The Invisible Actor

“Don’t get caught acting.”

“Be. Just Be. Don’t act, just BE.”

As an actor, especially if you are working in film, you cannot “show.” You must “do.”

Here is a clip which illustrates my idea of INVISIBLE ACTING: It’s of Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. I can’t say I have seen the film, or the play, or even have read any Tennessee Williams. But, I know what great acting looks like. I can see truth. And, if you are like me, you will be be hooked from the start of the scene. You can see Stanley thinking. The non-verbal acting he (Brando) is doing is stellar. And, here is the illusion. Brando is thinking Stanley Kowalski’s thoughts. At least that is what I am imagining. And that is what I aspire to do. A transformational actor gets “behind the eyes and into the skin” of the character so fully, that the actor becomes the character. Then, the character lives, responds, pursues, and behaves on a moment-to-moment time signature to create reality under imaginary circumstances. As a coach told me once, “If was playing Hamlet, I would not imagine how I would respond in his situation. I would imagine how a 16th century son of a Norwegian King would respond.” The character might be in you. But you are not the character. We don’t want to see you. We want to see the character.

As far as “acting revolutions” go, Method Acting (an offshoot of the Stanislavsky System), as pioneered by Lee Strasberg, changed the style of American film acting, and continues to influence how actors approach a character and their “performance.” And, not to ignore other masters, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, and Uta Hagen are also considered major influencers of modern acting.

“A great acting performance!” “The Academy Award for Best Actor!” Yes, actors ACT, but we really love it when we see the character. That is the trick! An actor, when equipped with a vibrant imagination and a solid technique, can transport us with the help of a great story (and a great director, etc.).

Here is another great performance by two actors from the film Dead Man Walking.

Technically, as an actor, you must never “show” us or “indicate” what you are doing or feeling. Really DO IT or REALLY FEEL IT (if emotion comes, welcome it, but don’t fake it if it doesn’t). If you think the character might cry in a particular scene, or the script tells you to, your task/action/objective will never be TO CRY. Humans don’t go through their life with TO CRY on their to do list. If, perhaps, your character is grieving over a loved one, maybe you are “yearning (there is your verb) to dance with him one more time,” which cannot happen because he just died, and this realization, in the moment, might lead you to tears.

I don’t mean to digress into an acting technique overview, but I cannot talk about what invisible acting is without pointing out what is isn’t.

I hope this post makes sense. I would love your feedback!

7 thoughts on “The Invisible Actor

  1. I enjoy all you posts, David. Especially this one for some reason. I haven’t had really any acting classes but this seems to be a quick overview of lessons in acting books I’ve read like ‘The Art of Acting’ by Stella Adler.
    It’s just a beautiful reminder first thing in the morning over a cup of coffee about what acting is and what it most definitely is not.

    • Thank you for taking the time to write, D’Angelo. I enjoy writing on this blog, but really love it when people read, comment, and give me my next idea.


  2. So true and easier written then done. You wrote this was more to do with film than Theatre, I disagree, I think it applies to both. I don’t want to watch an actor on stage “acting”, I want to watch the story of the characters and be sucked in my the emotions, humor and honesty of it. I think as an actor, its hard for folks to GET OUT OF THEIR HEADS. An actor may feel they have a lot to accomplish in a scene, stage of screen. But if you are stuck in your head thinking about your lines, your blocking, the audience or the camera… It will all SHOW and that is not good. I agree and love the title of this blog David, the ACTOR part of you must be INVISIBLE. If you have done YOUR work, good director or not, you should be able to tell the story like it is your own. After all it is YOUR story, you ARE this character, now you must BE.

    • I agree, the actor needs to disappear in stage work, too, but I think film work and the intimacy of it (the camera is in your face at times – you cannot hide, cannot lie) makes the task more crucial. After all, in theater (and in some TV sketch comedy), we sometimes love it when the actor breaks. And, at other times, when the actor is not speaking, temporarily “checking out” and making a grocery list in one’s head, perhaps, will not destroy the illusion of the story. You can’t get away with this on camera (well, at least not on YOUR take).

      Thanks for writing!

  3. David,

    Again and again, I find myself reading your posts and thinking, “Yes, yes – and that is the most important thing about acting!” And then with the next post: “Yes, yes, – and THAT is the most important thing about acting!” I never seem to pick up the pattern, and my coronal refrain – shortsighted and inexhaustible – just keeps chugging on. Here once more, my impulse is to ennoble Invisible Acting as a kind of fundamental cornerstone to this whole beach ball of mania – a critical truth which supersedes all other truths.

    Of course, no such singular passport exists – but I do think that in the process of developing a performance, Invisible Acting presents a nice opportunity for a checkpoint. Somewhat like a self-administered final exam, we can ask the question, “but am I acting?” And in most cases*, if I answer yes, then I’ve got to go back over my work to discover the undotted i, or misplaced decimal, sending the equation through this “Acting: Y/N?” box over and over until the green light turns on.

    Here’s my most useful tool in this process: I live in an apartment with fairly thin walls, can frequently hear my neighbors, and assume that they can hear me too. They also know that I’m an actor. If I’m running through a scene, I try to imagine whether they think, “Oh no! Conner’s in a fight with his housemate,” or, “How fun! Conner must be practicing for one of his movies.” I find it to be a pretty tough test, and usually feel like a total hack. But I also think that this offers a uniquely useful and equally critical way to construct an external barometer of internal truth. As an actor, I have a nasty tendency to get wrapped up in my own goulash of all the things I’m Doing! and Feeling! in a scene, and it takes this little homemade litmus test to realize how grotesquely heavy-handed it all is. This realization that I’m exposed – a Visible Actor pirouetting about – is immediate and unmistakable, striking with as much clarity and conviction as when watching a movie and thinking, “ah look, an actor acting.” For me, it’s actually quite embarrassing despite (or perhaps because of) the frequency with which I find myself guilty of this kind of inauthenticity. But with any luck, and in time, my neighbors will come to believe that I’m a highly volatile, pseudo-schizophrenic at the mercy of an unusually interminable string of daily dramas.

    Another opportunity to catch yourself (and this one is stolen from Michael Caine), happens when you’re on set running your lines with another actor prior to shooting. If a crew member can walk up, see that you’re ‘rehearsing’ and not want to interrupt – red light. If a crew member can walk up, think you’re having a conversation, and hang around – green light.

    Thanks for writing, Hoges. You’re tip top.

    I remain as ever, your ardent admirer, earnest devotee, and sincere friend,
    Conner ~ Razzle Dazzle ~ Marx

    *I believe there are cases in which the answer to this questions can be yes. I support ‘Acting’ as a visible mechanism in certain forms and with certain texts in which revealing the machinery of production completes the flourish. This doesn’t mean that acting, in these circumstances, replaces or outmodes honesty. Each moment should come from a vital inner truth, but the expression of that truth doesn’t have to take on a form that I, or any other human would give it; however, in this hyperrealistic, or hyper-unrealistic world – it is simply how people truthfully behave.

  4. I think if you have done your “work”, your preparation as an actor, that it comes down to trusting yourself to be in the moment. I learned this lesson as an acting teacher many years ago; I was teaching a student who I thought had great promise, but when she started her scenework, it was so stilted and self-conscious. “What’s going on?”, I asked her. “Well, I was thinking about my character’s biography that I worked on, and my objectives and obstacles, and I’m just not sure….” “Whoa….”, I interrupted; “You’ve done your work; you’ve rehearsed; you’ve mapped everything out, and NOW….let all of that fall away…let go of all of it and look at your partner on stage and do it; be in the moment of now and trust all that hard work is there, but for the love of god, don’t be thinking about it at this point.” She did the scene again and she was breathtaking. I learned a valuable lesson that day.

    I’m no expert on film acting, but it seems that every thought, every nuance in an actor’s face and body would be caught on film and that the trust in your preparation and being present are super, super important.

    (I LOVE Streetcar; I made all of my students watch that film. All of the acting is brilliant and believable.)

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jeanne.

      I COMPLETELY agree. Do the work, then forget the work and LIVE in the scene with your partners (other actor/s, environment, time/space, etc).

      ~ David

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