Tuesday 12 May 2020, by
Emerging Filmmakers Night’s Ben Plumb on the craft of acting. EFN’s next live streamed film event will be on Monday 18 May 2020 on Facebook - Caught in the Act!
’How do I act so well?’ asks Sir Ian.
Andy says nothing.
’What I do is I pretend to be the person I am portraying in the film or play’ he insists, answering himself, a picture of sincerity.
You might recognise this exchange from that scene in Extras, the best one. Ricky Gervais’ character is being given a rundown on acting by his new teacher, portrayed in a career-best performance by Sir Ian McKellen, here pretending to be Sir Ian McKellen.
It’s straight up hilarious, and strangely revealing. At the core of the gag is the true nature of acting. The notion presented by this fictional Sir Ian is absolutely spot on and yet completely unhelpful. It makes us laugh because it explores the inherent tension in the craft: something so beautifully simple yet incomprehensibly complex, and this naïve acting teacher, (’There will be no scripts on the night!’) as a true master of the art, cannot see beyond its fantastic simplicity. We, the audience, know he is right but can’t see beyond the vast chasm between his capacity for pretending and our own, and no bridge is offered.
I don’t know about you, but so much of what I know about the world and the human beings that inhabit it is thanks to actors. Sure, I learned plenty from my parents, my siblings and my friends, even the occasional bit from strangers. By watching them and the decisions they make, and how those decisions go on to affect their lives and make them feel, I glean little insights into what it is like to be human. But the prospective lessons available to me from these people, while important and beautiful in their own right, are limited in scope. What if there were people out there who could show me aspects of the human experience that I could never access from my own life? What if there were people who could pretend to be other people?
Well, there are. They’re called actors.
So what’s going on here? What precisely is it that these people are doing to help advance my understanding of humanness? What is it to pretend?
There is one definition of acting that has stood the test of time. It comes from the 20th Century New York acting messiah, Sanford Meisner when he famously described the craft as ’living truthfully under imaginary circumstances’.
It’s definitely an improvement on ’pretending to be’, but still pretty deceiving in its simplicity. Let’s unpack this and see if we can’t make more sense of what’s going on here. We’ll start with the easy bit.
Okay, so while this is the more intuitively accessible portion of the Meisner quote, there’s still a lot going on. Circumstances are simple enough - they are just the set of facts that we find ourselves in. That can be on a small scale: I am at my desk, in my house, with my laptop in front of me. But we could widen that perspective: I am unable to leave my house unless for very specific reasons. Wider: I am in a world currently experiencing a global pandemic. EVEN WIDER: I am on a rock flying at spectacular speed through an endless space.
Of course, all of these are just facts. What makes them ’circumstances’ is my relationship to them. All of these facts create and limit the options available to me. When we tell stories we pick which set of choices we want to explore. We pick how wide we want our circumstances net to be to highlight which aspect of the human condition we want to watch unfold. Each set of circumstances, the choices they leave available, and the ones I then take, help offer an insight into that slice of humanness.
The circumstances I just described are real. They’re still perfectly valid circumstances for me to choose and set stories amongst. Those would just be true stories; I would be describing how I lived truthfully in real circumstances.
But these aren’t the stories we’re talking about here. We want to understand the imaginary ones.
Let’s say a writer wants to explore some piece of human truth that has not been forthcoming in the circumstances they have experienced in their own life. They can invent some. Let’s say they want to explore the human urge to survive. They will create a set of circumstances that throws this instinct into sharp relief: they must create a world in which the central challenge is survival. A desert island, an arctic wilderness, a broken spaceship. Take your pick. They will all have their idiosyncrasies that are unique to those specific environments, but ultimately they all help me explore survival. I like the spaceship one.
The writer will imagine a woman, trapped in space. She needs to find a way to survive. Of course, the writer can do a good or a bad job here. The more these imaginary circumstances feel real, the better the forces at work map on to our own experience of reality. It all helps that slice of humanness we are exploring feel even more truthful.
So, budding actors, we have our set of imaginary circumstances. It’s now our job, with help from the writer in the form of words on a page, and the director in conversation, to imagine what those circumstances might be like to exist among. This bit is hard. Our imagination is a muscle that needs exercising and toning. We must imagine existing amongst those circumstances
We are floating in space with little-to-no hope of getting back to earth.
It’s hard, for sure, but instinctively we know how to do it.
Which then brings us to the really hard part. Once we are at ease with the reality of these imaginary circumstances, we must allow ourselves to be affected by that reality, to be moved by them. We must let those circumstances change how we feel and behave. We must now live truthfully.
Huh? What even is that? Living truthfully. What a weird thing to say. Living isn’t true or false, it’s just living.
Yes, well, sort of.
Existing is really difficult. Living truthfully under our usual, very real circumstances is already incredibly hard. We humans and our brains are stupendously complex things, and we exist in societies that load us with even more complex pressures, rules and expectations. So much of our childhoods is about learning to curtail our impulses, impulses that might get our hands burned, hurt others, or lead us to get our hearts broken. But that instinct to curtail our impulses, and the impulses of those around us, has a more tragic side. Society, and our own nature, is prone to getting it wrong. When those pressures are applied in the wrong place we might repress more important aspects of ourselves than, say, the urge to touch glowing red things. What if that pressure was applied to the part of you that loves other people, or wants to express itself in ways that others find strange, or even to the part that wants to feel an emotion that is painful to feel?
Our life stories are littered with examples of times when, in response to some external pressure, we have repressed impulses. Some are helpful and keep us alive, others are profoundly damaging and act as blocks to living as our authentic selves. Some people are fortunate enough to find the space and courage to confront these “pools of repression and allow them to find release. They allow themselves to fall in love with the person they truly want to, wear those clothes that they were told not to, say what they wanted to say, or find a way to feel the emotions they have been denying for so long. But many people live their entire lives without even noticing these vast wells of unprocessed impulses, and never find release.
This is what Meisner means when he talks about ‘living truthfully’. In fact, helping people understand this concept is at the core of the Meisner Technique, Sanford’s powerful actor training methodology. The technique helps develop an actor’s sensitivity to these impulses and emotions, the confidence to be completely honest with themselves about them and then learning to give them the space to guide the way they act. This is true authenticity. It is so hard to find and even harder to maintain. Ultimately it is about finding the most honest and real expression of ourselves, which, by extension, is the most revealing.
Imagine if the story I chose to tell was how I experienced the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic. Imagine if my experience of that setting was inauthentic, that I was somehow denying some feature of that experience to myself that I was unaware of. I might tell you that it was really easy, and I enjoyed every moment of it when actually I was not letting myself feel the pain, sadness and anxiety that those circumstances created in me. Would that telling of the story be more moving than the one about my authentic experience? More insightful? More revealing of human truth? Of course, I could choose to tell the story of how I lived my experience of lockdown in denial of my emotions, but that would first require me to appreciate and understand my inauthenticity. Living truthfully must come first.
Which brings us back to actors and the challenge they face. They must find the most authentic expression of a person that they are not, in circumstances that are not real.
Let’s return to the imaginary circumstances we developed above. Woman, in space, must survive. Our role as actors in telling this story is to find as much authenticity as we can in her experience of this scenario. So, with the help of the writer and director, we’ve imagined these circumstances in great detail; we’ve thought about how it might feel to be weightless, to be lost, to be inches from death. Now we have to move, and do things and say things. There are infinite options available at every step in this process. Take the immortal line: ’Houston, we have a problem’. Imagine for a moment all the ways we could deliver it. Are we exasperated? Are we calm? Are we actually terrified but pretending to be calm? There are countless variations of that utterance that could be truthful; they all depend on the circumstances, internal and external, written down and invented at our discretion. The combination of all of these determines the best delivery for this particular story. It’s the actor’s job to reach into the mind of this imaginary woman, find her truth, and then find a way of making that our truth.
And that’s just line delivery. What if the writer chooses to plumb the depths of this woman’s emotional life. Let’s say, at the film’s climax, our character must decide if she truly wants to survive. Let’s say that back on Earth, she lost her daughter. Everything seems lost, but she must keep trying, the only thing in the way is her grief: Do I even want to return to a world where my child doesn’t exist? For this character to find the urge to get back to Earth, she must first process her grief for her lost child, something she has been running from for years. We, the actor, must now allow ourselves to be affected by the emotional reality of ‘grieving for our lost child’. This is as difficult as it sounds. I’ve never lost a child, I’ve never even had one. To imagine this reality, grieving the loss of a child while trapped in space with little-to-no hope of survival, and then allow ourselves to be affected by emotions this profound… It is a challenge of epic proportions. It requires all the emotional openness and imaginative power we can muster. We could approximate this emotion by finding analogues in our own lives, and that could work fine. But the more depth and detail we can find in this particular inner truth, the more real-feeling the performance and, more importantly, the more detail we have in our slice of human truth.
And if all of that wasn’t hard enough, we’re surrounded by unnaturally green cloth, there is a camera in our face, a makeup artist just fixed our hair and there’s a 1st AD shouting at the gaffer to turn his phone off. We are surrounded by hundreds of cues telling us we are not actually in space and that we are not actually grieving the loss of our daughter. And yet, this is the job.
Now, I’m not saying that all actors are doing all of this all the time. Not all of this work will be necessary for certain sequences or scenes, even entire movies. Also, actors find shortcuts to these internal spaces which can offer perfectly believable interpretations of a character’s journey. This is where casting comes in: finding an actor with a similar internal landscape to their character keeps the imaginative workload to a minimum. For the best actors though, this freed up headspace offers a chance to find even more detail in their performance.
But really, the actors that truly move us, the people that win (and deserve to win) loads of awards, are capable of doing this in spectacular detail all the time. And do it with their eyes closed.
...depending on the circumstances.
Sir Ian isn’t lying in his explanation of how he ‘acts so well’. He does simply pretend to be the person he is portraying in the play or film. For him, it really is that simple. The reality is that us mere mortals can’t even imagine what it takes to be able to pretend to be Gandalf the Wizard with such fullness and detail and sincerity.
Pretending to be is an awesomely complex task.
So this is in praise of all of those who do manage to live truthfully in imaginary circumstances. I am so grateful for all of the slices of human truth I have been granted a glimpse of in an actor’s eyes. I am so grateful for what I have learned about what it is like to be human thanks to these individuals’ powerful imaginations and enviable access to their own true selves. These glimpses are so precious and important and so wondrously difficult to achieve.
Ben is the lead writer for the Emerging Filmmakers Night Collective. This piece is written ahead of their online screening event on 18th May which is themed around the craft of acting.
More on EFN’s upcoming event here.