November 19, 2019

STAY TUNED: Perception

 Q: I find that I get in my head a lot. It’s my default. I over-analyze and project. When it comes to acting, I find that connecting to my need, an as-if, and tapping into my vulnerability is the only way to break through the mental game, feel liberated, and really be grounded in my instrument. But every day is different. Some days the mental game feels far more powerful than my need, my as-if, my vulnerability. When these days happen, I notice this negative inner dialogue where I ask myself “Can you do this? Are you even good enough? You can’t do this. You’re not good enough” It’s painful and debilitating. When the negative mental talk comes into play, how do I break through and find my way back to the work, to my vulnerability, and to my instrument? 

This is a really powerful question, and one that I think all actors continue to revisit. 

When I was in the Actors Studio MFA Program at The New School, we had a class (it was televised on Bravo and called “Inside the Actors Studio”) where working actors would come and be interviewed by James Lipton and answer our questions. Julia Roberts came, and was talking about her journey as a young actor and meeting big directors for the first time for complex roles. James Lipton asked her, “How was she not nervous?” She said, 

“Oh I was always nervous, I just acted like I was confident.” 

It’s great that you talk about the “as if”. The “as If” is a technique Stanislavski coined describing an aspect of the actor’s technique. The actor acts as if they are in the character’s circumstances. In Erin Brockovich, Julia acted as if she was a single mother of three, she acted as if she was broke, and the as if’s get more specific as you develop your relationship to every aspect of the story. And she also spoke about using the ‘as if’ in real life. She acts ‘as if’ she’s confident. The ‘as if’ is very powerful, because it’s not pretending. Pretending you’re confident, wearing a false mask in life or in acting, is not authentic and is a dishonest armor that people can see through. Instead, the ‘as if’ actively takes something true from your inner life and connects it to the character’s circumstance. It is a way into action. 

A specific and honest impulse in yourself is engaged, that somehow informs how you express the words on the page and how you behave. 

The ‘as if’ is a conscious choice you make to ignite your imagination and connect you in a positive way. Another tool is removing judgement from the negative inner dialogue. “You can’t do this, you’re not enough,” is a gorgeous awareness of a vulnerable feeling that is relatable to every human being. There isn’t one person who hasn’t felt this way at some moment in their life. As an actor, your awareness is your character’s awareness. Your feelings become part of the character’s inner life. 

Because you are experiencing a truthful state, it is absolutely what the character is experiencing, too, in that moment. No matter who the character is, you share an inner life, you are the character. So, if you are feeling you are not enough in a moment, so is the character. And because this is a real feeling, it will always be inspired. You can always use it, no matter what. It is a part of the life in that moment. It lives as a sensation in the body and is affecting you. And because it’s truthful, personal, and specific, you have now struck gold. You are having a real moment. How does it feel? How does it live in the body? What does is make you want to do? You have just discovered a new aspect of your character. Now you might say: but this inner dialogue doesn’t serve the moment I’m in with the character? But it’s there so it will! Your wound, your vulnerability, will inform the character somehow. You can trust that the opportunity is to find out how it serves you. This is also the fun of it, and the way into a mysterious and unpredictable performance that only you can give. 

When an actor exposes her private truths, paradoxically, the character becomes most publicly relatable. Think about Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master” or Viola Davis in “Doubt”. It’s certainly not their circumstances that are universal; it is their responses to their circumstances that are so specific to their own humanity that we all feel it. It’s not logical, it’s more of a direct energy exchange that occurs when the actor is experiencing something personal and specific. The playing of general stereotypes does not transfer to the hearts in the audience. Part of your private truth in these moments is “I’m not enough”. So, let’s say you’re playing Ophelia in HAMLET, for example. Her character is trying to figure out how to get through to Hamlet, why he has changed. See how this inner dialogue you’re experiencing can actually become a revelation into her inner life? How can she get though the painful and debilitating mental dialogue that she is not enough, when she must act anyway? What a gorgeous inner struggle for the character, that you have discovered by observing and exploring something you’re experiencing. Feelings that don’t seem convenient in life, become absolutely interesting when creating art. 

You also speak of ‘projection’. This is a psychological term and you are right, it is something everyone does that is absolutely not useful to acting. It’s an unconscious way we try to control things, which is often a result of avoidance of self. The combatant to projection is to bring your concentration back to what you do have control over, which is perceiving your own instrument. Often actors judge their insides by other actors’ outsides. I’ve been fortunate to work with so many actors, and I know that public personas can be deceiving. Someone that looks like they have it all also has human struggles. It’s interesting to sense people, sense if their energy pleases you, be aware of how they make you feel. The actor’s work is to pay attention to their own responses, so you can create complex characters that have a myriad of feelings and awarenesses like you do. 

We are in the business of examining and sharing the human condition. Actors explore themselves. All of themselves. Your discovery may feel bad in life, but for the craft of acting, you have found a specific state of being that is true to the human condition. We study the human condition, all of it. The technique becomes to pay attention to all of the feelings, and lift them into art. A wonderful part of the art of acting is that our human flaws, when lifted by our creativity, become our gold.

Please send your specific questions about the art of acting to staytuned@gmail.com and Kymberly will respond to a different question each week! There are no invalid questions, as long as they pertain to your craft and life as an actor. 


Kymberly Harris is an actor’s director. She specializes in character-driven stories, whether the genre is drama, comedy, thriller, or action. Her extensive experience as a method acting coach to professional actors of all ages has led actors to seek her out to direct them towards their best performances in film, television, and theatre projects.