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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“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?”

love1

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.”

inspiration-poster-creativity-is-intelligence-large

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!

The moment of anticipation – silence filled with possibilities

A little background:  We are big baseball fans in our house. This baseball season the Los Angeles Dodgers are in the midst of an ongoing dispute over the TV rights to their games.  We are not able to see their games on TV this year, as we have in the past.  So, we are listening to them on the radio.  We happen to have an old Philco brand radio in our bedroom;  a 1940’s model (the “Philco Transitone” to be exact), with an art-deco styled real wood case.  This radio began its life on my mother-in-law’s family home (adjacent to their mill) up in the Red River Valley in Minnesota. It’s beautiful and with a wood case, the sound is pretty extraordinary. This is what is called a “tube radio”, one where the electric tubes in the radio need a minute or two to warm up before the sound emerges.  I had it restored a few years ago and it looks beautiful, the dial lights up with an amber glow, and the sound is rich and deep – not that flat metallic sound characteristic of most modern radios.

PHILCOToday, wanting to listen to the Dodger game, I turned on the radio while walking by, knowing it would take a few minutes. I headed to the kitchen to wash a few dishes; I had some time before the old Philco fired up. Not designed to instantly come on like a modern radio, the radio’s tubes begin to warm up, glow, and eventually come to life, producing sound in a minute or two. Washing dishes in the kitchen, I had my ear tilted to our bedroom where the radio is – looking forward to the warm glowing sound of Vin Scully’s voice coming out of a beautiful old wooden radio.  The radio, once warmed up, sort of eases on – as if the volume were simply being turned up.  It’s not abrupt; it’s gradual. Soon Scully’s butter-smooth voice spins the narrative of the game, and sprinkles it with wonderful old stories from his lifetime in baseball.  It’s good company, this radio.

I can’t explain why, but for some reason, today I had this “aha” moment.  I realized that the time between when I turned the knob and heard the game come to life….that brief minute or two was kind of a magical time. It was the opposite of instant gratification; it was delayed pleasure made sweeter by having to wait for it. Suspended anticipation – a place where so many possibilities live.

Am I making too much of this?  Why did this occur to me today?  Does this have anything to do with acting?

I honestly don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But I think perhaps this could have something to do with having real awareness in your life. Awareness of the minutiae that crowds our lives and goes largely unnoticed – until it doesn’t. How else to explain why that time of waiting took on meaning for me, today?

We live in an instant gratification world…..we don’t want to wait for ANYTHING: Facebook, the internet, Twitter, HD TV, our double latte, and on and on.  We need it NOW! I’m as guilty as the next guy, and I don’t think this is good for us. Waiting that minute or two with the knowledge that the tubes were coming to life as I finished the dishes, was like smelling a wonderful meal cooking in the kitchen and knowing you’ll be sitting down for a feast in a brief while.  Silence, filled with meaning. It slowed me down.  It made me listen. It let me breathe.  That has everything to do with great acting, and with trying to become and remain an artist.

The moment of anticipation, followed by silence, and then the moment of gratification – this is where magic resides; in a scene, in a play, a movie, in your career, and in your life.

Leave  room for it. Become aware of it. Enjoy it.  Know that it feeds you in ways that instant gratification cannot,  It is more fully in tune with our humanity.

The personal touch. It’s absolutely required.

The Personal Touch

We are engaged in an artistic endeavor that is also a business which feeds heavily on the interplay between personal and professional relationships.  Certainly the theatre (and to a somewhat lesser extent film and television) are still hand-made products with interesting human variations and imperfections coloring the final results. In this effort one cannot function in a vacuum, without people.  It’s all about people. It is a business that thrives on the personal touch in all areas.

There is a story about Marlon Brando when he was a young actor in New York –in his struggling pre-“Streetcar” days.  He said that when the weather was particularly horrible (whether it was a drenching rain or a snowstorm) he would make a special effort to go do his rounds of agents, casting directors, etc.  His logic was that he would be remembered as the one drenched actor who made it into the office when the horrible weather kept everyone else away. Brando wanted to be remembered – even then.  Smart strategy, and highly personal.

A young actress in my class recently has been casting her net wide in an attempt to obtain a good manager to represent her.  She mentioned in class that she was going to send thank you notes to those who had been responsive, via email.  My advice to her was to send a personally written thank you note instead, via the good old US mail.  Emails are deleted at lightening speed.  But a handwritten note will be remembered.  It has a personal touch, especially in our virtual and digital age. Your handwriting expresses who you are, as do your words, and the kind of note you choose to send.  For a moment at least she too will be remembered, because of this note. Old fashioned?  Perhaps. But also a good strategy.

As a young actor I had the pleasure and the privilege of guest-starring on many shows produced by  Steven Bochco, one of the great innovative forces in modern television. In case you don’t know, Bochco was responsible for many landmark series such as “Hill Street Blues”, “L.A. Law”, “N.Y.P.D. Blue”, among several others.

Here’s the deal: Steven always sent me a personally hand-written note when my episode aired.  It was from him to me, and he always included some praise that was specific to my work, and gratitude for my contribution to the show. How cool is that? This made a profound impression on me.  One of the biggest producers in television took the time to send guest actors a personal note.  He also made it a point to be at every audition, even for the smallest roles (yes…there ARE small roles).  This was a guy who had his fingerprints on everything, and it showed in the quality of his work, and in the loyalty of those who worked with him year in and year out.  He built a team of people, all based on that personal touch.

Another example of a truly personal moment: I once had to meet the director Stephen Frears for a role in his film, “The Grifters.”  I was told to prepare nothing, “Mr. Frears just wants to meet you”.  I think he assumed if you’d made it this far that you were a good actor, but he needed to meet you, to feel your presence in the room – human to human. He was lying on a couch after his lunch (with crumbs adorning his sweater) when I was escorted into his office.  He was a rumpled presence, slightly unkempt, like an unmade bed.  He just chatted with me while he sipped some tea. We spoke for at least twenty minutes – it was a good and substantive conversation about everything BUT the film! He just wanted to see and feel who I was, if he could.  On that basis, I was hired to be in “The Grifters”.  Again, the personal touch.

When I was cast in “The Man Who Captured Eichmann” starring and produced by Robert Duvall for TNT, he arranged for a dinner with as many cast members as could make it.  He just wanted to sit with us and get to know us a bit, which was a thrill – Duvall was, and is, an icon. The conversation was far-ranging, open, friendly, and it eventually turned to politics – dangerous territory!  Duvall (a pretty conservative guy) laughingly said to me, “You’re not one of those Hollywood liberals, are you?” I wasn’t exactly sure how to best answer that one.  I mustered my courage and said, “Yes Bob, I’m afraid I am.” He looked at me for a little too long, and finally broke out into a big grin, and said, “Well, that’s just fine.”  And the storm had passed.  It’s all about being personal and connecting on that level with your co-workers, even if it’s Robert Duvall.  I might add, especially if it’s Robert Duvall.

I will never forget the kindness of James Bridges – a wonderful writer/director who directed me in one of my first feature films, “Perfect” which starred a young John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis. Bridges had been known for such noted films as “The China Syndrome”, “The Paper Chase”, and “Urban Cowboy.” I shot a week on “Perfect” and James was out of town when I had to go in to the studio and loop some of my lines, which was months after principal photography had wrapped.  While I was in the studio, he called in and wanted to speak to me.  He apologized for not being able to be there while I was looping my lines, despite the fact that directors are often not present for this.  And he took the time to sincerely thank me for my work in the film and tell me how good I was in the final cut. Aside from the fact that any actor loves being complimented, it blew me away that he took the time to know when I was going to be in the studio, to call in, and to talk with me. I’m not certain if he did this for every actor, but this personal touch was one of his very best qualities and made me feel appreciated and important for that brief time. He died shortly after that, relatively young, but I remember his kindness to this day.  Again, the lasting quality of a personal connection.

And finally, I’ve been fortunate to do four films with writer/director John Sayles. John and his producer (and wife) Maggie Renzi always made it a point to truly get to know you personally, and as a result we have been close friends for over twenty five years.  And they always built a creative encampment wherever we have shot, developing relationships with not only their fellow artists but also the community where we are shooting.  I met great people in Alaska where we shot “Limbo” who were not connected to the film, but who John and Maggie brought into their world. We are still friends, and the same can be said for our time shooting “Passion Fish” in Louisiana.  A year ago John and Maggie had a “gathering of the tribe” as they called it in New Hampshire – over two hundred people with their children, grandchildren, and all sorts of significant others showed up from all corners of the world. This is their tribe of fellow artists. They showed up for John and Maggie in large part because John and Maggie had (over the years) showed up for them, with loyalty, friendship, and community. This extended “tribe” is a direct result of their unique personal touch.

The point in all of this is not to trumpet all the cool and interesting people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with.  That’s just an added benefit of being lucky, talented, and around the business long enough. All of these examples have in common one thing:  the very high quality of these artists and their projects. It is not a coincidence. People respond well to being treated as collaborators rather than hired help. You will get your very best work from an actor if he or she feels invested in the project – even in a small way. It has been my experience that the very best talent, the crème-de-la-crème so to speak, are often the most personally dynamic, collaborative, and inspiring.  They all realize that creating a team where everyone is pulling in the same direction produces the best results.  And if for some reason it does not (after all, no one sets out to make a bad movie, but they do occur on a regular basis) you’ve at least had a new life experience, made new friends and colleagues, and added more depth and clarity to your worldview.

I try to carry ethos this into my teaching and coaching as well.  I honestly don’t know any other way to do it.  Yes, be a good teacher, or if you can, be a great teacher. But also be a reliable ear, a constructive critic, an honest friend, an advisor, and a mentor.  Make it personal, please.

The personal touch. It’s absolutely required. In a world of increasingly corporatized film and TV “product”, make this approach your “magnetic north”.

If our hand-made art is not personal, then what is it?