Unless you’ve ever presented, received or been nominated for an Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe, or Emmy, it's hard to imagine the amount of pressure on these performers.
The pressure might seem odd, as the role has been booked and the excellent performance recorded. It seems like the bulk of the work has been done. All the performer has to do is show up on awards night, act natural, and try not to hit the champagne too hard, right? Wrong.
In addition to coaching actors for their film and television roles, I also coach presenters for all the major award ceremonies, and believe me when I tell you that awards presentations can be truly terrifying—even for the most seasoned actor or musician. As one of the celebrity clients I coached said regarding her Grammy presentation speech, “I’m a bit embarrassed I need help with this, but there are millions of people watching and I need to be myself…Help!”
One of the first reasons for extreme anxiety is the sheer volume of viewers for these award shows. Another reason for nerves has to do with the pervasiveness of the Internet, an often unkind entity. Who can forget Natalie Portman’s snort/laugh during her Golden Globes acceptance speech and the fodder for days and days of fun that gave the online playground? My clients truly believe – and rightly so, I feel – that if they make one false move, they can do irreparable damage to their careers.
The final reason for nerves orbits around the fact that when presenting at awards, there is no “character” or mask to inhabit. It’s just you, unmasked and live, in front of these hoards of viewers. This can really freak an actor out—particularly the ones that enjoy or seek refuge in playing characters.
It has always been my firm belief that the personality of the actor is nine-tenths of the performance. Due to over training and excess “technique,” actors have been trained to believe they’re not interesting enough as themselves, so they must construct a whole façade to hide behind. This buries an actor’s humanity. I believe the ultimate goal of the performer is to reflect the audience’s humanity back at them.
When a presenter is scared, there’s a tendency to start trashing the script and not speaking the speech as the writers put forth. Or there’s a tendency to stand around woodenly (ahem, James Franco). This only makes the presenter look petty and weak.
When coaching for awards presentations, I help the presenter bring their lit-up and empowered selves to the podium. I call it finding the “hook” of the speech. A “hook” is the performer’s light-up right before they make the speech. Something they can activate on the tips of their fingers before they walk on stage. It could be a specific attitude, a funny, dark or sexy image, a piece of music, etc. Anything will do as long as it doesn’t force them to “feel something.” It must be activated in seconds. Perhaps the most genuine (and extreme) example of this is when Roberto Benigni, director of "Life is Beautiful," accepted his Oscar in 1999 by dancing across some seatbacks.
Think of past awards ceremonies and the speakers who really shook the room when they presented. What did they do? They affected the greatest change while making their speech. The most memorable speeches that you can recall are probably by the ones where the presenter was able to radiate their true selves outwards in a seemingly effortless manner. I still remember Meryl Streep’s speech from the 2012 Oscars. It was honest, unexpected, self deprecating, and gracious. It completely won me over. She started from a genuine place, of authentic humor: “Oh my god. Oh c’mon. Alright. Thank you so much. Thank you, thank you. When they called my name I’d had this feeling I could hear half of America going ‘oh no… oh c’mon…why… her…again?’ But whatever.” Then she ended in an even sincerer place—highlighting the friendships this business has given her and the joy of making movies with her friends. That kind of authenticity is apparent to every viewer and it allows the performer to give the audience yet another gift—a glimpse at their real self.
Joseph Pearlman is a private and on-set coach for Hollywood’s top actors, musicians, and comedians. He works with clients, like Zooey Deschanel, and also coaches presenters for all the major award ceremonies including the Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys. Joseph Pearlman Coaching was voted Best Acting Studio in Los Angeles by Backstage’s 2011 and 2012 Readers’ Choice Awards. Joseph Pearlman Coaching also has a New York location. Joseph Pearlman Coaching offers private coaching and classes from beginner to working professional.