Acting Out

Acting in Los Angeles-- for some it's glamor, celebrity, seven-figures, and endless accolades. For others it's scale-plus-10 and the endless quest to have the work seen. And somewhere in the midst lies artistic craft. What exactly does being an actor mean in this town? In search of answers, The Hollywood Reporter's Chris Koseluk and David E. Williams sat down with casting director Denise Chamian; actor, writer, and teacher Darryl Hickman; acting teacher and director Larry Moss, and veteran agent recently turned manager Susan Smith. And from the importance of training, theatre, and being prepared for the issues of salary, ageism, and building a career, they gave us an earful.

Question: This time of year people talk about the quality of acting, but rarely are the skills discussed. I hope our conversation will reveal what professionals really think about the state of the craft. What do you consider the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the current performing pool?

Denise Chamian: [Actors] who are working, or who merely have representation? Many actors are more well trained than ever before-- there are some really good teachers and college programs. And, conversely, way too many actors are untrained, unskilled, and don't take steps to get either. Casting directors weed through huge numbers of people who maybe shouldn't have agents or managers. It's a big problem.

Susan Smith: One reason they have representation and work is what I call this whole hip-hop move to children-- if you look a certain way, are a certain age, you work. Gone are the days where we cared about regional theatre. It's hard to tell somebody, "Gee, I really want you to study. Have you thought about the Guthrie?" when they're saying, "Well, wow! I might miss a lot of appointments. Look at this kid! Two episodes of Dawson's Creek, and now he has five movies and makes $6 million per film."

Chamian: Expand that to people in their 30s and 40s. I probably see 30 or 35 actors per role before I can cast five one-line parts. And I sit through so many bad readings. People who can't understand what the scene is about. If it takes you two, five, or however many years to learn your craft, then that's what you do. I'm still learning. Unless you're so gifted....

Larry Moss: It's rare.

Q: Define training. The word gets bandied about so much.

Darryl Hickman: The current performing pool's greatest strength is the enormous talent. The greatest weakness is it's untrained and unmotivated. I get people who've studied at prestigious drama schools. And it sometimes takes me a year or more to undo the damage. Once somebody receives the wrong kind of training, it's very hard. You take a test in California to cut hair. Anybody can train actors.

Chamian: Actors don't know what good or bad training is. People ask me what acting teacher to go to. I haven't a clue. Audit five to 10 classes, and see what works for you.

Moss: Study with many teachers. If the actor is serious, there's great literature-- Uta Hagen's A Challenge for the Actor, Harold Clurman's books, Bobby Lewis, Stanislavski.

In Stanislavski's metaphor of the sailing vessel, the hull-- the biggest part-- was "self." Does an actor even know his internal world? What makes him angry? Sad? Aroused? Joyful? Then you can begin to talk about technique, understanding script analysis, breaking it down into-- as Stanislavski discusses-- a selection of wants. What's complex about acting is who the character is. To play Blanche DuBois, you must know the Civil War and understand how the women were these virgin goddesses who only had sex to create children, and the men had sex with the slaves.

Hickman: Most people who come to me have never heard of Stanislavski, Bobby Lewis, Harold Clurman. They don't know Stella Adler, John Gielgud.

I recommend three books: My Life in Art by Konstantin Stanislavski, The Mystic in the Theater, a biography by Eva Le Gallienne of Eleonora Duse, and The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey, about using your thinking self and your intuitive self in balance.

Moss: They have to read books and watch films. Part of my curriculum is to watch every movie Elia Kazan ever made. You can't watch Kazan's movies and not understand storytelling, acting, directing, lighting, music.

Hickman: And study it.

Moss: Exactly. I also make them watch different actors' performances, like Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden, I'll Cry Tomorrow, and as the old woman in Wild River. In that film, she played an 80-year-old at age 36. Every morning she put age freckles on her hands. Kazan said, "We're doing a long shot, Jo, you don't need those." She'd say, "I need to for me."

You've got to show them greatness. Watch Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Midnight Cowboy. Then you'll understand character. You'll understand range.

In his book The Light, Kazan says, "Effort is all." All of us aren't here because we are lazy. We work our asses off. That's why we were gratefully asked to this table to mouth off.

Smith: You're taking this very seriously.

Moss: My blood boils about this.

Chamian: I agree with you. It's really infuriating to see hundreds of actors a week who are lazy and unprepared. Their agents or the agent's assistants don't care enough to find out what they need. If you can't show up and at least try, don't come in.

Moss: A kid in my class did a monologue from Waiting for Lefty. It was dreadful. I asked had he researched the Depression. I told him not to do it again unless he read this book and this book and saw newsreels-- go back in time and see how they dressed and looked. He looked at me and said, "Man! What's all this work shit?"

Chamian: If the look is right, and there's chemistry, then somebody at a network wants them on a show.

Hickman: I say to new people, "My job is to motivate you to see you're practicing a long and noble tradition, not just somebody with hat and resume in hand trying to get a job." I find it so discouraging that these kids don't see themselves as part of anything artistically, socially, or spiritually important. It's just a commercial enterprise.

Smith: It's an American dilemma. English actors think of themselves as craftsmen, not movie stars. It's a tradition. America doesn't really have or particularly want this. We're very much of the moment.

Moss: Society's at fault in the sense that we're disposable. I come from the theatre and luckily got the tail end of Jerome Robbins, Gene Saks, Joe Layton, Neil Simon, and learned technique and discipline and to care about becoming good. And also feeling you had something to contribute as opposed to take.

Sept. 11 is so important for actors [because it will make them] realize that most of what is done is shallow and superfluous. I blame us because we don't demand more. Until we say, "No! You can't be in a movie! You're not good enough"-- but people don't do that. Instead older people who have no values feed off young bodies and faces saying, "That's life." Well, that's hell.

Chamian: Every actor has to ask if he wants to be an actor or a star? Those are two different things. It doesn't mean an actor can't become a star, of course.

Hickman: We say we want to act, but we really want ego aggrandizement. We want approval. We want to be rich and famous.

Hickman: But we should want to be wonderful craftsmen and excellent artists. I'd rather train one true artist than a thousand working actors with nothing to say.

Chamian: What about people who are determined but really aren't that talented. Can anybody learn?

Hickman: I believe everyone has a spark of creativity. Stanislavski called it "creative imagination." We're born with it. But it gets corroded until we don't know how to use ourselves creatively.

Chamian: Do you only take students you feel are talented?

Hickman: I never have.

Chamian: You take everyone?

Hickman: When I was under contract at MGM, a young girl came in. My mother and I, now old hands because I had done-- what-- 12 movies, said, "She'll never make it." Her name was Elizabeth Taylor. After that, I stopped being a talent scout. I never judge. I'll work forever with someone if they're passionate enough to really work hard.

Smith: But that doesn't mean I can represent them.

Hickman: If they don't know what they're doing, tell them!

Chamian: I do. I can help people through an audition or a scene, but I must draw the line somewhere.

Hickman: They'll take it from you more than a teacher.

Chamian: Some do. They're very appreciative of direction. But others look at you like, How dare you tell me, lady!

Hickman: They have the wrong attitude. They're scared to death. Any actor with self-esteem wants help. The better the actor, the more they want direction.

Moss: I say to my students, "Look under 'victim' in the dictionary, it says 'actor.'" Actors walk around going "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Oh, I didn't get that part. Oh, poor me. I'll go to the gym, call my agent." And I say, "What did you do to find material?" A career is only as good as the material.

Hickman: You can't wait for anybody to take responsibility, you've got to create your own career. My new students must write a scene based on their life. They often write better drama than what they're being hired to play. I'm going to put on an evening of theatre next year to demonstrate my process with one-acts written by my students.

Moss: I instituted an exercise called "story." I asked my class to remember something that happened to them in the last 20 years-- painful, funny, scary. Have the courage to go with your first image. There is a story there. They then must stage it and play all the characters.

One student of mine, Pamela Gien, who is between 35 and 40-- very attractive, great agent-- could not get arrested. This woman is on the level of a Vanessa Redgrave or a Geraldine Page. She's also enormously gentile and English, and therefore people said she's not "sexy." They didn't see the magic. Her story was about her grandfather murdered in South Africa by a Rhodesian freedom fighter. Both physically and vocally [she played] a 6-year-old child, her parents, grandparents, and her black nanny. I [thought] not only is this an unbelievable actress but this is one of the great stories I have ever heard. We began to work on it. It (The Syringa Tree) opened in New York 14 months ago. It won Drama Desk and Outer Circle Critics awards and Best Play of the Year at the Obies. It was done for television. It's going to be a major film, and Random House has bought it as a novel. All that came from an actor.

Moss: I don't want actors to wake up in the morning thinking, It's my agent's or my manager's job. This is the big secret in our business. Actors feed off the idea of being picked instead of picking themselves.

Chamian: (to Smith) How many actors call you every day, "What's going on, Susan?"

Moss: "What have you got for me, Susan? What kind of an agent are you? I should be up for Dawson's Creek."

Smith: I'm so blessed. I don't get those calls. I'm spoiled. I don't have lazy clients. They are trained, and most are from the theatre. They're articulate and well read. And they're smart. That's the bottom line. A dumb person will be a dumb actor.

Hickman: But you're choosy.

Smith: I'm more than choosy.

Moss: I have compassion for the people we're talking about. But saying to someone, "There's another door to walk through," empowers them.

Smith: But be realistic. There's only so many small theatres to house these people even if they are capable of writing their own things. You're really presenting a narrow course.

Moss: But it can grow. People developing screenplays and developing ...

Smith: I'm talking about people who have done 41 features being asked to read for the third role in a TV movie because they haven't done TV movies. It's easy to put this onto the actor about what they don't do. How about the actors who do the right things? The business is basically saying it makes no difference: "That isn't really where we are today, guys. How do you look? Well, you couldn't possibly be the leading man." How about those people?

Moss: They should get off their asses.

Smith: For all I know they are off their asses and performing summer stock in their garage for the neighbors. I agree it is [creatively] important. But people with families have to make a living.

Moss: I'm saying: Find another way-- direct, write. It's easy to say, "It didn't go the way I wanted." The question is what options a person in the performing arts has when the doors are closed. Sometimes that's when you find your greatest abilities.

Smith: But, over 40, you're told to expect and accept less. The idea of the respected working character actor is so diminished.

Chamian: It's not diminished. With so many actors to choose from, people don't want to use the same people over and over.

Smith: There is another side-- ageism. Character actors now see the market shrinking and shrinking. It's hard to tell an actor who has worked for 25 years and really perfected his craft that every step is a backwards step. You're being asked to trot your wares for people who have no idea who you are, because there is no sense of history.

Hickman: Some of my people think ageism comes into play when they're 25-- especially the women. It's heartbreaking.

Moss: Actors become inflated, which comes from insecurity. They say, "I've done this, so therefore I deserve that." I have a couple of people in my class in their 70s who have such a richness of ability, but they're sad because of ageism. I'm toughest on them. I say, "Get off your ass!" Their eyes blink. "You're fabulously talented! Now go find a play, and put it in a room."

Hickman: I had to consistently reinvent myself. I had a film career as a child actor, then as an actor and writer in television, and I was having trouble moving myself along. My ex-wife said, "Why not go to New York?" I worked on my singing-- I had always been a tap dancer-- and I ended up on Broadway in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, replacing Robert Morse. It was the best thing I ever did, because it brought me to the theatre. I had to constantly reinvent myself. I remember Henry Fonda reinventing himself.

Moss: And Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn....

Hickman: Bert Lahr said, "Every bit of my career has been a reinvention. Once I get to a dead end, I reinvent myself." He was talking about Waiting for Godot. He said finally he was a legitimate actor. He'd done everything and was finding the apex of his career. In this business, if you haven't been somewhere in the last 15 minutes, they've forgotten you. Get your ego out of the way.

Moss: There is no "they." There's no "The business forgot me!" You put yourself in somebody's face and say, "I exist!" It makes me crazy when I hear actors say, "There's 'them,' and then there's 'us.'" That's crap.

Smith: I'm not somebody who mollycoddles actors.

Moss: I know that about you, Susan.

Smith: But what the world is doing to real actors I don't find attractive. The difference between when I started and today is primarily the way the actors are perceived.

Moss: That is their fault.

Smith: That's where we disagree.

Moss: Tremendously. Because I feel, if said from a victim's perspective, it cannot be changed. The truth is, it can be changed if people get off their butts long enough to form their own production company. It isn't easy, Susan. But people do it every day.

Smith: I'm running a business, trying to get actors employed. You're fulfilling their creative juices. That used to be in concert with actually making a living. Now, the two are less in concert. I can't tell people with children not to work.

Chamian: Then you take less-- you look for less because it's still about acting. If I were not able to cast big feature films-- and believe me, I did a lot of horrible television until Steven Spielberg changed my life-- I'd make a decision. Do I need to support my family? Then I'll do television and be happy. Or I'll quit and open up my shoe store or a restaurant or whatever I feel passionate about. Actors just can't have this sense of entitlement-- this is who I was. Well, we all become somebody, and then we're not somebody anymore. It's unfortunate. I've seen it happen to a million actors. And I feel terrible for them.

Hickman: The most important thing I can do is improve the image of the craft. John Grisham recently said something that made me so angry. Katie Couric, I think, asked him, "Aren't you going to be in the movie [Mickey, a 2002 release]?" And Grisham said, "Yeah, I play an athletic director. I've been athletic all my life. I've been an athletic director. There was $10,000 in the budget for this role, and I said to the director [Hugh Wilson], 'Why waste that on an actor?'"

Moss: Oh, my God!

Q: Grisham is producing and independently financing that film.

Hickman: I was so angry; I started talking to the television set. Actors are not appreciated unless we're commercially successful. The art is not appreciated.

Chamian: Anybody can be an actor.

Smith: Maybe we should lay some blame with the unions, which allow almost anybody to become a member. We have what, 99,000 members of Screen Actors Guild?

Chamian: Some of my associates-- casting directors, producers, directors-- don't treat actors very nicely. That's a huge problem. It's frustrating when directors don't know the body of work of well-respected actors. Some directors have seen every movie. They know actors. Others must be educated about everybody: "What have I seen them in again?"

Smith: That's if the director even meets them. Nowadays there are phantom directors: "Send tapes." How do they learn to talk to the actor on the set if they won't even meet them before they get there?

Chamian: You have to trust the casting director to some degree. It's another tool that's not going away. It's good for certain directors-- not for others. Some won't cast without it. And then you have no choice.

Smith: Whenever actors go in to see you, Denise, they feel treated like a human being. I could give you a laundry list for whom that is not the case. You're asked to wait two hours, and nobody comes out. Do you think an actor can give the same reading after sitting two hours in a reception room?

Chamian: You come from a place that agents just don't come from anymore. I was trying to find an agent for a friend who is so well trained. Most agents I sent him to said, "Well, can I make any money off this guy?"

Smith: They don't care about building a career. The bottom line is lusting after the holy grail-- i.e., money.

Chamian: And look at the salaries. If actors making $15 million or $20 million knew how little their colleagues were paid in comparison-- it's just unconscionable. Especially in light of 9/11, if that's what's going to trigger our conscience. If these actors would give back even half a million of their salary, we-- as casting directors-- could pay people their quotes, instead of scale-plus-10. I blame the agents, too, for being greedy.

Moss: But, by the same token, if somebody can open a movie, they should be given a commensurate salary.

Chamian: Absolutely, but not up front when no one knows if the movie will succeed. In success you pay people. I'm not saying they don't deserve it. But other actors do, too. One actor is not responsible for a movie. A movie is a painting. Many people make up the landscape.

Hickman: Anyone acting because they want to make a living is in the wrong business. It's never been about that.

Smith: What about people who have to act?

Hickman: Then you act whether you're making a living or not.

Chamian: I hear people say, "We're only going to pay this actor $10,000 a week?" What if he doesn't work for another 40 weeks? I don't know what to say-- $10,000 is a lot more than some people make in six months.

Smith: It's a lot more than scale.

Chamian: But even scale is a lot of money to the average American who doesn't make $2,500 a week. I don't want to contradict what I said. People should be paid their quotes. But if you want to act, and that's what people are offering, $2,500 a week is not a terrible living.

Hickman: I think that's a lot of money. But you can't guarantee yourself a living in the acting business. You just can't.

Chamian: That's one of the best things you can tell actors. And really, I am a huge advocate of fighting for actors' salaries. But you have to be realistic about what these huge corporations are doing. And not just the corporations. Directors want the money for their special effects-- not actors.

Smith: What Denise said is true-- reward people. But you can't build that in, because you'll be lied to. I just got a statement [claiming that the 1990 film] Misery [which stars Smith's client Kathy Bates, who earned an Oscar for the role] still hasn't even broken even. When you're up against that, where do you go?

Chamian: We have to eliminate the shame of scale-plus-10 and of going in to read. Scale-plus-10 is going to be around for a while-- especially now. If an actor wants the job, he has to compete. Come in and let someone see who you are today if you haven't done a movie in two or three years. Give my director an opportunity to meet a good actor.

Hickman: Do you have trouble getting established actors to come in and meet a director or producer?

Chamian: Almost never [will they refuse to come in for a meeting] on a feature film. Certain people have a body of work and don't want to read. I agree with that. I'll say to a director, "You can't ask this actor to read-- there's enough film to look at." I don't think Kathy Bates or actors of her stature should come in.

Smith: I recently had to make a composite reel of Brian Dennehy for a director. Twenty-six years I've worked with Brian. He just won a Tony, and this director had seen the play, so I don't understand.

Chamian: There are so many people in the business. You have actors whose careers span 50 to 60 years and directors who are 25 and can't catch up on all that. I wish more agents would say, "Just do the reading-- meet the person." You never know where that will lead. Don't stay at home because you're too big for that.

Q: How is theatre perceived in Los Angeles? You say, "Get into a play." Does this help a career? Is theatre in Los Angeles a viable art form ?

Hickman: It's auditioning. [Los Angeles theatre] isn't really committed to the art of the drama-- enhancing the understanding of human life. It's about getting a casting director or somebody in the industry to watch and offer a job.

Chamian: That's definitely true in smaller theatres.

Moss: The Equity Waivers.

Hickman: This has never been a theatre town. When I was growing up, nobody in film or television went to the theatre.

Moss: In the '50s (with shows such as) Studio One, Playhouse 90, and U.S. Steel Hour, the talent came from the theatre. Now the tradition is television, which is about appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Hickman: For five years I was an executive at CBS working for Fred Silverman. When I first put on my necktie and played executive, I'd sit in a room with some of the brightest men in television, saying, "But it's a good show; we shouldn't cancel it. Let's try another time period." And they kept saying, "What are you talking about?" It took me six months to realize good meant a rating. Good didn't mean artistic.

Moss: It has to do with writers, too. They don't go into the theatre; they go directly to television and movies and become crushed, contemptuous, and shallow. It's all about chasing the ring-- and not who they might have been as a writer.

Hickman: They don't learn their craft. They don't know what the word dramaturgy is. They can't spell it. I was a member of the Writers Guild when I was young. I read The Art of Dramatic Writing at 15. I've always loved the whole process.

Moss: I'm building a theatre-- the Edgemar Center for the Arts-- and I'm building it for writers. At the fund-raiser, I showed a compilation of all the great films made from plays. People were aghast.

We did an evening of Romeo and Juliet. We performed Shakespeare's balcony scene. We showed a clip from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and a clip from Franco Zeffirelli's. A flamenco troupe danced based on musical themes, and dancers did a West Side Story suite. I said to the audience, "Out of that one play came all this art." How can you say the writing isn't everything?

Chamian: There's certainly some value to doing theatre-- just getting up there each night-- no matter the reason. I'd rather see an actor do that than a cold-reading workshop.

Smith: What's that?

Chamian: You learn how to do your one audition scene. There's nothing organic about it. It's not a real acting class. But a lot of actors are doing these.

Smith: I can't tell you how many people said to me after Death of a Salesman played in Los Angeles last year, "You know, I meant to see that." It was here two months.

Hickman: Have we solved anything?

Smith: Nothing.

Chamian: We've offered good information, I think.

Moss: We've had a little drama-- that, of course, is what we're all about. We've had lunch. We all make a nice living, so fuck 'em!

Hickman: I love this quote: "The difference between the champ and the bum is the champ says, 'I can only take one more punch,' and the bum says, 'I can't take one more punch!'"

Moss: One of the chapters of a book I'm writing is about Mike Nichols. He is my symbol of success. I failed several times for Mike Nichols in various humiliating auditions-- but he kept calling me back. At the opening night party for God's Favorite, he said to me "You were very good tonight, Larry-- very truthful." I wrote, "My God! Mike Nichols said I was good!"

It's come full circle. Mike Nichols is the patron saint of The Syringa Tree. He and Diane Sawyer came to see it and told all their friends to go. So from my beginning as a 20-year-old failure to his telling everyone about the play-- I thought-- that is a life struggle. Ultimately what I'm saying is, people have such reservoirs of possibilities if they can just keep opening up the doors.

Chamian: And it doesn't take big money. It takes years.

Moss: It takes a long time.

Hickman: It takes a life.