Tuesday, 11 April 2017

IN PRAISE OF TOM HARDY


In the recent BBC series Taboo, Tom Hardy delivers a masterclass of screen acting as the protagonist James Delaney. 

Alongside him many excellent actors are working skilfully with a deep understanding of the medium, Jason Watkins, Oona Chaplin and Tom Hollander among them, but it is Hardy who dominates the series and several elements show his total mastery of his craft.

Firstly he utterly commands the screen whenever he appears.  It’s easy to put this down to the blessing of charisma but its cornerstone is deep concentration.  Additionally his stillness and use of silence draw you into his world.  His movements are few and highly controlled and the viewer’s eye never has to search for him.  Whenever an actor moves, or the camera moves, the viewer's eye unconsciously has to readjust to find the point of interest –  usually the character's eyes as we seek to understand what he or she is thinking but not saying.  For this reason it is usually best for actors to move and then speak, or speak and then move, but not to do anything of emotional significance whilst in motion.  Hardy personifies the art of stillness when not in action.

And his eyes, of course, are mesmerising.  Every blink, every shift of gaze is telling. He left the Drama Centre before I started teaching there so I can claim no credit for his brilliance but he is magnificently working I call the doughnut – the area around the camera – in which the character’s inner world is available to the audience.  It has only recently occurred to me that drama schools should include in their movement training the small facial expressions and eye movements that are so revealing and frequently underpin screen performances.  Many actors I’ve trained lack any real understanding of this, and the limited time devoted to screen acting in the curriculum does not allow for more than a superficial exploration of it.  Hardy, of course, is a virtuoso.

In addition his inner world is deep and rich.  Haunted by past experience, Delaney is an educated European, made savage by the brutality he has witnessed and committed in tribal Africa.  He is frequently seen incanting in a strange language and enacting unfathomable rituals.  In the hands of a lesser actor this could easily look glib and silly.  But with Hardy it looks dark and unnerving.

Like all world class professionals in any field he clearly does huge amounts of behind-the-scenes work.  But he feels no need to show anything.  Instead he trusts, rightly, that the viewer will perceive it as long as it's there. 

There is a leap of faith that actors must make in their preparation. Creating a really lived past experience, as vivid as the actor's own personal memories, is emotionally demanding and time-consuming. It is easy to skimp on as, even with the best of intentions, self-doubt can creep in.  Will it pay off?. Will the audience really notice?  Hardy's performance demonstrates the difference between the superficial and the profound. Occasional moments throughout the series, and especially a beautifully judged scene in the last episode, allow us fleeting access to the deep well of guilt, pain and regret Delaney has carried with him for years.

And lastly, his technical abilities are exquisite.  In many, many scenes the light casts a harsh shadow across his eyes, a central part of the aesthetic being that he is half dark/half-light.  For this to work, Hardy must minutely control his positioning.  Most actors are familiar with finding their light – it shines in your eyes.  But to find your half-light, where one eye is lit and the other is in shadow, requires a level of physical control that is exceptionally demanding.

Vocally too, his command is magisterial.  A man of few words, Delaney speaks in a low register, sometimes barely audible, but, with one or two exceptions, he is always comprehensible.  And yet the viewer is left in no doubt that if he roared, he could flatten those around him.

And all this is achieved without compromise to the emotional truth of character and situation.

Hardy is, in my opinion, one of the very best actors of his generation, and any young actor developing his craft would do well to study him.

Monday, 20 February 2017

T2: TRAINSPOTTING


While the four leads give a strong ensemble performance, there are also some valuable lessons in this film about the intangible depth that preparation can bring to a screen role.

Without the structure offered by theatre rehearsal, and the fillip provided by the approval of the director and other actors, it can be hard for screen actors to do an equivalent amount of preparation.  (In fact I believe that even greater preparation is needed because of the intense scrutiny of the camera.)  And, let’s be honest, there’s a leap of faith required that the time and emotional energy spent, alone, developing a character’s backstory will pay off.

The performances of Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller stand out in ways that suggest extensive emotional preparation.  (I’ll try to write about them without spoiling the plot)  I worked with Ewen on the very first piece of film I directed, when he was in his early twenties, and he was the actor who stood out for most people who saw it.  So he started his career with the kind of screen presence that we’d all love to have.  But there is a weight and maturity to his performance in T2 that is really moving.  Yes, there are scenes of his Narcotics Anonymous group that underscore his ongoing struggle with addiction, but even before these, when he says baldly “I’m a junkie” you can sense the painful personal history. 

Similarly Jonny Lee Miller has a richly imagined strength of feeling about Renton’s betrayal of him twenty years previously. The sense of long-nurtured hurt and resentment and rage is palpable.  And the love too.  When he announces his desire for revenge to Veronika (an excellent performance by Anjela Nedyalkova) you know his feelings are not as simple as he describes and it’s no surprise when things don’t work out as planned, not for plot reasons, but because of the complexity of his emotions.

Contrast them with Ewan MacGregor’s Renton talking about his life in Amsterdam.  Now, I like Ewan MacGregor and his likeability carries the film forward perfectly well.  But if I have a criticism it’s that I’ve no real sense of how the intervening years have been for Renton because, I suspect, the actor hasn’t much imagined them.  As Judi Dench once said “acting is not what you say, it’s what you don’t say” and both Bremner and Lee Miller make the gaps between the words richly eloquent.  But when MacGregor speaks about his life in Amsterdam and his divorce, do I have a sense of his relationship with his wife and job?  Not really.  I read a print interview recently with MacGregor in which he said he’s not one for a lot of preparation.  Well maybe a bit more here would have been worthwhile.

Meanwhile Begbie, surprisingly, is almost light relief.  Yes, his thirst for vengeance provides the threat to our hero(es).  But the eviscerating psychopathy Robert Carlyle brought to the original – a man driven by some implacable inner demons – has been replaced by something that’s more comic than scary.  I understand Robert Carlyle sometimes gives his characters a secret – something he shares with no one, not even the writer or director – and that in the original Begbie’s secret was that he’s gay.  If this is true, it makes so much sense.  His terrifying and unpredictable lurches into psychotic aggression were his response to his own unwelcome sexual attraction to a man.  (I hope it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting this is anything other than the specific self-loathing homophobia of one character)  The Begbie on display here has no such inner conflict.  My guess is that this is a deliberate choice by Carlyle and Danny Boyle and it certainly works, thanks to the actor’s skill in walking the line between menace and buffoonery.

But the acting plaudits belong to Bremner and Lee Miller. Whenever Spud talks about Gail and “wee Fergus”, you fill in the blanks of the last 20 years, imagining just how life has been for him and how it has impacted those he loves: the disappointment, the despair, the let-downs.  Shirley Henderson, who plays Gail, is an in-demand actress and I doubt she’d have signed up for a part with so little screen time, so I suspect there were other scenes teasing out the tragedy of her and Fergus’s relationship with Spud, but that Ewen’s performance was so vividly imagined they ended up on the cutting room floor.  It’s the very opposite of the void I felt when watching Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake.  Spud has so evidently lived these bad times that there’s no need to dramatise them.

On the Graham Norton show, Jonny Lee Miller made a jokey reference to his own bitterness at how the intervening years have been for him. I have no idea whether this was simply self-deprecation or an unintentionally-revealed truth.  But if it is true – it’s certainly easy to imagine someone who was married briefly to Angelina Jolie having regrets - then he has bravely channelled these feelings into a wonderful performance.  And if he is a happy, contented soul off-screen then it’s all the more credit to him for imagining the passage of time so richly. 

For what does an actor draw on to create characters as fully developed as these?  It’s either imagination – which I explore in Section 3 of my book – or personal experience or, most often, a mixture of both.

However they have approached it, both Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller have put in the time to create something with real depth and, to my mind, awards recognition would have been entirely justified.


Monday, 24 October 2016

I, DANIEL BLAKE


I have a confession to make: despite the plaudits and accolades it has received, I don't think ‘I Daniel Blake’ is a very good film.

I'm making a distinction here between its political significance and the quality of filmmaking.  As a piece of social commentary it is outstanding: angry, deeply compassionate, full of integrity and typical of the committed work of a man who has, for 50 years, been shining a light on the iniquities of our increasingly divided society.

But, as filmmaking, it is not Loach's best.  And perhaps it's worth exploring a few of the things that let it down, particularly in terms of the strengths and flaws of its acting.

Aside from a rather clumsy and predictable storyline, there are some simplistic and obvious characterizations, such as the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ benefits assessors.  A number of the supporting cast are weak.  I know Ken Loach likes to use nonprofessional actors and I presume this is what some of them are.  While they function adequately, they are not wholly convincing.  More than a few lines of dialogue feel improvised and not in a good way - expositional and contrived rather than natural and true.  By comparison, the most powerful moment in the film, which takes place in a foodbank, needs no dialogue; we understand what has happened and why the character does what she does without the need for explanation.

But the chief disappointment is Dave Johns who plays Daniel Blake.  He looks the part, sounds the part, behaves the part but, to my mind, isn't really inhabiting the part.  He told the Guardian that his preparation amounted to not much more than filling in a Job Seekers’ Allowance form, taking a woodwork class and talking to a doctor about heart-attacks.  It shows.  He carries no real sense of personal history, with all the ups, downs, successes and failures that anyone of his age would have lived.  When he speaks of wanting to get back to work, I don’t disbelieve him, but I don’t feel I am watching a man humiliated by being unable to earn his living.  When he talks about his deceased wife, it’s not really underpinned by anything substantial.  Again it’s not exactly that I disbelieve him, and I’m certainly not suggesting he should have worked to ‘show’ us anything, but when people speak about real memories there is a depth and complexity that is absent here.  If you are moved I suggest it's probably because of the story and the writing, not because you are watching a man looking back on an important part of his life with complicated and mixed emotions.

Compare it with the deep sense of history that Hayley Squires brings to her portrayal of Katie, the single mother Daniel befriends.  Her past is very present and when she talks about specific events it is vivid and layered.  Even though she doesn’t go into details, I believe that there is a complicated history with the fathers of her two children, full of regrets, hurts and upsets.  When we see her on the phone, I absolutely believed that her mother was on the other end of the line, even though I know there her voice was probably added in post production.  I know nothing at all about Squires’s process but, whatever it is, it has given a grinding depth and weight to Katie.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a wonderful, small Irish film, at the London Film Festival, called ‘A Date for Mad Mary’, written and directed by Darren Thornton.  The three leads, all women in their late teens or early twenties, are fantastic.  Somewhat embarrassingly, given that I teach screen acting at a drama school, I also strongly suspect that they are untrained because they are so natural.  I haven't been able to find out whether this is true but the suspicion alone is troubling. All three simply commit, wholly and uninhibitedly, to the imaginary circumstances.

There is one particular scene the day after two of them have spent the night together, where each tries try to figure out how she feels and how the other feels.  Most of what passes between them is unspoken and it's a beautiful scene, filled with vulnerability, hope and confusion.  We saw them kissing but it was unclear, and is unimportant for us to know, what took place sexually after that.  The point is that they know both what happened and know how it fits into their profoundly imagined lives. It's raw, messy and complex.

I know nothing about either Thornton's methods or the background or process of the two actresses, Se├ína Kerslake and Tara Lee, but I know truthful acting when I see it.  The film may lack the political clout and significance of ‘I, Daniel Blake’ but it’s more moving because its protagonists are much richer creations.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

THE BIG SHORT


This is a film that should not work.  The plot follows the slow degradation of the financial markets, so it has an opaque and complex narrative where the filmmakers have to work really hard to simplify things, like Collateralised Debt Obligations, that most of us neither understand nor care about.  It's set in the world of high finance which, apart from the superficial sparkle that grotesque amounts money can spawn, is a pretty dull place. Plus, it's a story to which we all know the outcome.

And yet it succeeds brilliantly.  It is incredibly well directed by the most unlikely person: goofball-comedy specialist, Adam McKay.  The editing, pacing and tone are all flawless.  It’s light of touch, yet moral without being sanctimonious, convincingly depicting the brutal, feral nature of its dog-eat-dog setting and conveying the excitement of ‘the deal’ without losing sight of the tragedy that the real victims of the greed and sickening crookedness were the poor.

And it features outstanding acting across-the-board.  Characters that could easily have been ciphers or appeared simplistically obnoxious are humanised, without being Hollywood-ised.

The whole cast is terrific but the technique of the four name stars – Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt – is deeply impressive.  Their unobtrusive but masterful relationship with the camera shows why they are heavyweights.

Christian Bale, playing a super-high-functioning investor with Asperger's, works the doughnut (if this means nothing to you, you can read more about it in my book ‘From Stage To Screen: a theatre actor's guide to working on camera’) well but conventionally.  He lets us in, but we're not sure what we see there, which entirely befits a character who knows he is an oddball but is powerless to change it.

Ryan Gosling is similarly straightforward and available.  We don't see much behind his eyes either because, as he acknowledges, he's greedy and shallow and that's about it.

Both these actors have repeatedly shown themselves to be versatile, daring and the antithesis of vain.  I simply wouldn't have recognised Ryan Gosling as the same actor who was in A Place beyond the Pines.

But it's Steve Carrell and Brad Pitt who I think are most impressive.

I've been a big fan of Steve Carrell as an actor ever since Little Miss Sunshine.  Unlike many comics (see my previous blog about being liked) he has no problem with switching off the funny guy.  Here he delivers a performance that is not just brave – he doesn’t appear to care whether or not we like him - it’s also very technically adept.  He plays way outside the doughnut, frequently allowing us little or no access; his focus is repeatedly down as he struggles with his rage.  He doesn't make a lot of eye contact with his colleagues and it feels similarly that he doesn’t want to make eye contact with us.

And Brad Pitt takes this further in his role as a reclusive ex-banker.  He's jaded and cynical and relieved to be out of the poisonous world of high finance.  Consequently most of the time he averts his gaze from the camera, reluctant to involve himself and seemingly wanting to hide from us.  His performance is superbly, invisibly controlled.  As the story progresses, he slowly opens himself up to the camera, edging towards the doughnut, until finally we can see both eyes.  But even then he positions his head such that the rim of his glasses semi-obscures his eyes from the camera lens.

You have probably met people in life who do this.  When they look you in the eye, they tilt their heads such that the rim of their glasses is always between their pupils and yours.  It’s no accident.  It may not be conscious, but I have no doubt that it’s prompted by a subconscious apprehension or anxiety about the intimacy that comes with eye contact.

I know nothing about the working methods of any of these actors.  But, whether deliberately or not, they are all choosing a relationship with the camera that is entirely consistent with their character and therefore allows us to understand more about them.

Monday, 21 December 2015

BEING LIKED

Re-watching Some Like it Hot I was struck once again by the problem I have believing anything Jack Lemmon does on screen. I simply see him acting all the time in a way that I don't experience with either Tony Curtis or Marilyn Monroe.  It's partly the difference between showing and sharing that I write about in my book: where Lemmon is continually showing us what's going on, with exaggerated reactions that border on gurning, Curtis and Monroe deftly find the line between credibility and the comic hokum of the plot.

But I also see, in Lemmon, an overwhelming need to be liked. It affects almost every performance of his that I've seen, with the one possible exception of Glengarry Glen Ross.  It's something that often seems to affect comic actors, especially those who’ve been stand-ups.  Long before the tragic suicide of Robin Williams it was evident that, having become a star as a manic comic turn, he craved credibility as a serious actor.  As Mrs Doubtfire he was fabulous.  But any poster featuring him sporting a beard moreorless guaranteed an unwatchable performance of toe-curling sincerity, usually in a counselor/psychiatrist/wise-man role e.g. Good Will Hunting and Awakenings, as he sought the audience’s love as well as its laughs.  (To his great credit, in Insomnia and One Hour Photo (both 2002) he seemed to have let go of the need to be liked and consequently delivered a pair of terrific performances).

It’s said that no one who becomes an actor got enough love as a child and I suspect it's true. So most of us crave applause as approval.  But letting go of this is essential if you’re serious about your craft.

Clearly the hero(ine) has to be likeable and most good actors can deliver this with ease.  But likeability alone gets boring pretty quickly unless you’re Will Smith and there’s not many of him around. And even his level of charm wouldn't have been enough on its own to sustain the career he's had.

Much more compelling is the mixture of dark and light that exists in us all.  The actor who is always concerned with being likeable has no room for the dark.  But without the ugly, or at least its possibility, there’s no depth.  Robert McKee makes the point that there's little as interesting as a good character who does something bad or a bad character who does something good.

And in his fabulous book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes how most Hollywood stars subtly use their power to engineer the insertion of scenes that can turn their character's motivation from selfish to selfless.

To allow yourself to be ugly takes a lot of personal maturity.  It's about more than simply being the bad guy.  Terrific as his performance was in Twelve Years a Slave, Michael Fassbender was not risking much in portraying the cruel slaveowner.

Much more impressive were the performances of David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch.  Both played characters who were, on balance, likeable, but who were also messy, incomplete human beings struggling with selfishness, just as we all are.

Perhaps an even better example was James Nesbitt's woefully under appreciated performance in Five Minutes of Heaven.  He played an emotionally stunted failure of a man, struggling to contain his own hurt and anger, at times both physically ugly and morally squalid, in a performance totally lacking vanity.  Incredibly impressive in an actor who has charm and likeability in spades.

And then there’s the devastating performance of Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina.  His character is a super-intelligent but repellant software designer who has succeeded in creating artificial intelligence.  Part of Isaac's brilliance is the inner tension he creates between the character’s arrogance and his desire to be liked.  There’s almost no explicit backstory about his past emotional life but it’s crystal clear that this is a deeply bitter man who has had to create artificial life in order to experience love.  And having succeeded, he both fears and anticipates that his creation will love another more than she loves him, such is his boiling rage at past rejections.

This kind of profoundly imagined and realised inner world is the work of an actor who has moved way beyond his own desire for approval.

Monday, 22 June 2015

HEAT


Further to previous blogs about preparation and playing spontaneously in the moment rather than rehearsing and planning, I was intrigued to come across a description, by Michael Mann, of shooting the famous coffee shop encounter between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat.  It is a riveting scene and a masterclass in screen acting.  De Niro's elite bank robber and Pacino's cop emotionally circle each other, initially vying for superiority, then cautiously opening up before finding a kind of recognition and nascent friendship, before returning reluctantly to business hostility and the possibility of killing each other.

What's extraordinary is how finely tuned they are to each other: probing and responding to tiny nuances of emotional intent.  And yet I had heard a rumour that they were never even on set together at the same time.  How could this be when they seemed so totally connected?

The other rumour I’d heard was that much of the dialogue was improvised by the two actors, although at least this rumour had them in the same place at the same time.

But a quotation from Pacino confirms both that the scene was completely scripted and interestingly that “there were no rehearsals.  I just met him there."

And Michael Mann describes it thus: “I never wanted them to rehearse.  I didn't want to miss a millisecond of Al reacting off Bob".  More than this, Mann cross-shot the scene i.e. with two cameras, one on De Niro, the other on Pacino.  This is almost unknown in movies because it is incredibly difficult to light, so was a huge commitment by Mann to capturing the interplay between these 2 great actors.  And what's in the film is nearly all from the eleventh take. “I knew – we all knew – we’d got it on the ninth, but take eleven had some extra special qualities, little harmonics”

Now, you may not get to do eleven takes and you're very unlikely to find your performance and that of your screen partner filmed simultaneously, other than in soaps or some sitcoms (in which case eleven takes means crisis).  But it does offer some pointers.  Prepare deeply, rigorously: know your character, know precisely where you are in the story's timeline, know what you want and what the history is with the other characters.  Then let it go.  Pursue what you (the character) want and commit yourself to reacting spontaneously to what comes at you.

Judging by this quotation from Joaquin Phoenix, it is how this great actor approaches his work:

“I just like to discover things as they go along.  I try more and more to be receptive to what's happening in the moment as opposed to creating these ideas and trying to impose them on the shoot.  The best feeling is when you don't think you're saying the lines.  You think you fucked it up and you've just been talking.  And you go, oh, did I get that wrong?  And they said no, everything was there.

“I always wanted to be open to finding something that I didn't intend or expect.  To get to the place that's beyond the technical side of finding your light or saying the lines in a particular way and being open to your unconscious because I think sometimes it knows better than you

“Any time I try to implement my ideas, it's always bad.  It's always fucking bad.  And I feel the best stuff is kind of out of my control.  I never quite feel responsible for it.  And that's the state that I want to be in when I work"



Monday, 4 May 2015

PREPARATION PAYS OFF


In the last few weeks I've been working with students at the Drama Centre on scenes from movies.  In previous classes we have covered many of the technical requirements of acting on camera and most of the students have successfully internalised the imperative not to ‘perform’, but simply to ‘be’.  But where many of them have fallen down is on their preparation.

Without the structure and collaboration of an extended theatre rehearsal period, the discipline of preparing alone can be hard for stage actors.  And it requires a big leap of faith that deeply imagining your character’s past and his or her relationships with other characters - both those that appear on screen and those that do not - will pay off.

But without it screen actors are very exposed. The difference between what you see in the eyes of an actor who has done some basic preparation on the lines but who has no real sense of past and one who is totally prepared - having created a character with history and memory and fears and ambitions - is tangible even if it’s hard to define.  One of the things that always encourages me is that when I turn to a group of observing students after a good take, and ask “could you see the difference?” they always can.

I also recently did some work with an ex-student who is preparing for the lead in a feature film.  Despite quite a far-fetched storyline, he has done huge amounts of preparation, creating a very vivid characterisation - not sensationalised, just richly and deeply imagined.  I spent nearly an hour asking him, as the character, questions about his life and history, almost as a counsellor might do.  And not once did I sense any hesitation or gap in his understanding.  When he spoke about some of his (the character’s) personal experiences, it was like watching someone select what to tell you from a viscerally lived past.

The best actors take this kind of preparation very seriously. Al Pacino is reported to have realized, after seeing the rushes of the first day’s shoot on Dog Day Afternoon, that his preparation was inadequate.  “I thought ‘this is incredible.  There is nobody up there’.  I came home, got a bottle of wine, and stayed up all night because I had neglected to work on certain things."  (Quoted by Karina Longworth). His eventual performance turned out to be one of his very best.

As well as this deep characterization, you need to go into every scene with crystal clarity about the timeline of your character’s story: knowing, for every scene, absolutely, unquestioningly where you are, what has happened previously and what you want.  It’s why I spend a large chunk of my book From Stage to Screen discussing how to do this.
In a previous blog (Preparing for a take) I applauded Sienna Miller for what was clearly very thorough preparation for scenes in American Sniper.  Compare this with a film I once shot, in which the central love story turned when the hero saved the heroine from a near–rape.  As we rehearsed to shoot a scene from later in the script, I was horrified when the lead actress asked me “does this scene come before or after he has saved me from the rape?"  I could have wept.  She had clearly had not done her homework and, at one point, she even asked me “do you want it happy or sad?”  Of course her performance reflected this lack of preparation.  Despite being very beautiful and, at the time, much talked about, you will not have heard of her because her subsequent career went nowhere.