Something to Not Think About

Article Image

Whether it's for a play, a commercial, episodic television, or a feature film, how you approach a role is the most essential decision you can make as an actor. Teaching students how to prepare is paramount in most actor training programs, and the goal is always the same: to insure that the actor is in the optimum state of creativity when the moment of truth arrives. To accomplish this, most schools advocate similar techniques. The words "break down the scene," "find your objective," "find the beats," "find something in your own life that correlates with the character" can be heard in drama departments and acting schools across the country. Many emphasize the importance of extensive rehearsal and homework on the character, including a bio and a backstory.

I have been fortunate enough to appear in more than 200 television shows and feature films, including such major ones as "Field of Dreams," "Con Air," "Catch Me If You Can," and most recently Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," as fired Detroit auto worker Samuels. The number of times I've used the aforementioned techniques? Zero.

Though this might cause contentious debate for as long as there are actors, I propose there is a different if not better way. It is a way of working that is being validated more and more by neurological research. It's difficult to label, but for our purposes I'll call it "choiceless awareness."

I first heard of this intriguing approach when I arrived in Los Angeles in 1976. To further my university training, I immediately set out to find a good acting class. I actually sat in on one of Stella Adler's classes, but it felt as if I were re-plowing the same field. Then I met Charles Eric Conrad. The moment I joined his class, everything changed. His approach was a 180-degree turn from traditional training. The work being done in his class was consistently powerful, spontaneous, and exquisite. I booked the first job I went out for working the way he suggested. It was two scenes on "Starsky and Hutch." I never looked back.

After four and a half years of study, I left Charles' studio and embarked on a gratifying 30-year career. In 1991, Charles called and said he was considering retirement and asked me if I would like to continue the teaching. I was honored then and am honored now to carry it on at my acting school.

The Difference

At my studio, our objective is clarity. John Cassavetes called it the "ability of not knowing." Here's how it works:

The human brain consists of two lobes. The left brain is analytical. It is the voice in your head. It is the part of the brain that plans, worries, anticipates the future, and can often make us miserable. It is linear and can think of only one thing at a time. The right brain is the realm of the senses. Instinct and intuition reside there. The two lobes are connected by a cablelike structure called the corpus callossum, through which information passes back and forth. Research has shown that a high degree of activity in the left brain (thinking) causes a corresponding cessation of activity in the right brain (sensing). Essentially, the training we do is intended to quiet the left brain so we can hear our hearts. For centuries, people have called it "the wee small voice within."

The psychologist Carl Jung was a pioneer in this area. Some have suggested that what Jung called the collective unconscious is located in the right brain. In that deep place that listens to the voice in our head is every human being who ever lived. We have been men; we have been women. We have been a murderer and been murdered. We have conquered and been conquered. We have loved and lost and loved again. This is incredibly powerful information for an actor. If we quiet the left brain, we create the capacity for the experiences of another to pass through us—in other words, the role. Based on Jung's writings, Charles theorized that the collective unconscious has an intelligence of its own and that this creative intelligence is autonomous. It is the primordial, instinctive intelligence of the jungle cat.

This may all sound esoteric to you, but you must remember that it's your left brain that is judging or questioning it. It is actually extremely pragmatic. Some examples: An actor working in choiceless awareness appears extremely confident, because doubt exists only in the left brain. An actor without a preconceived idea of what he or she is going to do is in what Cassavetes called "the realm of all possibility," so the actor is a joy to direct and isn't threatened by last-minute changes.

Eschewing Rehearsal

The top directors are hip to this. In a six-month period a few years ago, I worked with Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Brian De Palma back to back. All three eschewed rehearsal. They wanted that first take on film. It's the same reason Miles Davis paid his musicians not to rehearse. He felt that their excitement in playing the arrangement for the first time could be felt in performance. I understand that Woody Allen doesn't even let his actors see their lines until they arrive on the set. Spielberg was quoted as saying, "Every time an actor says a line, they lose some of their innocence."

As a practical example, I will walk you through my process in booking and filming "Up in the Air." I received my sides prior to the audition for casting director Mindy Marin. I read the dialogue flat, out loud, in a monotone once. Immediately I could feel things shifting around inside me. So I put down the sides. At the casting office, I ran the dialogue one more time in the same way. We emphasize sight-reading mechanics at my school, so I was good to go. I went in and read. It felt like the character hit me in the head with a hammer. I was asked back to read for Jason Reitman the next day. It was different from the day before, because I really couldn't remember what had happened then, but the hammer came down again. Three months later, I'm in St. Louis filming with George Clooney and Anna Kendrick—who is a doll, by the way. Same thing. I memorized it flat, out loud, in a monotone, and did it for the first time on the set. I sensed it was going well when wardrobe had to change my shirt after two takes because of tear stains. It seemed that my optimum state of creativity was present at the moment of truth.

Two things about this way of working are particularly dear to me. The first is that it is not a concept you have to believe in. It is not a theory. If you give the "ability of not knowing" a try with enthusiasm and an open mind, you will have a powerful experience that will verify it for you. Second, it makes acting really fun. All of the homework and "breaking down" can get tedious. And making choices automatically raises the question "Am I making the right choice?" When I was a kid playing cowboys and Indians on the Colorado plains, I didn't ask, "Is my Indian a Lakota or a Pawnee?" or "Did my Indian have a troubled childhood?" When the game started, I immediately became a sinewy warrior galloping my imaginary Appaloosa across the prairie. Choiceless awareness brings back the childlike wonder that made us want to act in the first place.

Steve Eastin is a veteran character actor and teacher in Los Angeles; he runs the Steve Eastin Studio in Toluca Lake, Calif. He lives in Burbank with his two daughters: Shayne, the lead singer in the band Spider Problem, and Danica, who is finishing her junior year at Chico State University.