Training never ends for the serious actor

Oscar winner Martin Landau has been coaching actors for nearly 50 years. He joined the Actors Studio in 1955 and, at Lee Strasberg’s encouragement, began teaching while still in his 20s. His pupils include Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Anjelica Huston and Oliver Stone. Now, as co-artistic director of Actors Studio West, Landau explains how practice and training remain lifelong pursuits for the professional actor.

Variety: Why study acting?

Landau: An awful lot of actors who are considered very good actors are not very good actors. There are people who just strike gold, they have intrinsic talent, but the point is that if they did train, it would not inhibit them. If they were with a good teacher, it would only broaden them more.

Variety: How does a student find the right teacher?

Landau: There’s an inordinate number of teachers out there who are not healthy because they teach things that are not necessarily helpful. There are some very good teachers who did study with, let’s say, Strasberg or Wyn Handman, Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, but it’s not easy to identify them. It’s by trust, it’s by sensitivity, it’s about whether you’re learning and advancing and feel better equipped to deal with stuff, to pick up a piece of material and understand its place in the piece. What is the intention of the writer? A good actor basically enhances, fills that space that the playwright or screenwriter created with the kind of life and behavior that’s necessary.

Variety: What’s the difference between university acting instruction and intensive independent study?

Landau: It’s such an individual thing. What university tends to do is train people to teach, but then there are actors and directors who have come out of those programs who are wonderful. The interesting thing about acting, unlike almost any other subject one would take at a university, is it’s an imperfect art. You can always be better. To really have craft, you must be able to repeat something as one has to do in films. Because he wasn’t a trained actor, (Frank) Sinatra was only good on the first or second takes. He didn’t want to do the third take. He just wasn’t capable of repeating it, taking the trip again. All an audience wants to believe is that what’s going on up there is happening for the first time ever. You don’t want to see the rehearsals. I always say, if I tell you a joke right now and it’s funny, you laugh. Now, we set the lights, and I tell you the joke again, it’s hard to find it funny the second time. If you can laugh spontaneously and really make me believe that you’re laughing a second, third, fourth and fifth time, you don’t have to go to classes frankly because you’re doing all the right things.

Variety: What do students learn through practice?

Landau: We don’t call it teaching at the Studio, we call it moderating. As Lee Strasberg said, “You don’t teach Shelley Winters.” You basically critique the work. It’s about things that people don’t necessarily have available or accessible. We’re all very different — environmentally, physiologically and emotionally — as a result of all the things that happen to us. Strasberg was tough, and it was very good for me. It was hard to please him, and the day I stopped trying to please him, I did, in a strange way. My best stuff as a teacher was always to find the problems within each individual actor, and I’ll suggest things that I know that particular actor will have difficulty with. I’m a big believer that an actor should be able to pick up any piece of material and act it, the way a good musician can. If I could wake the person up at 5 in the morning and they can do that, they don’t have to work on that.

Variety: Is there a fundamental principle you teach that’s true for every student?

Landau: Only bad actors try to cry, good actors try not to cry. How a character hides his feelings tells us who he is. Only bad actors try to laugh, good actors try not to. Again, find the joke funny each time. Laughter’s a reflex, so it’s about how to touch those bones. Only a bad actor tries to be drunk, a good actor tries not to be. A drunk does not want to be drunk, a drunk wants another drink.

Variety: Late in his career, Marlon Brando said that he abandoned Method acting because the audiences couldn’t tell the difference. Just how much training or commitment is necessary to connect with an audience?

Landau: The idea in terms of Method acting was to train the instrument so that you don’t need it anymore, that you can make suggestions to yourself. In other words, if I took a lemon, sliced it in half and stuck it on my tongue in front of you, your salivary glands would respond, I promise you. Your senses want to respond. The problem is that as people and as children we learn to set up a bunch of armor that inhibits our expression. The reason I say people don’t try to laugh is that laughter, like any revelation or emotion, tells us something about ourselves, and we don’t want people to see our inner selves.

Variety: The Actors Studio offers a three-year masters program through Pace U., but the Studio itself is composed of professional actors who continue to train. Does there ever come a time when you’ve learned everything you can?

Landau: There are actors who are intuitive and instinctual and have never studied, and some of them are better than people who have spent years studying. But people who are serious about being the best actor they can be are the ones who really work at it. Here at the Studio, the only denominator is talent. Young actors who are in their 30s can work on Lear. Now, they’re not going to play that for a while, but it sure is a challenge, because the inherent problems in it are enormous — the rage, the anger, the pentameter, the size of it — and if they meet those challenges when they’re 35 years old, my God, it’s like when I was a kid playing stickball in Brooklyn. I’d been hitting it with a broomstick. The first time I picked up a bat, it felt like a tennis racket, I couldn’t miss the ball.

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