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I Was Never More Myself

Oct 19 2016

One of the best, most authentic descriptions I’ve ever heard regarding the creative dynamic at work in the unconscious interplay of actor and character comes from Bryan Cranston. In his just-published autobiography, Cranston writes: “I was Walter White. But I was never more myself."

Now that’s the voice of an actor who knows something about acting. 

Acting is the performance of revelation. In his finest moments of performance, the actor reveals himself through his creative work, wholly and unconditionally. This act of self-revelation – regardless of characterization, be it extreme or subtle – is truly perceived both from within (as Cranston describes his experience while acting the scene) and from without (as we, his audience, plainly see for ourselves while watching him on tv acting the role of Walter White).

Revealing herself through her creative work, the actor consequently encourages the opening of an interior space in the soul of the onlooker, the audience, that reveals yet something else, something greater, a universal truth, and with it feelings of wonder, empathy, even moral responsibility. That revelation, in turn, gives rise, perhaps, to an impulse for personal reflection, imaginative thinking and, even, determined moral action. 

Such is the potential power of the actor’ art.

And so I teach the actor to begin “clean” at the table, unprejudiced by already fixed images, open in the first place to the truth of real circumstances - the partner, oneself - and, second, to the influence of the well-observed imaginary circumstances given by the playwright or screenwriter. This is the place, in my view, that we must start from, not just at the beginning of our creative work, but indeed again and again. 

The character may be rightly understood as objective, but (almost certainly) not yet alive at the actor’s first and early meetings. The actors task is to create the conditions whereby, in encounter with the more or less vague image,  the objective character-image  is gradually fully formed and brought to life. Next (and, as well, concurrently), the actor step by step or, occasionally, if rarely, all at once, assumes (M. Chekhov says “incorporates”; Stanislavsky: “incarnates”) the character. Lastly, and only first then, the actor gives his performance, gives to and for the audience or camera.

Transformation, the pyscho-physical embodiment of the character, is the end to which the actor’s creative efforts are aimed. 

The coming together of actor and character is an event consisting of aspects, like all events, both outer and inner. The actor’s creative event is no mere presentation or representation, but rather an active and incessant process of merging, of becoming “at one with” the character-image. 

Like all processes, the merging of actor and character is also time-bound; the event occurs over a greater or lesser expanse of time. Paradoxically, it is at the same time an instantaneous, spontaneous happening. Critically, the conditions for this twin-sided event are prepared for by the actor through the more or less focused and intensive, creative periods of “homework" and rehearsal. 

Work first, then play. Most of us learned this lesson early in life, at home and at school. As actors striving to create at the very edge of our highest artistic potentials, we do well to remember it. Cranston nails it when he says, “transcendent moments come when you’ve laid the groundwork and you’re open to the moment. They happen when you do the work. In the end, it’s all about the work."