D.W. Brown has trained, directed, and coached hundreds of actors and is co-artistic head of the distinguished and successful Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Studio. His new book, You Can Act!: A Complete Guide for Actors is both practical and inspiring with tips, diagnostics, and reference material that guides newcomers and professional actors to everything from the classics to a shoot-’em up. He took the time to answer my questions about the book and his work.
On “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” I heard Alec Baldwin talk about the difference between an actor and a movie star. What do you think the difference is? Can you be both?
You certainly can be both because the ability to act is actually one of the traits that results in success for an actor. Imagine that. But there truly are other factors involved in being a star. Those would include the type you are, your basic physical attributes and your essential nature and how this present society responds to that type. There have always been femme fatale types like Angelina Jolie (Lauren Bacall), and the decent man like Tom Hanks (Henry Fonda); but we don’t seem to have much use for John Wayne types right now. There’s also the buzz factor. The industry feels a trend for certain people and their fame, a fame not necessarily related to their acting, and then it builds on itself.
I was surprised to see you say that “as long as you’re committing to the truth of your Action, you can pretty much be oblivious to whatever you’re saying and it will come off just fine.” How do you suggest an actor treat the words in the script?
Yes, I know it is heretical in some quarters to discount the text, but I’m only saying that an actor should do their job, trusting the writer has done theirs. It’s Shakespeare’s advice to actors when he said (through Hamlet’s mouth): “Suit the action to the word and the word to the action.” You use the words only as a blueprint to determine what you should be doing and, once that’s decided, you make the words total slaves to the thrust of your Action. Our society makes such a big deal out of the use of language and how you present yourself intelligently, an obligation to the words and their ideas is a curse. All these reasonable minds talking to reasonable minds. An actor needs to aim for gut.
Many actors are fine when they are speaking but get lost when another character is speaking. How do you teach them to maintain concentration?
We train the concentration of an actor so that they put their attention on what’s really going on, not just the words and how they themselves are coming across. The Meisner technique we teach at our school (The Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Studio) is a brilliant method for getting an actor to habituate playing moments and working off their environment, mainly the subtextual interaction with other human beings.
What is the best way to prepare for a role set in another era?
Whatever the environment your character inhabits you have to examined the culture and its values, and then bring that to your performance; it may be by relating to events through the use of particularizations, which is saying to yourself: “This thing is to this character as blank would be if it happened to me.” By this I mean, if your character is discovered to be pregnant out of wedlock in the 60s, it might be for you as if you’d been discovered prostituting yourself. To play something set in a different era you might also have to alter how you carry yourself physically.
What is the best way to think about a character’s past? About the character’s goals?
The past may be hugely influential or barely at all. Although it’s often an interesting plot point, I think well-meaning actors tend to get too hung up on back story, whereas your character might simply have been born a shark or a saint. I do think connecting to a past can be very powerful if you think of the character as motivated for a larger purpose because of it. This might be the case with someone who, because of the sacrifices made by others to get them through college, strives passionately to succeed so as to honor them, or a person having been bullied taking revenge for all who have been bullied. I think a great way to think of a character’s goals is to imagine how it is that they want to be praised. Everyone wants to be praised. If not by the entire population, at least by that certain like-minded soul. Even a self-hater loves themselves as a self-hater.