We were all of us into The Method
in those days. Our teachers were products of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio
in New York—the place where Brando
, Rod Steiger
, Eli Wallach
, Patricia Neal
, Dustin Hoffman
and Robert DeNiro
We were as serious about our work as the Russians who studied with Constantin Stanislavsky at the turn of the century. Stanislavsky wrote the book on modern acting. He talked a lot about the interior life of the character. His approach to the job in An Actor Prepares was rigorous and exacting. Our teachers demanded excellence and we all took ourselves very seriously
During our eight week "Field Period" between semesters we were supposed to do work related to our majors, and I wrangled a paying gig at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., which was—and still is—one of the top regional theatres in the country. I was in hog heaven: wonderful performers in great plays designed and lit by the top men and women in the field. This was what an expensive liberal arts education was all about.
There was only one of me, and it seemed like every department in the place had dibs. I built armor and sets, washed and repaired costumes, recorded sound and hung lights. They were doing Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Macbeth, The Inspector General, and Shaw’s Misalliance in straight repertory—which means that the show changed nightly. Actors had multiple roles and the ingenious sets were in a constant state of rotation. For a star-struck kid it was paradise.
A part of me was already leaning towards directing, but acting could still get me girls, so I spent my eight weeks in practically constant dialog with the actors and actresses on their art. The actor playing John Proctor in The Crucible was also playing Macbeth. We walked in the snow from our apartments up by the Capitol to work in southwest Washington each day. We talked about acting.
Nobody, I think, speaks more seriously of his work than an actor. And an actress, over a candle-lit dinner and a bottle of wine, can wax most eloquent on the subject as well. One woman and I played out the whole Gentleman Caller scene from The Glass Menagerie the night we met, before we even introduced ourselves. Actors are weird and wonderful, which is why we pay to watch them.
And then my big chance came. One of the actors in The Crucible had a heart attack. His understudy went on and I was asked to replace the understudy as a clerk in the courtroom scene. I had nothing much to do but sit there every night and watch and listen to wonderful actors interpreting Arthur Miller’s words.
One night when my friend playing John Proctor, the honest but adulterous hero of the play, was especially "on," Robert Foxworth, who played a lawyer and whom I respected, leaned over to me and said "Watch. This is real acting."
I was the proverbial kid in the candy store that winter. But my most important acting lesson, hell, my most important life lesson, came from the late Esther Rolle, who went on to play the mother on Good Times and spent much of her career fighting to overcome racial stereotypes on screen and in the theatre.
She was playing the superstitious maid, Tituba, in The Crucible, but she was also one of the witches in Macbeth. The two of us were sitting back stage, right before Macbeth went up, talking quietly about—what else?--acting. Heavily armed soldiers and kings trod menacingly by in the blue light of the arena’s vomitorium. The fog machine had begun to limn the moors of Scotland, and the audience felt like an enormous beast above and around us, waiting to be fed. I was spouting some watered-down Bard College reinterpretation of Stanislavky via the Actors Studio, when Esther took a drag on her cigarette and fixed me with that stern maternal gaze of hers:
"Honey, y’all kin talk about 'acting this,’ and 'reacting that,’ and 'Method’ n 'sense memory,’ but Hell, Ah jus goes out there and does it!"
Which is pretty much what I’ve been doing ever since.
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers