Book Excerpt
On Acting : Interviews with Actors
by Mary Luckhurst and Chloe Veltman

An excerpt from On Acting : Interviews with Actors by Mary Luckhurst and Chloe Veltman, published 2002 by Faber and Faber.
Book excerpt reprinted with the permission of the publisher.
Copyright © 2002 Mary Luckhurst and Chloe Veltman


Book Excerpt:


All of us can name actors whom we admire, but few of us know what goes into creating a performance; actors such as Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep are icons, yet we rarely think about the art behind the star. We take performances on stage and screen at face value and pay little attention to questions of rehearsal process, technique and research. How does an actor prepare for a role? How does an actor relate to their director? Why go on stage at all? Is training necessary, or is there such a thing as genius? These are some of the questions that this book addresses.

There is still a certain mystique about craft, and actors are rarely asked to describe their process. Celebrity interviews in the media often concentrate on an actor's private life or focus on the commercial aspects of their latest project. Commentary on the way a play or film has been created is most usually sought from the director, who is considered to be the authority on artistic conception. The forerunner to this book, On Directing, examines theatre-making from the director's point of view; and inevitably, many directors talk about acting and actors. But it is the actor who has to perform and who is largely responsible for making the play or film a success. It seemed logical, therefore, to hear the actors' side of the story. This book focuses on actors whose roots lie in the theatre, though many also have a profile in film.

Today's greater awareness of different acting styles has been brought about by the exchange of ideas between cultures, the increase in international festivals and touring companies and the growth of acting schools. Before the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) developed a system of actor training, actors in the West simply learned the skills of their trade from their peers. Stanislavsky's ideas had enormous influence all over Europe and America. For the first time, someone had identified a range of specific skills needed by an actor both to understand a naturalist play and to perform it. In other words, he gave the craft of acting an explicit vocabulary. Stanistavsky's endeavour to describe the actor's craft influenced many practitioners: Lee Strasberg (1901-82) developed his own school of thought, the Method school of acting, as did Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner and Richard Boleslavsky. There were, however, other practitioners who were influenced not so much by Stanislavsky's practice as by the desire to formalize their own approaches. This has been particularly true of post-1960s practitioners such as Jacques Lecoq, Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook, who have all explored non-text-based as well as text-based performance.

We wanted to reflect the diversity of approaches to acting, from the classical to the experimental, so this book contains twenty interviews with a wide range of actors of different generations. We interviewed actors who work predominantly in Britain and/or America because there is significant cross-fertilization between the two nations. While British actors have for a long time made appearances in American films and on Broadway, it is now fashionable for American actors to appear on West End stages. This trend has brought Kathleen Turner (The Graduate), Kevin Spacey (The Iceman Cometh) and Dustin Hoffman (The Merchant of Venice) to London, and taken Judi Dench (Amy's View), David Suchet (Amadeus) and Janet McTeer (A Doll's Home) to New York.

Whilst we are cautious of making generalizations, we have noticed certain recurring preoccupations. The American actors we interviewed were more inclined to mention Stanistavsky and his disciples. Strasberg's Method is frequently cited and clearly marks an important historical referent for Americans. The Method grew out of Strasberg's understanding of Stanislavsky's system and focused on developing the actor's emotional impulses. While Stanislavsky's influence is felt in Britain, it has not had anything like the same impact; this may be because Strasberg's theory is more suited to the realistic requirements of film and television, which are traditionally more dominant media in the States. Broadly speaking, American actors seem more conscious of the influence of particular schools and methods than the British, who refer to individual teachers and practices, but not with the same fervour. British actors have traditionally begun their careers on stage, but because it is rarely possible to make a living from theatre acting alone, young British actors now tend to do film work at a much earlier stage in their careers. In America, where many actors have never been on stage, it is not uncommon for successful screen actors to turn to theatre as a way of adding to their credentials.

We tried to select a range of actors with different backgrounds, the oldest, Luba Kadison, was on stage during the First World War, while the youngest, Aysan €elik, began her professional career in the late 1990s. We also wanted to represent a variety of acting influences and philosophies; some actors have been heavily marked by their drama-school training, while others have developed their art on the job. Simon Callow considers his training at The Drama Centre in London to have played a vital part in his career, whereas Annabel Arden is fiercely opposed to conventional drama schools. The influence of Method-school acting is undeniable, but individual actors have strong opinions about other practical approaches. Elaine Stritch does not know if there is a technique of acting, but argues that there is a discipline. William H. Macy is a fervent proselytizer of David Mamet's system of "Practical Esthetics" and Conrad Nelson believes in studying A kinds of practices and selecting the most useful elements from each.

The actors in this book think of their craft very differently. Michael Sheen argues that acting is not a profession but a vocation; Antony Sher delights in the transformations he can effect on stage; Linda Marlowe experiences an extraordinary buzz from performing live; Willem Dafoe sees the actor's job as "doing" and "being" the story; and Danny Hoch is motivated by a politics of social responsibility. A major theme throughout the interviews is the dichotomy between genius and craft. Some actors insist on the importance of instinct and impulse, whereas others believe that an actor can only develop through rigorous discipline.

It is perhaps surprising that few of the actors name other actors as role models. Just as Anna Deavere Smith has been more influenced by figures such as the opera singer Jessye Norman and the artist Pablo Picasso, so Barb Jungr has been inspired by musicians, singers and rock bands such as The Who. Eve Ensler was motivated to go on stage for the first time when she heard the powerful testimonies of the women she interviewed for The Vagina Monologues, whereas Ruth Posner's life was changed when she discovered Martha Graham's radical approach to dance.

Physical appearance is felt by many actors to have far too great a bearing on their career. Indira Varma expresses frustration at the type-casting she comes across in the film industry and Hugh Quarshie rages against the racial exclusivity of the theatre industry. Miriam Margolyes feels that actresses with unconventional looks are too often denied leading parts, while Liev Schreiber feels that looks and charm can too often advance an actor beyond their technical capability.

Appearance is not the only frustration. Many established actors have a desire to display the range of their skills and want real theatrical challenges; dissatisfied with the roles they are typically offered, they have taken the initiative and developed one-man or one-woman shows. Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes have enjoyed tremendous success with their shows based on Charles Dickens's work, Linda Marlowe has received critical acclaim for her show Berkoff's Women and Elaine Stritch has created a one-woman show based on her own life. The one-person show is also a popular form for its own sake. Anna Deavere Smith and Danny Hoch choose to express themselves primarily through solo performance, whilst the success of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues has inspired the author-performer to write another one-woman show.

There are as many definitions of acting as there are actors; it is variously described as "dancing the hornpipe with fetters on", "a basic form of human behaviour -- something we all do", "slaying the dragon", "a form of portraiture", "an ancient social event", "telling stories", "learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture" and, perhaps most bizarrely, "a perfumed fart". We hope you enjoy reading about these actors as much as we enjoyed speaking to them.

Copyright © 2002 Mary Luckhurst and Chloe Veltman

On Acting : Interviews with Actors by Mary Luckhurst and Chloe Veltman,

Book Description from the Publisher

Twenty performers -- including Willem Dafoe, William H. Macy, and Eve Ensler -- consider the question of how an actor creates a character on stage. A seemingly simple question -- "How do actors prepare for their roles?" -- reveals a surprising diversity of opinions about dramatic training. Should it be more institutionalized or more individualized? Has the film industry helped or hindered actors in their quest to portray characters convincingly? Can a person learn to act well, or is acting a talent one can only be born with? With its dynamic approach and engaging style, On Acting is an invaluable collection of insights into the theory and practice of acting for the stage or the screen.

All of us can name actors whom we admire, but few of us know what goes into creating a performance and why an actor's stage performance may differ from night to night. We take performances on stage and screen at face value and pay little attention to questions of rehearsal process, technique and research.

On Acting provides just such an opportunity to see behind the scenes and consider the diversity and the similarities between a wide-ranging group of male and female performers working in Britain and the USA on stage and on screen:

Annabel Arden * Simon Callow * Aysan Celik * Willem Dafoe * Eve Ensler * Danny Hoch * Barb Jungr * Luba Kadison * William H. Macy * Miriam Margolyes * Linda Marlowe * Conrad Nelson * Ruth Posner * Hugh Quarshie * Liev Schreiber * Michael Sheen * Antony Sher * Anna Deavere Smith * Elaine Stritch * Indira Varma

On Acting : Interviews with Actors by Mary Luckhurst and Chloe Veltman,

About the Authors --

Mary Luckhurst is a playwright, translator and Lecturer in Modern Drama at the University of York. She co-edited On Directing, also by Faber, and wrote The Drama Handbook with John Lennard for Oxford University Press.

Chloe Veltman is a San Francisco-based correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. She is also a freelance theatre critic.

On Acting : Interviews with Actors by Mary Luckhurst and Chloe Veltman,