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Finding the method behind the magic

Published September 9, 2005

Ask actors how they do what they do, and you'll usually get a Brando-esque mumble in return, for any number of reasons.

Analyzing their craft jinxes the "magic," giving audiences too much of a peek behind the curtain. There's a risk of coming across as pompous, making make-believe games sound like divine strategy. Or maybe another actor will steal, first the idea and later a coveted part.

For whatever reason, getting actors to explain how they act is difficult, but apparently not impossible in the proper setting. Sitting with interviewer James Lipton on Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio is one. Sitting on a stage in Colorado surrounded by the Rocky Mountains and intensely devoted film fans is another, proved by a forum presented last weekend at the 32nd Telluride Film Festival.

Onstage were five of this generation's finest interpreters of human nature: Academy Award nominee William H. Macy (Seabiscuit, The Cooler), Tony Award winner Liev Schreiber (Glengarry Glen Ross), chameleonic Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Magnolia), plus Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, co-stars of the Telluride entry Conversations With Other Women.

For nearly an hour - although hesitantly at first - they delivered thespian wisdom the way great actors define characters: in bits and pieces allowing room for various interpretations. Disagreements were polite, since everyone may work with the others somewhere along the way. Eventually, three common threads emerged: Acting styles are as individual as fingerprints; trusting writers, directors and co-stars is vital; and fear is always a factor.

"There isn't, like, one formula," said Hoffman, the most clinically inclined panelist with his remarks. "Everybody has their own way to go about it. Everybody is ultimately looking for that something that will spark their imagination, what will propel them forward with some passion to make the part work."

Hopefully, as Macy wryly stated, as with many of his comments, the impetus is found in the screenplay.

"I've always felt everything you need is in the script, and if it's not in the script, get out," he said. "Yet, to a certain extent, when you first get a script, it's shrouded in fear: "I don't know how to do this.' You have to realize that fear exists and go on from there. It's really easy to replace that fear with a different problem: How do I play this as a three-headed Martian?"

Hoffman laughed and agreed: "When you enter a part, you don't know what the hell you're doing. You look at it and you don't have a clue. I think that's a good place to start: "I don't know what to do.' "

But how does that fit into Hoffman's current role, literary icon Truman Capote, whose unique voice and mannerisms are so familiar? The question is an example of why acting can't be blueprinted; each time a panelist made a salient point, something challenged the notion before it had a chance to be absolute truth. Hoffman knew Capote's persona before seeing the script, and audiences know what they expect in a performance.

"You can't just work on the voice or work on how he walks or how he feels," Hoffman said. "The technical stuff is just there; if you're playing a person who existed, you have something to look at and research. If they didn't (exist), then you can kind of get away with whatever you want.

"That technical stuff is really practice. It's not some magical thing. It's hard work, like an athlete, in a way. You just have to practice how to embody this character. If I'm playing a character who isn't like I am, it can take months and months."

In the case of Capote, technique dovetailed with the emotional demands of Dan Futterman's screenplay, describing the author's increasingly uncomfortable bond with the killers profiled in his bestseller In Cold Blood. Capote is depicted as a convenient liar, a charming rascal and a barely closeted homosexual in the 1960s.

"The voice came right away," said Hoffman of Capote's high-pitched diction. "There was no way I could look at the emotional life and actions of that character without acknowledging the way he behaved. They're one and the same. He's a creation unto his own.

"I knew everything he did (physically) influenced how he behaved. They couldn't be separated from each other. That was the struggle (for me), trying to get them together."

Schreiber had a similar experience with his role as filmmaker Orson Welles in the HBO film RKO 281 a few years ago. The title was working code for Citizen Kane while it was shrouded in secrecy. Like Hoffman, he researched his character extensively. Then, in another divergence of acting style, Schreiber had a different purpose for that research than Hoffman, paving the way to another layer of acting mechanics.

"I spoke to (director/historian Peter) Bogdanovich, who knew him personally," Schreiber said. "I watched every bit of footage I could, especially the little magic shows he used to do in L.A. for his friends. Those were hilarious, and I thought his real character came out in those. I read some letters he wrote to Rita Hayworth. I watched Citizen Kane about 20 times and overanalyzed him as an actor.

"Then I forgot about it when I had to go to work."

Schreiber's style in such nonfiction circumstances is more internalized. He didn't make himself look like Welles in RKO 281, as Hoffman does with makeup and affectations in Capote. It's a matter of preparing to react to situations in the screenplay the way Welles might have in real life.

"It's the difference between instinct and intuition," Schreiber said. "Your instinct is the thing happening to you in a certain moment. Intuition is the information you've absorbed over the course of your life. Some of that includes information about the character. You have the instinct, the intuition processes it, and that's the moment.

"I want to forget what I've learned about the character, but the reality is that you can't, because you've absorbed it. It's there in that moment when you need it. The hard part is to trust it."

Macy's position on acting seemed absurdly straightforward in comparison with Hoffman's and Schreiber's. He isn't an actor who accepts such showy or previously familiar characters. Macy plays ordinary guys in extraordinary situations - the scheming car salesman in Fargo, a casino's bad luck charm in The Cooler - usually without wigs or prosthetic makeup. He never hides behind tricks and seemed a bit impatient with actors who do.

"As much wizardry as you can come up with, the audience only wants to know one thing at any given time: "Tell me what happens next,' " Macy said. "That's all they want, and that's all we owe them, really.

"An actor's primary job is the nanosecond, the small moment. It's the moment when I look at him and he wants X, and I want Z and I say something. That's where the action lives, in that one moment. Then he responds and we're off to a new moment.

"The stuff of character - the funny voices or funny walks - some actors are better at it and others are worse. Some will depend a great deal on it and some don't. But the thing we have to remember as actors is: That ain't acting. That's mimicry, and that's external. The only way to do (mannerisms) is to memorize them so they're consistent. And if it's not needed, don't do it."

Macy, Hoffman and Schreiber elaborated, while Carter and Eckhart maintained the glibness actors often employ when the topic comes up.

"When I'm not acting, I can't remember how on earth I did it," was Carter's angle on the topic, and Eckhart relied on mystical brevity: "You take it in and you let it out. Hopefully, it becomes reflexive by the time you're on film." Occasionally, Macy or Hoffman could be detected giving off "oh, brother" body language.

But when it came to succinctness, one comment by Schreiber had every other panelist vigorously nodding agreement:

"I think acting is a confidence game, literally and figuratively."

[Last modified September 8, 2005, 11:02:03]

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