Interesting class on the 8th! We covered a lot of ground.
We began with the Coach’s Notes, as per usual, and then segued into our first Character Spotlight: a focus on Tom Hanks and his preparation for the role of Forrest Gump (1994 dir. R. Zemekis). This film was midway through one of Hanks’ amazing success runs, which went from 1993 to 1995.
- Sleepless in Seattle (1993 dir. N. Ephron)
- Philadelphia (1993 dir. J. Demme) won Oscar for Best Actor
- Forrest Gump (1994 dir. R. Zemekis) won Oscar for Best Actor
- Apollo 13 (1995 dir. R. Howard)
- Toy Story (1995 dir. J. Lasseter)
Hanks has won 2 Best Actor Oscars (back to back), and had 3 other Best Actors noms (for Big, Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away). The only other actor to win back-to-back Best Actor nods was Spencer Tracy. (Side Note: Two women have won back-to-back Best Actress awards – Luise Rainer and Katharine Hepburn.)
Hanks was drawn to the script of Forrest Gump because of the purity of the character:
“He lives an amazing life and sees amazing things, but the purity of how he sees the world was what I thought was amazing about the screenplay, and what he goes through to get to the point that we’re all at. All the great stories are about our battle against loneliness: Hamlet is about that; so is The Importance of Being Earnest. That’s what I always end up being drawn toward.” – Tom Hanks
The initial screen tests show that he didn’t arrive at the external character work straight away, but started with internalizing the character first, until he could get his feet under him.
As you can see, nothing like the final character we know. As he began absorbing and understanding the character, his external work began to evolve. He hit a break-through when he made a decision on how to approach developing the (now recognizable) voice for Forrest… [Starts at 0:50 mark]
The voice, combined with the haircut and general humble and straight-forward demeanor, let to the creation of an iconic film character, and an Oscar for Hanks.
Here’s my favorite scene from the film, where Forrest finds out he’s a daddy. Look at the way Hanks receives and responds to the information. Watch his body language – it adds so much to the simple dialog.
Tom Hanks has an amazing ability to communicate volumes with his eyes, his expressions, his ability to slow down, receive information, listen, and process it before responding. He lets the camera (and by extension, the audience) watch him think. We see the wheels turning. It’s shows us that he is alive inside the character – he isn’t just waiting for his chance to say his memorized dialog. We see the whole process, and understand why he’s saying what he’s saying.
Watch this clip from The Road to Perdition (2002 dir. S. Mendes). Watch a master at work. Tom’s pacing, his delivery, the whole story going on behind his eyes as he carefully navigates the conversation with his son. Watch his face! [Scene starts at 2:32 mark]
I wish I could find this scene higher resolution. The more clearly you can see Hanks’ face, the more effective the work is. It’s an aspect of the acting craft which I sincerely hope to clearly point out to you all, with the hopes that it will surface in your work as well. It will set you apart from the crowd, I guarantee it.
It’s a beautifully-shot film, if you haven’t seen it. The script is the weakest link, but the performances are solid, and it has an iconic moment with Tom Hanks and Paul Newman playing a little duet on a piano at a wake, which I feel is one of the great moments in cinema history.
Hanks’ role as a strong, silent killer is a bit of a departure from his usual likable “every man” type of character work. I certainly admire the choice, as far as trying to stretch a bit. To me, it’s not quite a perfect fit, but it still rings true with his prior quote, about being drawn to roles that deal with our “battle against loneliness.” Seems to be a theme in Hanks’ personal life.
“The cinema has the power to make you not feel lonely, even though you are. You can go in a lonely human being and you can see something that for two hours, and however long the afterglow lasts, can make you feel as though you actually belong to something really good.” – Tom Hanks
We discussed in class other facts and trivia surrounding Forrest Gump specifically, and then segued into a clip of Hanks in the final scene in Captain Phillips (2015 dir. P. Greengrass), which was fascinating on many levels…
The scene was a last-minute addition – it wasn’t in the script. The original ending scene didn’t carry the emotional punch that Greengrass was looking for, so he talked to Frank Castellano (the actual captain of the Bainbridge, from the real life events), and asked him more about what happened once Captain Phillips was rescued in real life. He said he didn’t talk to him until after he got back from the infirmary. This was news to Greengrass, so he grabbed Hanks, his cinematographer and a light or two, and went down to the infirmary on the ship. The very surprised medical staff were informed that they would be in a movie!
Initially, it was going to be some quick footage to help transition between the rescue and the planned ending, but after the first attempt at a take (which had to be halted, to calm down the understandably-nervous medical corpsmen) Greengrass realized they were on to something. After instructing the medical staff to forget they were dealing with an actor, and just treat Hanks as they would any patient entering the infirmary, they shot a second take – which made it into the final film as above. The whole scene was improvised – keep that in mind. If they’d had to script it, cast the medical staff through auditions, rehearse, etc, this scene would have taken forever to get. But it was a spontaneous idea, and a moment of serendipity, which Hanks and the staff parleyed into a magical moment.
The lessons, of course, should be obvious, but among them, the willingness to just go for it. As an actor, this type of scenario might pop up for you. If it does, remember Mr. Hanks, and dive in.
It also tied into our Meisner work for the evening. It showcases being fiercely present, right now, with your co-actors. They each played off of each other beautifully. The medical staff relied on their real-world training, and rolled with Hanks beautifully, and Hanks, in turn, fed off of her dialog and her touch. And being at the end of a long physical shoot, he didn’t need to reach very far for the sense of overwhelm and shock that fed his internal work.
There’s so much more to talk about with Hanks – perhaps I will do so at some point in the future.
But for our class, we began a Meisner-based exercise, which involved a a pair of you coming up front, sitting down at the folding table with a deck of cards (a ‘simple activity’), and having a one-minute improvised conversation on the topic of your choice. I set up two cameras to capture it (which I am editing as we speak – check back soon), and turned you loose, with the instruction to “be you, as much as possible.” No acting, just talk, as though the cameras and the rest of your classmates didn’t exist, and it was just you two, talking somewhere private.
The results were interesting. Some of you couldn’t shake the desire to act, and put on a show for us. You had a hard time just being yourself. Others were far more comfortable being themselves. Most of you did the exercise twice – and in every case, the second attempts were far superior to the initial attempts. I will cut them all together, and you can see for yourselves.
We will review the clips in class next Wednesday night, and compare them to the scenes we’ve filmed recently (the Boardwalk Empire scenes, and the Breaking Bad scenes).
The main purpose of the exercise is to get you to feel comfortable being yourself on camera. When your guard is down, and you’re just being you, your faces are so alive with thought and nuance (like Hanks), and we can see you talking, listening, processing, smiling, frowning, responding. It is captivating. Alternatively, when you’re aware you’re being watched, that all disappears, and your face and mannerisms get stiff and dull. If you get to be comfortable being your alive and vivacious selves on camera, saying your own words, the next step is to try to retain that level of comfort and life, while saying someone else’s words (from a script). Be “you” while simultaneously being someone else.
When you can effectively “be you” while saying someone else’s words, the next step is starting to modify “you” until it matches what the director/script is calling for. “You” morph to fit the role – but the whole time, your performance retains the life and nuance that it has when you’re just being you. No more stiff, shallow, self-aware (and mediocre) acting.
Breaking down the This Is Us scenes
After taking a break, we got out our scenes from This Is Us, and reviewed how to break down a scene/script. I brought you all fresh copies of your scenes and gave you pencils, and had you mark them pages all up, noting such things as: Tone, Conflict, Objective, Obstacles, Relationship, Point of view, Character Traits, Subtext, etc. I also had you “score” your scenes, marking the beat/unit changes. This is how the pros do it – so we’re trying it out as well!
I then paired you with your scene partners and turned you loose to begin discussions and dialog review. I also discussed with each group my initial thoughts on blocking. We will film on the 22nd of this month.
At some point during this stretch, we talked about “Death” as a theme, and how it can be found in each of the This Is Us scenes you’re all working on. Not just a physical death, but the (possible) death of a relationship, an idea, a mindset…
In the final half hour of class, I showed two last clips, dealing with “Death”. One scene from the movie Flight (2012 dir. R. Zemeckis) featuring Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly and the amazing James Badge Dale. All three characters are dealing with the theme of death, from three different angles…
What an incredible scene. The writing, the shot choices, the scene construction, and the performances. What a cameo by Mr. Dale.
We also watched the drowning scene from James Cameron’s 1989 film The Abyss, which led to an interesting little discussion on the idea of characters who die and then come back to life for some reason – whether that robs the death scene of it’s power or not.
So, yeah, a lot of ground was covered on the 8th. Next week, we’ll review the Meisner improvised scenes (look for them here soon) and begin proper rehearsal on the This Is Us scenes, in the lead-up to our film day on the 22nd.
Until then, get out there and live! Every new thing you experience is something else to make you unique, and increase the value of what you bring to the table, as an actor.
EDIT: Here are the improvised scenes we recorded in class on the 8th. The goal was to have you be yourselves, act naturally, do a simple activity, and ignore the cameras. I will transcribe the scenes now, formatting them like legit script pages, and give them to you next Wednesday. If I had time, I’d have you memorize the lines now, rehearse, and perform them again! Then we’d film them and compare the results. How close could you get – having prepared – to how natural these scenes look when you improvised them?
The banter, the thought, the overlapping dialog, the genuine laughter, the gestures and body language… the goal is to be able to create the same results with someone else’s (memorized) words coming from you…