Two and a half years ago in this column I wrote about how to create onstage and onscreen romantic chemistry. I concluded that it was not something that just mysteriously happens between some lucky actors, like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, although critics would have you believe that. I wrote that it was basically a matter of listening, processing, responding in the moment, being uninhibited about expressing your sexuality, and personalizing.
But then along came Los Angeles acting teacher and coach Ivana Chubbuck to convince me that there's more to it than that. So let's revisit the topic, and let's go beyond romantic chemistry to also discuss nonsexual chemistry, which is just as important.
Through a natural evolutionary process developed during her 22 years of teaching, Chubbuck arrived at a method to create instant chemistry. I dropped in at the Hollywood home she shares with her husband, filmmaker Lyndon Chubbuck, to discuss the subject with the two of them. Lyndon is very much an actor's director, and his latest film, The War Bride (a Canadian-English co-production, featuring Brenda Fricker, that recently screened in London but hasn't opened here yet), provides a good example of the way Ivana helps actors connect.
Two of the film's actors, Anna Friel and Aden Young, needed to experience intense mutual attraction, strong enough to compel them to marry despite that their characters are of different nationalities. Friel and Young are two entirely different types of people with different life priorities, and they did not immediately connect.
Of course the techniques normally used by actors to create sexual vibes were available to Friel and Young: 1. Focus on at least one thing you really find appealing about the other person, and 2. if all else fails, use a substitution. However, the Chubbucks say that's all well and good, but technique No. 1 is likely to create a superficial, banal response; Lyndon likened it to walking into a bar and being attracted to someone on a purely physical basis. And technique No. 2 is not visceral and immediate and spontaneous. Neither technique creates the depth of connection Friel and Young needed—the kind of connection that exudes charm, power, and vulnerability.
So Ivana took each actor aside to find out what aspects of their personal history they shared. She was looking for something "very deep and dark, a primal trauma that happened to both of them." Not surprisingly she found one. We probably share some painful experience with just about anyone we meet, from the bus driver to our acting teacher.
Lyndon leaned forward in his chair to emphasize the point. "You can find things you like about someone, you can turn yourself on to them, but you can go much further; you can create a profound connection. Maybe your father is dying of cancer. Well, my father is dying of cancer."
"Or," said Ivana, "her father has a disease, your father has cancer. See, Jean, he picked that up from you."
"Actually it's my mother who has a disease, and a good friend who has cancer," I said. But the Chubbucks were right. There was a connection around pain. With Ivana's help Friel and Young found that connection and bonded over it. When I see The War Bride, I expect to see that chemistry as a palpable force between them.
Be the Baby
The point is, when two people feel each other's pain (to use a cliché), they connect on a deep level. They care about each other because they identify with each other. "I am you and you are me…. " And it goes without saying that actors know from pain. As Lyndon pointed out, people tend to become artists because they have a deep emotional reservoir, and because they want to make grace with their personal traumas.
So how do you go about finding out what the other person's secret nightmares and bad memories are, whether they be about an abusive childhood, a broken heart, a death, a life-threatening illness, an addiction? The best way is to get together with your co-star for a chat and to confess to him or her your own painful experiences or issues. "You've got to prime the pump," advised Ivana. The more honest and open you are, the more likely your co-star will respond in kind. Once you've found an incident or feeling in common, you're probably home free. The two of you will share a secret understanding, a vulnerability, that will seep into your stage or screen work.
If your co-star is unwilling to go there, it's up to you. Ivana suggests first thinking about the "trauma or insecurity that most defines you," then looking deeply at the other person and seeing in his or her eyes "the pain, sadness, and rage that comes from having experienced the same thing."
Either way you approach it, this is an amazingly quick way of connecting. Ivana noted that director Taylor Hackford, directing Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron in The Devil's Advocate, had them hang out together for three weeks wearing wedding rings to feel close. Hackford knows that chemistry is more important than rehearsals. However, those three weeks didn't quite do the trick. Theron felt something was missing and asked for help. So Ivana was flown out to New York to coach her. Ivana told Theron to ask Reeves specific personal questions. Within three hours, said Ivana, they'd bonded over shared pain. (Reeves didn't know at the time that Theron had been coached to do this.)
There are different types of connections required, depending upon the script's demands. Here's a tip on playing a parent. Ivana worked with Friel in The War Bride to help her relate to a baby. Friel, 23, has never been a mother and was at a loss in creating a believable relationship with the babies playing her child.
"As a parent you feel that a child represents a second chance to fix the stuff that happened to you when you were young," explained Ivana, who is herself a mother whose own mother constantly told her she was ugly and dumb (for the record: She's beautiful and smart). "A child is a little you. " She coached Friel to imagine the baby as a little version of herself, to put her own issues into the baby's eyes. That naturally brought out in Friel the deepest possible sense of caring and protecting and closeness. The baby was an extension of herself. No "acting" was needed; the chemistry was there. Ivana suggested trying this out on friends' kids if you don't have kids yourself. Of course it also works if you're playing the parent of an adult child.
Use Your Illusion
Most commonly, though, when we think of chemistry between actors, we think of sexuality. Ivana has a technique that can be used after you've created that emotional bond, to add the sexual element. Imagine your kinkiest fantasy and put your co-star into that scenario in your mind. Of course, your co-star won't know what you're thinking, but Ivana guarantees a warm response. Be sure it's not a generic sexual fantasy—it must be personal to you, very private. She recommends this technique for auditions, as well. You can use it on whomever you're reading with, along with the technique of seeing in their eyes a pain that corresponds to your own pain. You are thereby generating a quick-and-dirty but deep connection. She also suggests trying it on casting directors, directors, or producers to create a special rapport that will subliminally enhance their perceptions of you. It shouldn't take more than 30 seconds to do all this, and you can do it while talking.
Lyndon vouches for these shortcuts to chemistry. Ivana was recently coaching a film star and suggested she try them out on everybody she encountered. Lyndon, who had known the actor for years, happened to walk into the room. In the course of what he described as a casual, 10-second chit-chat about dogs with the actor, he found himself thinking that she was much more attractive and interesting than he'd ever realized. She wasn't overtly sexual, or flattering, or anything like that—but he somehow became aware of her on a deeper level than previously. It was only afterward that his wife told him that the actor was doing the instant-chemistry acting exercise.
Chemistry is an essential ingredient in creating on-screen and onstage friendships, love relationships, and familial bonds. "It's an actor's duty to connect to whomever you're relating to," said Ivana. It seems to me that her techniques practically guarantee connections that are specific, fresh, unpredictable, and profound. BSW