Michael Laskin Studio

“Michael is an excellent acting teacher and coach, and has helped me grow exponentially as an actor.” RJ Mitte, Star of "Breaking Bad"
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Acting class – do you want the Mercedes or the Prius?

I was an early adaptor of automotive hybrid technology, buying my first Toyota Prius in 2005.  The car is still running flawlessly, by the way. It has remained in the family.

I had a good friend of who basically only drove black German cars: Mercedes, BMW, Audi, etc. – it didn’t matter as long as it was black, and German. Great guy, but he was a total car snob. About my purchase, he looked it over and said, “Yeah….it’s cool. But it’s not sexy.” I responded, “You know what’s sexy?  It’s paid for, it never breaks down, and when it does it’s inexpensive to fix.  Plus it gets 45 miles per gallon. That’s sexy.”

That’s the difference between being a smart shopper and being a “label whore.”

Jump cut to:  I recently started working with a new coaching client; new to me and new to LA. This person has an extensive film and TV resume, was quite talented and well-trained, with an excellent team of reps behind him. He found his way to me because his reps suggested he come to me to coach for a specific audition.

It came out early in our meeting that he’d been studying at an acting studio that is very well known.

Innocent question:  “I’m curious. Why not go to them for coaching? They certainly offer it and you already have a short-hand with them I assume.” I said.

“Well….because it’s been a miserable experience from the very beginning.”

“How so?”

“It’s cultish, strange, pretty unfriendly, and I’ve learned virtually nothing.  Not to mention stupidly expensive.”

“Well, why did you there in the first place?” I inquired.

“My reps said it would look good on my resume.”

The Mercedes vs. the Prius – the difference between driving a car to impress others, or embracing genuine value for yourself. With his utter dissatisfaction regarding his current acting studio, I began to feel like the car mechanic who is asked to fix a botched repair done at the dealership!

I see this a lot actually, and I’m always surprised by it. Many people simply want a brand-name training credit on the resume – regardless if the “training” offered is useful. I’m not naive, and I do understand that this could certainly be a plus in some eyes.  And I also know that there are some excellent acting studios out there.

But how useful is it if you’re unhappy, learning very little that’s helpful, and draining money fast? In fact I’ve encountered actors who have told me that studying at certain studios left them less confident, doubtful of their talent, and financially drained.  This simply shouldn’t be, and I’m always amazed and honestly saddened by it.  It give us ALL a bad name.

I recently added another new client who found me because his manager had me on their list of approved and respected “name brand” training credits for the resume – along with a lot of the other big name studios. OK….that’s cool, I guess. I’m flattered. I made the list by producing real results for my students and clients, not relentless self-promotion (of which I do too little I am often told).  But it frankly doesn’t matter to me. Bottom line: if you get in the room or send in a self-tape and you’re not great, it doesn’t matter who is on your resume. No one will care. If you produce results the world will come knocking. Always.

Take control. It’s your money, your time, and your career. Find a class, a community that works for YOU, regardless of the status. One that will help you grow, find your “voice”, and attain (and retain) genuine confidence.

It’s definitely okay to seek real value, vs. status.  In fact it’s the smart move.

PS:  My new client booked the job we coached on.

We desire the Beginning, the Middle, and the End. Even with auditions – Especially with auditions.

Aside from the untold number of auditions I’ve personally experienced in a 40 year career as an actor, I’ve coached thousands of auditions for film and TV over the past several years.  And I’ve had the opportunity to gain perspective; to observe the process from “10,000 feet up” as well as often being in the trenches myself.

What I’ve learned could fill a book – which might be forthcoming! But in the meantime I want to speak to just one aspect of this maddening transaction that I think is not immediately evident but is omni-present, vital, and ignored at your peril.

In preparing an audition, out of necessity we become immersed in learning lines, calming nerves, showing up on time (or turning in the self-tape on time) deciding on what we will wear, etc.  These days we seem to be given less time; sometimes only one day with a 3 scene audition (10 pages long) where we are expected to be off-book. It’s madness, and in this mad rush we sometimes forget one overarching thing:

As a species we crave a beginning, a middle, and an end.  I think it is encoded in our collective imaginations.  There’s a reason all stories since the beginning of time more or less adhere to this structure.  We crave it. Don’t take my word for it – listen to Aristotle. I rest my case…..

  • ALL auditions need to honor this.
  • ALL auditions need a dynamic beginning – something that puts us in the flow of the scene rather than starting from a dead-stop.  Something that acknowledges the pre-life of the scene we are about to bring to life.  What just happened? How did that effect us?  Where are we now, and where were we prior to the start of the scene – literally and emotionally
  • ALL auditions need a “change moment”. Humans crave change.  Even a simple “walk and talk” TV scene has to have a change moment.  If it’s not there in the text, it’s our job to insert it and make it feel organically true.
  • ALL auditions need a memorable ending.  Sometimes it’s how we deliver the last line. Sometimes it’s creating a moment after the last line – like a bell that rings and stays in our thoughts even after the reverberation has ended.  Like the final clarion note in a symphony.
  • Additionally, I believe in giving each scene a title – a definition of the scene’s purpose so that in our challenging preparation timeframe, the tone of each scene does not blend into one general over-wash.  Multiple scenes are given to us for a reason.

How do we accomplish all this when the audition material we sometimes get is – to put it politely – pedestrian? There is a lot of what I like to call “B-minus-weekly-factory-television”.  We’ve all seen it….I don’t need to name names. As intelligent smart actors, we sometimes look down our noses at material that might be from a show we’d never personally choose to watch. Guilty as charged. This judgement is dangerous and wrong. It’s our job to understand the world, the “dramatic or comedic ecosystem”, that each show inhabits whether we personally gravitate to it or not.

Make it a point to occasionally watch shows that are successful but that are perhaps not to your taste. I’m not suggesting you will like them simply by being exposed to them, but it’s instructive to try and de-code what it is that makes them successful.  There is a continuing and constant epidemic of “creative bankruptcy” in our industry. And one of the reasons that older franchises are revived is that they already have a known structure and an established “world” that has been proven; that has been successful. However shows that create new narratives and innovative new formats – of which there are many great examples at the moment – have a harder task proving that they can sustain weekly viewing and interest. Not to mention the ongoing challenge to continue to innovate and not lose their edge.

TV and film acting is, in significant part, about two elements: worlds and faces.  Talent is secondary only because in the professional ranks it is simply assumed. Talent is like the ante in a poker game: you have to have that on the table before you can even participate in the game.

  • “Silicon Valley” is a world.
  • “S.W.A.T.” is a world.
  • “The Crown” is a world, as is “Westworld”.
  • “Big Little Lies” and “NCIS” are also worlds.

As actors we must know and honor the worlds we are entering into – all the while understanding that we naturally fit quite nicely in some worlds and not in others.  My advice: don’t judge the world because it may not be to your taste – simply be a full-fledged part of it for the brief time you are auditioning.  Embrace that, and you might be a part of it for real.

Beginnings.  Middles.  And Ends.  They are a part of ALL storytelling, even a six page two-scene audition. In the heat of battle, don’t lose sight of that.

Driving the train.

In a recent career counseling session with a wonderful actor, we had a breakthrough.

Specifically I was working with an actor I’ve come to know and greatly respect, who is at a crossroads. This actor, after years of rigorous training and hard work, has become a steadily working professional actor – no small accomplishment.  Many would consider this victory enough, against such difficult odds. But good actors, smart actors, ambitious actors want more – as they should. They have earned the right to that hunger after so much hard training and work.

This actor prided herself on being able to do most anything; possessing the flexibility of range to be broadly comedic, serious, “professional” (doctor, lawyer, detective) etc. She embodies ALL of that. And as actors I think it’s natural to want to have a wide range – it’s fun to be able to play more than one thing, one type, one emotion. That is, after all, what we are trained to do. After a lot of probing back and forth we got down to the fact that she didn’t know what was next, or how to get there. She did know, however, that she had plateaued and needed to forge a new road ahead.

I asked her a series of questions based on this premise:  Imagine you are the star of your own show.  Every week.

  • What world is that show in?
  • Where do you live?
  • Who are you married to?
  • ARE you married?
  • What is your profession?
  • What makes you laugh?  Or cry?
  • Do you have children?
  • What drives you?
  • What does your house or apartment look like?
  • Who are your friends?
  • What style of clothing do you wear?
  • Etc……you get the idea.

In short – who are YOU?  And why should we watch you every week?

For an actor who had always considered herself versatile and creatively flexible….this was not something she’d asked herself before: who are YOU, and why should we watch you every week? She has been happy to fit in where needed, rather than be “driving the train.”

I told her, “You’re the lead in a series, not the supporting player”. I don’t have a habit if saying things like that unless I totally believe them.  In this case, I do.

From the standpoint of gaining artistic primacy, these are questions we should always ask. Consider this: stars often only do one thing; basically they can be very much the same from role to role. They exhibit a narrow range inside of which there is room to play. Not everyone is a Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, or Christian Bale – or is allowed to be. Even actors of real range can be reduced to their core essence (their type) based often simply on looks – the “optics” they project as people, and (by extension) as artists.

So – what kind of actor are YOU?  Do you “serve” the material? Or do you drive and dominate the material by virtue of your “personal DNA” – your creative fingerprint?

No matter where on the food chain you are, these are the important questions. These are the questions that, when asked, move you to the next level.

Do you want to “drive the train” or be a passenger?

My thing with the British

I’ve alway had a thing with the British….

I recently had the chance to teach my approach to acting at The Actors Centre in London. A bit of background: I had worked in the UK many years ago as an actor, and was also lucky enough to have had the great Michael Langham (and by extension Chris Langham, Ken Campbell, and Helen Burns) as mentors of mine early on in my career. So, I’d already had an appreciation for, and some understanding of the English approach to acting – both the traditional (Michael Langham and Helen Burns) and the madcap (Chris Langham and Ken Campbell).

And what is that approach exactly? Well, the generalization is that their process is more technical, more “outside-in” than ours. And to some extent there is truth in that. Their training is certainly more technically oriented, and my experience with actors trained in the UK is that they are far more skilled in their vocal and physical work than their American counterparts. This goes a long way with me, and I think we Americans can take a lesson there. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but in general they can be less enmeshed (and sometimes ensnared) in the psychological inner approach to the work than American actors are.

Regarding we Americans: the “Mount Rushmore” of American acting teachers (Strasberg, Adler, Meisner) have left a deep legacy, all of it in service to a search for psychological realism. This was a watershed contribution to the training of actors. But much of it has been co-opted over the decades and bears little resemblance to its origins. Additionally, as ideas that germinated in the 1930’s their relevance and applicability to today’s world of acting have greatly diminished – in my opinion.

Conversely, English actors seem to possess (either by acquisition, osmosis, or heritage) an essential command of all the technical tools needed to make their work memorable. The common ground between these two approaches was what I was aiming to explore in my work with The Actors Centre. I was hoping to learn from them, and they from me….and I can quite clearly say that happened!

I gave a 3 hour afternoon workshop. I had a large group and it was understood, and stated to the participants, that I was not able to personally work with everyone there in the time allowed on that day. After I did an initial presentation of the tenets of my book, “THE AUTHENTIC ACTOR – the Art and Business of Being Yourself”, followed by a Q & A session, I got down to actual one-on-one work with them.

One after another I was extremely impressed with the work they brought in. A side-note: members of the Actors Centre have to meet certain standards of training and/or professional work – so I was working with people already firmly on the path; not beginners. To a person their work was smart, engaging, and possessed very strong and distinct points of view.

Mick: One guy in the back, “Mick”, was unfortunately not able to get up and work due to time constraints. But I observed him to be keenly engaged from the beginning. Mick was clearly a character actor: shaved head, heavyset, working class. He’d be right at home as a tough guy in some gritty British crime thriller. He came up to me as we were winding up and profusely thanked me for the class. I then noticed his wonderfully thick working-class English accent. I have no idea if Mick was trained at RADA or the “school of hard knocks”, but he had a robust sense of self and presence. He thrust a copy of my book at me and said

“I read your book, mate. Really liked it. Mind signing it for me?”

“No problem.” I said. I was very flattered, and as I was signing it I asked him,

“Just curious, what did you learn from the book?”

He looked me straight in the eye and said,

“Well, mate…I learned I was doing it right!”

I learned I was doing it right.  All along. That meant a great deal to be.  I suspect Mick is an outlier. Maybe not a drama school grad (although I don’t know that for sure).  But he is one of those guys you always want in your play or film; solid, real, feet on the ground, and a bit dangerous to boot.

My approach, the approach I was trying to impart, is the “marriage” of hard-won skills, with a strong and fully examined personal point of view: technique welded to your “blink-of-an-eye-factor”. Technique is the “house” in which your artistry must live, and establishes a level below which your work will not fall. Because sound technique also builds confidence, it leaves the door open for inspiration, re-direction, and personal indelibility.

Mick, I suspect, has all of that. The fact that my book illuminated his understanding that he was already “doing it right” made the trip, the jet-lag, everything all worthwhile.

Sometime we actors all think we may be doing it wrong – hence the often perpetual search for that teacher, that class, that one approach that clicks. We all go on this search at times, but your ultimate answer is looking back at you in the mirror every morning. YOU are the answer to this quandary.  You and a lot of hard work

As I say often in my classes, “I’m not interested in perfect. We are interested in the imperfect; all your imperfections framed and supported by great technique.” The YOU that infuses your work has to be fully examined, self-curated, indelible.

Mick seemed to be a great example of that: wonderfully imperfect and absolutely memorable.

An Authentic Actor to be sure.

To read more about Michael Langham and Ken Campbell:

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/feb/24/michael-langham-obituary

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Campbell

Conducting, without waving

When my wife Emily worked for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 15 years, we got to know the musical director at that time:  Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was (and is) a world class conductor and composer.  But a conductor, no matter how talented and inspired, can only do so much with an orchestra that is uninspired, pedestrian, uninterested, etc. As Salonen got more enmeshed with this (already fine) orchestra, their playing got better and better. Soon they were considered among the world’s elite. And when they finally reached that level of skill and passion, there were a few times that I observed when Salonen would stop actively conducting in the middle of a piece, and stand there for a brief while, arms at his side, and let the orchestra play – their music washing over him. It was understood that for that brief while, they were flying without his wings. Listening to each other deeply. He then resumed his conducting with renewed passion.

That’s how I felt in my regular weekly class last week.  It was an extraordinary class, and I just let the superb work wash over me. It was our final class before a summer break, and for some reason everything fell into place perfectly. Not every class is like that – we’re human and sometimes things are just off. Not last night.  It was ON. The level of work I saw would be at home anyplace, anywhere. That’s not hyperbole. Everyone who was there could confirm that……

But before I go too far, I have to remind myself and those who were there to not strain our arms by patting ourselves on the back too hard!  Be very mindful of that. Remain humble, remain focused. It’s a short journey from excellence to self-worship. That’s how cults begin, and cult-ish behavior has a habit of creeping into the world of acting classes. It’s toxic, and that’s when you loose site of the mission.

Teaching, nurturing, and convening artists is an honor and a heavy responsibility that I take seriously. On Wednesday nights at 7:30 we remain true to the mission.  It becomes our “magnetic north” and every once in a while I have the pleasure of simply watching it happen and letting it wash over me.