Question and answer time! An actor recently asked me:
“I always had this idea, like, when I saw a great performance in a film, it had to be really hard for that actor to get to that place where they could give that performance, which to me always felt like this uphill path you have to take to be a great actor. I want to be a great actor. So when you see a great Meryl Streep performance, how does that connect up with what you’re doing (at the studio)?”
Meryl Streep, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt—they’ve all said more or less the same thing about acting: There is no such thing as “character.” It comes from me.
So if it comes from you, then what great acting comes down to is you being truthful—being true to who you are and not trying to show us your idea of the “character.” Go for truthful moments. It’s that simple. That’s what people want to see!
But it’s hard. It’s so damn hard for us to get truthful in our acting and in our lives. No one wants to get truthful. We want to hide behind “character” because it’s scary to show ourselves to the world, warts and all. But that’s what makes us human (and interesting to watch)! It’s also what’s going to make you a great actor.
So, why is it so hard? Well, for starters, in order to be truthful, you have to be listening (acting is a team sport), and listening is inherently difficult because no one is listening! Everyone is talking. Everyone is tweeting, posting, talking about themselves. It’s all noise. But it’s a gift when you give someone your full presence and just listen, whether that someone is your scene partner or your lover or your mom and dad.
Listening will take you into the moment. It will take you inside yourself to places you’re scared to go but need to go in order to access a moment of truth—in order to actually feel something!
Great acting is a call for you to show up, stand up, and be who you are!
But, Tony, what about when you’re playing a person who is real, like Abraham Lincoln or Truman Capote. What then?
Don’t worry about it!
Everyone’s process is different. But processes can’t be reduced to just one way of getting there. There are many ways, each valid in their own right. We try to label things and define things because it makes it more understandable, but lots of what works in a creative process defies explanation.
Ninety-nine percent of the people you’re going to be playing are fictional. Maybe one percent of the time you’ll be playing a real, documented person like Abraham Lincoln. Of course you’re going to study that person and how they walked, talked, moved. Great! But at the end of the day you’re still moving and acting through yourself. You’re still going to have to find that real, documented person in yourself.
The director is going to help you find it. Then you put on the costume and you live in the circumstances and you go for stuff, and the director will help you and then that’s how you find it. It’s not about becoming someone you’re not. You find your own Lincoln or Capote or Margaret Thatcher in yourself. You’re not mimicking these people—that would be mimicry, not acting.
So the answer is that even with these type of roles, you’re still using all of yourself, through the prism of a character.
We call it character, but the “character” comes alive through you, by you, for you.
It takes a tremendous amount of commitment, perseverance, risk, willingness to fail, and surrender.
That’s how you become a great actor.