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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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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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