Quick. Name your three favorite actors. Got them? Now tell me are they actors or are they interesting personalities who act for a living?
I’ll give you my three: Jessica Chastain (The Help among other recent movies), Robert Carlyle (Once Upon a Time), and Sandra Bullock (lots and lots of movies).
Let me first say that there is nothing wrong, bad, incorrect, or anything else negative about being a popular personality. Nathan Lane is one and he’s made a good living doing it. (Note: If you don’t know any of these people I’m talking about, take the time to Google them.) Nathan Lane is hilarious; he has a good musical comedy style that delivers that wow factor. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry – (well, maybe not real tears.) You’ll be enthralled. You’ll say he was worth the exorbitant price you paid for that theater ticket. That’s his shtick and you have to love it.
But. Is that acting? Or is it his enormous personality? The answer to that is the answer to this: What is acting and how is it different from a popular, likeable personality?
There are lots of definitions of what acting is and you’ll see and hear many in your theatre career. One that has caught my eye was in a review in The New Yorker by Hilton Als about Goodman Theatre’s (Chicago) exciting production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The review mentions not only Nathan Lane, but addresses the what-is-acting question much better than I could. Als wrote, “…he [Nathan Lane] is not an actor, at least not one who transforms himself for a role or allows his overwhelming personality to be subsumed in a character.”
The key is internalizing the character. Jessica Chastain did that in The Help. She disappeared into Celia Foote. I can’t tell you the first thing about what Chastain must be like in person but I know so much about Celia. She came alive for me in a way that has nothing to do with the person Chastain is but everything to do with what she dug out of the script and brought to light. What was essentially a stereotyped blonde bombshell marrying up and out of her class, became a person whose back story was evident in every brave reaction she had to the cruelty of the other women. I felt something so true about Celia, what was good and bad, her need for acceptance and her almost painful vulnerability seemed alive to me. The depth Chastain brought to the part, combined with technique – she has to have gobs of technique or how else would she be cast in Shakespeare (Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes?) – became a transformation from a person playing a part into a scripted character. So yeah, I’d say she’s an actor.
Robert Carlyle disappears in two distinct characters in ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Yes, yes, the rap about him is that he is shy and wants nothing to do with stardom and fame so of course he has no overbearing personality to flaunt at us and make us eager to know him or at least hang with him. But every time I’ve seen him act, he is someone new.
And Sandra Bullock. What’s not to like? I still remember my first reaction to her in Demolition Man, that she was an absolutely delightful personality and how I’d never seen anything quite like her on the screen. She was so much fun to watch and I couldn’t wait for her next line. I still have that same reaction, but since then she has also done some remarkable work where she was still delightful (that personality can’t help but peep through) but let the character she was playing come through (especially in some of her lesser known films like Practical Magic.) She’s a personality and yes, she can act, but it is hard for that personality to take a back seat and completely disappear? So I need someone else to make the call. Sandra Bullock: Personality or actor?
Now it’s your turn. Can you pick out someone working as an actor and then identify whether you think they are actors or personalities? Can you tell me why you think that? (Please, feel free to leave comments so we all can dissect your choices. You know we will. Also know there are no right or wrong answers.)
Note: If you don’t know who Eugene O’Neill is, you need to get started with a summer reading program. See my upcoming blog on “What to do with your Summer Vacation.”