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15 Fabulous Firsts When You’re An Actor in a Play

15 Fabulous Firsts When You’re An Actor in a Play

When you’re an actor in a play, there’s a bunch of first times during the course of the production, juicy first moments, that happen each time you do a show, that are fabulous milestones and a special part of the joy of performing. Each feels lovely but a little different – each one makes you tingle, and you’d miss each desperately if it didn’t happen. Here’s a few of them:

The first time in the audition room that you realize it’s going well. When you step outside yourself and realize you’re playing and having fun and creating. Jeez, it’s almost like a rehearsal already! You’ve got ideas, the director is laughing at your jokes, you feel at home – wait a second. Yeah, that first time you’re all of a sudden pretty sure (but not 100% sure) that you are right for this … and (whisper it) they are gonna cast you. (Oh yeah, baby, that’s right – you’re looking at a proper actor here … Focus! Keep doing what you’re doing! And relish suddenly, for once, being … the one.)

The first time they tell you you got the gig. Usually by email these days but 100 times better by phone – that way you can’t help but hear the bright smile in the producer or casting director’s voice. (They have to deliver bad news so often, this is really fun for them too.) We’d like to offer you the role of … Oooh, that’s so good, you almost forget to say “yes.” The way your heart surges at the hammer-and-tongs excitement of a new creative journey. And you float for the rest of the day. Bad drivers don’t bother you. You flirt with shop assistants. You take out the garbage with aplomb. Life – is – good. (I did say yes, didn’t I?)

The first time you sit down with the script, a sharp pencil and a cup of coffee. You feel like an actor – because you are one. You got a job to do. You’re gonna come in rehearsal Day One ready. It feels like good work. Doing your homework. Making notes. Finding beats. Seeing patterns. Noting questions. Imagination. Character study. Fleshing out the words. What will inspire you? What research books might you need to read? What obscure point of reference will make it click? Objective. Superobjective. Status. Secrets. Imagined body. Key Values. Moments Before. All that juice for your engine. All that detective work. And reading that script again. And again. And again. (Oh, and yeah, of course, highlighting your lines …)

The first time you do a full read-through. The first day of rehearsal. You’ve rushed to get there because you’ve never been to this space before … so you’re half an hour early … so you go get a cappuccino … and swan in with it … and everybody is already there chatting. And they have tea! And it’s the first time you see the other cast members and put faces to roles you’ve been imagining – and they’re not what you thought, but then suddenly they’re much better than what your little brain could imagine, much more colourful and deep and … fleshy. And you’re rapidly introduced to all these lovely and brilliant designers and producers and front-of-house you won’t see again for ages, and it’s a bit dizzying (so many names!), and you’re making very nice jokes and comments about the weather that won’t offend anyone … And finally you get to sit at a bunch of tables, assembled into a big square, and you say your first line aloud and another actor replies with theirs … and the lines chime like two notes off different wine glasses – delicate but ready for more. You have begun.

The first time in rehearsals you manage a full run-through of the show, off-book – without calling for “line.” Yowzahhh, touchdown, the relief! It’s like being a dog suddenly let off a leash. It’s like letting go of your baby blanket. It’s like a baby chick jumping off a cliff … and flying. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it next time … but you’ve done it once, so you can do it. And that’s all you need right now. Don’t go burning the script … but you can start really believin.’ (Even though you did mangle that one line in Act 2. But nobody noticed. Except your stage manager, who gives you that look. Thank God you brought him Jaffa Cakes last week).

The first time you put on your costume. The designer comes in, maybe she’s shown you drawings but now the real thing is in her hands, and it’s coming your way, and it’s got texture and pattern and smell and weight. For me, primarily, it’s the shoes – the feel on your feet, how it changes your walk: industrial boots? shiny spats? awful moccasins? But I am always told, when a coat lands on my shoulders, my character deepens. It’s when you really start to breathe like your character. Sweat like your character. Ache like your character. It’s so sweet.

The first time you walk on the actual stage you’ll be performing on. You leave that rehearsal room with its taped-markings on the floor for “rooms” and “doors,” and you are in a theatre. Lights. Wings. Seats. The legendary smell of the grease-paint. An arena awaiting an audience. Gosh, it is possible to have electricity running through wooden planks? To have stardust jingling at your feet as you take your first steps on that stage? Practising moves … gently. Touching furniture … carefully. And knowing now it’s a countdown to showtime. (Now where’s my dressing room?)

The first time you know which chair in the dressing room is yours. So you can put your bag down. See how far it is to the clothes-rack (and the loo). Unpack your make-up, your water bottle, your tea-bags. And most importantly – start sticking your inspirational postcards around the mirror, and making it your second home. (Even if just for a week).

The first time you get to be in the theatre alone. Maybe you arrived early to warm-up, maybe everyone else is having a meeting in that other room, maybe you just woke up from a nap and found the place empty. But right now it’s all yours. The air is cool, even a touch frigid. Your footsteps suddenly echo. You walk around stretching out your arms, caressing the velvet of the seats, sitting in the very back row. Dare you try a line in the space? You do, and it rings. It resounds around the room. God, theatres are a wonder. This is your church, and soon you will do your soul’s work. But take one more minute to bask in the silence, the space, the stillness – the anticipation. (Before that rabble come back in making fart jokes).

The first time you hear the hub-a-bub of a big crowd arriving in to see the show. Maybe you’re being told to get off the stage by your overstretched stage manager, but you can hear the sounds of the lobby through a crack in the door. Maybe you’re in the dressing room hearing the overhead speaker of people taking their seats. Maybe you have to wait on stage before the show, and you’re peeking through the curtains. It’s PEOPLE! Coming to see the show. That’s why we do it, remember? Holy cow, we might have a full house? Are they normally this rowdy on a Thursday night? Wow, they are hungry for this. And that’s okay. They’re lucky. You’re ready to knock their socks off. (Do I need to pee one more time? Yeah. Just one more time).

The first time you step out into the lights in front of an audience. The crackle of it. You leave the safety of the wings, and suddenly they can see you. They’re looking at you. You’re in a show. Now. Now! NOW! Holy crap, your brain just went blank! No, I’m all good, I’m in the story, I’m the character now … and you’re breathing … and listening, living, being … and there’s your first cue … and you say your first line. It’s real! Hey, this is fun. You start moving around the stage, saying more lines, playing. And then you get your first laugh of the night. Your first gasp. Your first sigh. Hey this works! The audience is into it! You’re doing what you love. What could be better?

The first time you say your last line in the show … and you can hear a pin drop. The lights dip. And it’s still quiet for one delicious beat more … and then the applause lashes down like a sudden rainstorm. Genuine, joyous, relentless – and you bow with honour and admiration for the audience. You can’t help smiling, and they keep on clapping. Eventually, they let you go from their warm appreciative noisy embrace and you exit stage left, into the dark behind the flats, past that heavy muffled door and into the corridor … and you’re a little bit at a loss, wandering a little waywardly – for the first time in hours, you don’t know your next move. But then you stumble into the dressing room, and over the intercom you hear the audience laughing and quoting lines and saying how great that was, and you’re back in your purpose. Wow, we did it. (Now where’s the cold cream for this damn black mascara?)

The first drink on Opening Night. It’s been a long day’s work; the end of a long week of final rehearsals, tech, repetition, the stress of bringing it all home, each night crashing home to bed like a good soldier; hell, it’s been a long month all of a sudden. But that opening show is done, and done well, and that first clink of glasses with your cast and crew is like bells of gold, and that first sup of lush, celebratory, well-earned beer on your dry, harsh, work-worn throat, is like nectar.

The first time you get a really great review for the show in a newspaper. I’m just about old enough to remember when, if you stayed out drinking after opening night late enough, you could pick up the fresh-printed morning’s paper and scan for reviews. We all pretend we don’t care about the reviews – I don’t read them, man – and Lord knows, the baaaaad ones stay with us much longer – and in all reality they are just tomorrow’s fish-and-chips wrapping – but reading a glowing review of your performance in the cool morning air is a unique thrill.

The first time you overhear an audience member praising your performance, genuinely, delightedly, they just can’t help themselves – and you luckily overhear it, maybe passing in the lobby or on the street outside or in the pub next-door, so you know it’s not forced flattery. It’s just nice. Really nice. (But keep walking before they spot you!)

And then suddenly, it’s the last time you do the show. The last time. The last time. And it’s gone.

And you can’t wait for the next … first.

 

***

 

Author, Auster: My Love for the Novelist Paul Auster – by Paul A.

Author, Auster: My Love for the Novelist Paul Auster – by Paul A.

I’m currently on page 676 of Paul Auster’s latest novel, the 866-page opus 4 3 2 1. And I have to say – each page is bliss. I find myself smiling a lot, occasionally chuckling gleefully, and even a couple of times on the edge of tears. I come back to the book each night like an old friend I am delighted to see again. Which makes sense – because Paul Auster is my favourite modern novelist by a country mile, and one I always return to with anticipation.

I was first introduced to him by my mum. One day at the library, she handed me a copy of Moon Palace, and said, “I think you might like this.” (She never does that with books. With shirts yes, but this was unusual.) I still don’t know quite why she thought I would like it, but I tried it. And fell immediately in love, with Auster’s mysterious, affectionate, spell-binding tale of Marco Stanley Fogg’s journey through the American twentieth century. That was the last Auster book I read from the library. After that, it was straight to the bookshop to read more. I gobbled them up – starting with his acknowledged classic trio of short dream-like detective novellas, The New York Trilogy. I burned through his novels – it would be impossible to pick favourites, but some I just loved: The Book of Illusions, his tale of a grieving professor who finds meaning in rediscovering a lost silent comedian; Timbuktu, his delightful novel narrated by Mr. Bones, a dog; The Music of Chance, his twisting, tragic tale of the dangers of gambling with your life (which was made into a splendid little movie with Mandy Patinkin and James Spader); and Mr. Vertigo, his wonderful story of a young orphan who learns to fly … and the dark dangers of the world of entertainment.

When I’d read all his novels heretofore published, and was awaiting his new one, I found myself trying his prose … and finding it equally human and absorbing. His tales of growing up in New Jersey, of near starvation poverty in Paris translating poems and attempting to be a writer, and his lessons in life becoming a father, trying out being a film-maker, aging and learning, in books like Hand to Mouth, The Red Notebook, and more recently Winter Journal. His published letters, with fellow writer, J. M. Coetzee, comparing life in South Africa and Brooklyn are a joy; the collection of stories of coincidence collected by the public radio station NPR from its listeners that he edits, True Tales of American Life, reads like a myriad of one-page Auster adventures; and even his screenplays, a form normally sluggish and cold to read, burst with imagination and playfulness.

Did the fact that with my middle name being Andrew, he and I were both Paul A., impact my interest in him? No doubt it did, and it’s the kind of play on words and names that he loves. I initially mis-pronounced his surname as “austere”, which I think he’d quite like. Since he’s both that and not that. His writing is clean and clear, uncluttered, never trying to bewilder us with clever language (unlike Joyce, one of his heroes). But his writing is also warm, funny, silly, intrigued, flawed, meandering and humane – never cold. Some people have told me he is a postmodern novelist, but I find myself arguing with them, because he’s not cynical and clinical – yes, he’s playful, in ways I’ll talk about below, but it’s never about form, it’s never cruel, desolate, giving up on us. It’s always sincere and compassionate – often whimsical. It’s full of love of life – I’ve personally always found Auster’s writing to be much more like Dickens than like Beckett.

I’ve been in the same room as him three times, all in New York, and I can say, in person he comes across as brave, curious, generous and humble, yet with a robust self belief. Though I’ve never spoken to him. The first time, he was reading from his new novel, Invisible, at the 92nd Street Y. He started to read, and I was surprised. Based on his author photo (Auster the author, mysterious dark eyes in a black polo neck) and his sensitive writing, I expected a gentle, light, bohemian voice. Instead, Auster had the pleasing smoky deep tones of a New Jersey truck driver. Then I went from surprised to astonished – he chose to read, in front of hundreds of people, a passage from the book that was essentially a long graphic sex scene, indeed an incestuous one, and I remember thinking, even as an actor who thought he was decently courageous, I would have struggled to do it. But it wasn’t to shock – he read with great brave calm, and it facilitated a powerful discussion afterwards about a key idea in the book – how much of this was fantasy, and how much we mangle memory in our lives. I was wowed – this man’s skill was only matched by his bravery.

The second time, I saw him speak at the Strand Bookstore, along with Edward Albee, about the influence of Samuel Beckett on their work. Kind of a dream come true for this actor! It was joyous to see how much he loved plays, even though he doesn’t write them – at times, he seemed to like them more than Albee! But what I was struck by was his humility – and his feeling of debt and awe to other writers, from Shakespeare onwards.

Finally, I went to see an on-stage adaptation of City of Glass, one of The New York Trilogy, at a tiny theatre in Greenwich Village. It was quite good – a little avant-garde artsy for my taste, but it captured theatrically a lot of the mystery about identity in the book. Then suddenly my evening became like a chapter … in a Paul Auster book. I heard a man laugh heartily, in a lovely warm guffaw, at many of the comic moments in the play. It sounded vaguely familiar … could it be … nah. Then, as I was leaving the theatre after the show, there walking in the lobby right in front of me … is Paul Auster. And I think, “Gosh, I should go up and talk to him. He’d love the coincidence of this, he just happens to be here the night I come, his huge fan, Paul A., Paul an Actor with Paul the Author …” when I noticed the writer-director of the play joining him, and starting to talk about the show, and Auster was warmly, generously congratulating him on the piece, and I realized – this was his moment and I didn’t want to disturb it. Maybe I should have held on, found a way to say hello, but this felt like the right thing in that Paul Auster moment too, as I walked off into the New York night, marvelling at life’s incredible capacity for meaningful chance.

But back to the books. What do I find so special about his writing? Well, besides his ability to create intriguing narratives, to develop and reveal character, and to examine big themes in his stories, there are a few special things that are particularly Paul Auster that I love:

I love how he makes lists.

I love his enchantment with games, both the intricacies and joys of sports, particularly baseball, but also games he makes up that his characters play, like Screwdriver Darts. (I recently was cleaning out some old boxes of papers, and found I had written down the complete rules to Playing Card Baseball that Auster created in one of his books.)

I love his fascination with chance and coincidence. Life is always full of strange twists of fate in Auster’s world, the gods are at play, the world is small and ingenious and deeply mysterious. And bets are always dangerous in a Paul Auster novel.

I love how he’s intrigued by names, and the power of names. Of the name Paul. Of getting nicknames. Of how names are changed, like immigrant surnames anglicized at Ellis Island. Of anagrams. Of matching names. Of friends with similar sounding names. Of choosing pen names and aliases. Of initials. And of the titles of books and movies and stories.

I love his affection for the very poetry of words – not just in their arrangement but in individual words alone – what they sound like, where they come from, what they look like. He plays with words.

I love his adoration of books, and of stories, and of stories within stories. His regard for the masters like Cervantes, Kafka and Dickens, and his fascination with the very act of writing, including the choice of pencils and notebooks used, of what desk to sit at and where, and of typewriters as heavy hearty old friends and great gifts. His awe at the very process of publishing and how bookshops are magical sanctums of quiet possibility.

I love his delight in movies and movie-going, of old black-and-white Hollywood from spinning noir to Laurel and Hardy screwball slapstick, and of slow-moving French movies. And of the different qualities of cinemas and being in them, from the Thalia in Manhattan to the Cinematheque in Paris. And of the mischievous truancy of a matinee on your own.

I love how his women are smart, adventurous, fierce and challenging, often mysterious, but with a delicate heartbreak (and romance-stopping heart-brake) to them. How he never underestimates the capacity of older people to still have strivings, dreams unfulfilled and to make major mistakes. And how he brings together little gangs of aspiring kooks, wanderers and lost souls.

I love how he nails the essence of places, especially New York and Paris. Both cities’ capacity to be foreboding from the outside and sweetly delicious from the inside. The quality of walking straight blocks in Manhattan and winding cobbles in Paris. Reliable diners in Brooklyn and bustling restaurants in Saint Germain. The French capacity for disdain and generosity, of New Yorkers’ grinding determination and secret flights of fancy.

I love how fascinated he is by the structure of a day. I find myself jealous of his characters and the routines they build. And how he sees the value in repetition, and in repetitive work and of deep delving, whether writing a book or building a wall.

I love his bad jokes. His love of lame puns and punchlines. Of catchphrases. Of the joy in people’s dumb attempts at humour.

And I love how much he loves people. That is clear in every word, every line, every page, every punch of his typewriter keys, his huge heart for all kinds of people amid the incomprehensible totality of life, and the worthwhile effort of writing to understand … bits of it.

Most of all, he is so paulfyl. I mean playful. I think that’s a pretty great quality – in art and life.

Thanks, Paul. From Paul.

***

 

The Admirable Actor-Producer: 10 Actors Who Have Run Theatres

The Admirable Actor-Producer: 10 Actors Who Have Run Theatres

I am an actor who also runs a theatre company, and dreams of running a theatre. Now that really should be the most natural thing in the world – in theatre, actors give life to the stories, we engage with the shows every night, how they work, how audiences respond, what works in a venue, what works in a script. And it’s something that feels very right to me – while most actors are very happy to just act (which is great), there are some of us who want to take responsibility for the whole process, to ensure the overall quality of the audience’s experience, from choosing and developing scripts, to how punters encounter the show in its marketing and the feel of the lobby, to performing one of the roles each night. We are in good company, we actor-producers – we come in a direct line from William Shakespeare himself, who of course wrote his plays for his company the King’s Men to perform at the theatre they owned and operated, The Globe, and he acted in many of them.

But even when we started out our theatre company, AboutFACE, we felt we had to be very wary, careful and transparent as actor-producers, so as not to be seen as selfishly using the presentation of plays as mere vehicles for our own careers – that we might be accused of miscasting ourselves, or putting on poor plays for an audience to see, but that still held showy roles for us that an agent or casting director might come and see. And as young actors, of course, we wanted to attack good parts, and be noticed in them. And there’s nothing wrong with an actor putting on a show as a vehicle – most one-person shows are purely that, and good luck to them. And probably most theatre companies started by actors are about that in their first show.

But once you get to producing your second, third, fourth shows, that really disappears as motivation. You understand that the truest deepest result of putting on a play is the impact it has on an audience, and if you continue a theatre company, you have to choose what works best to achieve that – the play, when you put it on, who is your creative team? Putting on a play is much too much work – we always feel it is 90% grunt work for that final 10% of performance joy – and so you have to love the play and believe in its anticipated effect on a paying audience, otherwise when the going gets tough you’d walk away. You need to love the play.

Yet, even though we rigourously chose our plays, researching and reading a huge number of scripts, and only being willing to commit to producing shows all three of us as Co-Artistic Directors believed in, we still felt the need in our early days to audition for parts in our own shows! Once we hired the director, we insisted we read for parts in the play – to show we were worthy of them, and not weak links they were forced to include! Looking back, of course it was utter madness. (And terribly stressful). But we wanted to ensure that we were being fully integrous as producers.

Because we were also actors. And somehow, there was a suspicion about us being actor-producers. Instead of being actors being a strength – being highly aware, passionate, conscious and knowledgeable theatre storytellers – there was a subtext that as also producers, we were possibly just there for selfish reasons.

So when you looked at the landscape, the vast majority of those running theatre companies were, and are, directors. Some producers, but mostly directors. And yes, of course, directors attend to the overall play from the outside, they are the outside eye, so it is a natural fit. But the idea that a director might be choosing a play for a selfish show-off reason, such as to put on a flashy show with lots of noticeable auteur touches like a striking period relocation, a new framing device, blasting pop music and flashing lights, which does more to draw attention to the director than to serve the play, seems a lot less worthy of suspicion for some reason. Of course, most directors who are artistic directors are just like the actor-producers I spoke of: they are not driven by self-centred attention-seeking that tramples on a script and an audience’s need to experience it, they are using all their skills, love and dedication to put on the best show possible.

But as such, I see no reason why an actor cannot be just as suitable a choice to be the artistic director of a theatre, as a director.

And so, for inspiration for myself and any other budding actor-producers, here are 10 actors who have (and are) successfully running theatres:

Laurence Olivier

One of my great role models, the bold Sir Larry never settled for just being a mighty actor, but always pushed to produce. From co-running the Old Vic in the 1940s, together with fellow actor Ralph Richardson and director John Burrell, and restoring it from post-war near-ruin into a highly respected company, to being an independent actor-manager in the 1950s, he went on to run the newly established Chichester Festival in 1961, before starting Britain’s National Theatre, running it for ten years, first at the Old Vic and then taking it into its current purpose-built home. And continuing to play major roles at those theatres throughout!

Steppenwolf

Another of my touchstones are the rough-hewn, stubbornly passionate actor-producers of Steppenwolf in Chicago. The company was started by actors Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, and Jeff Perry in a suburban Unitarian church basement in 1974, and they would go on to run the company for decades in different iterations. Even today, as a stalwart in American theatre, the leadership of their actors ensemble is key to who they are and the work they do.

Michael MacLiammoir

In Dublin, we have the prime example of MacLiammoir, who with Hilton Edwards (his partner, a fellow actor who he met in a touring company), set up the Gate Theatre in 1928. They innovatively presented the new plays that were shaking up the world abroad, like Ibsen, using modern design and forward thinking, building a theatre that today stands as one of Dublin’s Big Two, alongside the Abbey. Again, MacLiammoir continued to act in major roles throughout their lives running the theatre. (And of course, they gave the first professional gig to another mighty actor-producer, Orson Welles.)

Mark Rylance

Rylance, now practically the gold standard for theatre acting as well as an Oscar winner in film, was a much-regarded RSC actor but not a much-experienced director or producer when in 1995 he was chosen to be the first Artistic Director of the Globe in London. But he took the theatre to great heights in his ten-year reign, making it a much-beloved fixture in London’s Theatreland, when it could in that period easily have become a lame tourist re-enactment. He did so with immaculate leadership and first-hand knowledge both in his bold and muscular programming and in acting key roles in every season.

Ian McDiarmid

Best known to the wider world as the actor who played The Emperor in Star Wars, McDiarmid is a major theatre actor, and the recipient of both Olivier and Tony Awards. In 1990, alongside Jonathan Kent, he took the reigns of the Almeida theatre in London, and ran it for 20 years, during which time they built a reputation for boldly-chosen plays from around the world in an exciting environment, featuring top-quality actors in an intimate space, often featuring stars who would previously only have been seen in the West End.

Rufus Norris

The current director of the National actually began as an actor, including training at RADA, before diverting into directing, where of course he rose to award-winning prominence.

Daniel Evans

The current director of the Chichester Festival Theatre is a long-time and continuing actor, whose acting career has included Olivier-winning performances in Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along in 2001 and Sunday in the Park With George in 2006, as well as multiple roles at the RSC, National and Royal Court. His award-winning seven-year tenure at Sheffield Theatres showed his brilliant leadership (and led to talk of him running the National) and included a number of appearances on stage there, such as in Company, Cloud Nine and The Tempest. It’s worth noting how Sir William Castell, chair of Chichester’s board of trustees, said Evans had been chosen from “a very accomplished shortlist of candidates, but it was clear that Daniel’s breadth of experience as a director and actor makes him a brilliant fit … his passion for theatre is infectious”.

Kwame Kwei-Armah

The new Artistic Director of the Young Vic, comes from his huge success running Baltimore’s Center Stage for 7 years. He arrived there primarily known as an actor and playwright. He had been working as an actor for a decade, most prominently for his role as paramedic Finlay Newton in TV’s Casualty, before becoming a writer and director.

Michelle Terry

We can go right up to today with this trend. The new artistic director of the Globe, starting in 2018, is a much-loved actor, who has very limited directing experience but a huge depth of acting experience, including an Olivier Award for Tribes and a range of roles with the RSC, National and Globe. But the Board of the Globe clearly understand that actors too know how to put on plays, and audiences are hugely excited to see what she will present.

Hope Mill Theatre

And it’s not just at the established theatres. There are examples of actors saying they’ve had enough waiting around, and with great courage and hard work, set up new producing house theatre venues. One exciting example is Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, only established in the last two years but already building an audience and award-winning presence, and sending shows on to London. It’s set up and led by executive producer William Whelton and artistic director and programmer Joseph Houston – both actors. (And this trend is present in modern-day Dublin as well. Two of the most exciting new theatres in Dublin have been set up above pubs, co-led by actors, in Karl Shiels at Theatre Upstairs, and Andy Murray with Laura Dowdall at the Viking.)

So believe it, fellow actors: we can run theatres too …

***

 

My New Campaign: Let’s Save the Standing Ovation

My New Campaign: Let’s Save the Standing Ovation

I’d like to talk to you today about an endangered species.

The genuine standing ovation.

He’s a bit like the red squirrel, that lovely Irish creature, rather gentle and delightful, who is being routed and pushed aside by his rapacious and rude American cousin, the grey squirrel. The red is now disappearing from Irish woodlands because some fool introduced the grey to his environment, and the grey is much pushier, more aggressive and rather less soulful, and so is taking over and pushing aside gentlemanly ol’ Red.

I don’t like it. And now, I am seeing a similar phenomenon happening with standing ovations in Irish theatre audiences.

Now, as an actor, there are few things more joyous and gratifying that receiving a true standing O from your audience. They have appreciated your work that much. Wow. But let’s be very clear about what a standing ovation is.

Good theatre is invigorating. It’s live, and when it’s finely done, it makes us feel alive. It moves us. Literally. Initially our innards, our emotive juices, our gut, the electrons of our brain, our groin and our heart. What Elizabethans (who saved theatre after the Dark Ages and produced, y’know, that Shakespeare dude) called the Humours. It’s viscerally right in front of us (in a way that the gentle caress of a novel on our mind or the distanced magic of the cinema screen isn’t), performed right here right now for us by brave actors, you can hear the words reverberating in your ears, you can smell the sweat in your nostrils, you can taste the storm of tension in the air. And more than anything else, you feel it. If it is a well-told story, it builds in stages to climaxes, provides rushes of information to our mind and thrusts emotion to our core. It gets into our bodies and produces all kinds of strange, wonderful and touchable feelings. It is physical. And when it ends, we need to, have to, respond physically. And the best way we’ve culturally learned to do this is to applaud. To smash our hands together in unison to say well done, kudos, thank you for those actions and your courage and the impact they had on me.

And sometimes. Just sometimes. Probably rarely. But certainly at the best of times. That show has been so impactful on us – touching our hearts so much we have trouble swallowing and our eyes are heavy with tears, making us laugh so plentifully that our bellies ache, drawing us into the story so much that we have been clenching our fists along with the hero and sitting on the edge of our seats – that the physical reverberations inside us … well, just clapping isn’t enough to release the gathered explosions of how much we’ve been moved inside.

We have to put our whole bodies into it. We can’t stay rooted to our seats one second longer.

We have to stand.

And when we feel this way, we must do that.

I’ve been to hundreds of plays, and I can recall only a handful of times I’ve been that moved. You remember them. They stay with you.

Such as Steppenwolf‘s engrossing August: Osage County on Broadway. David Cromer’s revelatory Our Town at Barrow Street Theatre. John Breen’s gorgeous rugby play Alone It Stands in Dublin’s Andrew’s Lane (ironic considering the title!).

Once, after watching Propeller’s The Winter’s Tale at the Dublin Theatre Festival, I was so wrapped up in the show that when Hermione moved, I believed she was a statue coming back to life, and I wept with blissful joy and appreciation. And at the end, I stood, you better believe it, and applauded raucously. And only as the applause around me started to settle and fade, did I realize I was the only one in the orchestra standing. Initially I was a little embarrassed (eeeek, who’s that dude?), then I was perplexed (what show were you watching, people?!) and then I was serene (well, I loved that show, that was my true reaction and I’m so glad it was).

And there’s the rub: the urge to stand and applaud needs to come from inside. From all those swirling, tumultuous, electric feelings inside you that have been created by the play.

It doesn’t matter a damn what is happening outside you. That’s not relevant. Obviously.

I think you know where I am going with this.

If you weren’t so moved by a show, and don’t have those feelings inside your arms and legs, then there’s no reason you should stand.

Even if people all around you are.

Because nowadays, people are giving standing ovations utterly cheaply. And that inflation is slowly, relentlessly murdering their worth.

I started to see it on Broadway, where you’d go to terrible productions … and people would stand. I saw a stale, miscast, lumbering version of Les Miserables, that was on its last legs, and closed shortly thereafter, that you could barely give away tickets to. Yet, at its curtain call, people stood in their droves. Huh? All around me, throughout the show, I’d seen people shifting in their seats, yawning, scratching, I didn’t hear one gasp, see one tear on a cheek, hear anyone mutter Omigod Jean Valjean. (And listen, Les Mis done properly is incredible; when I saw the movie in the cinema, I wept so many times my cheeks were salty). They were plainly not that into it. Yet, at the end they soared to their feet. Huh? And then you start to reason it out, and you remember, most people seeing a Broadway show have paid a lot of money. Quite possibly they’re on vacation from out of town, and expect a brilliant experience, and can’t wait to tell their friends about the show they saw and stood for. Instead of an instinctive reaction, on Broadway, it’s become part of the routine.

And you want to know how to test that? See how long the standing O lasts. If in the amount of applause time, the cast can go off into the wings, wait three beats and the crowd are still applauding, and the actors need to come back out for an encore bow, that’s more likely to be legit. But I bet it ain’t that long.

Because applauding for a long time is hard work on the hands and forearms. After a while, genuinely clapping starts to hurt. But when the urge is internal and needs to be released, that doesn’t matter. Walking out into the lobby, with palms that are still stinging a bit but a head buzzing with the show you’ve just seen, is an ace feeling.

And now I’ve started to see the fake standing ovation at shows in Dublin. Ugh. Not everyone has been to Broadway, so I wonder if it’s years of watching awful manipulative shows like Pop Idol and The Voice where standing ovations are a trope, choreographed and not special at all. But it has seeped in. I’ve seen people give a standing ovation for 20 seconds, and then stand and put their coat on while the applause ends. I’ve seen people pop back on their phones during a standing ovation. I’ve seen people clearly miming clapping so they won’t have to put the effort in! If these things are happening, that’s not a standing ovation.

That’s peer pressure.

Lads, you’re not 14 years old. Be honest. Be true. Be brave.

Luckily we have an alternative. This awful plague hasn’t yet swept good theatre in London or on the continent. (Touch wood). There, standing ovations are still rare. Rather, if someone really enjoyed a show, they keep clapping. And the cast must keep returning for encore bows. It’s lovely. And the crowd stops clapping when they, as a unit, are done. Any day of the week, I’d take length of applause over height of applause.

So let’s not let the standing O be worth zero.

Please, next time you are at a show, think of the red squirrel. Of course, please applaud. And keep applauding until you are satisfied that the urge within you is spent. And if that urge is so strong you just need to stand and applaud, bravo, go for it. But don’t worry about who is standing around you. Be your own person. Have your own response to the show. Don’t be a lemming jumping off a cliff into cheap mediocrity.

C’mon, people. Let’s Save the Standing Ovation.

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8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

So I am an actor who loves to read … about acting. About the theatre, its backstage inner workings, its tall tales and anecdotes, and stories of the journeys of great actors. Of course, lots about Shakespeare. I love an in-depth long-form article on a playwright’s methodology. And that’s not even mentioning the other side of the coin, all those books about the movies. I’m always excited to get a recommendation from a friend/colleague/mentor about a book that will inspire me – as an actor, as a can-do member of our guild, as an artist exhilarated to grab a piece of text and run with it.

Another day, I’ll share some recommendations for my favourite plays, theatre/film biographies, and books on Shakespeare, but today I thought I might talk about eight books that I have found to be particularly helpful to an actor, providing genuinely insightful tools for your process, and inspiration for your creativity and joy in doing the work.

I’m going to suggest some of my personal favourites, besides the famous texts you’ll find on any acting syllabus – so with of course huge respect, you don’t need to hear from me about the unquestioned masterworks of Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, Michael Chekhov, Stella Adler, Peter Brook. (I’m also going to leave out the theatre book I am currently reading, the utterly delightful and insightful Joy Ride by John Lahr, featuring his best New Yorker pieces on stagefolk, as I’m only half-way through it. But I reserve the right to add it in later revisions … )

So, let’s raise the curtain on:

8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

Strengthen your ability to work on a text – Audition by Michael Shurtleff

I don’t know if there’s a book that produces more creative juice for an actor when preparing for an audition (or frankly any performance of a script) than Michael Shurtleff‘s Audition. Written in 1978, it’s just as vibrant today, in providing 12 guideposts for examining a text, from relationships and finding the conflict, to levels of competition and secrecy. Beautifully practical and sassily unsentimental, it gloriously provides you with a set of questions you can ask a script, so that without a director to help, you can work alone on material, and find all the fuel and spark that is within it. To be honest, if you only read one book from this list, this is the one – the code, the manual, the mentor-in-print. Acerbically funny in its truth-telling yet also full of love for actors, it’s such a great book my wife Anna and I both have our own copies of it in our library …

 

Understand how the stories you tell are constructed – Story by Robert McKee & Into the Woods by John Yorke

I am a deep believer that actors are storytellers – not puppets on a string, but artists who bring their insight and creativity to bringing a script to life. They owe a honourable duty of care to deliver the writer’s story to the audience as best as they can. To do so, they must understand not just their role in the piece, but the story as a whole. How it is structured, how it builds. As such, I think there are two texts that are truly genius at helping us to look at scripts and divulge their blueprint, find their foundation, see the gorgeous lines of their construction, and those are Story by American screenwriting teacher Robert McKee and Into the Woods by British TV show-runner John Yorke. If you want to learn about turning points and mid-point revelations, set-ups and rushes of information, inciting incidents and gaps in expectation, these are wonderful guides.

Be excited to practice – How to Stop Acting by Harold Guskin

This is a book I have only come across recently, and found it really invigorating. Harold Guskin is great on the idea that one of the key things we need to do with material, is say the lines aloud – a lot. Reading them and saying them, and reading them and saying them, but purposefully and enjoyably. Each time for a different reason (for example: in a rage, for laughs, intimately, for pure logic, for petty reasons) seeing how in each go-through we respond to the text, what impulses come up, and filling up the tank of possibilities in a set of lines. He starts us from the place we always want to be at: that we are responding in the moment to what is in front of us, so it is always an exploration, every run-through, every rehearsal, every practice, every take, every performance. That there is no fixed ideal, but rather we are always active, fresh-minted, surprised and surprising, like life. He encourages us to practice being available to ourselves, to our intuitions, to our crazy flashes of insight and strange notions, as we approach the work – always resulting in performances that are more colourful, exciting and unique. Guskin proposes clear exercises, offers monologues and scenes suitable for each step, and will make you feel like practicing your acting every day. (He also says it’s okay for an actor to leave his or her script on the kitchen table, which is dead right).

Open your creativity with rehearsal exercises – Masterclass by Dean Carey

I love this book. I initially picked it up in late ’90s before going to drama school, because it had over 100 monologues in it, so I could find a great one to audition with. Indeed it does. But the gold in this book is the range of hugely practical exercises that its author, the Australian acting teacher Dean Carey, provides for you to work on your material. Super-useful and clearly road-tested, he provides a range of exercises and games that you can try out on the script, that will help playfully draw out aspects of the character and scene, that truly are unique to you, your responses to the circumstances in the story. I still regularly use his exercises Extend/Advance (for turning key words on the page into sensory experiences), Explore and Heighten (for amplifying different sides of the character, as described in adjectives) and questioning Is This Good or Bad For Me? He’s also brilliant on on beat defining and titling. I guarantee after bringing some of his exercises to your prep work, you’ll find yourself invigorated, ringing with creativity, feeling the lines in your bones, and quite possibly, surprisingly already off-book (and having spent a very fun afternoon). Well worth having in your arsenal. (Plus it has really fun photos of a young, pre-fame Hugh Jackman in rehearsals, that can only inspire you.)

Learn to flesh it out and pop – Acting 2.0 by Anthony Abeson

Now I am going to state up front my conflict of interest here: this is the book by my old acting teacher in New York, Anthony Abeson. A giddy joy of a man, he draws from his own background training with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Jerzy Grotowski, among others, to teach actors practical ways to bring truth to material that flares with unique personal creativity (and book rather a lot of work, especially in film and TV). His warm and generous collections of essays Acting 2.0 is full of love for the actor in the modern world, and sets out a number of the utterly practical and playful approaches he has, that lead to an actor “popping” with life. “No recipes – whatever works,” as the man himself often says. He is brilliant on what he calls FIO’ing (Fleshing It Out) – never letting a word be spoken from the page that has not been imagined in its full life, acted out, pictured, felt, so everything said and done on the stage vibrates with resonant past-life, meaning and experience. He is terrifically incisive on moments before and the need to have found a trigger that drives you into the scene on fire; on grabbing a hold of your stereotype by the throat and making it a strength, and never retreating from working your weaknesses; and on reminding us that when we act a role, we represent all the people who have had that experience, and so we must do justice to them. Anthony is a deep believer in the self-respect of actors, and any reader of this book will only find warm encouragement to be integrous, playful and bravely full of life.

Challenge yourself to delve deeply into your work – The Intent to Live by Larry Moss

When you are ready to be challenged by a hard-ass teacher, there’s one man to go to – Larry Moss. His workshops in New York and LA are legendary for the exacting high standards he demands from actors – their capacity to be off-book, the rigour of their accent work, their willingness to dig right into the roots of a scene, their courage to bring fully of themselves in the situation proposed. And his book, The Intent To Live, is no different. Larry pushes you to stretch yourself towards your true potential as an actor, and not to settle for anything slipshod, cliched or facile. He is brilliantly comprehensive on the questions you need to ask in order to probe for all the facts that are there in a scene, and building a very specific system of wants. He opens creative doors you may not have considered, like endowing objects with past meaning, finding resonance in the blood memory of your character, and the rich physical sensations of places. He’s not easy on actors, but that is only because he sees such beauty in the actor’s purpose … and challenges us to honour our storytelling with truly our best work.

Be inspired by the stage – Theatre by David Mamet

Now obviously Mamet is a master playwright and a very powerful thinker about the craft, and you wouldn’t go wrong reading any of his books. True or False is excellent, hugely challenging, even at times maddening (to the point that I know an acting teacher who flung it across the room in mid-read rage). And we know Mamet loves to snarl and throw a grenade into the kitchen, with the idea that when the smoke clears, there’ll be a hard, spartan, clean truth awaiting (maybe a little sour-tasting, but good for you, you know?) But the book of Mamet I really love is this collection of essays from 2010 on theatre. Yes, it is still written with Mamet’s knife of a pen, with the no-nonsense gruffness of a hunting cabin, but whisper it … Mamet’s love for the theatre, after all these years, comes pouring through, and it is full of heartfelt belief in the importance of plays and in the powerful capacity of actors and in the mighty imagination of audiences. He slams preconceived notions on the floor, and leaves them for you to make your own decision about … always with the sense of great possibility. If you’re an actor, you’re going to be pretty psyched to get to work after reading it.

Picture yourself about to go on stage – The Half by Simon Annand

Maybe now you’re done reading – but there’s still one more book to see … and it is gorgeous and spine-tingingly inspiring to look at. It’s Simon Annand‘s magnificent coffee-table book of photographs of actors preparing for the stage – in dressing rooms putting on make-up and creating characters, warming-up in sweaty t-shirts, standing anxiously in corridors in full costume. It tenderly captures actors’ private moments before going out to perform, that delicious time before heading out to do it – getting into the zone, hearing the audience enter, getting your five minute call, readying yourself. I love not just seeing the actors captured in their concentration, joy and suppressed-terror, but also all the lovely paraphernalia that makes a dressing room personal – “break a leg” cards, photo postcards reminding you of the mojo of the character, lucky teddies and tea-cups. Derek Jacobi napping at the Old Vic, Kristin Scott-Thomas getting her hair done, Benedict Cumberbatch checking his pockets. If you’d like to picture yourself working on Broadway or at the Donmar Warehouse or the National, this is a magic source of inspiration. (And just maybe, that vision will come true some day …)

Thanks for reading … hopefully you’re inspired to take a little trip to the bookshop …

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The depth of Elvis: What any actor can learn from the King

The depth of Elvis: What any actor can learn from the King

One evening in the summer of the year 2000, I walked into a record store with a little exercise for myself – to walk out having purchased albums by three artists I’d never bought before. I did pretty well, looking back. I bought Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, a gorgeous album, whose backstreet poetry and elegiac songwriting I still find haunting. I bought Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis, which of course I know now is maybe the greatest jazz recording of all time, just pure magic of atmosphere and the coming together of ludicrous talent in one band. And the third album: a 3 CD pack entitled Artist of the Century. Featuring the songs of Elvis Presley. Now of course, I knew basically who Elvis was – as a pop culture figure, it’s like saying you’d never heard of Einstein or Picasso or JFK. The boy who brought rock ‘n’ roll to TV audiences with his scandalously swinging hips, the envoy (or thief) of black men’s hot music, the woeful and wasted movie-star of teeny-bop beach movies, the bloated has-been in cheesy jumpsuits in Las Vegas, the hamburger and peanut-butter sandwich munchin’ mama’s boy, and long-dead ex-husband of the foxy actress in The Naked Gun. Who sang Hound Dog and Burning Love and Love Me Tender, and other singles I’ve heard a thousand times over supermarket tannoys. Elvis has left the building. A-huh-huh. Thank you very much.

So why the hell I did pick up three CDs of this rock ‘n’ roll cliché, sharer of faux-Nighthawks cartoons with James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, when I could have bought Nirvana or the Rolling Stones or the Prodigy? Because some part of me was just darn curious as to why Elvis was this icon. And once I started listening, I got it. I was bitten by the bug. I became enchanted with this heroic singing voice, this arranger of beautiful music, this charmer of depth, truth and skill. As I listened to his twenty-year range of music, I had different phases of love: initially I was a stalwart for the familiar early 60’s RCA output, the venerable hit singles – Are You Lonesome Tonight, Can’t Help Falling in Love, You’re the Devil in Disguise. Then I discovered the breakthrough Sun records, in all their raw, untampered glory – atmospheric, sweaty and gutsy, Mystery Train, Good Rockin Tonight, That’s All Right. I was too cool for school to appreciate the 70’s stuff, all brass and big … until I watched the ’68 Comeback Special, and was blown away. And suddenly found the hair being brought up on the back of my neck by If I Can Dream, Always on My Mind, An American Trilogy. Now I’m just a completist, lapping up every minor record and B-side and live bootleg. (Maybe someday I’ll be mature enough to appreciate all the movie soundtracks!) I’m a long-time unapologetic Elvis aficionado, the kind of man who could get into three-hour arguments in bars with people questioning his importance compared to Jay-Z or the Beatles or David Bowie (all great too, but there are princes … and there’s the King.) I can talk treatises on how I think Elvis Country is as great a concept album as Pet Sounds. I can drive at night for an hour or two, happy with just the company of streetlights and the moody darkness of From Elvis in Memphis. And yes, there’s only one artist I have to try and mimic when I sing karaoke (I’m definitely not the worst impersonator …)

So you’ll get that I think Elvis is majestic. But why? What is it about him? Sure, he’s got an incredibly rich voice, with range and control and power and specificity, a gorgeous instrument, a gift from the gods (that he took pretty great care of and nurtured and trained). But then so did Freddie Mercury and Ella Fitzgerald and Robert Plant. And he didn’t even write his own songs, not like Springsteen or Dylan or Michael Jackson – Elvis just interpreted and arranged (and pretty much produced) them. Yeah, just. He just happened to be a massively music-smart arranger who knew exactly how to tell a story with the material in front of him, and had glorious taste for a memorable melody and punchy lyrics. But then so did Frank Sinatra and Aretha and Sam Cooke. And he has no cool factor – compared to Jim Morrison or Johnny Cash or Eminem, he’s rather hokey and sweet and old-fashioned.

No, what makes Elvis extra special is the depth of his work, which I think is one reason he’s so stirring and appealing to me, being an actor. With every song he sings, not only does Elvis see the story in the song, its arc and scenes and changes, but he reaches deeply into himself, into his understanding, his empathy, his heartbreak and soul-strength and cruel-memory, to share with unremitting generosity a level of bare-hearted vulnerability that risks every sharp blow, that conjures each moment of pain, of grief, of bliss, of sacrifice, of sharing, of pride, of shame, of wonder, of joy, and gives it to us with every sinew of his muscle and might. And he does so in a way that combines confidence in his capacity and joy in his talent, a rigorous understanding of the destiny of his skill, with an “aw, shucks” humility that knows it all comes from some God above, some muse, some shard of luck and something much greater than I, that laughs off fame and over-regard, and even amidst cadillacs and private jets, reveres the ordinary human life, in all aspects of its tragedy and comedy. This is in every Elvis performance, bar none. That is the greatest glory of the man – that he shares his incredible musical gifts with such depth of generosity.

I hadn’t realized this until taking a trip to Graceland. I loved walking in Elvis’ footsteps, in his ultimately rather cosy and charming mansion with its working kitchen and silly-ass Jungle Room and multi-TV basement den covered in TCB thunderbolts (and a supremely cool mirrored staircase). I got such a vibrant kick from seeing the black leather suit from the Comeback special in the flesh. And gaping at all those gold records on the wall is quite a knockout. Then, when I walked outside and stood by Elvis’ grave, I was stunned to find myself in floods of tears. But they weren’t so much from grief at losing him so young or any aspects of the tragedy of his life, like the divorce or the drugs or that he never really lost the insecurity of impoverished, shy youth. No, I realized clear as a bell, after being surrounded by the catalogue of his life’s work, that I was crying from awed thankfulness at the generosity of the man, of just how much he gave of himself as an artist. The depth of that giving, to us the listeners.

Up there in Heaven, Elvis (which I’m sure is a Christmas party singalong at Graceland), I salute you. Thanks for sharing your gift with us so readily and bravely, and reminding the rest of us actors and performers to give of our gift as generously and as courageously as we can. Thank you very much.

***

What Would Mick Do? Or How I’m Inspired by Michael Fassbender

What Would Mick Do? Or How I’m Inspired by Michael Fassbender

On rare occasions, a new actor appears on our screens that makes me jump up with excitement, stunned by their depth, range, humility to the role and story, and a certain bold confident creativity that is being released and shared. For me, it’s happened maybe three times in the last fifteen or so years. Around 2000, I was thunderstruck by the vigour and growling fierceness, tied with vulnerability, of Russell Crowe, while in the last couple of years, I’ve been just knocked out by the dignified, fearless and thoughtful range of Oscar Isaac. Between those two came through the guy I want to talk about today, who I just think is outstanding. And as a lovely bonus, he’s an Irishman too: the mighty Michael Fassbender.

This man is a proper, serious, ballsy, dedicated, smart, talented actor who shines a genuine beacon of light of interesting, engaging performances.

I adore his bold choices of craft – being a Kerryman with a German background, there aren’t that many parts for Kerrymen with German qualities in the movies, so Fassbender naturally always has to choose a new accent. But not only that, I always feel he chooses a new voice. A quality of tone, phrasing, pacing, that breathes the substance of the character, that has been created by imagination, inspiration and choice. The spiffy over-confident soldier Archie Hicox from Inglourious Basterds is very different from the diffident Peter-O’Toole-inspired robot of Prometheus, though both would be seen as posh English accents. I love how he brings new qualities to how he walks with each role – there is an understanding of genre and archetype that come through. And yet with that, this is not a man made hollow with technique – always there is tremendous depth of emotion in his eyes, thought-through truth, honestly-imaged pains and fears and doubts. I flash to a scene in X-Men: First Class where as Magneto he is challenged to move a far-away giant satellite dish with his powers. As he did it, Fassbender could have chosen to grimace or pout, but no: I remember being truly struck with the heart-rending, tear-inducing agony that was in his heart as he did it. Not too many actors make that kind of choice in a popcorn superhero movie. To everything he does, Fassbender brings a respectful seriousness, passionate work, never disdain. Yet always a sense of play.

Outside of films, I love how he talks about the script being everything. Much more important than burrowing into endless tunnels of research and body-manipulation, is reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the script, knowing the lines and every beat of subtext and thought that fills those white spaces between the lines, understanding the story deeply and the arc of character you are playing and your part in the overall tale. He talks about reading the script a hundred times, and the longer I work as an actor, the more I think that is the most important homework. Know the lines so well that they are your friend, your inspiration, that you have asked them many questions that have sprung forth so much colour and imagination, filling out the blank canvas of the role with truth and specificity and original responses.

His range is astonishing and wonderful. The raw, haggard iron-will of Bobby Sands in Hunger (his across-a-table scenes in that with Liam Cunningham are worth watching on their own). His effortless carriage of period roles, whether a Roman centurion (I love my ancient Greek and Roman dramas and not everyone can carry it off) or a glowering Rochester full of long-bred arrogance and stricken history opposite Mia Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre. His willingness to dig dangerously deep into the dark soul of a character, bringing a crucial level of unbending power-need to slave-owner Edwin Epps in Twelve Years a Slave – to bring out honest disgust yet also understanding in the audience. To somehow be utterly fascinating for a whole movie where your head is covered by a paper mache mask, as Frank Sidebottom in Frank. Being utterly spellbinding arguing about computers (zzz), with a razor-sharp understanding of the shape of Aaron Sorkin’s scene-writing as Steve Jobs. He can play cowboys (Slow West) or intellectual geniuses like Carl Jung or do Shakespeare as the prince in the Scottish play.

In short, the man is a master storyteller – who always makes it not about him, but about the story, with all his skills and dedication. So I’m always excited to see him in whatever he’s chosen to do next. (Let’s see, next up, he plays an outlaw traveller opposite Brendan Gleeson in Trespass Against Us, plays an Australian lighthouse keeper who makes a heartbreaking choice in an adaptation of The Light Between Oceans, a novel I really liked, and he’s in Terrence Mallick’s new film. God, he’s bloody good at picking his projects too.)

Throw in his unmatched bravery (that is one man utterly unfazed about nudity). Add a lovely humility, how he always carries himself in interviews as a good sport willing to answer the lamest of questions or do some silly bit; how he is always generous with sharing credit or discussing his process on a project; and how he never steps aside from his pride and roots in his Irishness, his Germanness, his Kerryness. He’s just the business.

We’re pretty much the same age, we’re both Irishmen, both actors, we both love story. We’re practically the same. (Okay, he could be my cool cousin, maybe?) Basically, when it comes to film-acting, if I can be a little more like Fassbender each time, I’ll be doing pretty darn well. Keep up the good work, Mick, and flying the flag with such distinction – I’ll certainly be watching.

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The Unregarded Director of Beloved Classics: Rob Reiner

The Unregarded Director of Beloved Classics: Rob Reiner

I just realized the other day who one of my absolute favourite directors is. I hadn’t really put two and two together because there’s no hoopla around this guy, but then I looked at his body of work, and realized he had made a number of movies I just adore, that have been huge landmark parts of my life, and that I have rewatched with pleasure over and over (the true sign of a classic). Movies that feature elegant storytelling, delicious spiky humour, great roles for feisty women, a classic sense of structure, a lovely capturing of rapport and the changing of relationships, mounting suspense, a fine sense of location, actors clearly having a great time and doing some of their best work, and overall a sense of brightness, optimism and joy. Now maybe it’s not groundbreaking work in terms of form, so maybe that’s why the critics would look right through him, but I think you could say that about a number of directors we now hold in esteem – people like Michael Curtiz or Howard Hawks, or even Stephen Spielberg, whose quiet skill in crafting work in a range of genres draws less attention than the apparently obsessed auteur who is easier to pin down. And maybe his later work isn’t as stunningly consistent as his earlier movies, but all directors, even Kubrick and Hitchcock, have their up and down periods. And his narrative doesn’t really fit with the grand box-set director, this shlubby-looking gently-smiling former child sitcom star, who loved working in Hollywood and never saw himself as an anarchist rebel. But dammit, the fact is, Rob Reiner is a brilliant, memorable film-maker.

This is the man who pretty much invented the mockumentary with This is Spinal Tap, and that was his first movie! A film that rockers still adore more than any other, and dare I say it, up with Waiting for Guffman as the best of Christopher Guest’s ouevre.

Who made one of the great coming-of-age boy’s stories in Stand By Me, a movie I adored when I saw it on VHS as a twelve-year old at a birthday party when I could have walked right into those boys’ worlds and knew exactly how they felt, our wanders in the Wicklow hills seeming an equivalent to their train-tracks, and nothing being worse than a leech down your pants. Elegaic, rude, imaginative, painful, glowing with the life of restless young lads, it’s just marvellous. And I have loved watching it with the sunset of memory every time since, as I become less like Wil Wheaton and more like Richard Dreyfuss.

Who made the greatest fairy tale adventure movie of all, that most joyously heartbreakingly hilarious and wonderful The Princess Bride, which I had never seen until drama school, because my childhood friend had the poster for it on his wall (courtesy of our local video shop) and it kind of creeped me out as a kid, and when I did watch it on a couch with a bunch of acting classmates, I had to hush them because they all wanted to say the lines along with the film, they loved it that much. Rodents of Unusual Size, playing mind-games with a Sicilian, being nearly-dead, and the course of true wuvv. And the final scene still makes cry every time.

Who made the best romantic comedy of all time, in my opinion, the glorious, pitch-perfect, endlessly rewatchable-with-glee, When Harry Met Sally, a movie that I am sure more than any other made me want to live for a time in Manhattan, wandering through Central Park in fall, with a spunky, thoughtful, high-maintenance blonde chick with a magic smile, while singing Gershwin like Harry Connick Jr (done).

Who made one of the great, drum-tight engrossing courtroom dramas in A Few Good Men, featuring Tom Cruise used perfectly, Jack Nicholson in one of his greatest parts, and a deep cast from Demi Moore to Keifer Sutherland doing terrific balanced work. This quite likely was part of my decision to study law at university, the idea of prancing like Daniel Kaffee around a sun-blessed courtroom (oh dear) … before side-stepping more truthfully into acting …

Who made one of the most crazily suspenseful films of all time, without a hint of the supernatural to help the way, in Misery, showing he wasn’t just great with ensemble casts and snappy banter, but could create maddening claustrophobia and fear in one space with two actors, with Kathy Bates and James Caan in supreme form. I can remember going to see it as a celebration of finishing my Inter Certificate exam in 1991 aged 14 with two pals – when everyone else went to a rugby club disco and came back with tales of being snogged by rabid girls, and yet, I wasn’t really that jealous, which just shows (a) what an innocent 14 year old I was, and (b) how a great story experience was so valuable to me (and that’s still true. And I’m still pretty darn naive even now!) I can still remember clear as a bell my pal Moro literally leaping out of his seat in the cinema when Annie smashed Paul Sheldon’s ankle with the sledgehammer …

And that’s just dipping into the top shelf, before even giving thought to excellent films such as The Sure Thing and The American President.

Has anyone else given as many actresses their best parts, such as Meg Ryan, Annette Benning, Demi Moore and Kathy Bates? Has anyone else adapted Stephen King so well? Or brought Aaron Sorkin to film as astutely? Provided more memorable lines than “I’ll have what she’s having,” “You can’t handle the truth,” “Mine goes up to eleven,” and “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”? To me, it tells me everything that I can remember the exact time, place and way I felt the first time I saw so many of his films.

Writing this, I’ve discovered there’s a whole host of Rob Reiner’s later work I’ve not seen, so I’m excited to get a hold of the likes of The Bucket List, Flipped and LBJ. And I was delighted to see he’s got a new thriller coming out, Shock and Awe, about a group of journalists skeptical of George Bush’s weapons of mass destruction. I can’t wait. With Rob, I’m pretty sure at the least, I am in for a good time. And that’s a pretty good film-maker, eh?

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The Day Cantona Arrived

The Day Cantona Arrived

 

I happened to notice in passing an article the other day, which recalled that it has been 25 years since Eric Cantona played (briefly) for Sheffield Wednesday. The article included two great photos: one of a crumpled newspaper cutting from a Yorkshire local newspaper discussing how Wednesday had just signed this troubled but talented striker from France, who had blown it at numerous clubs there due to his poor attitude, a surly grumpiness mixed with a rotten temper, that had led even to fuming nastily at a referee and throwing a ball at him, leading to a lengthy ban. Needless to say, he had failed to make it at various clubs, big and small, in France, but Wednesday had given him a trial and were going to sign him on a contract. The article was actually premature. Cantona wouldn’t sign for Wednesday, as they couldn’t afford his wages, being a newly promoted club from the second division, but instead nearby Yorkshire rivals Leeds United swooped in cannily and offered him a contract, which he took. Pretty far-thinking by manager Howard Wilkinson, as at this point English clubs didn’t see much need for foreigners, they had plenty of good enough British strikers. And a foppish, floundering Frenchy forward was unlikely to be to handle its grim, muddy fields and its butchering old-school defenders.

The other photo on the article was even better. Cantona, in a shirt and leather jacket, unshaven and looking rather pale and unathletic, sitting at a smoky bar with half a pint of lager in front of him. And looking over his shoulder in the vague direction of the camera, almost seeming to query, “Why are you here? I’m having a beer.” Not exactly the picture of a star culture-changing master of his sporting craft, and a picture you’d never see of a Premiership superstar now.

But that was Cantona. He did things his way, and no-one before or since has done it quite like him.

This is a man who was told he needed to leave French football and seek the relative mental sanctuary of England … by his psychologist.

At the time, I of course despised Leeds United. A 16 year-old Manchester United fan, at that point I had been following the team vaguely for about 6 years, and rabidly for the previous two seasons, during which they had won the FA Cup, League Cup and most gloriously the European Cup-Winners Cup, but had failed to win the league. Their best chance to end a 25-year drought going back to the practically sepia-toned 1967 team of Best, Law and Charlton, had petered out feebly – after a traumatic New Year’s Day 4-1 hammering at home by QPR, they would go on to only win 6 of their next 19 league games, letting Leeds United, aided by new signing Cantona, take the title. It was awful, screamingly horrible. I can still remember clear as lightning an interview with Leeds’ dogged defensive midfielder David Batty after they won the league, and being asked what it meant, he said, “Well, it’s a bonus, int’it?” When every Manchester United fan had been desperate for a league title again, and had been tearfully pinning their hopes that this year the mighty Bryan Robson and our great club would be champions again after a wait of a quarter of a century … to them, it was … a bonus.

And every United fan knew the problem. We needed a striker who scored more goals. In the league, our strike partnership Mark Hughes and Brian McClair had scored less than 30 goals between them, and our next highest scorer was a defender, Steve Bruce, with 5. It was clear the team needed a striker with the ability to smash home goals, to twist defences into errors, and to create openings for his team-mates. Rumours flew that Southampton’s young ace Alan Shearer had been approached, alongside the likes of David Hirst, Matt Le Tissier and Brian Deane. But none of these materialised. Meanwhile, Leeds had this new French striker who it turned out was rather useful and effective, skillful but also hearty and strong, not to mention flamboyant, who was scoring breath-taking goals, like one where he chipped the ball over defenders and volleyed it into the net with aplomb.

The next season, 1992-1993 got started with United much the same, decent but still lacking a cutting edge in front of goal. I can clearly remember the evening of November 26th 1992. I was lying on my bed in my bedroom, reading and vaguely listening to my little radio, when the sports news came on. It was announced that Manchester United had completed the signing of Leeds’ striker Eric Cantona for a fee of £ 1.1 million.

What?

What?!?

I leapt out of bed and put my ear right against the speaker. It was true, Cantona had signed for United! Who cares about those dunderhead English up-front lumps we had been chasing, we just got Cantona! Why the hell would Leeds let him go? Arrogance? Prejudice? Had Cantona slept with the chairman’s daughter? Who cares! Eric is at United!

And it didn’t take long for his magic to kick in. Dropping off the main striker into the hole of space just in front of defenders, his wandering but considered movement bamboozled British centre-backs used to strikers being up in their face. Suddenly they had to go looking for him. From deep, his thoughtful elegant passing was a joy on the eye, gracefully releasing our speedy wingers Giggs and Kanchelskis to fly into space; and then suddenly he would appear in the box, to smash home headers with a slam of his philosophical brow, to dribble around tackles like his toes were on fire, to laser home volleys with a ballet dancer’s balance, to flick off the ball gift-wrapped to an on-running team-mate, to slip finishes under goalkeepers like notes under a door – all done with a joie de vivire, an elan, a matador’s, musketeer’s, magician’s swoop of arrogance, playfulness and joy in the game, in the entertainment of it, the art of it, of turning mud and sweat and ugly billboards and grass and pink-faced fans and white lines and netting and wooden posts, into wonder and awe and indelible memories. Of returning royalty to the golden Manchester United Football Club badge, of returning rage and pomp and fiery flair to the red shirt, of restoring the mischievous devilishness to the Red Devils. Collar up, shoulders back, gazing at the crowd with an insouciance and a raised eyebrow that said, “Mais oui, would you expect anything less, mes amies?” Eric arrived and United went wild.

And we won the league that year. After a 26 year wait. By 10 points.

Right now, I won’t go into all the good, bad and ugly that Eric Cantona did after that in his 5 seasons at United, but let’s just say, for any United fan lucky enough to have been around to watch them, those years are unforgettable. He’s still my favourite ever player in a United shirt.

So thank you Sheffield Wednesday for bringing Eric Cantona over for a trial 25 years ago…

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No Oscars (or, In Good Company)

No Oscars (or, In Good Company)

 

It’s that time of the year again, awards season building towards the biggie, the Oscars. We all of course value the respect of our peers, and I think any actor who claims he hasn’t at some point imagined holding that gold sparkling Academy Award in his hand and making his witty and moving acceptance speech, is probably not telling the full truth. We’d all love that moment of glory, of affirmation, of a place in the order of honour in our profession. But in the end of the day, the vast majority of us won’t win one. Despite talent, great effort, sacrifice, ingenuity, courage, boldness, creativity, and indeed, marvelous performances, only a very very chosen few get that statuette.

But you know what? That’s okay, because

(a) doing the work is what really counts, using your gifts to be an excellent storyteller, whether that’s in a tiny theatre or a mighty blockbuster

and

(b) lots of truly amazing actors (and indeed directors) were never recognised with an Oscar.

Let’s just note a few of those – and honorary achievement awards don’t count!

 

ACTORS WHO NEVER WON AN OSCAR include

Cary Grant

Richard Burton

James Dean

Marilyn Monroe

Robert Mitchum

Barbara Stanwyck

Peter O’Toole

Rita Hayworth

Steve McQueen

Carole Lombard

Kirk Douglas

Maureen O’Hara

Montgomery Clift

Gene Kelly

Errol Flynn

 

Kind of incredible.

Actors still around with a amazing body of work include Robert Redford (won as a director, but not as an actor), Harrison Ford, Mia Farrow, Glenn Close, Ed Harris, Annette Benning, Sigourney Weaver, Donald Sutherland, Isabella Rosselini and Martin Sheen.

In the younger generation, surely it is only a matter of time before an Oscar goes to the likes of Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Amy Adams, Edward Norton, Michelle Williams, Will Smith and Brad Pitt. And it’s not just the Yanks: here are some stately Brits and Irish with no Oscar wins: Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Ian McKellen.

*And this is not even counting actors given an Oscar way too late in their careers, like Paul Newman, who was given a lifetime achievement award a year before his first acting Oscar.

 

And let’s look at directors:

DIRECTORS WHO NEVER WON AN OSCAR include

Alfred Hitchcock

Stanley Kubrick

Howard Hawks

Orson Welles

Robert Altman

Charlie Chaplin

Sergio Leone

Sidney Lumet

Sam Peckinpah

Fritz Lang

Arthur Penn

John Cassavetes

Michael Powell

Hal Ashby

 

Wow.

For the likes of Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, PT Anderson and Darren Aronovsky, it’s surely only a matter of time, but it’s still yet to happen for directors with the majestic CVs of Terrence Mallick, David Lynch, Michael Mann, Ridley Scott, Jane Campion, Spike Lee, Tim Burton, or David Cronenberg. And that’s not even getting into foreign directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa!

So, while I’d of course be only delighted to get an Oscar nomination, if I never win one, that’s pretty good company to be in, I’d say …

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