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Chapter 10:

“Pretty-Face-Six-Pack-Abs Acting”?

“The words are woven on the fabric of the action.” – Meyerhold

Not too long ago a student of mine, J, auditioned for the female lead of a film to which many A-list people were attached, including the leading man, screenwriter and director. In coaching her on the audition we discovered that although the breakdown emphasized her being “sexy” and “edgy,” her character was actually involved in doing very strong actions: defying her carjacker’s attempt to intimidate her, rebuffing his advances, etc. Her leading man told her later that while viewing all of the audition tapes at home, he noticed that his cleaning lady paid no attention to all the other actresses on the tape who were busy being sexy and edgy, but when J came on, the housekeeper slowed down, started to smile and finally stopped cleaning altogether and sat down to watch. She went back to work when the tape went back to more women being sexy and edgy. Her star told her that’s what booked her the part.  J booked because she popped.  She popped because she was doing. Perhaps you're familiar with this industry concept of "popping." It describes the moment when an actor "pops" off the screen, grabbing the attention of whoever's watching, and, often, the job as well (if it's an audition tape) or critical acclaim (if it's an actual performance.)

This is a totally valid concept: whom would you hire or applaud, if not the one who "popped" or, as it's often described, the one who "blew you away"? But, there are ways and ways of popping.

Too often I've encountered actors who've been led to believe that the way to pop is through some external display of their most attractive physical characteristics or attributes. One of my students, waiting to test for a soap, was talking with another young man, also testing. When my student's training and experience came up, the other young man was impressed. "Wow," he said. "You do real acting. When I go back to LA, I'll be doing the 'pretty face, six-pack abs' acting."  I know, there's more and more of an emphasis on bodies and looks overall than ever before, but why join 'em when you can beat 'em? Here's how:

Assuming you're talented, let's proceed from the radical perspective that rather than removing clothing to reveal flesh, your work and career might be better served by removing, instead, what interferes with revealing your talent. For instance: our tendency to let talking take the place of doing.

The word “acting” itself comes from the Latin verb ago, agree, aegi, actum: to do or to act, but the ease and clarity of language to communicate often allows the rest of the instrument to rest while the words do the work. That's why so many audition tapes seem to be of talking heads where the energy's purely verbal but the actors aren't totally engaged, and therefore not popping. But isn't it "Lights, camera, ACTION?" And isn't there a reason why they say "Talk is cheap," and "Actions speak louder than words"?

We have to wake up and rigorously examine wherever we've been clear about what we're saying and clueless about what we're doing.  It's the doing which pops, which rescues us from the "blah blah blah" quality of so much work, no matter how gorgeous the talker. This is why Meyerhold said "The words are woven on the fabric of the action." We must figure out what we're doing , and do it, even if we have to stay in the chair, the frame or on the mark.

When we worked on some soap sides in class a while ago, one of the lines exemplified this problem and the solution. A guy sits down, uninvited, at a table where a young woman's waiting for her date to return, and proceeds to come on to her. She says, "Look, the man whose seat you're in will be back in just a minute." When the actors first encountered this line, they were content to let its meaning do the work for them, and they didn't pop. So we stopped treating it as something to say, and instead tried to see it as something to do, by discovering the subtext.

When the actors discovered what was really being said ("If my boyfriend catches you coming on to me he'll kick your butt") they also discovered what was really being done, which was threatening. Once they committed to that action, they stopped just talking and starting popping. Because they were engaged, they were engaging. This, I believe, is what Artaud meant when he said:

       To break through language in order to touch life
       is to create or recreate the theatre...This leads to
       the rejection of the usual limitations of human beings 
       and their powers.

So, a great part of popping depends on your ability to identify the actions that you're trying to accomplish through your words. It is never about talking, it is always about doing, really doing, despite the limitations of frame, chair, time or mark. In fact, those very restrictions can strengthen your will. If your energy is summoned to the surface (not sunk deep within you while your mouth says words) then you'll be sending it out to accomplish despite the absence of physical action, or, as Stanislavski put it, the action will "traverse the body but not the space."

Go through your material and ask yourself, "What am I doing at this point, with this line?" Your answer will always be related to your intention ("what am I doing to get what I want?") but if your answer is purely verbal ("I'm saying this, or telling him that") you're in trouble and you sure as hell won't be popping. And as I say, to the cringing dismay of my students, "If you ain't cookin', you won't be bookin'." The words really are woven on the fabric of action.

St. James said it better: "Beloved, be doers of the word and not hearers (or talkers) only."

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