I once taught an actor who was never happy with her work. Regardless of the many techniques she mastered, or scenes in which she seemed to dazzle, she didn’t like her look, her mannerisms, her eyes, her voice, or just generally the way she acted. “I hate watching myself back,” she would often groan, slouching into her chair and looking anywhere but the monitor. In terms of her abilities, I’d rate her as the most natural and proficient of her class, and yet, she punished herself after every single take.
When probed for the motivation behind her self-criticism she explained that she was a perfectionist. I asked how often she had ever achieved “perfection.” “Never,” she replied, “that’s the point.”
“Perhaps then,” I joked, “you’re an imperfectionist.” It was closer to the truth to say that her focus wasn’t on being perfect, but on not being many other things. No amount of coaching, coaxing, complimenting, or cajoling can help an actor when they have much deeper personal issues to unpack.
Psychologist Don E. Hamechek posited the theory that there are two distinct types of perfectionist: normal and neurotic. The former strives to better him- or herself by pushing the boundaries further than expected, whereas the latter applies crippling self-criticism over his or her failure to reach unachievable goals. Hamechek suggests that this neurosis is inspired by an obsessive need to please a strong figure in the sufferer’s early life that showered him or her with unending praise, or conversely, results from seeking the praise of an important figure that never gave it at all.
Though many artists maintain that creative brilliance is gained only via this kind of psychological and emotional self-torture, there are countless examples of actors in the world who create exceptional performances and craft exciting careers with entirely healthy mindsets. In a recent viral post, entitled “25 Rules For Directors,” Academy Award-, Golden Globe-, and BAFTA Award-winning director Sam Mendes cautions: “Avoid, please, all metaphors of plays or films as ‘pinnacles’ or ‘peaks’; treat with absolute scorn the word ‘definitive’; and if anyone uses the word ‘masterpiece,’ they don’t know what they’re doing. The pursuit of perfection is a mug’s game.” All artists would do well to follow Mendes’ warning, and focus on relishing the journey instead of longing for a destination at which they will never arrive.
Perennially sold as a troubled and emotionally volatile performer, Daniel Day-Lewis seems, in reality, the epitome of the “normal” perfectionist. He claims that the process of striving for the unknown is actually a wonderful thing, and explains it this way: “That’s what you do. You look for the stuff that doesn’t work, and you try and cure it.” Choosing to look back on his past roles with neither disdain nor pride, but instead “a kind of curiosity,” he is notoriously hesitant about vocalizing his acting methodology. Day-Lewis once lamented: “It all sounds so ponderous and self-important [to talk about one’s process]. It's why I avoid talking about the way I work. But in avoiding it I seem only to have encouraged people to focus their fantasies about me in an ever more fantastical way on the details that are not at all at the center of the work.”
Day-Lewis is considered by a great many people to be one of the most talented, dedicated, and inspired actors, but his “process” is frequently the target of unusual scrutiny. In the many interviews with him that I have seen or read, he reiterates that the public’s view of him as a tortured Method actor (a much abused and misunderstood term anyway) is way off the mark. “Acting is an impossibly illusive trade to ply, but the prevailing sense I have when I go to work is one of joy. It is always represented as a kind of self-flagellation for me. It couldn't be further from the truth.”
In my classes I encourage the actor never to settle, sure, but to never be satisfied? Never happy? What would be the point? If a multiple award-winning director and actor, with universal accolades and industry-wide respect for their respective commitment to their work can do both, why can’t we? The answer is, we can. We just need to shift our focus from what we aren’t doing to what we are doing.
Attempting to explain the mysterious elements that rise and soar above the craft itself, Daniel Day-Lewis once likened it to “chasing spirits.” Though it may take a lifetime to reach his heights as an actor, by honing our craft and approaching our work with the same prevailing sense of joy, we all have the regular opportunity to revel in the act of chasing spirits.
Paul Barry is an Los Angeles-based Australian actor, director, writer, and acting teacher. Clients of his have secured representation with WME, CAA, UTA, Abrams, Gersh, ICM, Paradigm, and management by United Management, Principal Entertainment, Brillstein Entertainment Partners, Untitled Management, having worked at: MGM, CBS, NBC, 20th Century Fox, Disney, Starz, MTV, ABC and many more.