- In Character: Actors Acting
- Bulfinch, 264 pp.
The Craft of Acting
Imagine 32 famous actors looking you straight in the eye and flirting with you. (Marlee Matlin! Natasha Richardson! Swoon!)
Howard Schatz is a fine art, fashion, and celebrity photographer whose work has appeared in Time, Vogue, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, Elle, The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and many other magazines. He has published 15 previous books.
For In Character, he presented an array of stage and film stars with assignments (scenarios, situations, predicaments) and photographed them as they acted them out—mostly in extreme closeup. The faces range from superstar familiar (e.g., James Earl Jones, Patrick Stewart, Richard Dreyfuss) to actors you may never have heard of, if you don’t attend Off-Broadway shows (Ben Hammer, Mark Margolis, Austin Pendleton, Daniel Sunjata).
2. You are a little girl telling your mother that your twin brother said a dirty word.
Some of the tasks are classic (“You are a married man begging your wife for one more chance”; “You are a soccer dad whose daughter has just scored the winning goal in a championship game”), even obvious (Peter Falk does “tough, impatient homicide detective telling a suspect, ‘You lie to me one more time….’ ”).
Some present more of a challenge: Robert Vaughn does “a pediatrician with a bright five-year-old cancer patient who is making up an intriguing fairy tale.” Harris Yulin assays “an elderly resident in a nursing home, feeling the vague, unfamiliar stirrings of lust.” David Carradine is “a senator greeting a big campaign donor you secretly can’t stand.” Buck Henry does a fine job as “a middle manager listening to one last excuse from an inept employee you’re firing (though you’re actually wondering if you should have used a three wood instead of a driver on the eighteenth hole yesterday).”
There is nothing in these shots but what the actors can place before the camera: no dramatic side or backlighting, no sets, no props. A lot of face shots include hands: folded, gripping, waving, touching or cradling the face, waving and pointing. Backgrounds are always pure white.
Schatz does not stick to age-appropriate or gender-appropriate assignments. Michael Lerner does “a four-year-old who’s just been told: ‘You can’t have the Kill or Be Killed video game, and if you don’t stop crying, I’ll really give you something to cry about.’ ” Ben Stein gets to do “You are a mother whose daughter has just declared she’s broken up with her street musician boyfriend and plans to marry an investment banker.” F. Murray Abraham, bearded and bald, gets to be “a teenage girl chosen to go backstage at a Justin Timberlake concert.”
An even 100 actors are listed in the credits as having participated, but not all appear in their full-page, closeup glory. A few are relegated to one or two-inch square images, nine or sixteen to a page, that serve as chapter breaks under general headings called Intermissions (e.g., Fear, Suspicion, Anger, Flirtation, Over-the-Top). On the other hand, folks who have their own big spreads turn up in those little sets as well (Robert Klein, Danny Glover, Ileana Douglas, Ellen Burstyn, and Fran Drescher score high here.)
Curiously, by more than a 3-to-1 margin, there are far more men than women. Very few of the latter qualify as glamour queens; kudos especially go to Ellen Burstyn and Rosemary Harris for participating in all their elder yet elegant glory.
The shots are evenly divided, roughly, between color and black-and-white. Most are head-and-shoulders only, a few include upper chest, and a rare shot or series includes the waist or upper thighs.
Most of the photos present the assignment in one potent image. This can be especially entertaining and impressive when three contrasting tasks are shown in a single two-page spread; for example, Kelsey Grammer doing “You are a CFO under indictment for looting your company’s pension plan, with your high-priced lawyer at your side, hearing ‘not guilty!’ ”; then “You are a CPA at a strip joint”; and finally “You are a doting grandfather suddenly discovering that your four-year-old granddaughter is no longer on the park swing where you saw her just moments ago.” I got a special kick out of a Dylan Baker triptych: “You are a loser at a bar, asking a pretty girl what her sign is . . . a high school jock bullying a nerd . . . a man hearing that the little girl you hit when you ran a red light has just died.”
In a few cases, one is treated to a series of different poses in a connected narrative. Martin Donovan gets three shots to portray “You are a father watching your baby daughter take her first step, fall down, get up again, take two wobbling steps, fall, get up again, giggle, and waddle across the room.” In a series of seven, Melissa Leo embodies an even more lengthy and complicated story: “You are a thirty-year-old mother of two being flirted with by a good-looking woman at a PTA meeting . . . hearing from your daughter that there’s a rumor you’re gay . . . trying to decide whether to tell your husband about the rumor before he hears it from someone else . . . making a joke about the whole thing with your husband . . . hearing him say that he thinks maybe you are gay because you’re so boring in bed . . . telling him if that’s the way he feels maybe he should move out . . . at a party with your beautiful new girlfriend.”
George Segal gets an especially dramatic and unlikely series of five shots: “You are a woman, nine months pregnant, feeling your water break at a cocktail party . . . in your twelfth hour of labor, ten centimeters dilated, with a contraction coming on . . . hearing your OB nurse: ‘Push!’ . . . ‘Push!’ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .”
2. You are the same man, realizing the conversation is actually about your sister-in law.
3. You are a stockbroker discovering that you’ve just lost half a million dollars of your best client’s money.
Michael Cumpsty gets to switch between two different roles in the same scene, across four shots: “You are a highway patrolman peering into a car filled with smirking teenagers . . . the young driver telling the cop that you’re the designated driver, totally sober, and that you were weaving back and forth to test the tire traction . . . the cop, leaning on the door, waiting for the driver’s license . . . the driver, admitting that maybe you’ve had half a beer, ‘But, jeez, officer, you’re not gonna hassle a guy for that, are you?’ ”
Part of the pleasure of this book is being able to linger on famous faces with their accumulated imperfections and wrinkles, which rarely detract from their fascination. I’m reasonably certain that Natasha Richardson, Glenne Headly, and Fran Drescher put on lipstick, but that Amanda Plummer, Kathy Baker, and Edie Falco did not. Some once-familiar faces have aged or filled in rather alarmingly (George Segal, Dreyfuss and Carradine). Some, not having been seen much in a decade or more, still look reassuringly youthful (Eric Stoltz, Eric Roberts). Although this is a 2006 book, at least one (Hume Cronyn) has already passed away.
Some faces are so rich and interesting, you wish an entire book had been devoted just to them so you could luxuriate in their infinite variety. Rubbery Martin Landau, Christopher Lloyd, and Drescher are especially entertaining in this respect.
Once you’ve paged through all the delightful images, you’ll want to go back and read the comments—usually brief, now and then lengthy—by the actors. It may be impossible to draw any permanent, consistent understanding from them, but they are fascinating. Some like Richard Schiff and Robert Prosky say jitters and stage fright never go away; others like Carradine say “the shaking went away” after the first time he opened his mouth on stage, “and it has never, ever come back—in forty-something years.”
Burstyn calls the connection between actor and audience a “holy communion”; but Charles S. Dutton says a great depression and loneliness descends with the curtain because “not one single fan can look you in the eye and tell you something that can really make you say, ‘Ah, they know.’ ” Dutton, who discovered his calling for theater in prison, has one of the longest personal accounts as well as an interesting approach to stage work: going on stage “is the most beautiful violence one can engage in. I look at the other people on stage as opponents. And before the night is over I plan to knock them out. … I’m gong to have more stamina than you. I’m going to have a stronger voice than you. I’m going to have more emotional depth than you. And I’m going to perspire more than you do. And in the end, you’re going to be counted out.”
As Roger Ebert notes in the introduction, most of the people in this book who do both stage and film work are clearly talking about the former when they discuss acting. Some clearly rule out film work as “acting” per se. “I don’t really believe you need to act in movies,” says Philip Bosco, who’s been in at least 34 films and two dozen television movies and series. “I do movies and television, but . . . you might call it nonacting, in a way.” In theater, you may be on stage an hour and twenty minutes, but if you get two uninterrupted minutes on film, he says, people stand up and applaud.
Even this preference is not universal, however: Scott Glenn says “I love movies because they’re like a magic carpet. You’re sitting in your apartment in New York, and the phone rings. And a week later you’re in New Zealand learning how to climb vertical ice.” But on stage, “The curtain comes up and it’s between the audience and me. . . . You make your own decisions. It’s dangerous.” (This is one case where one wishes one could have seen him speaking this: was he smiling?)
Perhaps most compelling are the actors’ remarks about the psychological forces at work in acting. “I was a painfully shy kid, but I was always most comfortable on the stage,” says Segal. Patrick Stewart, who grew up in a dangerous and chaotic environment, and could not express anger at all because it had so terrified him as a child, says, “For most people who are not actors what we do is terrifying—the idea of walking out onto a brightly lit space in front of several hundred or even thousands of people in a darkened auditorium… [but] for most actors it’s the exact opposite … [and] that brightly lit space where I was being observed was far more secure and safe than the outside world.” He found the formality of theater reassuring: “It was an antidote to the chaos and danger of my offstage life.”
Whether the stage is purely an escape or a form of progressive therapy for an actor is not clear. “I think a lot of actors, myself included, act so that we don’t have to know ourselves,” Melissa Leo declares. “It’s awfully tempting to change your personality, to become somebody else,” agrees Rosemary Harris. “It becomes a kind of addiction.” Stewart said he faked anger for a long time, but that accomplished nothing, so now, “When I work I can let it out, and now I’m not afraid to let it out.”
The fear actors feel and face seems balanced by the fun they derive from their work. “There was a certain amount of anxiety in general about myself, and then acting became the most difficult thing that I could choose to do,” Martin Donovan remembers. “That’s one of the reasons I forced myself to do it.” Alan Cumming says, “Every time I do a play, when it’s about to open, I get so angry with myself. I promised I would never do this again. I promised myself I would never go through this feeling, this fear. And of course, three hours later you’ve forgotten all about that and you’re elated and feel euphoric.”
“If theater paid well, I’d never, ever do anything else,” declares Marianne Jean-Baptiste. “It’s so much fun while you’re doing it that it amazes me that we have anybody in this country who wants to do anything else,” Ben Stein echoes.
On the drier side, Fred Willard says “I love acting because when it’s time to speak everyone else has to shut up before your cue.”
Who knows whether this book will wear well over time. But for sheer uniqueness, it gets five stars.