Actors as Trained Animals
I had an interesting interaction with a certain actor in class recently. I’ll keep the name anonymous. Acting classes are places where actors need to feel safe, take chances, and explore themselves and their demons. They often empty their emotional baskets in an effort get free to create. That’s what we do, we self-examine, question, explore, push, take chances, and master our emotions, so we can access them easily when required to play a variety of characters and scenes.
Recently I had a very talented, advanced, experienced actor, have a bad day. He was being confronted by his fellow students quite aggressively and was very frustrated. He blurted out to me and the class, “I feel like I’m under a microscope here, and people are coming at me pushing me to do things, and I don’t like it.” Then he yelled out, “I’m not a trained animal!!” The class went silent, it was a powerful expression of his pain and frustration. The entire class sat quietly waiting for me to respond. It was silent for some time. After a few moments I said, “Guess what everyone, you are under a microscope, and yes, in a certain sense, you are a trained animal.” No one liked that comment.
I won’t go over the specifics of that class but it inspired me to talk about it here.
Very simply my fellow actors, what do we do? Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Every acting teacher, director, and every book on acting agrees on that. The actors’ work is to learn how to live truthfully, moment to moment when we’re working. That is what we do. In a sense it makes it easy and simple to say, “We are trained animals, we tell the truth in the moment.” That’s what great acting is, even if the truth is a clear expression of a lie, a truthful, committed lie perhaps. I don’t want to get too cerebral here but yes, we are under a microscope – the audience, the camera, the director, editors, casting directors, are watching our every move we make both physically and emotionally. We are under a microscope. When I repeated to the class that we are trained animals again, a lot of the actors in class felt demeaned and insulted, but I challenged them and challenge those of you reading as well. Consider how simple acting really is when you get down to it, we are trained animals who are trained to tell the truth. That is great acting, living truthfully, moment to moment. Of course there is the craft of breaking down a script, making emotional choices to create a character, finding the best choices, finding the arc, objectives, etc., yes, of course. But, underneath all that, you are a truth teller. You tell the truth of that character, you must be an expert in that.
Just another thought and a perspective on defining what we do. Next time you’re confronted in a scene or in your work, or if you’re the one doing the confrontation, it might make it easier on yourself to consider. You’re just a trained human animal, artist, you have no choice but to tell the truth. Even it’s a convincing, truthful, lie.
Keep pushing you beautiful actors, artists, …human animals. The world needs you.