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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Perspective. A humbling. Gained wisdom

I had a very interesting experience recently. I reconnected with a coaching client from about three years back – he called me to coach on some material. I vaguely remembered him, but it had been three years with no contact. He came into focus for me when he arrived at my door.  He was a smart cocky kid, and a recent graduate of a very prestigious university acting training program. He seemed to be going somewhere. He carried himself with a sense of destiny, inevitability, and confidence.  One of the young “invincibles”. He was also represented by a very good manager at the time, who often refers folks to me. I hadn’t seen him in 3 years and he reached out to coach.

When he arrived we chatted – prior to getting to work on the material he wanted to coach on. I asked what he’d been up to since I saw him last. He began to tell a very familiar tale. He came out here from an excellent (and highly regarded) college training program for actors, got hooked up immediately with a very good manager and started to get up for some top projects. And…nothing happened. He did not catch fire immediately, as I believe he thought was his due. So he started shopping around for other representation (thinking that was the issue) – and got it. He was sent out a lot, again, and once again didn’t really book anything significant. His new agent put him “on the shelf” after a few months of his not booking, and eventually dropped him. He’s been in the “wilderness” for 3 years with no representation, and is fighting his way back. In fact, he was coaching with me to audition for his old manager (who he dropped), hoping that she will take him back. He’s been working on her to get this face-to-face meeting for….ONE YEAR. I give her credit for giving him another chance. And I give him credit for his persistence. He has no Plan B if she doesn’t take him back.

This young man, who was so cocky and sure of himself when I met him, had been humbled. What he saw as his destiny ended up not coming to pass – yet. He is now older (26), wiser, a bit sadder, but still quite talented and somehow changed by the humbling he experienced.  He got A LOT of good opportunities early on that did not pan out. This happens. This kind of thing happens to all actors – the not-so-great, the good, and the excellent. It is a capricious business and his cockiness made him believe that this was all his manager’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It. Just. Is. This is sometimes the way it goes for people – even very talented ones.

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He gained perspective. He gained wisdom. He’s a much fuller human being than he was three years ago when I originally met him. He’s not bitter. He’s smart, dedicated, humble, and hopeful.  I wish him all the luck in the world.

The lesson: Sometimes the grass is greener. Sometimes it’s not. And when there’s a drought, it’s hard to know why the grass is not green.

“It’s all about the work”. Yes. And?

“It’s all about the work.”  This mantra is reverentially put forth by many actors, teachers of acting, directors, etc, as if that should alone be enough. This self-effacing statement is only half true – possibly less than half true. Yes, of course it’s about the work.  Duh. That’s a given. Yes…and? What else is it about?

“The work” is what you do. Your work is just the ante in the poker game that is your career. You have to put up the ante to be in the game at all.  So, simply put, “the work” is what you do with your innate talent, training, intelligence, and artistic judgement.

Again, what else is it about?  Simply stated it’s about you, it’s about who you are; your “personal fingerprint”. It’s literally about your DNA. It’s chemical.

Acting (and auditioning) on camera is an identity-based art form. I’ve been to many auditions where they could clearly have cast a particular role many times over if talent alone was the sole determinant of success. Those waiting rooms are often filled with significant talent. They are filled with “good work”. I’ve taught classes with superb talent in abundance.  Yet, only a small percentage of us succeed to any great degree.  Why?

First of all, there is this huge factor called luck. Let’s all acknowledge that. Again, if you’re in the hunt long enough, you will get lucky – at some level. Again, that’s a given.

Here’s the “emmes” (the Yiddish word for truth):  With talent in abundance, who you are often trumps what you can do (i.e. “the work”). It’s not right or wrong. It just is. People who personally resonate often win the day. I’ve used this extreme example in my class: how else can you explain an actor like Seth Rogen? I really like Seth Rogen. A lot. But he clearly is a triumph of identity over traditional actor skills. He probably can’t play Hamlet (or if he did…it’d be a VERY different “Hamlet”)! But he’s the absolutely best most indelible Seth Rogen on the planet. His worldview, his sense of self is immediately evident because he has disabused himself of the notion that he has to play someone other than himself. Seth Rogen’s “work” is 100% personal and identity-based. But for every Seth Rogen there’s also a Daniel Day-Lewis. For every Will Ferrell there’s a Javier Bardem.  For every Melissa McCarthy there’s an Emily Blunt. The actor’s impactful identity is always “dancing” with the work, the skill, the ability to transform.

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The fact that film acting is in part an identity-based art form in no way negates the importance of great acting, talent, or skill. It does not negate “the work”. However, it’s part of the landscape of the world we’ve signed up for – a very important part, perhaps the crucial part. Understand this: “the work” is not enough. In fact it’s the bare minimum, at the professional level. Ultimately it’s luck, fate, hard work, and the dominant and fully-developed you that you present to the world which makes the difference. If you can become a great actor and cultivate real personal resonance, that’s the “creative home run.”

The lesson?  If you’re experiencing a lack of success, yet you’re all about “the work”….. get on the path to marrying that great work with your authentic and fully-explored self. Don’t use your hard-won artistry as a reason for failing. “They just don’t get me.”  The “emmes”? They will get you, only when you get you.

Go get acquainted with yourself.

“The Whiplash Syndrome”: Fear vs. Love

I recently received a comment from someone auditing my class about how he observed this uncommon rapport among us all in my class.  And he was surprised that students were actually treated as equals, collaborators, and were asked for any pertinent notes they may have on work that was presented. To be sure, this happens after I comment on and critique a scene. I do sometimes open it up to the class. However, I’m not interested in their opinions. Opinions aren’t helpful; they can be divisive, in fact. I am only interested in additive criticism that helps the actor have the work reflected back to him or her in a clear, smart, useful way. I treat my students like adults, and they respond in kind.  Sometimes my students have tremendous insight; I learn from them all the time….

So much human activity comes from either Fear or Love.  Acting class is no different. I have been in many acting classes where Fear definitely is the thing:

  • Fear that the teacher will not be pleased – (the end-product of the “Guru-teacher”, where it becomes more about pleasing the teacher than about real growth for the student)
  • Fear that you will not measure up – (When a student “keeps score” and pathologically compares herself to others. “Why does she get all the glory, the roles, the attention?”)
  • Fear that the others in class will exclude you – (Will I be accepted into the clique? Who’s “in” and who’s “out”?)
  • Fear of failure – The Big One; the cumulative result of all of these.  It culminates in a defensive approach based upon trying hard not to suck rather than trying to achieve real excellence “What do I want?” is toxically replaced by “What do they want?”

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I tell prospective students that I don’t yell, I don’t belittle, and I don’t make students cry. If you want that kind of teacher, I’m not your guy. That kind of teaching style is far more common than people realize.  And it’s a complete waste of time and energy. The unhealthy co-dependant relationship that can develop when a teacher abuses his or her position of power is the stuff of legend.  Call it the “Whiplash-syndrome” – reflecting the highly abusive teacher/student relationship showcased in the recent film “Whiplash”.

It begs the question: can consistent excellence be attained from Love or Fear?  I believe it can be attained from both, actually.  A willing, talented and driven student can learn in almost any environment. But the lasting blowback from a toxic fear-based student/teacher relationship reverberates long past the time when that student and that teacher have parted ways.

This same auditor of my class added, “It’s like a love fest in here.”  My answer is a resounding YES. Yes it is, absolutely! That’s the way I like it. That’s what I’m aiming for. I’m not in the….

  • Discouragement business
  • Belittling of the student business
  • Or making the student cry business.

For an artist the world will be tough enough. It will discourage you, belittle you, and make you cry with no additional help from me. This all becomes like a very contagious virus, if you let it flourish. I also don’t buy into the theory that tearing you apart in class on a regular basis prepares you for the tough journey ahead. There are teachers who like to tear down the student, then help to rebuild that same student, and then proclaim “Look what I created!”. Yes, one can learn that way – the same way a beaten animal learns to not provoke his master, and has great residual anger for others around him. The negative effects of that are real and ultimately quite limiting.  Who hasn’t been around and observed the “theatrical-monster-diva-sociopath” – someone whose every breath is devoted completely to the furtherance of the self and who is incomplete and unbalanced as a human being? Never forget, as actors and artists we are in a love-based endeavor:  love of storytelling, love of the work, love for our fellow travelers, and love of being engaged in an artistic life.  The joy can be easily taken away in an instant if we are not careful in how we calibrate the student/teacher dynamic.

I have seen enough improbable success stories that I am in the the business of providing a safe place where actors can come and be an artist at least one night a week. A place, a space, an environment for experimentation, risk, and fun.  Fun is highly underrated! This does not mean we don’t get very real about the work, true progress, taking risks, etc.  We definitely do.  I am a firm believer in sound technique and cannot abide laziness or sloppy work.

Results: the bottom line is that I have seen extraordinary results using my approach.  My students have achieved an inordinate amount of success in the real world – off the charts in fact.  And I firmly believe that (besides their sometimes prodigious talent) the environment of artistic freedom, safety, collaboration, and Love (as opposed to Fear) makes all the difference. I am interested in helping to nurture complete human beings who also happen to be artists.

Talent cannot be taught,  Hunger for this pursuit cannot be taught.  But strategy can be taught: within the scene, the play (or film), the career, and the life.

Fear strikes out, as they say.

Acting is a “gateway drug”

The first taste of something pleasurable and new is always the most memorable. There’s nothing like that first time. And in that moment we either become “addicts” to the new experience or merely “hobbyist” pleasure-seekers. That taste of something new could be a drug, the city of Paris, the Grand Canyon, going to the theatre, or even another human being.

Example:  if you were forced to take piano lessons at a young age, that experience could become the “gateway drug” to being:

  • An informed audience member for great music in adulthood
  • A lifelong musical hobbyist
  • Or even carving out a career in music (conductor, horn player, violinist, CEO of an orchestra, etc.).

These formative experiences deeply imprint developing minds and hearts.

“Gateway drug”:  a drug such as alcohol or marijuana that is thought to lead to the use of much harder drugs.  It is the point of entry for addiction-prone people.  

“Addiction-prone people……”

I recently had an actor in my class perform a rather brilliant scene that provoked unintended laughter. He approached the scene as drama, and he played it in a dead-serious fashion. But in his preparation of the scene, there was an absurdity to the scene’s circumstances that he may not have fully acknowledged: an open-casket wake where the bereaved is told (in hushed tones by this actor), that the casket containing his mother is not correct. It is, in fact, quite a bit more expensive than the one he actually chose for her – where she is currently ensconced. And a switch of the caskets has to be made. Now. Naturally that struck many of us as funny,  and the line between comedy and tragedy was crossed. Repeatedly. The laughter was rich in irony. That interplay between the serious and the comic is a place where “gold” is found for an actor. Frankly, it’s what usually holds the deepest interest for me because life is like that – a heady mixture of the comedic and the dark. In the feedback section after the scene had been played, the actor told me that he initially felt it was a serious scene – to be played straight. But as soon as he heard that first laugh, it was “like crack” he said.  And in playing the scene straight (as he continued to do – even after the laughs had started), it became funnier and funnier – precisely because he played it quite seriously. He’s a very smart actor, and slightly re-calibrated his take on the scene, in real time, without losing his focus.

Laughter can be “crack” to an actor – a hard drug!  That laughter can be a “gateway” to all kinds of adventures – both personal and professional.  Give an actor a compliment, he may be your friend for life.  Give an actor a laugh – and he may become an “addict.”

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When I was a young actor, we all took ourselves and our art quite seriously. In my initial theatre training at Northwestern University, we were a fervent group intent on making our work as actors memorable, true, and transformative. We had a sense of “mission” about ourselves and this path we had chosen. The concept of “funny” was not always looked on as a virtue. Lightness was considered a lack of seriousness. There’s very little that is more serious than a young artist…..

Now, of course, everyone acknowledges and understands that comedy is a very serious business. Perhaps it is even the higher art. But it was that inherent playfulness that made us look down our noses at those being (or trying to be) funny. Being truly playful and open to the moment is in many ways at the core of all that we do as actors – comedic or dramatic.

I recently read the latest newsletter from the Northwestern’s theatre department.  We were all brought up to speed on who is doing what:  who got married, who died, who’s on Broadway, who published a book, or got promoted, etc.  When I receive this in the mail, it always takes me back to those “fervent” days. The truth is that very few of us who started out intending to become actors actually did. But the potentcy of that first rush of the theatre “drug” makes quite an imprint, and stays with you.

People’s dreams die hard and life gets in the way. Fate, fortune, and romance have other plans for us.  We often take detours from the path we originally chose. Many who started out as actors have morphed into other interesting careers:  theatre educators, lawyers, writers, directors, public speakers, etc.  Acting was the “gateway drug” to these other wonderful endeavors.  And there’s nothing wrong with that – at all.

I have students (current and past) who are engaged in all kinds of interesting creative endeavors that acting opened the door to:  writing, producing, directing, coaching, etc.  And….most of them also get back to acting when they can.  The age of the hyphenate is upon us:

  • actor-writer
  • actor-director
  • actor-teacher
  • actor-brand specialist
  • actor-game designer
  • actor-chef

What they all have in common is acting as the “gateway drug” to further creativity.

It’s an honor (and a hard slog) to make one’s living as an actor.  You can make a “killing” from time to time, but it can be a challenge to make a living, year in and year out.  This risk/reward ratio does not suit many people and they often opt out for other ancillary professions.  But the “drug” that took hold of them in the first place still resonates. And sometimes has to be revisited. Your people skills, presentation skills and personal indelibility are all fueled by being in the crucible of performance art.  This is good. People who can dynamically present themselves and their ideas in authentic and truthful ways are always in demand – onstage and off.

Live your dreams.  Take the risks.  Have no regrets that you didn’t try hard enough.  But also know that the “gateway drug” of acting is not only all consuming to you, but it gives you skills that very few have.  It imbues you with fearlessness, likeability, discipline, and the best drug of all: confidence.

Audition: the magic word – if you happen to be selling something.

If you want to make money within the growing “Actor-Scam-Industrial-Complex”, just sell access to yourself (if you are in the casting business), or sell a list of easy answers: “10 Things to Help you Book in the Audition Room”, etc.  Almost none of this will help, by the way, but hope springs eternal and  selling “hope” (or the illusion of hope) is a big business.  You get the idea.

Along with this, I’ve noticed a growing number of blogs, articles, and advice for sale about what actors should do in casting sessions – how they should behave, what the accepted protocol is. This is a burgeoning cottage industry that’s selling advice and access to eager and desperate young actors. Right or wrong, it exists; it’s part of the landscape.

dream-and-reality

I have no doubt that some actors do not know the (sometimes) unspoken rules about how to conduct themselves in a casting session, and to be honest some of this can be useful.  However, much of it – provided you are a functioning adult – is simply common sense.  But I gather that a number of casting directors must not be getting functioning adults at some of their sessions, hence these articles which seem to pop up on a fairly regular basis.  It’s interesting that the responsibility for proper behavior is given solely to the actor – which fuels the “please-pick-me” narrative.  Deadly.  However this responsibility is a two-way street; I’ll get to that in a moment.

The casting session is often a compromise for both parties; the actor and the casting office. Despite the fact that we want to do well, and Casting wants us to do well – it sometimes goes like this. The actor gets the material at 4:30 pm the day before a 1 pm audition the next day, and she has a work shift that night that ends at midnight.  Three scenes, nine pages. She has no time (or money) for a coaching session, so (take your pick) – her best friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend runs the lines and may offer a tip or two. She gives up her work shift for the next day, and arrives to find out they are only doing Scene 2 – her least favorite of the three scenes she stayed up half the night preparing. They’re running 45 minutes behind (after she nearly killed herself to get there on-time) which gives her just enough time to lose her edge and concentration. She’s eventually rushed in, and pretty much rushed out.  It appears that either an offer is out on this or it’s already cast and they are going through the motions. Perfunctory, polite, and ultimately fruitless. The actress can either throw up her hands in futile desperation or realize that days like that are just one small brick in your “wall of success”.

To be fair, casting offices also deal with compromise continuously. As actors we are only thinking of our task, our moment to shine.  But we have no idea what their barely concealed chaos is. They are also under time and money pressures from producers, networks, studios, agents, etc.  I am sure that on many days theirs is also not an easy task. The fact that anything good or constructive comes out of this creative minefield is always a miracle of sorts.  And it often does – the result of talent and dedication on both sides.  There are victories for both parties that do happen on a regular basis.

With apologies to my casting director friends who do an exemplary job, I would like to propose a list of things that casting offices could do to help actors do their best work in these compromised circumstances.

1.  Please do as much as you can to be sure your sessions run on time.  I know that’s not always easy. Everyone understands that occasionally things happen that are out the casting office’s control, making this impossible. But actors often have other appointments to get to, jobs to get to, or kids to pick up.  And we need to do our best to be ready with our best work when our appointment time arrives. Without intention, our time is sometimes treated casually – that it’s of little importance. That underlying meme only serves to unsteady our nerves, sometimes make us angry, and subvert our performance. Actors are instructed (in these ubiquitous articles) to come into the casting session with the strong inner narrative of being an equal.  When our time is treated cavalierly, that can be a challenge.

2.  Please don’t take calls, texts, or emails once we are in the room. This goes for actors as well. Turn the damn thing off for the 4 minutes you are in there.  It’s unprofessional, and has happened to me more than once.  Again, this is common sense and professional courtesy for both parties.

3.  Please don’t eat while we are in the room.  Talk about a common sense idea!  Early in my time here in LA, a casting director was eating during our meeting, and continued to eat all the while apologizing profusely about it.  Then – she picked her teeth with the corner of my picture. LONG PAUSE….followed by stunned astonishment (talk about playing a moment). Just visualize that for a moment; take that image in completely. I had the presence of mind to say incredulously, “Did you just pick your teeth with my picture?” and when that statement was met with embarrassed silence, I simply walked out.  I told my agent at the time, who apparently got very heated with her, and she was much nicer to me after that. At least she never ate in front of me again!  So, just take a lunch break, which ironically I understand could make it harder for the sessions to run on time!  But don’t eat in front of actors in a casting session, please.  I only bring this up because it’s happened to me more than once – not the tooth-picking-headshot thing, but the eating thing.

4.  Feedback:  if feedback is asked for and given, try to be sure that whoever is giving it has some real knowledge of what to say, or what actually went on in the session.  I was in an office recently and overheard an assistant giving feedback from a session I’m pretty sure she was never involved in.  She was manning the desk (answering the phone), and reading someone else’s notes from the session over the phone to a manager or agent.  The core of what was written down was pretty diluted, and by the time this uninterested assistant was giving the feedback – it was fairly generic and meaningless.  Side-note:  I frankly dislike the whole feedback obsession, and think we actors and our agents (and managers) give this too much weight. There are so many reasons why an actor or actress did not get a certain part that have nothing to do with their performance, ability, preparation, talent, or professionalism.  It’s the look, the hair color, the age, the physical match with the character’s mother, the producer’s niece (who gets the part) – much of it has nothing to do with feedback on how the actual audition went. All that said –  if an actor or actress gets the same negative note over and over, such as:  “She doesn’t listen”, “He talks too much”, “She was unprepared”, obviously that is feedback to take to heart and decisively act upon.  The rest of it is often generic and not useful. How many times have we heard the phrase, “We knew it when she walked into the room.”  Our job as actors (and mine as an actor and a coach) is to find a way to “walk into the room” with the right narrative, with a confidence that is infectious, and the understanding that sometimes it’s your time and sometimes it’s not.  Move on…..

5.  Most actors take significant time and care preparing this work, often in very compressed conditions, time-wise.  We pour our heart and soul into it.  That short, sometimes 4 minute meeting becomes our job for the entire day.  We give up our work shift for this. Efficient time management within the casting session itself is sometimes an issue. And the ticking clock carries it’s own pressure for the casting office and actor alike. Understood. But if actors are asked to prepare three scenes, I politely ask that the casting office (if at all possible) please extend the professional courtesy to allow him or her to do the three scenes he or she spent significant time preparing. Or at least the best two!  There are probably good reasons why casting offices do not do this, but ultimately I think it’s a matter of respect.  Or lack thereof. The great writer-director Gary Ross (who recently visited my class) said that he simply tells casting that he needs 20 minutes with each actor. He takes the time to actually work with each actor, give them more than one shot at the material, and adjust their work. And he said he takes the time whether he thinks the actor is perfect for the part of not – out of respect for the actor’s work brought to the marketplace that day. He also leaves the door open to be surprised. Process vs. results. Gary’s take on it was communicated with such respect, and I wish that kind of experience was more the norm than the exception.

6.  Office Acting:  The best actors are sometimes not good at auditioning, and the best at auditioning are sometimes not great actors.  In the audition, actors attempt to bring their very best work on the first take – because they know that they may not get a second shot at the scene. It would be so helpful if actors felt they might have more than one shot.  Just knowing that would take some pressure off.  I know that most casting offices will say that an actor can always do it again, but often the unspoken feeling in those sometimes hurried rooms is that you cannot or should not.  And – note to the actor –  a second take from the actor had better be worth it.  Just doing it twice for the sake of doing it again is not enough by any measure.  Change it up, take that risk you were too afraid to take the first time around.  Be fearless on the second take.

7.  Lower budget films (where it may be a passion project), or higher budget films with top directors, usually give the actor time and a workspace conducive to creativity. The “factory feel” that network series television sometimes embodies, is often the opposite.  Despite the best of intentions, actors go in and out of those rooms very quickly. My wish is that casting offices could create an atmosphere where actors can work rather than perform.  I know that’s a big ask…..but I’m putting it out there. If you create a space, an atmosphere, and an ethos that communicates an understanding of the actors’ task, there will be much better results all around.

All of this is part of the “mad bargain” that is an acting career, and the casting career as well.  We need to be as professional in our behavior as we expect others to be. My whole purpose here is for actors to more completely understand their task in this transaction, that they are not the only ones under the gun, and for our brothers and sisters in the casting profession to understand that we work best in a “warm” room.

In the current proliferation of the “Actor-Scam-Industrial-Complex”, forgive us if we actors sometimes lose sight of the fact that casting offices and casting directors really want us to succeed. They truly do. They are rooting for us to be great, to solve their problem, to come into the room and “take” that role by virtue of our preparation, talent, confidence, and professionalism. I know this from personal experience.

Put this in perspective:  given the sheer numbers, just getting an appointment for a great role in a top project is sometimes the miracle in and of itself.  Booking that job is a further miracle.  But with good will on all sides, miracles do happen on a regular basis. I’ve seen it.  I’ve lived it as well.

Break a leg….everyone!