I’ve loved movies ever since I was little, when my dad took me to see cartoons on the big screen in Soviet Russia. They were a fantastic distraction from reality, which to a kid with a vivid imagination just served as inspiration for several weeks of creative child play. The storylines enveloped me; they sucked me in and made me a vital part of the plot. When I saw movies, I lived them, honestly and sincerely just for a little while.
I recall watching Terminator 2 way past my bedtime as it reflected off my parent’s dresser. (We had a studio apartment.) I was feeling all of the emotions in the movie, as if the Terminator were my friend and protector, and the entire adventure was biographical. I am pretty sure this is the reason Arnold holds a special place in my heart – well – this and his work in Conan The Barbarian.
Now for most people, these are not the types of movies that move them, but then again some people aren’t easily moved. There are many of you with much more respectable tastes in movies; you probably didn’t consider Stallone’s Demolition Man an instant classic, like I did, and you need something slightly more potent to trigger your emotions.
An actor’s job, theoretically, is to make us feel something genuine and believe the reality of what it is that they are trying to project. Whether they are successful at it or not, really depends on their ability to act and the audiences ability to believe them. In this case, I would argue that it’s a two-way street. I’m curious to know how an actor goes about conjuring up the emotions necessary for their roles, and what is the psychology involved in doing that.
On Thurday, March 7th, I attended a roundtable event held at the Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life by the Emotional Brain Institute in NYU. There were quite a few notable names in attendance; Oscar-winner and Tisch alumnus Philip Seymour Hoffman, famed actor Tim Blake Nelson who recently costarred in Lincoln, and the renowned professor of cognition at the University College in London, Ray Dolan. The discussion centered on the scientific mindset of the actors and was mediated by chair of the graduate acting program at Tisch, Mark Wing-Davey.
While the discussion wasn’t strictly scientific, truly interesting points were brought up throughout the evening. Both Hoffman and Nelson reflected on their previous roles in an attempt to give insight into the psychology of acting; whether they utilized their personal experiences to portray their characters, or whether they had to think and feel from the perspective of their respective roles.
Hoffman openly discussed his emotional conflict on the set of Capote; during filming he wasn’t sure whether to utilize his own emotions for the film, or those of his character. In the end his own thoughts and experiences helped him play the part more than the supposed emotions of Capote. “I remember I actually had a very concrete thought that pertained to my personal life that I took into the room with me, which I don’t always do,” he said.
Nelson spoke of his experience on the set of ABC’s Modern Family. A fellow actor was unhappy with how he played his part differently during each take. Nelson was surprised by this reaction, noting that what you want an actor to do is to be unpredictable and impulsive, since that is what makes for the “real” experience. Both actors agreed that it is vital for their characters to “keep their innocence,” as in, they have to be believable and be blissfully unaware of what is “next.”
When an audience member inquired about keeping emotional authenticity in theater when actors put on several shows a week, Ray Dolan referred to something called goal directed and habitual behavior. What he is referring to is the difference between habitual and unprocessed behavior as opposed to mindful and purposeful action. For example, in addiction, habitual behavior causes users to relapse while goal directed behavior helps them abstain my forcing them to think about what it will cost them. Similarly, to be authentic in theater the actors must be “in the moment.”
Earlier I stated that to a certain degree, the reception of an actor’s performance is a two-way street; Arnold and Stallone are, admittedly, not the greatest actors on earth. They’re no Hoffman or Nelson for sure, but regardless of this fact, when I watched their films, I was right there with them for a while.
-by Liz Belilovskaya