Points of Empathy
. A major publishing company executive recently expressed reservations about
the seriousness of contemporary actors. "They seem to all just want to be in
television shows now," he said. "I'm not sure they are serious enough to be
interested in a book about empathic acting choices." That is a damnably sad
commentary coming from one so high up the publishing ladder and is an opinion
that I hope is not accurate.
An actor's challenge is to get the audience to relate to his character as he helps
the other actors, the writer, director and production team tell a story that is
hopefully more than plain-fool, pie-in-the-face, Keystone Kops entertainment. I
contend that actors can make empathic acting choices even on a sit-com or a
commercial, even in a beach-blanket bikini movie. It is not necessary to wait until
you are cast in a drama by Ibsen or Shakespeare to be thinking about the
audience and why you became an actor in the first place. If we are not acting
with the intention to communicate with one another, to affect one another on
some deeper level, then what is acting all about? Stardom? Money? Warhol's
fifteen minutes of fame?
Empathic acting choices are based on the self-evident
premise that all humans act to survive. This is what we have
in common. The lowliest petty thief and the highest
executive officers are exactly the same in that regard. A
woman who remains with her abusive husband is taking what
she thinks is the best course of action for her survival. It
would be a mistake to play her as a pure victim; it is better
to justify why she has stayed in the relationship. Find the
survival mechanism. Regardless of how banal or awful or
outrageous a character's behavior may be, the actor should
search for points of empathy. How is this character
successfully surviving in the world? Why does he figure that
robbing the 7-11 was a swell idea?
Surely, he had other options!
The key to meaningful acting is always the empathic acting
choice. (Charlie Chaplin understood this exceedingly well.
I'll devote a future Craft Notes section to him....) Don't go
for the obvious. Justify the extraordinary. Any fool can
portray an evil person as an evil villain. It takes a true
artist to figure out why the villain is the way he is, why the
the bad choices are being made. Good and Evil, Hope and
Courage, Dreams and Regrets, never ever die. They are
Points of Empathy and the actor's coin of the realm.
Willa Cather, in her book "The Song of the Lark", wrote
the following passage, one of my favorites. I wish every
actor would frame it, put over her desk where she can
read and reflect on it daily :
"Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining
of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be
truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows
how difficult it is."