What We Believe
by Eugene Buica
Artistic Director The Acting Corps
Reality is an extremely subjective medium; in L.A. it’s downright bizarre. We live in an improbable place, threatened and plagued by earthquakes, floods and fires, a place lined with imported palm trees (from Egypt), a place where people never age, the sun always shines, and happiness is always just around the corner. And that is the reality of Los Angeles. Yet a handful of fin de sicle East European immigrant dreamers, men like Sam Goldwyn, the Warners, and Louis B. Mayer, dared to make manifest their vision here, a vision that would almost overnight become the world’s factory of fantasy. How shocked and amused they must’ve been to see their invention, Hollywood, become the leading source of global entertainment, influencing millions, and changing the course of history. And also how dedicated they must’ve been to creating the medium of the American Cinema – controlling it so specifically that they even defined what its ambassadors, the imminent movie stars, would look and sound like.
From its inception Tinseltown has clearly been in the business of make-believe, the business of making the artificial seem life-like, yet at the same time better and more eventful than ordinary life. We have always been and still are after a heightened reality, one where people are born and die and fall in love and write bad checks and visit other planets, all in the space of that magical two hours we call a movie.
Yet, and this always baffles me, when it comes to acting, we are after one thing and one thing only. “I want to be real,” is the battle cry at all “top acting classes in Los Angeles”, “I want to be so real that I actually believe everything I say and do. And if I don’t believe everything I say and do and it doesn’t all feel real to me, like my real life does, then I might as well go home where I can just be my boring self.” And so it goes, casting directors and agents and teachers of beginners’ acting classes in Los Angeles only fanning the flames and adding to the confusion from time to time with their well intentioned invitation to “Do it again, but this time a little more real.”
Now I pose the following question, and I know it’s heresy, but what does “real” have to do with anything when it comes to acting? Let’s leave “believable” alone for now, that’s another can of worms, let’s deal with “real” – what does “real” have to do with acting? Because I know that Tom Cruise can’t really kill the villain, the police (real) would certainly curtail his dramatic activity, not to speak of the disciplinary action SAG might take after a board meeting or two. And I also know that Renée Zellweger isn’t really a flapper, because in Jerry Maguire she was a single mom. And that the woman up there playing Cleopatra can’t really think she is Cleopatra, because then she wouldn’t remember her blocking(why can’t her servants move her about?) and she certainly wouldn’t stick to the stiffly scripted text, she would say her own words – why the hell not?
The answer to this, like most answers, has to do with good old common sense. While everyone asks for real, it only needs to look real, and it only needs to feel real to the audience, but it doesn’t have to be real to the actor. Does that mean that actors ought to phone in their performances? Not at all. Does that mean that actors should indicate emotions? Not one bit. It just means that the house of “real” has no front entrance – there is only a back door and the occasional window. The great Liviu Ciulei, an amazing director, once put it quite elegantly to a very annoying young actor. He said to me, “We are always striving to create reality in our work and we never get there. But when we merely suggest it, we come a little closer.”
What a beautiful statement, and how freeing. You mean that if I just suggest an alternate reality in the context of a good story, and I lie truthfully with all the tools I bring to bear, then the audience might be moved? Yes, definitely. And will they be moved even if they don’t really believe? Absolutely, belief isn’t what they came for. Then what about acting, isn’t acting really feeling? No, acting is really doing and telling a story through conflict, or like Sanford Meisner would say to his students who could handle the truth, “Acting is lying very well.”
And incidentally, that’s why we go to the multiplex. We are prepared to be lied to, actually looking forward to it. And we are disappointed when the lie doesn’t entertain; we feel like victims of false advertising and contemplate asking for a refund. But when we are pleased with the lie, when we are lied to masterfully (Finding Nemo anyone?) and come away satisfied, we say, “That was really good, I’m going to tell all my friends.” It never occurs to us that we were duped and the whole thing was a shameless conceit (talking fish?), all we care about is that it was two hours well spent.