The Root of Good Acting

Article Image

The following is an excerpt from "Fine on Acting: A Vision of the Craft," by Howard Fine.

Personalization is the foundation upon which the house built. Step number one of my eight steps is phrased, "Who am I?"—think of that "I" as standing for identification. "How do I identify myself in the role?" That is what actors bring. Let's look at who we are and our range of behaviors. Often, there are behaviors that we don't like to see inside of ourselves. First of all, we have to understand ourselves, in order to personalize effectively. We have to know that every character we're going to play exists inside of us. Actors have got to be able to play everything from Mother Theresa to a serial killer. Obviously, it's easier to see ourselves as Mother Theresa. It's easier to look at the most positive qualities that human beings have and say, "That's me. I see myself." It is a lot harder to look at a child molester and find identification, and yet that is what you must do. You must find identification. I don't care if you are playing a character that disgusts you, you must find identification. What prepares us to do this? Rigorous self-observation. In most of our day- to-day exchanges, we tend to notice what the other person does. We are rarely as observant about ourselves. Working effectively as an actor means knowing who you are.

In order to do this, we have to take inventory of our own lives, of our own experiences, starting with our earliest childhood memories, all the way through to today. We have to look at who we are and what we've been through and how we've responded. We have to look at every emotion. Yes, love, yes, joy, but we also have to look at hate, anger, fear, loss, jealousy, shame. We have to be able to look at everything we have experienced in emotional detail. Ask yourselves who you are, and what you've been through? Confront yourselves. I mean honestly, unflinchingly. One of the biggest mistakes an actor can make is judging the character. The reason judging the character is such an easy trap to fall into is that we fail to see ourselves in the character. If you look at a role and you say "that's not me," there is a part of yourself that you do not see.

There are two ways to explore our emotions, and most times we end up using a combination of the two. Unfortunately, there are rival methods of acting training that espouse one or the other. The Strasberg folks tend to rely solely on sense-memory or emotional recall, whereas the Meisner camp believes only in the use of imagination. The truth is that you cannot separate the two. The imagination is called for in order to believe in the fictional circumstances of the script, even if we are using real events as a way to connect to the story. Remember, you can't really use one or the other. You need both at all times.

Let's start with emotional recall. There is a psychological concept called "affective memory." The theory of affective memory holds that every experience that we have been through emotionally is recorded and exists in our subconscious. For use in acting, we need to know how to trigger affective memory when we wish to use it. This is part our personalization work. Affective memories are often triggered in everyday life, but at random. For example, you're walking down the street and you smell something that reminds you of a food your grandmother used to make, or it's the cologne or perfume of somebody that you loved. Or, you are driving the car and a song comes on the radio, and suddenly you are taken back to the moment you fell in love. What we wish for acting technique is no different than the On-Demand on cable television. You want it when you want it. If you are willing to examine parts of yourselves that other people—non-actors—are not willing to examine or don't need to examine, you will be able to use affective memory in your work. You could be an emotionally cut-off insurance agent and still be successful in that career. You cannot, however, be a successful actor and be cut-off. You must be available emotionally.

How do we trigger affective memory and how does this work? In my classes I like to have people start with physical objects, things that they have with them, have collected. All of us have things that we have emotional attachments to, and sometimes, even after we've moved, we keep these things with us for no practical need other than an emotional connection. It might be a locket, a photograph, a trophy, a ring, a letter. These things can start you on your journey into emotional recall. Let me give you an example of an emotional recall exercise from my own life experience. I had a German grandmother. For her, food equaled love. Anytime you walked into her home, she tried to feed you. Her greatest fear was that she would get placed into a nursing home when she got older. She used to talk about it all the time. Lo and behold, when she got older, her children put her into a nursing home. I was too young to do anything about that. I still have guilt about not visiting her more often once she was in.

The truth is that I felt a mixture of shame and guilt which caused me to abandon her to her fate. Here's what occurred the last time I saw her alive: I'm walking down the hall of the nursing home and there are fluorescent lights above, and I get the smell of the alcohol and disinfectant. I hear one patient screaming for her mother. She's probably ninety, screaming "Mommy, Mommy!" And it's horrifying. I see my grandmother down at the end of a corridor. She's in a wheelchair and half of her foot has been amputated due to diabetes complications. She's wearing very thick glasses and her hair is gray, which she never would've allowed when she was well. She is very frail and very thin. I see her wheelchair, and she has a bowl of Jell-O on her little tray table. It doesn't have real whipped topping on it. It has the imitation topping. As I walk toward her, she reaches up and offers me the Jell-O. If I focus on that Jell-O, that image brings back the entire memory for me of the nursing home. As I am thinking about it now, it moves me to tears.

That's how an emotional recall exercise works. We start in the present and work ourselves backward to the specifics of the memory. When we do this work, we are not trying to feel emotion. If you try to feel the emotion, it won't come. You remember as much detail as you can, the specifics of the memory, and use your five senses—sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. As you do that, something will move in on you. Something will hit you—something important that you can use in your work.

Howard Fine has been teaching acting for more than 25 years. He headed the Acting Department at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York City, then founded the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Los Angeles. Additional excerpts from his new book, "Fine on Acting: A Vision of the Craft" (Havenhurst Books), will be published at over the next month.