When Helen Hunt accepted her Golden Globe, SAG, and Academy Award for As Good as It Gets, among those on her "thank you" list all three times was teacher and coach, Larry Moss. Moss, who's been teaching for 26 years, began as an actor in New York, where he studied with Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner. He performed in several Broadway plays and musicals in the '60s and '70s until teacher Warren Robertson gave him the opportunity to lead his own class. He hasn't stopped since.
Most recently, in addition to his classes, Moss has been branching out into directing. Last month at Seattle Rep, he mounted a successful production of The Syringa Tree, a play developed from one of his student's class work, which was recently optioned for a New York production in the fall. And his first film short, Dos Corazonas, has just won awards for best cinematography and audience favorite at the Malibu Film Festival.
Back Stage West: Is there a particular acting technique or method that you favor?
Larry Moss: I don't like dogma. As a student of acting, I worked with many good teachers, but they were self righteous about the technique that they taught. In Stella Adler's case, she said your personal life isn't big enough for the theatre, it's too small to work with. That's why she hated Lee Strasberg. She felt he was a man who kept going into the interior of the actor and trying to get everything from inside them instead of imagining. She'd say that you were wrong to use your own experiences. The truth is that most actors use both.
I believe that the aim of a teacher should be to help the individual students find the tools to realize their greatest potential. When you try to teach from a singular point-of-view or method, you're going to hurt the student.
BSW: So how do you begin to find what techniques are best for an individual actor?
Moss: In my opinion, the three things that actors need the most is relaxation, imagination, and the ability to analyze a script. I start with relaxation. When you're not aware of where tension lies in your body, you carry that tension and the audience can feel it. Your tension stops them from seeing the character because you're in the way. Your tension is now the character's tension. When I look at someone's body, I can see, from so many years of teaching , where they're holding muscle tension.
When I work with people on beginning exercises, first comes finding out where the tension is and breathing into it to release it. It's trying to define it and figure out what the muscle would say if it could talk. Because we talk from our heads, but acting is experiential. If learning to act was about only ideas, you could read books and become a great actor. But the body learns to act, not the mind.
So to start, I work on the body to get them aware of the fact that their shoulder is up to their ear or they're holding in their stomach muscles or they've locked their knees or they've pushed their chest out or their head is forward, etc. That kind of tension comes from holding your muscles to defend yourself from society. You can't be a good actor by defending yourself muscularly. You've got to let go and that always brings up pain. When the actor lets go of the tension in their body the emotional pain comes back which makes them want to tense up again. And that's just the beginning to get somebody to relax.
BSW: What kind of relaxation exercises do you do?
Moss: I will have people sit in a chair and take a few minutes to breathe and then try to feel where in the body they're conscious that they're holding. It's extraordinary to see people realize for the first time that they only breathe from their upper chest and that they've never taken a full breath. The minute that a student who's never released their tension begins to breathe deeply from inside themselves, from their diaphragm, they learn what the potential of their acting instrument is because they unlock the muscle tension that stops the free association which you have to have to be a good artist.
There are, of course, many different relaxation exercises I do. But once the instrument is open, then I go into script analysis. How to break down a script has to do with understanding the playwright and understanding the times in which the play takes place. You have to understand the period's music, the clothes, the morals, the politics, all of it. A play that takes place in the '70s is very different from a play that takes place in the '80s. Once you teach students to read the play with a view of the world, they begin to be stimulated by ideas which are bigger than just their lives.
I don't believe that acting is a metaphysical, airy thing that you can't get a hold of. Acting is about accomplishing things. When you go into a scene you're trying to accomplish something for an emotionally justified reason.
BSW: So you work with intentions.
Moss: I work enormously with intentions. And to find those, you need to know who the character is. You've got to understand their background. I'm a great believer in building a character's biography, because once you've done that, you walk into the play or screenplay with a full life. Things like the character's education, religion, relationship to parents, past events that were troubling or exciting, politics, dreams, etc. And what you create should be a combination of your own experiences and your imagination. If you just use yourself and not your imagination or you just use your imagination and not yourself, you're going to come off half-baked. I think it's absurd for any teacher to say that an acting student could just walk in and be themselves in any play. It's almost sophomoric and it's very, very destructive to the actor.
BSW: A lot of people seem to think, particularly for film, that charisma is all that really matters.
Moss: I don't know what charisma is except a quality that demands your attention. When you look at Meryl Streep or Robert DeNiro or Jack Nicholson, they make choices that are as big as life and full of emotional passion. When Susan Sarandon extends her entire hand to the window as Sean Penn is dying in Dead Man Walking, that's a big gesture. Had she done something smaller, it wouldn't have broken our hearts. Stella Adler said that life is big so why bring it down to something little and unimportant?
Look at Nick Nolte. You can watch his work without the sound and still understand what he's going through. It's all in his body. What's important in acting is what's not said. A good actor will tell you things with his body that they'll never say with their mouths. You can watch all of the great actors without sound.
BSW: In an interview we did last year, James Cameron said that he believes that great film acting happens when the emotions are contained, but they spill around the edges.
Moss: Yes, film acting is all about containment, but you have to have something to contain. The problem that some people have is they have nothing to contain and that's when you see bad acting. All good film and television acting has an enormous volcano in it that's being held back.
BSW: Do you believe anybody can be taught to act?
Moss: The basics, sure. But I find that most people who go to acting class don't love acting. They love attention. There comes a point in your development as an actor when you find out whether you have the imagination, the love of the literature, the love to create a character, and the desire to be a conduit of the human experience.
When you're excited, not about you, but about ideas and writing and other lives, you're an actor. If you just want someone to tell you you're wonderful, you're not an actor, you're a show-off and will probably give up acting. Furthermore, you're probably self-destructive, because you're not interested in acting but in satisfying some emotional aspect from the past. If you don't have a good relationship with yourself, no matter how talented you are, you're going to screw up your career.
Your motive can't be to try to heal your past by acting. You've got to have a relationship with yourself in which you believe that you're valuable and have something to give. Acting is about what you get to give, not what you try to get.
BSW: I think that a lot of actors are trying to heal without even realizing it. They're victimized and they seek acting as an outlet without even knowing it.
Moss: I believe that actors are born victims. To be an actor is to be a victim, because you're always in the child role of asking somebody to be creative, and you mustn't fall into that trap. You must find a way to create a place to act, to write, to direct, to produce, if you have any of those abilities. You can use yourself. And you can grow. Listen to music you don't ordinarily listen to, take a look at buildings, find a way to travel, go to the theatre, read books, read history. To be an actor is to be educated and if you stay small and you don't go out into the world and learn new things, you won't be able to really play different kinds of people.
Nobody can stop you from growing and if nobody hires you, you get a couple of people together and you do a play. You don't sit and say "Poor me, the business owes me a living." Show business doesn't owe anybody anything. If you choose to be an actor, it's about what you get to give and until you understand that, you'll be forever a child and you'll be forever at everybody else's mercy. And it grieves me, because I think actors are essentially brave, creative, intelligent people. I hate to see them victimized by staying children.
BSW: And stopping themselves from growing.
Moss: Even though I've been teaching for years, I'm still growing every day. I know how much I have to learn and how much I have to learn about teaching. In many ways, my students teach me‹particularly the ones that are on fire. I have to keep on my toes, because I have some students that are so extravagantly committed to the craft that when I walk into class I know I've got to really, really know my stuff. I'm lucky enough to work with students that are talented and really have a work ethic. They teach me. I give them the tools and then they give it back through their work.
BSW: How can an actor get into your class?
Moss: I don't think I'm right for every student and I don't think every student is right for me. I have a certain personality and a certain way of working. The people that should work with me tend to find me. They send pictures and resum s and when there's an opening in the class I look through my files and I read the letters. I ask people to write letters to get into class and I read them very carefully. How people express themselves and their desire to be in this class means a lot to me. Once they get into class, the only thing I require is that people work hard. It's really hard work for a lot of people who come to Hollywood to get into a sitcom or a series.
BSW: Are you terribly expensive?
Moss: I have actors who hold down two jobs in order to take class. I think that your education as an actor is something that you pay for because you care about it. It's like therapy. I had a therapist who once said to me "If you don't think enough of yourself to pay for therapy, how do you think you're going to get well?" I don't think the classes would be as productive for the students if they weren't making some sacrifices.
I don't think that life is about getting it easy. I don't think being an artist is easy. I think you get to earn things in life. That's been my own personal experience.
BSW: Do you have any final words?
Moss: The only thing I would say is that the most fantastic thing in the world is to be creative. If you're lucky enough to be a creative person, be consistent and disciplined. Get the volcano going every day. Never have self pity for longer than an hour. Don't let anybody tell you who you are or what you can do. I came from the bottom of the heap in terms of my feelings about myself and through hard work, I feel like I'm a friend to myself now and that's changed my life. So educate yourself, become friends with yourself, don't expect anything and give everything! BSW
You may contact Larry Moss and his partner, Michelle Danner, at (310) 393-3801.