Sunday, November 22, 2009

Actor: Job Description: Responsible to Humanity?

Actors get a bad rap, as many people tend to confuse actors with movie stars and celebrity. While it is true many great actors, such as Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp etc. are celebrities, it is not because they sought out the spotlight, praise, and public approval; instead, celebrity hunted them down because of their great talent and ability.

Entertaining and acting, by nature, are oxymoronic. An entertainer's goal is to please the people, whereas, a good actor must strip himself of his desire to please in order to make the character he is creating, authentic. It requires hard work, the kind most of us, are not willing to do.

We, as non-actors can choose to skim the surface of life, distracting ourselves from what we do not want to confront, and that is ourselves...our real selves, not the selves we've masked in order to avoid the pain and suffering that the process of unmasking would unleash. Good actors, not entertainers, on the other hand, must explore, reflect upon, and expose the most vulnerable parts of himself and that of humanity, continuously, in order to get to the "truth" of the "human being" they try to bring to life.

Recently, Tavis Smiley honored Sean Penn for his embrace of humanity and asked him where his willingness "to stand in [his] truth, to raise these issues, to not bite [his] tongue, to embrace humanity" came from.

Penn gave most of the credit to acting.

"I think that it relates to acting, in a way. And I appreciate you saying it, but to the degree it's true with me. I think that the demand inside, if there's a final demand, it's to feel your own life while you're living it, and that's the demand of what you have to be searching for in a character also, when you're playing a character. And so it's all one thing to me because it all was based on that, and so when you're not involved in the world, you're not involved in the movie. When you're not involved -- I get very bored guarding myself from feeling the world around me, and so I do find myself drawn to participate."
The actor's primary job description can be summed up as "responsible to humanity", according to Herbert Berghoff. Actors must create a "human being" from scratch and communicate the truth of that "human being" or character to the world. A good actor does not sell out to box office, celebrity or what his fans expect of him, rather he must be committed to the character he is creating. Through the process of searching out the truth of this "individual", the actor has agreed to portray, he literally brings him to life.

Great actors provide us with a window into the complex internal life that exists in everyone of us that we are often times loathe to observe in ourselves and the ones we love. Even more importantly, actors can help us to understand and empathize with those who we feel we have nothing in common and who we may have judged harshly because they do not look as we look, or worship as we worship, or are attracted to the wrong gender, etc...

What about the "evil" characters actors take on? What's the actor's responsibility to humanity in this situation? After all, "evil" characters are monsters, barely human, right? Wrong, and a very dangerous assumption. Taking on this kind of role may be the actor's greatest challenge and greatest responsibility to humanity. It's far too easy to separate ourselves from those who society has condemned as evil. An actor who digs deep enough and finds the humanity in a character like this destroys the artificial divide we've created between them and us that enables us to "separate the wheat from the chaff".

Persona + Need + Tragic flaw = Truth of Character, is the formula Oscar coach and acting guru Susan Batson, author of Truth: Personas, Needs and Flaws in the Art of Building Actors and Creating Characters creating for the actors she has trained. An actor’s consideration of a character begins with tension between the persona and the character and the need that lies behind that persona. Everyone has an underlying core need, from childhood and deeply planted by about 5-years old...a need to be fathered, mothered, to please, be respected, be loved etc. HOWEVER, we can’t walk around naked and vulnerable, exposing that "need" to the public, so we build a persona to cover that need, hence, the mask is created.

When the persona, out front, and the core need deep inside, collide and can’t work together, the flow is disrupted, and the tragic flaw emerges. The persona(s) we create are normally in stark contrast to our innermost need...so unless one learns to integrate the two somehow, the tragic flaw is almost unavoidable.

Here are some examples Ms. Batson gave:

The Aviator. The need is to be mothered. The public persona is no limitations, the opposite of a Mama’s boy. The tragic flaw that emerges is he goes crazy.

Monster’s Ball. Halle Berry. The need to be loved. The persona is to push everyone away, be the porcupine. The tragic flaw is to be a victim.

Lost in Translation. Bill Murray. The need to be pure and honorable. The persona is to become a hustler. The tragic flaw that emerges is to hate himself.

When the actor is aware of this split screen, it gives the dimensionality and depth in the performance and provides a universal connection.
"There are lots of personalities out there but few great actors. Great actors are interested in the art form and work very hard at what they do. The powerful component that all great actors have is empathy. An actor must also possess an ease inside his own skin and have the life of his body available to him in a sensory way. The sexuality of the actor that must be present and available to him. He must be in touch with his physicality, in addition to possessing intelligence, emotion, imagination etc. Actors must, at the very least, have the ability to tell truth and refuse to gloss it and be righteously striving to understand themselves and humanity."

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