Having studied film in college and subsequently spent a bit of time in the intervening thirty-five years in the company of actors, I have listened to and read more than enough in regard to the “process” that most thespians like to refer to when discussing their work. Not that acting isn’t a skill requiring a great deal of real effort. It’s just that more than a few practitioners have a tendency to drone on about it with a reverence and verbosity more aptly suited to an offer of proof for a doctoral candidate working in the area of particle physics than someone whose life’s work can be reasonably defined as the emotionally accessible and convincing reading of scripted speech in the hopes of bringing a character to life.
You ask my advice about acting? Speak clearly and don’t bump into the furniture.
— Sir Noël Coward (@NoelCowardSir) January 1, 2020
Noel Coward’s advise to actors was to “… speak clearly, don’t bump into the furniture…”. That feels a bit brief for me, but the underlying message of respect for the written word and placing the piece of work as a whole ahead of any idiosyncratic needs of an isolated performer is a solid place to start from. Pursuing deeper emotional elements when preparing for a role is crucial to helping the audience in it’s attempt to suspend disbelief, but I think adherents to the Stanislavsky method have a tendency to blur the line between finding greater depth in their part and improvising their way to an unrequested re-write of the text. If someone really wants to author a script they can always sit their ass down and undergo the misery of filling up an empty page. All that in mind, I have heard or read about the way an actor shaped a performance on a few occasions and found myself amazed at the simple technique or motivation involved, and the letter perfect rendition that resulted from it.
My earliest recollection of this sort of thing, is an article about Meryl Streep. I was in my late teens and reading a compendium of People magazine profiles. That book is long since gone but I still remember some of the celebrities it mentioned. Woody Allen, Vanessa Redgrave, Andy Warhol. I believe it referred to David Crosby as a bluff, gregarious type, who exercised regularly. Which is interesting, as five and a half decades in the public eye have offered little evidence that he’s anything but a man of genuine musical talent who apparently thought that his inherent gifts might be best framed by a personality marked by malignant narcissism and broad spectrum compulsive consumption. Still, the page about Streep featured a quote which remains lodged in my brain, if in a paraphrased version. In the article, Ms. Streep mentioned that when she took on a role she always created a secret about the character that she never told anyone, but which informed her choices as an actor. By way of example she said that when playing Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer, she decided that the woman had never loved her husband, played by Dustin Hoffman. In the time that’s passed since first reading that I’ve caught parts of the film on television many times and have always seen her in a different way because of it. The odd combination of distance and vulnerability that lingers around her in the film is, I think, reflective of someone who feels resentful of being trapped, and in turn, guilty over her resentment. The fundamental absence of an original emotional connection seems to generate a persistent internal conflict for Joanna, allowing us to extend a level of sympathy for her, and making her sacrifice at the movie’s end (she relinquishes custody of the child to her husband) a more believable outcome.
For years that snippet of cinematic trivia remained an occasionally remembered curiosity, and not much more. Every now and again, I’d be impressed with a performance and take a moment to wonder if the actor had used a similar approach to Ms. Streep, but my need to know went unfulfilled, and quickly forgotten. Until I happened across an interview with Ben Kingsley. I can’t recall for certain, but I think he was talking to Charlie Rose. What I do remember clearly was the topic of their conversation. Rose was questioning him about his role in the film Sexy Beast. If you haven’t seen it I can’t recommend it strongly enough. The movie is an engrossing story that is at once a well executed caper film and a darkly comic “monster” movie of sorts in which Kingsley portrays one of the scariest bastards ever to grace the silver screen. Without meaning to spoil the experience for any potential viewers, a brief explanation of the role is necessary here. Kingsley plays the part of Don Logan, a member of a criminal crew, based in London. He’s been dispatched by his boss (Teddy) to recruit a retired member (Gal) for a bank robbery in London. Gal demurs and Don, faced with bringing bad news to Teddy, makes repeated, and increasingly more histrionic and violent attempts to convince Gal. Without revealing too much, I’d have to say that watching Kingsley morph from a menacing presence with an insensitive manner that borders on the sadistic, to an implacable threat to the lives of those his rage is pointed at, was as compelling as it was unnerving. Hard to watch, hard to turn away.
At some point Rose had asked Kingsley about what it was that drove the ferocity of the above referenced performance. Kingsley’s response, while not perfectly reminiscent of Streep’s “secret” trick, certainly had a familiar feel to it. He said he’d chosen to play the part as a child who’d been rejected by his family and desperately wanted to be accepted by them. Underneath Don Logan’s psychopathic fury was a hurt, little boy. I don’t know whether he actually kept that to himself during filming, but it definitely was a part of his character in almost every frame. There’s a scene around the middle of the film that, in retrospect, illustrates Kingsley’s choice perfectly. In the movie Logan has been rebuffed by Gal and is on a plane, headed home. He lights up a cigarette and not only refuses to extinguish it but escalates into overt abuse of the airline staff, leading to his ejection. I can’t think of a more emblematic “angry adolescent” approach to problem solving. Incapable of hearing the word no and unable to force an acquiescence from Gal, he sabotages his departure so that he can convince himself he has no option but to return and up his game from coercion to outright savagery. A tantrum, in short order.
Learning of this approach from Streep and stumbling upon a follow up example in Kingsley I have since found myself trying to guess at what other actors might have used under similar circumstances to drive a given performance. Watching Mystic River, it always feels to me that Laura Linney had Lady Macbeth in mind, but I can’t really say that there’s anything secretive about it. Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller, in Saving Private Ryan, presents as reflective of a certain place and time but I have no sense that there’s one specific moment of the character’s unspoken past that he held back. The closest thing I can count to a completion of this trifecta is Denzel Washington’s tour de force in Training Day.
If you’ve seen the movie, I’m sure Washington’s turn as Detective Alonzo Harris left an impression. Manipulative and charming, as corrosive as he is damaged, Alonzo is both the star and villain of the movie. Washington is so thoroughly committed in his portrayal of the detective that it isn’t hard to see how everyone around him can simultaneously be aware of his malign influence and yet find themselves irresistibly drawn to him. Many reviews of the film mentioned that Harris was completely credible as a man who’d spent so long pushing up against a line that he crossed it at some point without really knowing he’d done it. I think that assessment is on the money. The years that Detective Harris had spent dealing with the worst that Los Angeles had to offer had, in varying degrees, compelled and enabled him to see his own criminality as a way to survive. When he first meets Jake Hoyt, the young officer he is supposed to be mentoring (Ethan Hawke), Alonzo shares his essential view of the job: The public are sheep and the criminals are wolves. In order to protect the sheep the police must be able to function as wolves themselves. The first time I saw the movie I came to believe that his perception of himself in quasi-heroic terms was a necessary balance to the casual but pervasive culture of corruption that he wore like a second skin. I still think that’s true. However, in my most recent viewing I began to entertain the notion that, like Streep, he too had worked with a piece of backstory that only he had known.
Watching him relentlessly attempt to bend Jake to his will, and lead the younger man into a series of increasingly compromised positions I couldn’t help but see a more subtle motivation to the veteran detective’s behavior. I think that his fervency is not just a manifestation of his practical need to have a disposable pawn. On a deeper level he needs to ruin Jake so that he can forgive himself for his own fall from grace. I imagine Alonzo Harris was once young, ambitious, morally centered like Jake is, and then slowly, inexorably morphed into the ethically bankrupt, if complex, man we see on the screen. With that as a starting point, pushing Jake in the same direction is not just a tactical need, but a sad attempt to offer himself a sort of perverse redemption. He seeks out the weakness of everyone around him so that he can believe that downward spiral was an inevitability, and not a failing.