The Root of Good Acting (Pt. 4)

The first common mistake that will lead you down a very bad path is judging the character. To me, the root of all prejudice stems from our inability to see ourselves in other people. That is what prejudice is all about. We, as human beings, have a desire to look at the world simplistically in terms of good and evil. We've been conditioned to do that. We were watching cartoons as children that were good versus evil. It is a basic formula, something that most of us grew up with, and it's very comforting because we want to believe that evil has horns and a tail. That way, you know that if you see it, you'll recognize it. Therefore, you'll be safe from it because it will be obvious to you. And good, of course, we want to see with the halo and the wings, the heavenly music, and glow. That is a very nice way of looking at the world; however, it is anathema to actors. It is the opposite of how you want to see anything. But that is our tendency.

We all have a self-concept, and generally our self-concept has little to do with who we actually are. To be great as an actor means you have to confront yourself, you have to know every part of yourself. If you look at a character in a script and you say, "That's not me," if there's a part of yourself you don't see, right away you are judging the character. Most of us think of ourselves as deep people who have profound conversations. So imagine that you look at a scene in the script where the character is gossiping and you think, "What a superficial human being. This person is a gossip." You've labeled the character and already judged. I like to challenge my students, "Okay, you don't see yourself as having that level of conversation? Ever watch the Oscars?" And of course every hand goes up. "Ever watch the pre-show? Ever have a discussion about what people are wearing?" Yes! Part of the fun of the award ceremony is watching the red carpet before and after, doing our own best and worst dressed lists. Everyone has done that, but they don't incorporate that into their self-concept. They don't think of themselves as a lightweight personality, and again, that's another way of judging the character—thinking only of yourselves as deep. We are all capable of gossip. That's why it is such a dead-end acting question when people ask themselves, "What would I do?" and they answer quite easily, "I would never do this." The operative question for actors is not "what would I do?" but rather "what would make me do this? What would make me do what the character is doing?"

When we pick up a script, our job is to justify, not judge. Let's talk about some performances I think are absolutely great where the actor or actress did not fall into that trap. I look at Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, playing Idi Amin. He justified that character. He played a human being who has needs and is trying to do what he thinks is right, and therefore, he is looking at everyone else as if they are the problem. That made that performance great, even more frightening because you see a human being there. That is your job. Look at Helen Mirren in The Queen. What was so great about that? You could define that character as a woman who doesn't feel, which would be a terrible mistake. Instead, she played a human being who longs to feel. This is a very important thing when you're playing royalty. Performers will crash and burn if the actor is posing and playing an idea of what they think is a monarch—as opposed to a human being who is in this circumstance, in this situation who has needs, who gets up in the morning and goes to sleep at night. Judging the character happens in contemporary work and happens very often in any kind of period work. We tend to think that the time before our birth, our own birth was weird. You must see that this was a human being who lived, who wrote letters, who had friends, who had been betrayed, who had loved, who has had their heart broken. If you can realize that this person had to perform the basic tasks of living, eating and drinking, getting dressed and undressed, washing (at least occasionally), how can you play an image or an idea? You will see the human being like you, with the same wants, the same needs, the same desires. Throughout history, human beings have lived, loved, lost. The emotions have been the same.

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), have been published at over the last few week.