Recently while I was on break at work, I overheard some of my coworkers discussing a certain actor (I can’t remember his or her name, but that’s not the point). As they were bemoaning the bad job they believed this actor did, one particular phrase stood out: “I mean, (s)he wasn’t acting enough. When I watch actors I want to see them ACTING.” Now I’m no philosopher or doctor, but I do have an MFA in acting, which I believed qualified me to take part in this conversation. I quickly chimed in: “Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I DID go to grad school for acting (subtle) and a big emphasis was placed on how to be as true to ourselves as possible in order to give a real performance” (or something like that, I don’t remember perfectly). My coworkers just went “Oh” and the conversation quickly ended. Now this conversation did more than just prove that my social skills need a bit more work, it also got me thinking about the topic of what it means to say you want to see someone acting.
The danger of talking about this topic is that it is so large there’s a very real possibility of going off on a tangent and losing the point of why one wanted to discuss it in the first place. Also, for me personally, if I spend too long on this, it could turn into one of those rambling, philosophical “essays” that try to dissect what the meaning of something is and how it makes one feel. Those are no fun to read or write. So, to avoid this pitfall, I’m going to briefly talk about the idea based on the context of the scenario I described above.
Now, my coworker said they wanted to see someone “Acting” when they’re performing. What do you think they meant. I can’t read minds, but I’d wager to guess that they meant that they want to see an actor emoting onstage. They want to see the research the actor did into the character’s past and emotional life, and they want to see the actor physically transform or affect an unusual accent and do something different.
The best example I can think of is Daniel Day-Lewis in any role he’s ever played (except for Nine, which we don’t speak of). Every time DDL is onscreen, he’s always a different person, to the point where he’s even joked about how his wife has lived with “several different men” or something similar (I’m sorry, but I find that a little creepy). His method is so extreme he doesn’t take roles very often in order to recover from his gruelling process, as evidenced by the fact that he hasn’t done a film since Lincoln in 2012.
Now don’t take this the wrong way, I greatly admire his talent and level of commitment. However, because I’m a hipster who hates anything that is universally acknowledged to be good, I’m not a huge fan of how much emphasis is placed on his method. It gets to the point where his notorious method sometimes overshadows his immense talent.
But what about the other end of the spectrum? Those actors who don’t seem to be acting at all? These actors are seen as playing themselves in every single role. Some examples from older films include Cary Grant and James Stewart while newer examples include George Clooney, Kevin Costner and Kristen Stewart. If an actor is just playing himself in every role no matter what the setting, the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief is out the window. An example: Kevin Costner plays Robin Hood of Merry Old England with his own American voice and no pretense of an English accent.
For my part, I believe that there’s a happy medium, with actors who do the work and research, yet who always bring a bit of themselves to the role. Some actors who I think are Good examples are Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, Bryan Cranston, Michelle Williams and her holiness, Meryl Streep. These are some of my favorite actors, and this has been my two cents on the “acting” debate.