“Stella Adler always said no one could teach acting, but she could. She had a knack for teaching people about themselves, enabling them to use their emotions and bring out their hidden sensitivity. She also had a gift for communicating her knowledge; she could tell you not only when you were wrong, but why. Her instincts were unerring and extraordinary. If I hit a sour note in a scene, she knew it immediately and said, “No, wait, wait, wait…that’s wrong!” And then dug into her large reserve of intuitive intelligence to explain why my character would behave in a certain way based on the author’s vision.
“Method acting” was a term popularized, bastardized, and misused by Lee Strasberg, a man for whom I had little respect, and therefore, I hesitate to use it. What Stella taught her students was how to discover the nature of their own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others. She taught me how to be real and not to try to act out an emotion I didn’t personally experience during a performance. Until Stella came along, stage acting was loud voices, theatrical elocution and unfelt emotion. Most actors did nothing to experience a character’s feelings and emotions.
Acting is the least mysterious of all crafts. Everybody acts, whether it’s a toddler who quickly learns how to behave to get it’s mother’s attention, or a husband and wife in the daily rituals of marriage, with all the artifices and role-playing that occurs in a conjugal relationship. Politicians are among our most flashy and worst actors. It’s hard to imagine anyone surviving in our world without acting. It is a necessary social device: we use it to protect our interests and to gain advantage in every aspect of our lives, and it is instinctive, a skill built into all of us. Whenever we want something from somebody or when we want to hide something or pretend, we’re acting. When we don’t feel the emotions someone expects of us, and want to please them, we act out the emotion we think they expect of us; we’re enthusiastic about their project even though it bores us. Someone says something that hurts our feelings but we hide our hurt. The difference is that most people do it unconsciously and automatically, while stage and movie actors do it to tell a story. In fact, most actors give their best performance after the camera stops rolling.
A lot of movie stars couldn’t act their way out of a box of wet tissue paper, but they were successful because they had distinctive personalities…Clark Gable was Clark Gable in every role; Humphrey Bogart always played himself.
I was lucky because I became an actor at the beginning of an era when the craft was becoming more interesting, thanks to Stella. Once she told a reporter that she thought one of the assets I brought to acting was a high degree of curiosity about people. It’s true that I have always had an unwavering curiosity about people—what they feel, what they think, how they’re motivated—and I have always made it my business to find out. If I can’t figure somebody out, I’ll follow him like a weasel with persistence until I find out what his nature is and how he functions, not for any reasons of advantage—although I admit when I was young sometimes I did it to gain an advantage—but because I’m curious not only about others, but about myself. I am endlessly absorbed by human motivations. How is it that we behave the way we do? What are those compulsions within us that drive us one way or another?
…An actor can never act his way out of a bad play; no matter how well he performs, if he doesn’t have real drama beneath him he can act his best all day and it won’t work. An actor can help a play, but he can’t make it a success.
I’ve always thought that one benefit of acting is that it gives the actors a chance to express feelings that they are normally unable to vent in real life. Intense emotions buried inside you can come smoking out of the back of your head. And I suppose in terms of psychodrama this can be helpful. I guess my emotional insecurity as a child—the frustrations of not being allowed to be who I was, of wanting love and not being able to get it, of realizing that I was of no value—may have helped me as an actor, at least in a small way. It probably gave me a certain intensity I could call upon that most people don’t have.
…I have worked with many movie directors, some good, some fair, some terrible. Most of the time you have to bring your part fully rehearsed in your back pocket and appear on the set, having done your rehearsal off camera…Performances evolve. On film it may take several or even many attempts to get it right; you may not hit your pace until the third or fourth take…Every actor has to bring his own inspiration and his own characterization to the part.
More than most parts I’ve played in the movies or onstage, I related to Johnny [The Wild One], and because of this, I believe I played him as more sensitive and sympathetic than the script envisioned. There’s a line in the picture where he snarls, “Nobody tells me what to do.” That’s exactly how I’ve felt all my life. Like Johnny, I have always resented authority. I have been constantly discomfited by people telling me what to do, and have always thought that Johnny took refuge in his lifestyle because he was wounded—that he’s had little love as a kid and was trying to survive the emotional insecurity that his childhood had forced him to carry into adulthood. Because of the emotional pain of feeling like a nobody, he became arrogant and adopted a pose of indifference to criticism. He did everything to appear strong when inside he was soft and vulnerable and fought hard to conceal it. He had lost faith in the fabric of society and had made his own world. He was a rebel, but a strong part of him was sensitive and tender. He had been so disappointed in life that it was difficult for him to express love, but beneath his hostility lay a desperate yearning and desire to feel love because he’d had so little of it. I could just as easily have been describing myself. It seemed perfectly natural for me to play this role.
When On The Waterfront came out, a lot of people credited me with a marvelous job of acting and called the [taxi] scene moving. But it was actor-proof, a scene that demonstrates how audiences often do much of the acting by themselves in an effectively told story. It couldn’t miss because almost everyone believes he could have been a contender, that he could have been somebody if he’d been dealt different cards by fate, so when people saw this in the film, they identified with it. That’s the magic of theater; everybody in the audience became Terry Molloy, a man who’d had the guts not only to stand up to the Mob, but to say, “I’m a bum, Let’s face it, that’s what I am.”
On the day Gadge [Kazan] showed me the completed picture, I was so depressed by my performance, I got up and left the screening room. I thought I was a huge failure, and I walked out without a word to him. I was simply embarrassed for myself.
Often actors choose to underplay a moment in the drama. If he shows little or no reaction, the audience will try to imagine what he is feeling. Sometimes actors are superb in their underplaying, but others can’t wait to hit their head on the top of their part. The great Jewish actor Jacob P. Adler, Stella’s father, advised his company of actors, “ If you come to the theater and feel a hundred percent, show them eighty percent. If you feel sixty percent, show them forty percent, and if you only feel forty percent, put the understudy on the stage.”
Never hit your head on the top of your part, Stella said. There are some roles in which less is more. And you should underplay them. Jimmy Cagney had both great acting talent and a terrific presence. He had a distinctive look, a very strong, clear personality, and was a self-made actor. He never went to acting school. But unlike most actors of his generation, he tried to take on the subtle aspects of his characters. He believed he was the character and made audiences believe it.
One of the most difficult lessons an actor has to learn is not to leave the fight in the gym. In other words, you must keep your emotions simmering all day long, but never boiling over. If you give everything you’ve got in the long shot, you will have less in the medium shot, and, where you need it most, in the close shots. You must learn to pace yourself so that you don’t dry up when the close shot comes. Even smart directors misuse the actor unless they are experienced.
As an example, in my first movie, The Men, I had an emotional scene in which I had to admit to myself that I would never be able to walk again or to make love. It was a scene in which it was proper to cry. I got to the studio at 7:30 am and went to my dressing room loaded with mood music, poetry and anything else that would elicit an emotional response. I played the scene over and over in my mind, rehearsed it quietly and was moved. But by 9:30 am, when I had to play the scene, I had nothing left. I had left the fight in the gym. I have remembered that moment ever since.
Unless you’re fully experienced, some directors can destroy you with their insensitivity. An actor’s motivation often depends on focusing sharply on small details. If the director doesn’t prepare the crew and the other actors, he can destroy the mood of a scene. Directors don’t realize how hard it is to create a fragile emotional impression, and how easy it is to break the spell. The most fatiguing aspect about acting is turning your emotions on and off. It’s not like pushing a light switch and saying, “I’m going to be angry and kick the walls now,” and then becoming yourself again. If you have an intense scene involving sadness or anger, you may have to hover in the same emotional territory for hours, and this can be extremely taxing.
Often we hear somebody coming out of a movie theater say, “My God, what a picture! What a job of acting. I was so moved that I cried my heart out!” while his or her companion says, “I was bored to death.” For the latter there was no emotional resonance to the particular story or character. The reason for this is that we all bring to the theater varying experiences and attitudes that affect how we respond to a story.
The most effective performances are those in which audiences identify with the characters and the situations they face, then become the characters in their own minds. If the story is well written and the actor doesn’t get in the way, it’s a natural process.
Ultimately, I suppose that what makes people willing to part with their hard-earned cash and enter a theater is that it allows them to savor a variety of human experiences without having to pay the normal price for them.
I threw out a lot of what was in the script and created the role as I thought it should be. When you do this, you never know whether it’s going to work; sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. But after I had read the book, I decided that the part of Don Corleone lent itself perfectly to underplaying. Rather than portraying him as a big shot, I thought it would be more effective to play him as a modest, quiet man, the way he was in the book. Don Corleone was part of the wave of immigrants who came to this country around the turn of the century and had to swim upstream to survive as best they could. He had the same hopes and ambitions for his sons that Joseph P. Kennedy had for his. As a young man, he probably hadn’t intended to become a criminal, and when he did, he hoped it would be transitional. As he said to his son Michael, “I never wanted this for you, I wanted something else. I always thought that you’d be governor or senator or president—something—but there just wasn’t enough time.”
I thought it would be interesting to play a gangster, maybe for the first time in the movies, who wasn’t like those bad guys Edward G. Robinson played, but who was a kind of a hero, a man to be respected. Also, because he had so much power and unquestioned authority, I thought it would be a contrast to play him as a gentle man, unlike Al Capone, who beat up people with baseball bats. I had a great deal of respect for Don Corleone; I saw him as a man of substance, tradition, dignity, refinement, a man of unerring instinct who just happened to live in a violent world and who had to protect himself and his family in this environment. I saw him as a decent person regardless of what he had to do, as a man who believed in family values and was shaped by events just like the rest of us. The people who joined the mafia in those days did so because they were set upon by people who wanted to take advantage of them. Some knuckled under, but others like Don Corleone fought back, and this was the story of the Godfather. He was forced to protect his family, and in the process he gravitated toward crime.
When I first made movies, I memorized my lines from the script like other actors, or if the script was weak, I’d improvise dialogue but still memorize it. As I mentioned earlier, I learned from my first picture, ‘The Men,’ how easy it was to spoil your effectiveness in a picture by over rehearsing and digging so deep into a part before filming began that you had nothing left to give when it counted. This had taught me how fragile a characterization can be on film and the importance of spontaneity. So after a while, instead of memorizing my lines by rote, I started concentrating only on the meaning or thrust of a line during a scene, working from merely a suggestion of what it was about, and then improvising speeches as I went along so that they seemed spontaneous. The words might vary a little from those in the script, but audiences didn’t know it.
On ‘Young Lions,’ I discovered an even better way to increase spontaneity. In that picture I had to rewrite a lot of the dialogue as we went along, and one day I didn’t have time to memorize my new lines for one scene, so I wrote them on a piece of paper, pinned the paper to the uniform of one of the other actors and read the lines. After the Young Lions, I started reading dialogue from notes in every picture. Sometimes, with their permission, I wrote my lines on actors’ faces or pinned cue cards on their costumes, or placed them offstage where I could see them. I also discovered that not memorizing increased the illusion of reality and spontaneity. Everything about acting demands the illusion of spontaneity. When an actor knows what he’s going to say, it’s easy for the audience to sense that he’s giving a writer’s speech. But if he hasn’t memorized the words, he not only doesn’t know what he’s going to say, he’s not rehearsed how he’s going to say it or how to move his body or nod his head when he does. When he sees the lines, his mind takes over and responds as if it were expressing a thought for the first time, so that his gestures are spontaneous.
…People often say that an actor “plays” a character well, but that’s an amateurish notion. Developing a character is not merely a matter of putting on a makeup and a costume and stuffing Kleenex in your mouth. That’s what actors used to do, and then call it a characterization. In acting everything comes out of what you are or some aspect of who you are. Everything is a part of your experience. We all have a spectrum of emotions in us. It is a broad one, and it’s the actor’s job to reach into this assortment of emotions and experience the ones that are appropriate for his character and the story. Through practice and experience, I learned how to put myself in different moods and states of mind by thinking about things that made me laugh or be angry, sad or outraged. If I had to feel worried, I’d think about something that worried me; if I was supposed to laugh, I thought about something that was hilarious. Sometimes, however, I had to experience an emotion I hadn’t felt, like the reaction to dying; then I just had to imagine it. My character was shot fatally in the face. It was a wound, I decided, that would cause my blood to flow out of my brain, and that was how I would die…In a long shot, you don’t have to worry much about getting your emotions right; the physical action is what counts. The camera is so far away that it won’t see the emotions you’re supposed to experience, though I learned that it’s always wise to check what’s behind you; in a scene with a busy background, audiences can easily lose you, so you have to do something to help them focus on you.
In a medium shot, your body language and gesticulations become more important, though you have to turn up your emotions a little. But it’s in the close-up that you really crank it up. The acting you do there is best conveyed by thinking, because if you’re thinking right, it will show. If you’re not thinking right, if you’re busy acting, you’re dead.
Correction: “think” is not the right word; you experience the emotion you want to convey. That’s when you reach into your spectrum of emotions and send a signal from your brain to execute one of them. The close up says everything. It is then that an actor’s learned, rehearsed behavior becomes most obvious to an audience and chips away unconsciously at its experience of reality. The audience should share what you are feeling in a close up. In a close up the audience is only inches away, and your face becomes the stage. It is then that an actor can enable the audience to experience his emotions in an intimate and personal way if he does his job right.
But as I’ve said, there are some parts where less is more, and underplaying is important, and never more so than the close-up, when your entire face fills the screen.
When I saw the ‘Godfather’ the first time, it made me sick; all I could see were my mistakes and I hated it. But years later, when I saw it on television from a different perspective, I decided it was a pretty good film.
‘Last Tango in Paris’ was my first picture after the ‘Godfather’; it required a lot of emotional arm wrestling with myself, and when it was finished, I decided that I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. I felt I had violated my innermost self and didn’t want to suffer like that anymore. As noted earlier, when required to play parts that required me to suffer, I had to experience the suffering. You can’t fake it. You have to find something within yourself that makes you feel pain, and you have to keep yourself in that mood throughout the day, saving the best for the close-up and not blowing it on the long shot, the medium shot, or the over-the-shoulder shot. You have to whip yourself into this state, remain in it, repeat it in take after take, then be told an hour later that you have to crank it up once more because the director forgot something. It takes an enormous toll. ‘Last Tango in Paris’ left me feeling depleted and exhausted. Thereafter I decided to make my living in a way that was less devastating emotionally. In subsequent pictures, I stopped trying to experience the emotions of my characters as I had always done before, and simply to act the part in a technical way. It is less painful and the audience doesn’t know the difference. If a story is well written and your technique is right, the effect is still the same: in a darkened room, the magic of the theater takes over and the audience does most of the acting for you.
I try to meditate twice a day for an hour or more. During the past few years, meditation has helped me enormously in dealing with a number of problems in my life. Old emotional habits are replaced, and instead of getting excited, angry or anxious, I become calm. Repetition is as important to meditation as it is to other religious rituals. As already observed, one of the strongest features of the human personality is how easily given it is to suggestion. If he’s in a well written play that is performed skillfully, a good actor can affect the body chemistry of an audience. He can increase the flow of adrenaline, make people feel sad, make them cry, make them angry or apprehensive. As an actor, you try to use the power of suggestion to manipulate people’s moods, and that’s not a lot different from what happens during most religious rituals. The more I have meditated, the more I have been able to control not only stress in my life, but pain. I believe that we can control the mind, and that man will demonstrate the capacity to do things beyond his wildest imagination. I don’t know yet what the limitations of my own mind are. I haven’t reached them yet, but I won’t stop searching for them until I die. It is territory different from anything I’ve ever explored before—uncharted waters—and I feel like an explorer. In many ways it is the most exciting expedition I’ve ever undertaken.