What do Meryl Streep, Jessica Chastain, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac all have in common? Moni Yakim. For over 52 years, Yakim has taught movement at Julliard. His students have included Hollywood’s most celebrated actors, and he is often cited as one of their most formative influences.
The new documentary “Creating a Character” tells the story of the native Israeli who moved to Paris in the early ’50s, where he took up mime. Soon he was performing around the world. During a Parisian performance, Stella Adler discovered him and brought him to New York at her newly formed Stella Adler Studio of Acting.
From his move to America to keeping in touch with his former students, Yakim talks to Variety about the new documentary, produced by Kali Wilder, Alma Har’el, and Boaz Yakin, while Rauzar Alexander makes his feature documentary directorial debut.
What challenges did you face along the way, in the early days of you trying to establish yourself?
What I realized was that as a mime, I was an actor but a different type of actor. It was an entirely different state of being — your psychological state and physical place are in a different place as a mime because you don’t use words. I had to adjust to that world where I didn’t use words to act. That was the biggest challenge.
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You met Stella Adler while on the road. Where did you meet and how did you end up moving to New York?
It wasn’t something I had planned on, but I was doing a show called “Boys Tick” and Stella Adler happened to be invited to the play. She came along and she asked a co-performer about me. I met her at the George V hotel where she was staying. She was the one who brought me to the United States. She said, “You’ll come to my school and you’ll become an important factor.” She told me to pay for my tuition and earn a living. I ended up teaching classes for her.
I had never thought about teaching and she told me, “Teach them what you’re doing and your exercises and just remember you are teaching for acting and not mime.”
That class became one of the most popular acting classes and you’ve taught the most celebrated actors in Hollywood. What is that like for you to see them go from your class to Oscar-nominated, even winning roles?
It’s a tremendous feeling. When I see my students become very successful and see them inspire other people, it’s so great. I hope that through teaching, we all grow together to become artists, to become better people, and to become more understanding and contributing more to our communities.
Do you stay friends with them after they’ve graduated?
I’m in constant contact with about 20 to 30 of them. This spans from the very first group at Julliard which is over 52 years ago, through to today. We swap stories about what’s going on in our lives, or sometimes, they just seek advice.
What was that like having the cameras in the classes and being followed around for the documentary?
The filmmakers stayed discreet and in the background during classes and that didn’t bother me. But I didn’t have an easy time with it in the beginning. I wasn’t very good when it came to being followed around and being interviewed for it, but I understood what the filmmaker was doing, and in the end, we developed a great relationship.
Something you teach is this principle of “movement is action and action is acting” what does that mean?
You have to understand the concept of action. The action doesn’t mean that you have to move all the time. Action is an inner action. Why are you moving? Because there is an inner justification and an inner need. When the need is three, you move. If the need is not there, you don’t move. The stillness is a very eloquent part of the movement. That’s what I call inner life, and that’s what we call inner action.
There is the action that is expressed physically that is seen to the eye clearly And there is the action that is not seen very clearly, but is felt by the audience. Action does not always mean that you move physically. It means that there is something that has happened within you and is expressed outwardly.