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What’s It All About?

January 5, 2013

So one of the many many many things I’ve picked up from the Inside Acting Podcast is a list of books that they recommend.  The first one I picked up is Michael Caine’s autobiography, What’s It All About?.  This.  Book.  Is.  Amazing.  Even the boring parts are interesting.  And it is fascinating to read about someone whose dream was to be an actor and truly worked at it and was unsuccessful for ten years before finally becoming a star (without any formal training, I might add). 

Here are the passages that I found most interesting/inspiring/educational. They are out of context, so you’ll have to read the book to get that context, but I think the messages still come through.

                “My view is that I was paid two hundred pounds per week to do the actual acting, just like the coal miner; the rest of the money was to pay me for the ten years that I spent trying to get to that position.    As an unknown actor you are an outcast.  You cannot rent a car, get insured or borrow from the bank.  In most cases people are reluctant to rent you a room, and if you do get one, the telephone company will probably refuse to supply you with a telephone.  The gas and electricity companies make you pay in advance for service.  The world leaves us to our own devices – until one in a thousand of us survives this baptism of fire and then, it seems to me, they resent us when we are successful.  Our job has no guarantees and that is why the survivors are paid so much.”

Now, he is, of course, talking about trying to be an actor in London in the 1950s.  Times are certainly different now, and it is not difficult for actors to get a day job and get all the necessary things for survival in the world at large.  However, I know so many artists who live hand to mouth, month to month, always scraping by and often (like myself) asking parents to pay rent, sometimes for stretches at a time.  And to actually make money with art?  Most of the successful actors in Seattle that I know also have another source of income, whether it’s a second job or teaching in the arts, or something along those lines.  Consistently making enough money through art alone?  Very rare.  It is the last line of this quote that resonates with me the most.  If there was one real take-away from this book, it is that there truly is no guarantee.  After several Oscar nominations and one win, after much critical and box office success, after working with many of the Hollywood greats, Michael still had to take a small role in Jaws 4 because he needed the money.  Life happens, and steady work is never a guarantee.  Be smart with your money, people.

                “The moral of this little tale is good for everybody, not just show people, and it is this: if you want to do something with your life, never listen to anybody else, no matter how clever or expert they may appear.  Keep your eyes open and your ears shut, and as the Americans say  –  ‘Go for it.'”

This is the best kind of advice.  All along the way, there were people telling Michael Caine that he would never make it, but he never gave up.  I would, however, add to this that you shouldn’t always keep your ears shut.  There were also people telling Michael that they saw a bright future for him as an actor.  I think that we as artists need to have selective hearing: we need to be open to constructive criticism and accept praise when it is due, but filter out all the negativity.

                “Now the theatre is about ‘acting’; the cinema is about ‘reacting’.”

I’d never thought about it put this way before.  I’ve been told all my career that acting is reacting, but when you think about it, this statement is more correct.  In theatre, the audience often looks at the person who is speaking, unless the staging is such that the audience’s attention is directed another way.  In film, however, the director and editor decide what the audience is looking at, and many times the camera will cut to someone who isn’t speaking to see their reaction.  That is not to say that you don’t ever “act” on camera.  The camera will certainly be on you when you’re speaking as well, but film is the only medium where the audience is forced to look at you when you’re not talking.

                “Both of us had worked on films before with basically theatre actors and it is always hard to pull their performance down from acting, which is the theatre, to behaving, which is film acting.  On stage you have actors so you expect them to act, but in films you have real people and they don’t act, they simply behave and react.”

This goes along with the last quote (in fact, it’s on the very next page in the book), yet has its own merit.  In live theatre, the audience is already suspending their disbelief, but in film, they expect to see things to be perfectly lifelike, even if it’s a special effect (which are often nothing like real life).  So one has to appear to be more realistic than real life, as opposed to larger than life, which is often the case in the theatre.

                [In regards to working against Steve Martin in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.]

                “My problem was how to react to his madness and I chose the route that I have always taken with comedy in films – play it for reality as though you were in a drama and let the laughs take care of themselves.”

I think this is an amazing lesson that all actors who want to do comedy should learn.  While you can certainly get laughs by being zany, even in zaniness, you have to play the truth of the scene.  If you play the joke, the audience won’t find it funny.  I think one of the best illustrations of this is the movie Airplane.  This classic parody is a send up of early disaster films but the actors never play for laughs.  They all act as though it’s a true disaster film and that’s why the movie is so damn funny.

Again, I highly recommend this book to not just actors, but anyone who has a dream.

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