Herbie J Pilato: The Thespian Ten Commandments, VI to X

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by Herbie J Pilato

As I was saying just last week, it’s time now to explore the balance of emotions that encompass acting (because I want to explore them, in case you wondered). So, as the great Mahatma Gandhi once said (and I really don’t know if he said it in real life, ’cause I only know first hand that the Oscar-winning Ben Kingsley said it as Gandhi in the 1982 iconic film of the same name), “I know a way out of hell” – which brings us to Number 6 on the list of The Thespian Ten Commandments:

VI. KEEP QUITE AND SPEAK AT ALL OF THE RIGHT MOMENTS AND/OR SPEAK ONLY WHEN SPOKEN TO:

You wanna know some of the best acting I’ve ever seen Tom Cruise perform? It was in his 1999 film Magnolia, when he played probably one of the silliest characters I’ve ever seen ANYONE play on screen – or off: the misogynistic self-help guru Frank Mackey. Through the middle of the film, a journalist arrives to interview Frank who thinks, as usual, that he has the situation under control. But he does not. The reporter is manipulating him, like Frank has done with others his entire life. He’s been loud, obnoxious and over-bearing which, as with any bully, has of course hidden his insecurities. But now, in this scene with the reporter, he’s grown quite quiet. That’s right. Quite quiet. So much so, that the journalist wonders why. “I am silently judging you,” replies Frank, who realizes that he’s been duped – and is trying to regain control of the interchange – which he ultimately does. But this time, through silence and by NOT losing his head. Here, Tom as Frank gives the line delivery of his life. He’s not jumping around the screen spewing vulgarities in his underwear and looking absolutely ridiculous (as he does throughout the rest of the movie). Nope. He’s just sitting there, saying nothing – and taking full command of the scene in the process. The point is, in acting, it’s not always so much what you DO say, but what you DON’T say. Sometimes, it’s all about the power of silence in between the spoken word, the proper pause, and what you can do with a silent stare – as opposed to an open mouth. That being said, sometimes we have to let the OTHER actor do the talking (scripted or improv’d), and be the strong silent type.

VII. WALK AND MOVE ON A LINE AT ALL OF THE RIGHT TIMES:

If you have to know when to speak and when to shut up as an actor, you certainly have to know when to walk and move. The question is, can you chew gum and walk at the same time? The answer is: not always – and nor should you desire to. For example, let’s say you’re playing a female character with a very life-altering secret that needs to be revealed, and you’ve been waiting for just the right moment to spill your guts. In other words, you’re pregnant, and you have to tell your husband, but you really don’t want to because he’s not the father. Johnny Bridgework, the mailman’s first cousin on his mother’s side. – HE’S the father. Needless to say, you’re in quite the predicament, with a major truth to be told – and you just can’t blurt it out. And as an actor, you can’t walk all over this line of major revelation.

But this is what you CAN and SHOULD do. You have to pace yourself properly. Let’s say the exact line is simply: “I’m pregnant.” You don’t want to say this line while moving, because you’ll “throw it away.” So, instead, you move first, AND THEN say it. If the director has guided you to walk over to the sofa and sit down in the process of your revelation, then you say it either BEFORE you ultimately sit down, or AFTER but NOT DURING the walk over to the sofa. Again, we employ the power of silence – especially with interpreting such a monumental character revelation.

VIII. KEEP UP YOUR ENERGY AND STAY ALIVE EVEN WHEN YOU OR YOUR CHARACTER IS DYING:

One of the most important things you can do besides that you’re PERFORMANCE is likable (even when you’re character is not, which see Part 1, Commandment IV), is keeping your performance ALIVE even when you’re character is dying. That is to say there is ENERGY in every emotion that you perform on stage, in film or on TV. Living energy. Dying energy. Happy energy. Sad energy. Even smart and not-so-smart energy. Make sure you have the right kind of energy for each sector of your performance as your character.

In other words, just because your character is dying in the final act of Lester Loses His Right Nostril that doesn’t mean your PERFORMANCE has to die along with him. Keep your energy up – to the bitter end.

IX. DON’T OVER/UNDER RE-ACT. DO IT JUST RIGHT:

Remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears? “This porridge is too HOT…This porridge is too COLD….But THIS porridge…yes…THIS porridge is JUST RIGHT.” That’s how your acting should be. JUST RIGHT. Certainly, not just WRONG. Again, it’s all about balance. If you’re interpreting a character that must raise his or her voice at a particular time in a given play, feature film, TV show, etc., then you don’t want to scream through the ENTIRE feature film, TV show, etc., do you? Of course not. All that screaming will take away from the real moment when you SHOULD be screaming (which see Jason Alexander’s much-too-much screaming as George Costanza in the latter, failed seasons of Seinfeld).

The point is, you need to BUILD UP to that scream. Milk that scream. But for pity sake, don’t scream all the way through your scream…er, I mean, scene. And by golly-wog, please never – whatever you do, please don’t scream at your acting partner (co-actor) OFF screen – which brings us to final Commandment…

X. BE COURTEOUS AND GENEROUS WITH YOUR SCENE PARTNER:

Ain’t nothing like a kind and courteous person to work with. As I look back on a few of the plays that I have directed in my career, I think about, of course, some of the actors I cast in the roles. I remember casting one less talented actor over a multi-talented actor, because the less talented actor was a good person and easy to work with, and the multi-talented actor was a complete moron with an ego the size of Kansas.

Life is too short to work with egomaniacs. You don’t need him. And the industry certainly doesn’t either. So don’t be one yourself – and you’ll ALWAYS have work. And isn’t that what’s it’s all about?

So, there ya’ go. Now go for the gold (statuette of the Oscar, Emmy, Tony, etc.)!!!

About Herbie J Pilato

Writer, Author, Producer, Actor, Singer/Songwriter, Lover of Life