So I was amused when I called actor, teacher, and Sanford Meisner disciple Jim Jarrett to discuss what truthful acting really means, and he told me a funny story related to him by Jon Voight. Long ago, when Duvall and Voight were in Meisner's class, Duvall took one step into a scene and Meisner said, "Already wrong." Which proves that sometimes even the most talented actors have to learn what it means to be honest when acting.
"You can't fake it," says Jarrett of truthfulness. If the moment "isn't as full as it should be, you lead yourself along and don't push…. But I see actors giving what they think they should be feeling instead of leaving themselves alone."
Here are some signs that you might not be acting totally truthfully: unnatural body language, movement that's general, an unctuous tone in your voice. Los Angeles actor-teacher Wendy Phillips says that when she's acting dishonestly, she can hear it in her voice; she realizes she's almost singing the lines instead of knowing specifically what she's talking about, and her whole body goes, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"
She can hear that falseness in her students too. Their voices sound like they're looping lines, and mannerisms start appearing. She asks them, "Why are you saying this? What does it mean to you? Don't say the line until you have something behind it." Her advice: "Look at your externals. They will not be working when you're lying."
Jarrett concurs: "You have to know what your lines mean to you, every single thing that comes out of your mouth." For example, if you say, "I love Portland," those words have to be rooted in the truth of loving a city. "You have to fill every single moment," he says, adding, "This is a huge oversimplification."
But Jarrett also cautions against being too much in your head when performing, critiquing your own degree of authenticity. "Sometimes the concentration isn't there; it's not full enough," he says. "You can pick up the pieces afterward and grow from it. After the performance you can say, 'What did I do well? What did I not do well? What do I need to work on?' "
For actor Morlan Higgins, truthfulness is the most important element of any performance: knowing the truth of something and then working to achieve that truth, and sometimes faking it until you make it. Playwright Athol Fugard once told Higgins, "All I'm after as a playwright is the effect of truthful performance," and for Higgins, who received rave reviews in Fugard's "Exits and Entrances" in Los Angeles, that comment provides inspiration. "I'm never satisfied until I know it's a solid runway of truth," he says.
But Higgins also notes that the kind of truthfulness required when acting is not simply a matter of believable, understandable, identifiable human behavior. Rather, it's a goal-oriented truthfulness specific to the story being told. Or, as Ed Hooks writes in "The Actor's Field Guide," being honest in performance is not the same as being honest in the grocery store or shopping mall. Truthful acting is about finding the deep truths of the story being told and illuminating them by connecting with them in personally deep and powerful ways.
Emily Ackerman says she perceives truthful acting differently since she began working with the Civilians and the Tectonic Theater Project in New York. Both groups interview real people and turn their stories into theater pieces, and often Ackerman meets the people she portrays. "It's difficult to lie when you're playing a real person," she says. "When you do this kind of work, you start to see just how layered people are—all of their duality and contradictions. People have so many reasons for behaving the way they behave. It gives you the freedom to create multidimensional characters." She carries that knowledge with her into all sorts of scripts, and she advises her students not to overthink their roles, to trust that they'll eventually figure out why their characters are saying what they're saying.
I recently saw Bay Area actor Lorri Holt in Rajiv Joseph's play "Animals Out of Paper" and as usual detected not a false moment in her performance. But more than that, she was truthful on a deep level.
"When I start rehearsals, I always feel that I'm on the surface, that I don't know how to break through," Holt says. Even on the play's opening night, she felt she hadn't gone deep enough. Later in the run, she achieved that feeling of being in the zone. She observes that when you're not acting truthfully, when you're "outside the moment," you're using far more adrenaline and energy than when you're sailing smoothly. For her, it's about concentrating on being in the moment and yet not eliminating anything that's happening in that moment. She believes that if you're resisting by wishing things were another way, thinking of something else, trying to repeat what you've done previously, or attempting to control someone else's performance, then you are not fully and honestly in the moment.
New York actor Daniel Talbott says that as an audience member, when he's watching an actor who's being really truthful, he gets a physical sensation, and he stops thinking about whether the actor is good or bad. When on stage, he can see in the other actor's eyes whether he or she is being truthful. "Most of the struggle is to go deeper into yourself and at the same time out of yourself," he says—that is, giving fully to the other person.
Talbott also describes two types of truths: internal and external. He cites Bill Irwin, a serious actor with all the skills of a New Vaudeville clown, as someone who knows how to find a revealing external truth. Cherry Jones and Isabelle Huppert, he points out, both come from very internal places, and their deep emotional truths radiate out.
If you're playing an action for real, not imitating playing an action, then you can't fake it, says Talbott. A true action is a true action. But, he notes, "The hardest thing to do is lay yourself bare on stage. I struggle with that all the time." He believes that if you can reach out truthfully, you're kind of unstoppable.
"Actors often feel the need to show, to entertain—to indicate," remarks San Francisco director Rob Melrose, who is an artist-in-residence at New York's Public Theater this spring. He recently returned from a trip to Poland and comments on the impressive theater he saw there: "There's something very simple about it. Extraordinary depth. These actors work together for years and years and have the ability to be naked and vulnerable on stage. That makes the live event of theater really
He adds, "Grotowski used to tell his actors, 'Rather than asking, "How can I be more like Medea?," ask the question, What can the character of Medea tempt you into revealing about yourself?' I think it's a wonderful way to think about acting." As a director, Melrose tries to give actors compelling suggestions that will engage their imagination and also their physicality.
Talbott sums it up: "Someone once said that if theater is honest enough and finds a deep enough truth, the audience gets to experience all life's calamities in a safe environment—and then go home." The same goes for the serious actor.