We covered a lot of ground on the 15th, as we did our final in-class prep work for the This Is Us shoot on the 22nd.
We began with the Coach’s Notes, and segue’d quickly into our second Actor Spotlight: the stunningly impressive Meryl Streep.
One of you wrote on The List of Awesome Performances that we should look at Streep and her work in The Devil Wears Prada (2006 dir. D, Frankel), so with that as my starting point, I gathered info on her prep work for the role of Miranda Priestly, and reviewed interviews, documentaries, DVD commentary tracks, articles and anything else I could find, and then transitioned into general career and craft info and other stand-out roles. Trying to decide what to talk about was a challenge, with so much incredible ground to cover. Streep is peerless, and covering her career would have taken all night. 21 Oscar nominations (3 victories), 33 Golden Globe noms (8 victories). No one else even comes close.
Her thoughts on portraying Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada surprised me somewhat, initially. She didn’t really enjoy the character, on many levels…
Even though she says she has no classically-defined “technique” that she espouses (i.e. Method or Meisner, etc.), she says “empathy” is the key to her craft approach. She needs to connect to her characters and their pain. This meant, at least with Miranda, that to pull the character off properly, she needed to stay in that place – that mindset, the isolation, the “me against the world” attitude that you need to soak in if you’re to operate in that type of business (the high-fashion world) at that level. So she said she couldn’t partake in the part of filmmaking that she loves the most – light-hearted interacting with her co-actors on set between takes. She stayed separated and in character because to break character, to pal around with her co-stars, and then try to reengage the character for filming stripped away the edge that was needed for the scenes to come off properly. It undermined the undercurrent, if you will. So it was a lonely time on set for her.
We talked more about her approach to the craft, including her idea that she is a conduit for her characters to live through – that she has to find them and connect with them, and then allow them to use her voice to express themselves, in a way they would never otherwise be able to. The characters aren’t merely variations of herself (as we saw with the Tom Hanks work in the previous Spotlight), but she makes herself available to these characters.
“I don’t feel like I exist until I’m with someone else. Listening is everything. It’s where you learn everything. When I was applying to law school, and thinking that acting was a stupid way to make a living, and that it doesn’t contribute anything to the world, I think it does. I think there’s a great worth in it, and the worth is in listening to people who maybe don’t even exist, or who are voices in your past, and through you come through the work and you give them to other people. And I think that giving voice to characters that have no other voice… that’s the great worth of what we do. Because so much of acting is vanity, but the real thing that makes me feel so good is when I know I’ve said something for a soul, I’ve presented a soul.” – Meryl Streep on Inside the Actor’s Studio
We watched a clip from The Devil Wears Prada – the “Pile of Stuff” monologue…
And then we compared it to her stellar work in Doubt (2008 dir. JP Shanley), by watching a scene with her and Viola Davis – two masters crossing (s)words on screen, in a magnificent 7 minute clip…
Viola Davis (like everyone else that has worked with Streep, that I could find) had nothing but high praise for Streep, as a person and as a professional.
“But ultimately she [Streep] is the best acting partner to have, because she is for you a hundred percent. She’s gonna give a hundred percent, so it’s not like you’re going to have to overcompensate in the scenes for what you’re not getting—because sometimes you do have to do that with certain actors you work with, because they are not giving you anything—they’re too concerned with looking at themselves, you know?” – Viola Davis, on working with Meryl Streep in “Doubt”
We talked about the idea of being a giving scene partner – giving your all in your work, each take, even when the camera is not on you, but on your partner. There’s no time when you should say, “Well, the camera isn’t on me right now, so I can kick back and ease up.” We also talked about how Davis had filmed the above sequence, went home, and then a couple months later had to go back and re-shoot the entire sequence, because the undercurrent of the first take wasn’t right. Apparently, in the initial cut, it seemed as though Davis’ character was guilty of something and wanting to get away from Streep, rather than what they’d hoped, which was that they stroll and talk, more as peers, rather than a superior and a frightened inferior. It worked – the above sequence earned Davis an Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actress. So be ready for reshoots! They may need to happen, even to the pro’s!
We talked briefly about Sophie’s Choice – a staggeringly-emotional movie and performance – one which earned Streep a Best Actress Oscar, and a film which I have a hard time watching, especially the “Choice” scene itself, which always reduces me to a broken, quivering mess. The performance is incredibly well-crafted and multi-layered. I don’t know who else could have pulled it off like Meryl did. It’s fascinating to hear her talk about preparing and filming that role, but I won’t go into it here.
If you haven’t seen it, here’s The Choice scene. Watch at your own emotional risk… the entire movie is on Amazon Prime at the moment, if you have an account and are a glutton for emotional punishment.
I could have spent the whole class reviewing her career and the wide variety of characters she’s crafted, but we moved on…
The Improv Scenes
We queued up the improvised scenes we filmed last week and watched them, stopping after each one to discuss them. They were great fun to edit and to watch in class, and a lot of good feedback was given. I also passed out the formatted transcripts of each scene, so you could look at your own work, in script form. You’re all screenwriters now! In improvising those scenes, you effectively wrote them! The idea being that your scene work should look like these improvised scenes. Here they are again, in case you want to see them again.
“The best acting looks improvised. The best improv looks scripted.”
I don’t recall where I first heard that quote – probably in the Spolin classes I took up in LA back in the day, with the Great Rob Adler. There was a third part to the quote – something about “The best writing is ____” but I don’t recall the rest of the quote, and it isn’t in my notes from back then…
I was tempted to have you use the scene transcripts as in-class scene-work, and have you re-memorize them and perform them again, but I didn’t want to cloud your minds. I know you’re all working on your This Is Us scenes for next week – I’d rather you keep your minds there, as far as memorization and preparation. Still, the idea is a sound one. Comparing the results of the improvised versions of the scenes with the prepared/rehearsed versions. Or to re-cast the scenes with other students, and act out each other’s scenes.
We then had Moises perform a monologue for us in Spanish, and the rest of us non-Spanish-speaking students tried to see what we could deduce about the content based upon the tone and delivery, the body language, the energy level. This tied into our discussions on undercurrent – the facet of the story that can be told to strengthen what the words are accomplishing, without merely being redundant. Really, it’s a variation of the Spolin “Gibberish” exercise, only with actual languages instead of fabricated ones. The focus is to effectively communicate what you need to without using words.
There’s a craft phrase that goes like this: “Don’t put vanilla on vanilla.” That means, in essence, that if the words themselves are accomplishing something, as far as the story-telling, don’t use physical actions or tone/delivery to accomplish the same thing. Use the opportunity to tell additional layers of story with your tone and actions.
An example: Don’t tickle someone while also saying, “I’m trying to make you laugh! Come on, laugh!” Do one or the other. Don’t shout “I’m mad at you!” at your co-actor, when the very act of yelling conveys your anger. Saying “You never listen to me!” in an angry tone conveys both concepts at the same time…
So Moises performed his monologue, and discussion ensued, as we detailed what we could, based on what we saw and heard, without reference to the actual words (which ended up being the “game of inches” speech from the film Any Given Sunday).
We also discovered that many of you can speak more than one language! I think we should have a night of non-English monologues. We can film them and cut them together for your reels, showcasing your ability to act in multiple languages.
At some point during Hour 2, we discussed Bad Movies, and your thoughts on whether you should avoid them or embrace the badness, because hey, a paying gig is a paying gig, right!? I talked about how I’d recently sat through a SyFy original film called “Megalodon” starring Michael Madsen, which was abysmal on every level (in my opinion!), making me wonder how on earth such a script could ever be green-lit and produced. But there’s a big market for really bad movies! There are tons of articles and video essays online, trying to figure out why a substantial percentage of movie-goers actually really enjoy bad movies.
We also discussed “The Room” by Tommy Wiseau, and the film “The Disaster Artist” by James Franco and his friends, which tells of the making of The Room. The phenomenon of “So Bad It’s Good” is worth thinking about as a professional actor… let’s say you get the audition notice for “Six-Headed Shark Attack“… do you audition for it, or not? Are you embarrassed to be in a relentlessly cheesy movie, or do you take the work wherever you can find it?
This Is Us
After a short break, we divided up into our scene pairs/groups and began run-throughs of our This Is Us scenes. We discussed the blocking, walked through the scenes, then performed them with the dialog, making comments and notes, and plans for the shoot next week. It will be a night of film making – so I’m staggering your arrival times. We’ll have 4 hours to get all the scenes shot, and then I’ll cut them together during the week. We’ll watch them in class on the 29th.
Next week, we film!
Until then, get out there and live!