On Making Friends With Complexity

Photo Source: @hendraar via Twenty20

In a recent interview, Jake Gyllenhaal said, “I do what I do because I love the complexities of human beings.” Drama, comedy, and storytelling of all kind celebrate our complexity and at the same time, help us contend with it. This means that as actors, we can’t escape complexity in the roles we take on—it comes with the territory. In fact, it is the territory. No complexity, no stories. It’s that simple.

At some point along your journey to becoming the best actor you can be, some of your training should involve wrestling with complexity. And I’m not kidding when I say wrestling. No matter what the technique or approach, coming to terms with characters’ priorities and decisions in a truly empathetic way is hard work. It’s also extremely satisfying, but it will ask a lot of you. It will ask you to recognize that the pat and easy ways in which we often first try to understand a character’s concerns and actions usually won’t cut it. In this kind of work, the low-hanging fruit is usually rotten. The good stuff is inevitably going to involve substantial effort to grasp.

It’s human nature to want the task at hand to be an easy one. We want to believe we can learn a “simple technique” or “one weird trick” that will empower us to reach great heights of achievement in our work. But in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Nothing any good isn’t hard.” If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that anyone promising that learning to act masterfully is going to be a walk in the park is peddling flim-flam.

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Learning to act skillfully is as formidable a task as learning to play the violin, speak Persian, or become a black belt in a martial art. It involves patience, stamina, and humility. In particular, it involves the humility of accepting that we won’t always nail it, that sometimes we’ll even crash and burn. It also involves the humility of accepting that we won’t always understand everything immediately and the faith that if we persevere, that understanding will come.

The ability to let go of the desire for things to be easy is probably the single most essential step in the maturation process of an artist. Once we do that, we become spiritually ready to face the complexities of the experience of a character like Walter White. We may still have a ways to go in terms of actual skill or craft, but no amount of skill or craft or talent or determination is going to help us if we haven’t accepted this fundamental fact: this is not going to be easy.

Our audiences are leading complex lives in an increasingly complex world and they look to us and the stories we participate in telling to offer them some comfort and courage in the face of that complexity. To be equal to the task, we need to embrace the difficulty inherent in our work. We need to embrace the discomfort of not knowing if we will succeed and the uncertainty that will accompany us for much of our journey. If we can face these facts of our work squarely, we will cease to be tempted by easy answers and shortcuts, and we’ll be on our way to being able to deliver the depth that the scripts we work on ask of us.

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Andrew Wood
Andrew Wood is a graduate of the MFA Directing program at the Yale School of Drama, and he has a Ph.D. from Stanford University in literature. In 2004, he founded his acting studio in San Francisco, and expanded it to Los Angeles in 2008.