From Figures of Light by Carole Zucker
(New York: Plenum, 1995.)ISBN-10: 0306449498.
CZ: How did you train to be an actor?
LC: I had a very interesting road in my training, because when I first decided to become an actor I was doing something else. I was very busy trying to become a dancer. I was dancing and rehearsing dances – dancers rehearse forever, they perform very little. Dancers are not really directed the way actors are. They learn the dance and go out and perform it. Nobody coaches you on the difference between rehearsing and performing. So, when I got on stage I had all these actors’ questions. What happens if I don’t feel like it? What is my relationship to the people on stage? What is my relationship to the audience? What happens if I forget something?
I began to do showcases in New York – off, off, off Broadway, in the Bowery, in horrible little theaters where there was usually some bum getting warm, or only my mother in the audience and the director. They were wildly melodramatic plays, and they required that I really throw myself in. With these questions – whether or not they were answered – it became clear what I needed to know. At that point I decided to go to acting class.
I went first to The Stella Adler Conservatory. I began to get a sense of what it was to simply put myself in imaginary circumstances and live truthfully in them. And I enjoyed the experience of what I was doing. I thought, well, wait a minute. I want to explore more about this, so I went and studied with Sonia Moore at The Stanislavsky Studio. This was a very different, much more formal approach, and one I didn’t always understand. I tried very hard, but it didn’t seem to be the school for me. Whereupon I went to the HB Studio. I liked it so much that I thought, now I really want to go to the top here. So I auditioned for Uta Hagen’s class and got in. That was really the beginning of my formal training. The others were explorations for me.
In Uta’s classes you came on time, you were quiet when you were meant to be quiet, you had your work prepared. You did it in a very professional manner in front of the other students, and you were critiqued by her. The moment I stepped into her class, I felt that was the beginning of my being an actor.
During this time, I had been auditioning at cattle calls and got my first parts. So I was acting in the midst of training as an actor. I had always had a sense of the truth, but at this time I had very little technique. I feel kind of sorry for the folks who hired me in those years, because I’m not sure what they got.
CZ: How long did you study with Uta?
LC: I think I was in and out of Uta’s class for seven years. I would take work and then come back and study, and sometimes, I took classes while I was working. And then on account of a couple of things, probably work habits that I got into and a certain propensity in myself, I began to have problems technically with acting. I became paralyzed – perhaps it was like an acting midlife crisis. I suddenly began to question things that were being asked of me and began to attempt to produce results. I started to wonder whether that was really acting. Often when you are out in the professional world for a while there are exigencies which do not coincide with the freedom that you had when you were studying and the correct approach that you’ve been attempting with your technique. So, I became progressively paralyzed as an actor, until I felt that I was in crisis. I thought, “Something is really wrong. I’ve got to find out what acting is, and start again.”
I had been hearing about the Sanford Meisner technique and The Neighborhood Playhouse, and I decided that I would try to study with Sandy. This was at a time when I was successful as an actress, so when I went to Sandy, I told him, “I realize that I am not a beginner, but I would like to be admitted to your beginner’s class. I promise I won’t put on airs, I won’t try to show off, I’m coming as an acolyte. I want to go back to first principles and find out what acting is. And I explained my crisis to him, and he said, “Never try to learn how to act when you are performing.” I said “Well, I’m guilty. I’m submitting to you.”
CZ: What were the basic differences between Uta Hagen and Sandy Meisner’s teachings?
LC: First of all, both these teachers were two of the greatest teachers that I’ve ever had in my life. They really explored the art of acting from a very original point of view. Uta at the time was writer her book Respect for Acting, and you can tell from reading that book how deeply and personally she had delved into her own struggle as an actress and how she had attempted to draw from her own life solutions for others who were struggling with the same things. She did, for instance, studies of how to portray cold and heat, how to wake up on stage, how to wait, how to talk on the telephone – very basic technical exercises. She devised an exercise in which you would bring in what was in the pockets of the character you were playing, or what was in her purse. It was always a fun exercise to do, and it was a great revelation. Uta would say, keep a book on your character, as you’re preparing. What kind of music does the character like best? Where does the character go to school? What would he wear to school? What were his favorite colors? What was his favorite birthday gift? She would say, “This may not appear on stage, but you will carry it in with you as a cloak of authenticity when you walk onto a set. You will have fleshed out the character, you will have painted a three-dimensional picture that will ground you.”
For emotional preparation, Uta had her own theory about an actor having an obstacle in a scene. She said you have an objective in a scene, and you have an obstacle. And you define both, the objectives as that thing you want and the obstacle as that thing which you are pitted against. Working with the obstacle always brought up strong feelings. One of the things that happened to me when I got out in the “field” Is that I began to form a bad habit. I would get so hell-bent on performing the objective that I would often railroad my own impulses or things that were really happening in a scene. I would decide what moments in a play meant, where the big moment came. I was choreographing my performance, which is the way a lot of actors work. I became confused about this.
At that point, I was away from Uta, out on my own as a professional actor and achieving some success. But there was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that somewhere I had gone off the track. When I came to sandy, one of the things he taught me was that when you perform a play, you are going into unknown territory and you don’t know what you’re going to meet. If you place your attention on the other person, you will always know where you’re at, you will always be in negotiation with them. That was really the beginning of my saying, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t just perform a play like a steamroller. I should show up in the first scene and then permit myself not to know what’s going to happen; I’m on a ride.” That’s what his training was rigorously based on, and he did many beautiful exercises to get you antennae out, to sensitize and fine-tune you.
CZ: Can you give me an example an exercise you did in Meisner’s class that was important for you?
LC: I remember one exercise, the repetition exercise, where you have to repeat a phrase with the other actor; it’s magnificent. There’s so little stimuli when you perform this exercise; you’re free to notice very small things that happen. I remember I was doing the exercise with another actor; I thought I was doing rather well. And the actor sitting in a chair opposite me suddenly tipped his chair back and put his hand behind his head in a gesture of boredom. I just kept going, doing the exercise. Sandy stood up and said, “I am absolutely appalled. A gigantic change just happened in the person sitting opposite you and you didn’t acknowledge it.” I said, “What do you mean? He’s just sitting here.” My experience was telling me that there was no change, because I was so little attuned to body language, to the power of the behavior that was happening in front of me. Sandy worked with me very diligently on this and gave me an eye and an ear that were sharp and accurate. This technique allowed me to play with a lot of variety, and, I think, with renewed courage. Just being tuned in to the other person, and knowing that your next action comes from what they do and not out what you decided, gave me a mission to be honest in the plays and the films that I did and brought my acting to a new level.
CZ: At this point in your life, what are your feelings about all of your training?
LC: I’ve come to discover that there’s value in all of it. I’m very grateful for the passion and the clarity of my two great teachers. I’ve been able to sort through them by returning to the first principles that I’d been taught. Very often acting is Zen, you have to completely avoid the thing you are trying to do. Just as if someone asks you if you know a joke, suddenly, you don’t know one. It’s exactly the same mechanism in the mind. If someone says, “Well, the script says you have to cry here,” if you head right for crying, that’s the last thing that’s ever going to come out of you. You have to perform a kind mental acrobatics on yourself. That is what all this teaching is meant to help you with. People have different ways of doing it.
I used to try to be very correct in my technique. A director once said to me when I was very stuck trying to perform a scene, “Nobody is going to know how you got this scene.” And that’s true. If I have to run around the block, if I have to ask everybody to give me a moment alone, whatever is is I have to do, that’s the order of the day. And whatever my technique has brought me to, whatever is working, that is what I will use. Whether it’s Meisner’s technique or Uta Hagen’s technique or my own gestalt, that’s what I have to do. So, I feel that ultimately the technique is there to serve the artist. And just the way Uta did, and Sandy did, I will have to find my own way of working.
CZ: I suppose that’s something you arrive at after years of experience.
LC: One of the first things Sandy told me was, “It takes 25 years to make an actor. I’m not surprised you’re confused, you’ve only been at it for 15.” He was so right. This culture needs to know that good acting requires real maturity, because character in life is no different from the character on the stage. Actors stand for things, and they have to stand for things in their lives before they can be really good actors. The development of character takes time. Acting techniques are meant to develop the inner life of a person and to help an actor so he reveals that life in imaginary circumstances.
CZ: Where does discipline and control come into all of this?
LC: I believe it’s the biggest thing missing in American acting. What we’re great at is this kind of organic, shoot-from-the-hip, react-off-the-other-person, casual arena of acting. What we’re not so good at is the control – voice work, interpretation, clarity, being able to use the text – to be able to the text – to be able to speak it, to know that my voice has the range to handle it, to know that I have enough breath control for it, to know that I can make it loud enough to be heard. These disciplines are disdained in this country. It’s what the English are so good at, and also why we love their theater.
CZ: How did you break into film? Was it a deliberate career move?
LC: I played a reporter, Kay Eddy, in All the President’s Men (1976.) My scene3 was with Woodward and Bernstein, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. My life in the movies started doing that scene with them.
I was doing a play, Present Laughter, by Noël Coward, in Washington, D.C. As I walked out of a matinée one day, they were filming All the President’s Men in the street. So I thought, “Maybe I’ll go over and see if I can get a walk-on or something. Just to find something else to act, to do.” I went over to the office and I put my name down. Then I got a call from the casting person who had seen the play, saying, “would you come in and meet Alan Pacula? There is a speaking role that has only a couple of lines. He said, “Would you audition with Bob Redford?” And I said, “Of course I will.” I met Bob; I auditioned for him. I remember this so well, it’s such a classic actor’s scene: I was in this little hotel in Washington, and I was making myself a horrible little lunch on an old stove, just thinking, “I’m never going to get anywhere, this is all a futile effort, and blah, blah, blah.” The producer called me and said, “We would really like you to be part of our movie.” I was just so thrilled. I would have died rather than not do a good job for them.
CZ: Did you have any difficulty adjusting to the camera?
LC: The biggest thing about film acting is that the physical restriction is just unbelievable. Let’s say I’m talking to you, and in order for the camera to get a good angle, I can’t really look at you. You need to see my face at some point, so I have to figure out where in the speech I can turn. Or let’s say I’m in a shot where my hand comes up, and I cleared my hair out of my ear in an earlier shot – which is the one we are keeping – we want to make sure I do it again, exactly then. If I hold a paper when I have to read something very important to you, the audience can’t see it if it’s down here. So I have to hold it at a totally unnatural height, like in advertisements for a product, but not appear unnatural doing it.
Film acting is like being in a tech rehearsal for a theater actor. It’s those awful couple of days when they have given you the actual props, the actual coat, your hat. Something is too big, too small, something is not quite right. But on film there is no time to change it, and you receive everything right before you go. In other words, you rehearse with a coffee cup, but there’s nothing in it, because you can’t spill anything on the tablecloth and your costume while you’re rehearsing. So you never have the liquid until you actually go. Suddenly, there’s coffee in the cup – you’re playing the scene and all you can think is, “Shoot! This is hot!”
I remember this effected me a lot in Sidney Lumet’s films because Sidney often has people eating, but we wouldn’t eat the food until we actually got to the shot. I suddenly found my mouth full of something either too wet or dry or too difficult to chew, or I was afraid something was in my teeth. Sidney only does one or two takes of a scene, so we had to deal with the food fast, and that became part of the scene. Tech rehearsal is film, so there is a lot more improvisatory skill required to be a good film actor. Actors never have it all together until the moment they’re ready to shoot. Then they bring in the pencil with the lead in it.
CZ: You’e worked with Sidney Lumet on three occasions: Prince of the City (1981,) The Verdict (1982,) and Daniel (1983.) How does he rehearse with actors?
LC: I’ll tell you exactly how he works. It’s brilliant, and every film director should sit up and take note. Sidney is an example to us all. He brings his films in on time and under budget. At the end of each day, everybody goes home at a decent hour and has a good dinner a good night’s sleep for the next day’s work. I took such a cold bath after those three pictures, when I went to work for somebody else. I was on the set 19 hours, no sleep, no regular meals. Ugh!
Sidney most of all lets his actors know from the beginning that the whole thing depends on you, which creates an incredible atmosphere to work in because the actors are usually treated as second-class citizens. He never refers to us as “talent.” He enlists you as a colleague.
Sidney rehearses; he puts three weeks aside, and the first week he lets everybody rip. He encourages it. You can chew the scenery, you can over-act, you can talk loud, you can ask questions, you can emote, you can wallow, you can whatever. Then the second week, he lets you know how the film is going to be orchestrated and what the tone of the piece is going to be. He’ll say, “Now everybody got their rocks off, and you’re all loosened up, and you kind of know what you’re doing. Now we need to figure out where the performance is going to lie.”
One thing he did on Prince of the City that was so extraordinary was that he sat everybody around this huge Italian banquet hall. He had the sets that he masking-taped down to the floor, and he had everybody get up and do their scene. He went from one person to another with the cameraman, as if he was filming the scene, and all the actors involved got to see all the scenes they weren’t in. You got to see the scenes that were before you and after your own. So you knew why Sidney was saying, “You’re going to really have to hold back in your scene. It’s got to be very intense, very quiet. Because before you there’s this big chase, this shoot-out, it’s loud.” He brought you into the whole, to seeing what the tapestry was going to look like, and you saw exactly where your piece fit. He wasn’t going to waste time on the set with you saying, “But I feel like it this way, I want to do it loud.” He had you positioned precisely in the orchestration of that scene, and you understood why. You didn’t send any time fighting about whose interpretation was right because he’d really enlisted you as a colleague and you trusted him. You wanted to give him what the big picture needed.
CZ: What if you disagree with him?
LC: You can talk to Sidney if you disagree with him. Sidney knows how to answer actors’ questions. He knows how to keep actors fresh. What he does in rehearsal is he watches; he’s a great watcher and a great listener. He says that what he observes is your hottest performance in rehearsal, then he tries to figure out how to tell you to get there, so he’s armed with that when you’re on the set.
He does a brilliant thing. He often gives you a very small physical thing to do when you arrive on the set the day of your shooting. He’ll say, “Oh there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned – you’ve been up all night. Maybe you dozed off for an hour.” He’ll give you one little physical thing, and actors love that. You are so busy thinking, “Oh, this is really fun now,” it relaxes your mind, so you aren’t so intensely focused on “Will I fulfill this scene?”
CZ: Your role as Caitlin in The Verdict was relatively small but very crucial.
LC: Yes, a powerful role. I was doing an Irish accent, and I worked a long time with a voice coach to do that performance. My text was “yes,” and “no,” until the very last moment of the scene. And my job in that picture was to be open enough to allow all that was going on in me to come out in those brief responses.
Now imagine you have the pivotal moment in the film, and you’ve got to go from A to Z in that scene. You know you have got to get to a certain pitch at the end of the scene; it’s like your whole life is breaking open. That’s a hell of a thing to walk in at 5 a.m. And know you have to do and not clutch. That scene is one of the best pieces of acting I ever did. I discovered something which I still try to do with everything in me, with every part I do. Because I believe that great acting happens when what is going on in the scene dovetails exactly with something that you have to do in your life – it is your life in that moment. And that girl was making a confession. I worked for months to figure out for myself what confession would be absolutely impossible for me to make, that I absolutely couldn’t make in front of everybody. And I confessed that in that scene. And the event was cathartic for me. I made the confession, and I’ve never had to deal with it again. I did it! Now, you may see the scene and have your interpretation of what I confessed. Another person may have another interpretation. But what came out in that scene, universally, was a woman really confessing.
There’s something interesting that happened in the performance of that part. I was very frightened that morning. I’d done one picture Sidney (Prince of the City,) and this was my second opportunity with him. I would have died rather than not do a good job. The part was extremely intense. And I wanted to get everything out and not go home with it.
Sidney always calls you by your character’s name when you arrive on the set, which is very sweet, and he came up to me as I started the first take, and said very softly in my ear, “Caitlin, just talk, just open your mouth and talk.” Which is, of course, the nature of a confession. The hardest thing is to open your mouth and talk. So I kept that with me. I just had to open my mouth and talk. The effort to do that was so moving.
CZ: Lumet tends to work with classical editing patterns, which means he breaks the scenes into relatively short shots. How does that effect your emotional arc in a scene?
LC: You have to realize what the shot is for. Your master shot is probably for the opening of the scene and the end of the scene. You are going to have the two-shot or medium shot, then over the shoulder to each person, then the single or the close-up sot, and whatever else they decide to do. And that’s going to take all day, maybe two days. And you are going to have to sustain. So you have to know where the emphasis is in the shot. Sidney had designed four different shots for (the confession) scene. He said, “O.K., we’re going to do four moves in, closer, closer, closer, closer.” So I knew that I had to do the scene four times. And on the third move-in, we were really cooking, we went over the top. It was a beautiful, beautiful day. Everyone in the courtroom stood up for me. It was a great moment. And, he said, “O.K., let’s move in.” And I turned to him and said, “Sidney, I’m willing to do anything for you, but I just gave everything that I have, and I don’t know how I’m going to do it.” And he came over to me, and said, “That’s O.K., we’ll go into the next scene. New deal.” I thought that was very telling of Sidney’s knowledge of acting – he realized he could get the closer angle, which was his plan for the scene – but why the hell do it if the actor had given 150%? You really weren’t going to get the same performance, even though you were going to get your angle. Not a lot of directors would have given up their plan and just gone with what happened.
CZ: Let’s move on to Daniel. It’s based on the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case, fictionalized in Doctorow’s novel The Book of Daniel. How much research did you do into the Rosenbergs and the period? Do you think it’s necessary to do a lot of research for a role?
LC: That’s a good question. I think actors are very different on that score. I feel that to play any part, most of what I required is inside me. Whatever I know about the world that the character inhabits, I have to inhabit that world. And I have to bring that world my experience of my own world. Because I was doing something very specific like Daniel – it was fictional but it was based on historical characters, and everybody knew it – I had to know what was up at that time. The person who gave me most of my information was Sidney Lumet. Sidney was called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and he knew a lot about the period. I also read a great deal about it.
I felt a great deal for Ethel Rosenberg. She would consistently maintain her innocence and her dignity. She’s one of my great, great heroes. I absolutely dedicated my performance of her, because I felt she had no spokesperson. I said to Sidney before I began, “What do you think, was she guilty or innocent?” He said, “It doesn’t matter, you’re going to play her the same way. You have to step into her shoes, whether she was guilty or not.”
But I did do quite a bit of research on that film. I worked about 40 hours with my voice coach to try to figure out how she talked. I felt it was really important to the credibility of the role that she be placed in the context of her Russian Orthodox, Jewish family. Being cast in that role, I felt a great responsibility to be authentic. And not being Jewish, not being of a Russian background, not coming from that period, I tried very hard to enter it as much as possible, so that nothing would interfere with people hearing her story.
CZ: The way the script is structured and the film is shot gives absolute sympathy to these people. It’s very wrenching to watch the scenes leading to their execution, and the execution itself.
LC: It’s brutal. I found it hard to play for the same reason. And I discovered in doing it that when you play someone who you know is going to die, you’re always overcome. You’re always overcome by the aura of any script, and you try to deny it. You play Othello and say, “I can’t play Othello because I feel so jealous, jealous of the other actors, jealous of the director.” It sounds funny, but it is a phenomenon that happens over and over again. I thought I couldn’t play the part in Daniel because everything seemed futile. I felt like I couldn’t act. I drove Sidney quite crazy, because I kept saying, “I’ve got to rehearse this again,” He’d say, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, you are doing beautifully.” I’d say, “No, I’m not doing enough; I’m not there yet.” And it’s what I experienced during the entire piece, this accumulation of “I’m not doing enough,” which was coming right out of the script. Ethel couldn’t do enough, she was totally helpless, and this thing was snowballing over her. She was a target, there’s no doubt about it.
CZ: Can you talk about how you analyze a script and develop a character, relating it to the role of Rochelle Isaacson in Daniel.
LC: What I do is, first, look at the overall script and say, “This is a story about…” I make one sentence of what the story is about. Then I take the character and I say, “What this character wants in the story is…”and I make one sentence. “Rochelle wants…” Then I lift the story of Rochelle out of the script. I take Rochelle’s scenes and I type them out and staple them together: Rochelle’s story. I describe the story as if I were going to tell it to you in one sentence: “This is the story about a woman who…” The first job I feel I have as an actor is to say. “You could read the story in a library. What am I going to give you that you couldn’t read in a library, reading this script?” SI have to get rid of what you could get in the library. My responsibility is the second thing, which is: What is it I am really doing? Not what is Rochelle doing, but what am I doing? So, let’s say this scene is – just an abstract scene I’ve made up – a character coming to get money from his father. But what I am really doing, what I feel is the essence of that scene, is that I’m coming to get restitution. The third step that I have to do is : What does that mean to me? Why do I have to get restitution? So that is so important to me that I don’t care if a million people see me do it. I’m going to go up there and do it no matter what. That’s where the real work of acting lies: I have to think carefully about that. That’s what I have to rehearse, getting restitution. So, I do these steps and what I fell happens is that the audience sees me getting the money, but they feel me getting restitution.
In life, we never do what we say we’re doing, that’ why drama works so well. There is always something else going on underneath, some people call it subtext. What I say may be the opposite of what I am really doing. I have to be clear, even though I’m saying something entirely different. That’s why Strasberg says that the text is your enemy. Because you are not there to act the text. You are there to bring out – with all the force of your being – the action of the play. The through-action of the play, as Aristotle said – there’s only one from beginning to the end. That’s true. It’s quite a trick, especially for young actors. It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.
CZ: Can you think of an example from a film you’ve worked on where the words are different from the internal action?
LC: Sidney is wonderful at directing this way. There’s a scene in The Verdict in which James Mason has a black actor on the stand, a doctor who has come to give expert testimony for the other side. James is supposed to really nail him, put him down. So he did the scene, he was unctuous, wonderfully evil; he was fine. I thought we would go onto the next scene. Sidney sat and thought a long time, and he looked up, and said, “James dear” – he always called you dear – “I want you to do it again. This time I want you to try something different. I want you to thank this man from the bottom of your heart for coming here today, for taking the time to help everyone in this courtroom get to the truth of this case.” Well, Mason became evil personified. You knew why he was the highest-paid lawyer in Boston and why he had a following of 25 young kids who wanted to work in his office. Because this man was a gentleman; he was the model of courtesy, he was magnanimous; you couldn’t find a hole in him, he was perfect. The guy on the stand started to squirm, he started to flub his lines. He was being nailed to the ground with such precision and such tact! Sidney’s direction released James from the obligation to act out the text and made if a far more powerful scene. That was great directing. Because an actor will always want to act out the text. It’s the easy thing to do; it’s the obvious thing to do.
CZ: Did you generally watch dailies while you’re shooting?
LC: No, I don’t go to dailies unless I feel there is something I need to adjust or if the director says to me, “I want you to come and see something.” Or if I really want to see whether something I’m doing is coming across. But I don’t feel I can be inside something and witness it from without at the same time. Some actors can; I’m too critical, too much of a perfectionist. I don’t even like to go see the films I’m in right away. I’ll see them in a year or two, when I feel I can really enjoy them. But I’m too close to them when I’m making them. I would tear myself down, and why? If I had a great time doing it, and it’s done, what can I do? I can’t fix it, and I’ll want to. You know you did the best you could at that time with the technique you had at hand. Sometimes a film comes out a year later, as in the case of Prince of the City, almost two years after we did it. I thought I was a much better actor by then. You say, “I wish I had that opportunity again.” Why put yourself through that? So I tend not look at it while I’m doing it; it just hamstrings me.
CZ: Going back to Daniel, I remember when I was a kid going to the Smithsonian Institute and seeing the Jello box on display that was supposedly used to transmit material between the Rosenbergs and David Greenglas. I’ve always remembered that box in connection with the Rosenbergs.
LC: That’s exactly the kind of emotional memory Uta Hagen talks about, something small but extremely significant. Something on the floor, or a stain on a table cloth. She says you remember by some very mundane object, and that memory will trigger the whole emotion. She says when you have to act a very traumatic moment, sometimes the big moment is not when the emotion hits. It’s not the moment of death,it’s when you have to take the key to the car out of your dead husband’s pocket. It’s something that surrounds the event that is so mundane yet expresses all the pathos of the situation. I think it’s really true.
CZ: The execution scene is very difficult to watch. What was it like to film?
LC: It was like bondage. It was amazing to have it actually happen to me, because in the dress and all the straps, the humiliation of it was worse than the fear. It was the humiliation and the sexual nature of it.
Here’s something I can add about film acting – people always say, :”You have no audience when you’re acting for film.” But that is not true. “There are a lot of people on the set when you work in film, and they are absolutely your audience. How the set is run is so important to how an actor performs, and Lumet’s sets are exemplary. Those technicians have read the script, so they know what is going on that day. They know if an actor has serious emotional work to do, and they are respectful. The days that we were did the execution scenes and the scenes saying goodbye to the children, you could have heard a pin drop on the set from the moment we arrived. Everybody knew how difficult it was going to be and how horrendous.
A funny story about when Mandy Patinkin gets strapped into the electric chair. He was the first one to do the scene, just as Julius Rosenberg was the first one to be executed. And everyone was trying to do it as quickly as possible, because it was so grim. He got in the chair, they pretended to pull the switch, he started to shake in the chair, and the back of the chair broke. (Laughs) Oh Lord, poor Mandy – he had the hood on, it was one of the worst things I ever saw. He didn’t know what had happening. You can get pretty paranoid when you get strapped in an electric chair. (Laughs); it’s a game called trust. But it broke the ice, so the rest of the day we were shaking off the tension.
CZ: It’s very effecting when he collapses on his way to the chair.
LC: That was incredible. When you act you get an education about a world you might otherwise never know anything about. Now I feel I know something of what it was like to be part of that whole situation in the 1950’s. I know where I would have stood if I was this person. That woman’s life had a big effect on me. It took three zaps to kill her, not for no reason. She was defying everyone.
CZ: But what happens if your sympathies are not with the character?
LC: Then you don’t take the part. And chances are you won’t get the part. Because you play roles that have resonance for you, where you can literally say – with every experience of your life leading up to that moment – “If this was happening to me, I would…” Otherwise you cannot play with authenticity, you can’t play with any kind of commitment to the part.
When I did Places in the Heart (1984,) I had a long talk with Robert Benton. My marriage vows were based on the fact that if my husband was unfaithful I would leave him. But in Places I was being asked to play a part where I take my husband, Ed Harris, back after he’s made love to Amy Madigan. I had to really talk that over with Benton, because I felt that I had to truly understand that. Especially because in the moment in which I took Ed back I had no words, no speech, I had no way to get there. I had to be there, I had to communicate that silently and fully. I didn’t want to play a part in which I felt I was doing something that was against my own values.
I grew up by doing that part, in the sense that I took a leap in my own life. I took in the fact that there are things that can happen in a marriage, where indeed you would say, “We’re going to wipe the slate clean. We’re going to step over that and go on.” I really possessed that by the end of the movie.
I also nearly lost that part because Benton wanted me to be nude in a scene. I didn’t feel that it was warranted, and I said, “No, I can’t do this.” He said, “Well, I have to think about it then,” because it was a very personal script for him. And I waited 24 hours thinking, “Maybe I’m not going to be able to do this film. “ But I stood by my conviction. I felt I really wouldn’t be able to enter into the spirit of it. He called back and he said, “O.K., we’ll do it your way.”
CZ: That was very courageous of you.
LC: It was. It might not be right for every situation, but you have to define what you can really get behind. You are a symbol on film for all people. The great ethic of acting is that you are going to do what you said you were going to do, no matter what. If I had promised that I would get up there and offer forgiveness in that scene, then I had better bloody well do that. That’s all we offer to people witnessing the story. So that they can say, “If that woman can get up there and do that when she has all this pain inside her, I can do that.” You set an example, you’re a symbol, so you had better be able to get behind it. Otherwise I think it shows. You’re very translucent when you’re on film. You are a figure of light; your soul comes through. You can tell, easily, when someone is really doing it or not.
CZ: In discussing the ethical dimension of acting, the famous example is Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1924.) Dreyer did tortuous things to Falconeeti so she could get into the suffering of the character. And she ended up, after that experience, spending most of her life institutionalized. Of course, we don’t know what her mental state was before she did the film, or what actually happened afterwards to her, but it’s an archetypal story of something so disastrous that can happen when an actor embraces a role very completely.
LC: Listen, I feel very strongly, and I teach my students this: either you are an actor or you’re not. Even beginning actors with no training can put themselves in imaginary circumstances with all the truth of their being.
For the most part, going to that extreme, is bull, that’s someone who is not an actor. You don’t have to cut your leg off at the hip to play a paraplegic. People say to me constantly, “Did you do a lot of research into psychiatry to play the psychiatrist in House of Games (1987)? I say “Look, a psychiatrist is someone who listens and who helps.” End of sentence! There are 10 people on my block who are psychiatrists and they couldn’t be more different than the other.
Taking on a role is a very tricky thing. And one of the things that technique is based on is protecting the human mind. There are people we know who are locked up in institutions who declare themselves to be Jesus Christ. The point is, as Sandy Meisner very elegantly puts it it’s not that you are Jesus Christ, it’s “as if” you are Jesus Christ. And there is a world of difference. Technique makes that extremely clar – you train your mind to think in those terms so that you yourself remain intact. That’s what personalizing a role means, bringing yourself to that situation, not crowding out your own identity with another one. People say to me, “I don’t know how you do what you do; I couldn’t lie to save my life.” People think I practice telling lies all day until I’m so good at it that you can’t tell the difference. But that’s exactly what acting is not. As any acting teacher knows, the most difficult part of the art is the struggle to bring out the truth of your being, the fullest dimension of yourself. Sandy constantly said to his students, “I don’t want to hear about how the pirates stole your wallet, I want imagination based on truth.”
It’s amazing how people will avoid using themselves in art, because we instinctively know that everything we do is a self-portrait. Acting is the art of self-revelation. We want to avoid that knowledge like the plague because of all the ambivalence we have about ourselves. We are not good enough, we are not good-looking enough, we’re not whatever enough, and if what we are doing is a self-portrait, everybody is going to see us. Oh my God, what will happen then? Technique is there to enable us to step forward and shine and remove all that fear, remove that tension, the self-consciousness, the defenses, all the reasons we say can’t step out. But what a great example we set when we do.
Acting is an art like any other, and art requires practice and control. Artistry requires craftsmanship. But the instrument is not some object removed from us; the instrument is us, and that’s where the confusion lies. Because when you deal with training an actor, you’re training an actor’s mind. You’re creating thought patterns, you’re creating habits – habits of work, of thinking, of behavior. You’re dealing with a human being. And that’s where it gets tricky, you want to deal correctly with that human being so that you focus solely on training an actor. To me the other is like telling a sculptor he has to mutilate himself in order to learn how to chop away at a block. An actor has to consider himself an instrument. He doesn’t have to mutilate himself in order to play a crazy person. I have a wonderful voice coach, Liz Dixon, who says if you’re playing someone who’s uptight, you can’t play her if you’re really uptight. You have to be open and give the appearance of uptightness. A magician doesn’t really need to disappear, he just needs to direct your attention.
CZ: House of Games is very different from the more naturalistic films you’ve been in. How did you go about developing the character of Margaret? What was the character’s “through-action”?
LC: The character of Margaret wanted to serve; that’s what I played in that film. She said, “I just want to do good.” She wanted to serve, and that was her tragic flaw. She wanted to serve to the point that she couldn’t bear not being of service. A kid comes into her office and says, “I’m going to dies. What can you do about it? What do you know?: She can’t bear the accusation. She has to help him. If she can’t help him, her life is a lie: she doesn’t know anything, and she’s not of service. So, she has to help him and that’s what drives her to the “house of games.”
CZ: Why does she have this obsession with being of service?
LC: Well, that’s where the work comes in for the actor, what does that mean to me? My imagination had a lot to feed on there, because being of service is the devotion of my life. And on a personal level, I found that was a great deal to think about. That part had tremendous resonance for me, because I understand what it means to just want to do good. I think it is a very human motivation for living.
CZ: But don’t you need to know where that need comes from in the character?
LC: All you have to know to play that person is that you are compelled to serve. And the “compelled” part comes from, what does it mean to me? How important is it that I serve? If you need to up the stakes of a script, a scene, whatever, you just need to find a better reason. If you have to do something and it’s a chore, you could do it or not do it. But if you have to do something and it’s a mission, you have to find a very good reason to do it. If I have to come back in this house that’s burning to rescue Willa (Lindsay’s eldest daughter,) I don’t give a damn how many people are looking at me. If I have to come back to the house in order to get an extra key, that’s quite a different thing. So in a script like this where the woman is compulsive, you have to find a driving reason for her to want to serve that badly, to that extreme. That’s that technique would require. She risks her life to help this kid; she goes to the “house of games” with these thugs. All you really have to know to play her – you don’t have to have sat in a psychiatrist’s office, you don’t have to study psychiatrists – you just have to know what it’s like to need to serve so badly. And the effect of doing that is the portrayal of someone who doesn’t think enough of herself, a person who feels her life’s a lie, a person who searches outside of herself for her own value.
CZ: Margaret is an extremely controlled, repressed character. Was that difficult to play?
LC: People say, “Was that a really fun part to play” And I say, “No.” A woman who wants to dedicate her life to service is a passionate person, but Margaret couldn’t show anything. The “obstacle,” as Uta would say, was so powerful. It’s as if every day you went out to dig a ditch, and someone kept holding the shovel.
David (Mamet’s) direction to me constantly was “Calm down, calm down, just talk in a normal voice, don’t show them anything.” The essence of that character and why it appears so stylized, is that she couldn’t, she couldn’t, she couldn’t. My instinct was to let the variety out, let her be…something. But the essence of her was that she was restricted. To play her was quite an acting challenge.
CZ: What about the language of the script? It’s very ritualized and repetitious, and you’re speaking almost in a sing-song voice. You must deal with it differently than you would a naturalistic text.
LC: Well sure, if there’s a formal approach to something, there are many ways to justify that internally. If it’s a poem, there are many ways to justify that language. Uta gave me a great clue to this; she said, “Poetry is the most specific language that you’ll ever speak.” In other words, when Shakespeare says, “Make me a willow cabin at your gate, and fall upon my soul in your house,” she says, “What Shakespeare’s saying is that it’s not a log cabin, it’s not a concrete block cabin. It’s a willow cabin, and only a willow cabin could possibly express the unutterable dedication of that girl. Make me a willow cabin.” God! It’s so unbelievably delicate and so poignant an image. That was one of the greatest perceptions that Uta gave me, and something I’ve held with me always, that a poetic text is more specific than anything. And therefore you need to deal with it specifically; you have to give yourself specific reasons.
If you live a life of service, you have to remove yourself. If you’re living for something higher than yourself, you are not the point. David kept saying, “Don’t show ’em, Don’t show ’em, you are not the point.
In a way you are very self-effacing when you live a life of service. Your existence is not in color; you’re in black and white, maybe just gray. Because everybody else is the point, that’s what you’re in service to.
David’s language was terribly appropriate and gave the film a very strange life. David pared down everything to the essentials. That’s why the film is so powerful and has such unity. Nothing is extraneous, not even the expression of the actors. It’s bizarre, too, but highly poetic. David used to say to me when we first talked about acting, “Everyone thinks my plays are kitchen plays, but they’re operas!” And that gave me a great clue to David’s work. Joe Mantegna appears to be, “Oh I’m just shootin’ the shit with Margaret here.” But really, he’s singing a song.
Battleship gray – Margaret. I used to study fine arts with James Ackerman at Harvard; he talked about the Lindesfarne Gospels. Monks who wore hair-shirts and went barefoot, senses deprived, did these incredible illuminations. They’d do the capital letter in gold, and these beautiful, very elaborate pictures. I remembered that image when I was playing Margaret because I felt that longing was inside her. But the outside was this monk with a rope-belt, cloth that was rough. She was in this life of service, but inside was an explosion, this passion, this life, like an octopus coming out of her. But that was not what the world saw.
CZ: You teach acting classes; what is the most important lesson for future actors to know?
LC: The great example I can talk about as an actor is that most people spend their lives – and I’m including myself – taking an average. In other words, “Well, I’d really like to, but this is all I can do. If only I could save my mother, or if only I hadn’t done that.” We’re filled with wishes. And actors are meant to get out there and take themselves to the edge of the edge of the edge. To go as far as they can. Not to take an average. I say to my students, “Don’t take an average. If you’re coming in to cheer someone up, if you’re coming in to lay down the law, if you’re coming to get restitution, you get restitution! Let the playwright stop you. But until the last breath that you have, you do that with all the strength of your being.” Because everybody needs to be told that they can shoot for the dream. That’s what all of our stories are about. That’s what all our myths are for. To take us to the next level, to say life can be better. You can bust through the thing you never thought you could. You can change tomorrow what you thought you couldn’t today. That’s why actors are leaders, taking people, as Joseph Campbell would say, “into the forest of original experience.” They’re going in themselves and coming back to recount what it was like, and we can witness them.
That’s why when you see great acting, something happens which changes you, which is so overwhelming,you don’t have words. When you give a great performance you don’t feel it was yours, you feel it came through you. That’s the Zen of it. All you can do is prepare correctly so that, hopefully, you have the privilege of delivering a message that came from above.