whatever you say. But the fact remains that he was right: As much as Wayne DOES onscreen, he never forgets the RE-actor part of it (this is the “listening and talking” element of acting. I’ve said it before: ALL good actors are world-class listeners. There are no exceptions.)

What does “the reality of the doing” mean? It has to do with James Dean’s advice to Dennis Hopper.

Sanford Meisner, an original member of The Group Theatre, who became one of the most famous acting teachers in America through the Neighborhood Playhouse, was obsessed with “the reality of the doing.”


He thought the Method, at least as taught by his old friend Lee Strasberg, was too focused on feelings. Meisner’s definition of good acting was thus:

… behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.

Notice it’s “behaving.” Not “feeling” or “being.” Behaving. Behaving is Doing. And “truthfully” is just as crucial. None of it matters if what you are doing is phony.

Elia Kazan, another Group Theatre alum, described his job as a director as “turning psychology into behavior.”

Again with the “behavior.” I don’t mean to beat the drum so repeatedly, but the focus on emotions has a way of taking over, at least in acting classes, when actors are susceptible and eager to learn. Gena Rowlands has said that she “can’t cry.” “Crying” is not her thing as an actress. Who cares. She’s one of the greatest actresses who ever lived.


Meisner created great exercises, now known as “The Meisner Technique” (this was my training) to help actors click into “the reality of the doing.” Actors get swept up in the emotions: they worry about whether or not they will be able to cry, they are concerned with what kind of anger to bring to a scene, they obsess on emotional backstory. These are all necessary things, by the way, each with its own importance. I don’t mean to dismiss them, and neither did Meisner. But what about the DOING? Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.

If all an actor does up there is feel, the audience will be left cold. It is the DOING that makes scenes come alive, “pop.”

The doing can be physical, backed up by objective: “I am going to wash these damn dishes like MAD because I am so pissed off at my husband right now and don’t want to deal with it.” (Joan Crawford was a master at this. I like to point out that the “Method” didn’t just magically emerge in the 1950s, and everyone before hand was doing it wrong.) Watch the scene with the dictaphone in Sudden Fear. Or her waitressing in Mildred Pierce. Her coffee-pot-sketch-artist business in Daisy Kenyon. Business, as actors call it. Business, business, business. All motivated, all figured out by her, all flowing with lines and her emotions.)

The doing can be emotional, what people mean when they talk about “objective”: “What I am DOING in this scene is trying to get THROUGH to you/trying to fuck you/trying to comfort you.” Everything you say, every gesture you make, comes from that objective.

Sam Schacht again: When actors were “stuck” in a scene in his class, unsure of how to make something happen, he would throw out the reminder: “Every scene is either Fight or Fuck. Pick one. See where it gets you.” “Fight” or “fuck” are objectives, things to do, or at least ATTEMPT to do, because your scene partner, with his or her own objectives, may not want to fight you, may not want to fuck you. If you both play your different objectives 100%, then Voila. You are doing what Tennessee Williams wrote, or Shakespeare, or Wendy Wasserstein. It’s amazing to watch when it clicks. I still think of that “fight or fuck” thing when I’m trying to break down a scene and analyze what the actors are doing, how they are going about achieving their objectives.

If you want to witness a group master-class in that kind of “doing”, watch episodes of Thirtysomething.


The entire show was built on emotions, shown through everyday behavior like making dinner or getting the kids ready for school. That was the rhythm of the show, and those actors were brilliant at accomplishing it. That’s why the group scenes in that show were so incredible and the sheer amount of DOING going on was often overwhelming. It always felt like dinner was REALLY being made, the kids’ backpacks were REALLY being packed.

Dean’s advice to Hopper again: Don’t act like you’re making dinner. Make dinner.

Thirtysomething devoted itself to physical behavior in a way that is unique – definitely something for actors and directors to learn from (especially those master shots in the series – so many master shots used – with people coming in and out of the frame, going to the fridge, searching through cupboards, exiting out the back door for a second, re-entering holding a bike helmet, or whatever – there was always a REASON to go outside, all as everyone is talking, and listening, and living their lives. It’s unbelievable ensemble work: very difficult to accomplish and choreograph.)

Everything we do has a reason behind it.

“I must board up the windows of my house before the typhoon hits/before the aliens arrive/before the serial killer comes up the driveway”) or small and non-urgent (“I carefully place coasters on all the tables in the house because I am a neat-nik/because this is my dead mother’s furniture/because I am a germaphobe.”) If you do physical business without a reason behind it, then you got nothing.

Watch Gena Rowlands walk into the cavernous penthouse suite in Opening Night (the scene repeats itself a couple times).

Picture 11

What she wants, what she is DOING, in that purposeful walk, is going to get a drink. She doesn’t take her coat off. She makes a beeline for the bar. She cannot wait to get there, why is the room so HUGE, why are the drinks so far away? In every single scene, every. single, scene, her desire for alcohol is so imperative it drives everything she does. You can FEEL her need for a drink. THAT’S “doing.”

If an actor only focuses on emotions and forgets the DOING part of it, not to mention the whys of the doing, you don’t have a scene. Much of acting class, in general, is helping actors click into “the reality of the doing.” (The bad acting teachers only focus on emotions. You can clock those actors from miles away. They can cry, but they cannot walk and talk at the same time. When they are asked to do “physical business” at the same time as an emotional catharsis, they are unable to do both and will always prioritize the catharsis. They’ll be sobbing and let the soup boil over. No: you gotta sob AND take the soup off the stove.)

The great actors understand all of this intuitively. They’d think all this talk about it was silly. Either you DO it, or you don’t. Don’t sit around TALKING about it.

John Wayne did not become a star right away. He made many B-Westerns before The Big Trail and then many many after, until Stagecoach came along and made him a star. He was not a natural “actor”, but he was a natural personality. Once he figured out he didn’t need to “act” at all, and he could just “be” onscreen (nothing “JUST” about it!), everything clicked into place. His personality was so strong that everybody felt it, in real-life and onscreen. But to OWN that? To understand it, and be able to utilize it on purpose? To be able to channel it into roles as diverse as the ones he played? Ethan Edwards, Ringo, Hondo, Thomas Dunson? These are not the same characters. Wayne used himself and his personality consciously. Only the great ones can pull that off.


Gary Cooper once said that he enjoyed doing Westerns so much because it was real. You have to really ride the horse, get off the horse, tie up the horse. You can’t fake it. While all that “doing” is going on, there’s no time to worry about acting. It’s funny: if an amateur actor (a talented and coachable amateur actor, that is) is flailing a bit in a scene, unsure of what to do with his emotions, give him a physical action to perform and then have him play the scene. A talented albeit green actor will suddenly understand, get the Dennis Hopper light-bulb. Ohhhh, okay, so if I play the scene AS I sew a button on the sweater, if I focus just as much on sewing the button as I do on my lines and my scene partner, suddenly we’ve got a SCENE. I’ve seen such moments in countless acting classes, and have had such moments myself. It’s great. Because in real-life, the whole world does not stop because you are arguing with your wife, the entire world does not take a pause so that you can burst into tears at your leisure. You are still driving your car, or boiling water, or herding sheep. You have to do BOTH. Simultaneously.

Sounds elementary, right? Well, actors will understand how much of a challenge all of this is (and Wayne had to figure it out too, he didn’t stride out of the gate as his confident glorious self, although he brought to the table many natural attributes like grace and beauty and fearlessness – those things help.) Actors have to understand this concept and master it QUICK, or they will find themselves being acted off the stage by their scene partner who already gets it.

My point, ultimately, finally, is this:

In one mostly unbroken take, John Wayne makes horseshoes, all as he banters and scolds and flirts with Geraldine Page. If they had been just standing in the corral, doing nothing else but talking, the audience would not only fall asleep, but it would feel phony. In general, people do not stand in the middle of an open space and talk at one another about their lives for 20 minutes. They’re doing other things. Making horseshoes is a complicated multi-step process. Wayne’s doing it all: hammering out the shoe, heating it up, pumping the bellows, plunging the shoe into the cold water – a hiss of steam accompanying it – hanging the shoe up for later, starting in on another one. It’s an archaic piece of business, a 19th century kind of thing, and Wayne does it with the grace and ease of a man who has been around horses all his life, and knows how to take care of them, knows what he is doing. His actions are as automatic as a practiced and experienced cook making Thanksgiving dinner for a huge crowd all by herself. She’s got the turkey going, she’s mashing potatoes, she’s boiling water for green beans, she’s got the biscuit batter all mixed … and as she’s doing all of this, she’s chatting with her kids, giving them chores, talking with her guests, whatever.

John Wayne is doing multiple things at the same time in this wonderful scene. He is taking over Angie Lowe’s life, in a peremptory manner, even when she says, “I don’t need you”. He doesn’t care, she DOES need his help, and her husband is a loser/loafer who has left her in peril, whatever great things she may say about him. Hondo is also drawn to her, physically and emotionally, and he’s been alone a long time, probably his only sex life is fucking the prostitutes in town whenever he makes it that way. So … he likes her. You can tell he likes her. The scene ends with him coming up behind her and grabbing her. Because dammit, she’s a good woman and he wants her. She deserves to be taken care of. She deserves to be man-handled. With care, of course. She’s flustered, saying, “I know that I am a homely woman.” The way he looks at her though … she’s the most gorgeous thing in the world. Through all of this emotional stuff, though, grounding the scene, and giving it its structure, is the horseshoe-making Grand Pantomime. Only it’s not a pantomime. It’s the real thing.

Wayne never stops. He walks and talks at the same time. He plays multiple levels of emotional reality with every line. He throws lines over his shoulder. He has a comeback for everything she says. There’s a build to the scene, a long slow crescendo. When he pauses, you hold your breath. And Wayne makes those damn horseshoes right before our eyes.

This is the sort of acting moment that rarely gets pointed out and praised. (I think this is partly because many folks writing about movies care most about direction, to generalize. And so they don’t understand how important/rare/difficult/beautiful such a scene is for an actor to pull off – and also how crucial it is that these details are set, and present, and it is up to the ACTOR, not the director, to accomplish that.)

Watch him make the horseshoes. And carry on a conversation. And have multiple objectives. And be attracted to her. All at the same time. And as you watch, understand that what he is doing looks easy, because it is easy for him, but it is not easy for others. Also: it’s not just that it’s easy. It looks easy because Wayne prepared. He was meticulous in his preparation. If he had to do something onscreen, he learned how to do it, he practiced it, so when the cameras were rolling, he was confident, he had done it 100 times before. The rifle-twirl he does in his famous first entrance in Stagecoach is a perfect example.

He had to practice that, he had to have a stuntman show him how to do it, the rifle had to be slightly sawed off so it wouldn’t catch under his arm, and he did it over and over and over again, until it was automatic. Business like that has to be worked out. An actor has to devote himself to the smallest details. The camera is tuned into truth: phoniness and fakery are magnified a hundred-fold by the movie camera. Wayne understood that. The only way to combat it is to be 1. prepared and 2. relaxed. But you can’t have 2 without 1.

Similar to the bad acting classes where the folks who cry loudly in every scene get the most attention/praise, the more histrionic “showy” acting gets the most attention, from critics who tend to be a little bit credulous about acting, which seems … magical to them. (#notallcritics). Wow, she was really crying. Wow, his anger was so loud. Wow, she really seemed super-drunk in that scene. ACTING with a capital A! I wonder if this is because acting and the use of the imagination in such a powerful childlike way is still such a mystery to many folks, who couldn’t even begin to do something like that.

But none of that emotional stuff has any “oomph” whatsoever if the actor is not clicked into some “reality of the doing” pouring into the overall Story as a whole. The “reality of the doing” occurs in the big moments of catharsis and crisis, helping us understand the stakes, helping us invest. But, even more importantly, the “reality of the doing” has to be present in the small moments as well.

Moments like making horseshoes as you talk to a woman you desperately want to kiss.


Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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11 Responses to An Acting Lesson: John Wayne and the “Reality of the Doing”

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Such a great piece. Have read it many times and find something new every single time. I especially love your shout out to THIRTY SOMETHING. I loved that show (mostly) and your take on what they were “doing” is so on point. It always amuses me that you get there via John Wayne. And it works!

  2. Stevie says:

    So glad you mentioned Joan Crawford because she leaves me breathless every time she works in a scene – while killing it at the perfume counter at Black’s Fifth Avenue in The Women, she writes up orders, pulls stock from the shelves, arranges for Butterfly McQueen to go to her apartment and cook dinner, takes a drag on a cigarette, banters with various other employees, then drops everything to purr into the phone (requiring complicated action with the phone itself because she’s preventing the boyfriend from hearing the snarky comments being made by Virginia Gray) and secure her boyfriend’s attendance that evening at her fake birthday party – then it’s time to go out onto the floor and spray perfume into Rosalind Russell‘s face, all while she completes a sale for $.25 – just brilliant!!

    • sheila says:

      Stevie – yesssss. She is so GOOD at activity – job-based activity! it’s so real!

      // requiring complicated action with the phone itself because she’s preventing the boyfriend from hearing the snarky comments being made by Virginia Gray //

      YES. because you can’t just be on the phone. You have to do 3 other things, including emotional things. CONTEXT. she was so good at this. You think of this as coming from stage training – “business” – but she didn’t really have that. That’s not the world she came from. She just knew. Everything was very real for her. she was meticulous in her process.

      I wish more people just got this about her. It’s so frustrating because she really is one of the best at it.

      • Stevie says:

        Absolutely! I was thinking about the beginning of Mildred Pierce, where she’s bustling around the kitchen, she mixes milk and flour, and turns it into a sluice, then pours it into a pot and gives it a quick stir, all while she’s doing so many other things, such as breaking up with her husband over buying a crappy dress for Vida lol but you believe her as a hustling bustling committed person desperate to make things work so she can have the success that she wants in order to make her daughter love her. When she’s counting the dozens of pies you believe that she made them! That’s the thing, it legitimizes the entire plot of the movie, that we see her truly working like a dog with expertise and a sense of mission. We believe it when her restaurants are successful because we’ve seen her accurate depiction of hustle.

        • sheila says:

          I so cosign all of this Stevie and it makes me want to see it again!

          // you believe her as a hustling bustling committed person desperate to make things work //

          Yes! and you are absolultely right – the movie literally wouldn’t work if we didn’t have that feeling about Mildred, so palpable in the way Joan works.

          // We believe it when her restaurants are successful because we’ve seen her accurate depiction of hustle. //

          Yes. and it makes you hate Veda even more. that ungrateful entitled lazy bitch!!

          I love Joan as a waitress during a busy lunch hour. I just watch in awe. I feel like as a young actor I would have been very inspired by what “business” looks like when it’s done really really well.

          love you stevie!

  3. Kristen Westergaard says:

    Want to second the comments about Mildred Pierce and “the business.” That’s my favorite thing in both the book and the movie. Interestingly, James M. Cain wrote really well about making pies for the neighbors and hustling over chicken and waffles. That business in the book grounds all the rest of the heightened emotion, betrayal, and perversion. It just feels hypnotically real and significant. I have reread the book numerous times because its so satisfying to read about seling pies, learning to waitress, and navigating a drink cart. The murder stuff matters, but I come for the chicken and waffles. Major props to Crawford, too. I love her generally, but most especially when she plays working girls. Man, she brings it.

    • sheila says:

      Kristen –

      // James M. Cain wrote really well about making pies for the neighbors and hustling over chicken and waffles. //

      So true, right? It seems such an interesting topic for him to be so well-versed in – he’s got that noir tone, but it’s all about PIES!!

      // It just feels hypnotically real and significant. //

      Very insightful. It takes place in the real world. I mean, his stuff always does – with real world problems like money and survival – but Mildred is twice as long as his most famous books.

      // The murder stuff matters, but I come for the chicken and waffles. //

      lol I know!!

      // I love her generally, but most especially when she plays working girls. Man, she brings it. //

      absolutely. she GETS it.

    • Jeffrey says:

      The compleat manifestation of urban noir is to be found as much in the kitchens, bedrooms and backyards of post-war suburban tract homes as it is in the cities’ dark alleys and bars. Hell, Kiss Me Deadly’s apocalyptic “Great Whatsit” is found in a dingy basement locker in The Hollywood Athletic Club! So why not “pies” as the Beginning and Ending of the whole 20th Century?

  4. Kristen Westergaard says:

    I wanted to add that I love this piece in general. It’s edifying and refreshing to read about John Wayne not as an icon, not as an empty symbol of “patriarchy,” but as a thoughtful working actor and what he brought to his work. I rewatched a lot of John Wayne movies during Covid- lots of reasons for this- my childhood, that sense of physical competence in the open outdoors, and Wayne himself, a steady presence who projects forward movement and like you say, a sense that each moment does matter.

    • sheila says:

      // a steady presence who projects forward movement and like you say, a sense that each moment does matter. //

      He is really someone to learn from if you’re an actor. To paint him as “he just played himself” is such a disservice to what he was actually doing. Very very conscious actor.

      and yeah, plenty of other people are interested in John Wayne’s flaws as a man, and the flaws of those movies – and of course I acknowledge those things – but those other people can write about it if they like. I’m not arguing with them. But I’m interested in acting – and if you’re interested in acting you have to be at least CURIOUS about why John Wayne became the biggest and longest-lasting star of the 20th century!

      // my childhood, that sense of physical competence in the open outdoors //

      On some other post – I can’t remember when – I observed that John Wayne and Elvis have something in common, at least from my perspective as someone who’s written so much about them (and other figures). I write about famous actors and people show up discussing this or that role, they point out movies they love, performances they love. It’s great. But when I wrote about Wayne or Elvis – people showed up and told me about themselves, the associated memories. It’s unique!

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