An article in The Atlantic caught my attention the other day with the headline The Decline of the American Actor. Being an American Actor myself, I must do what I can to stay up-to-date about my decline. Wait…come again?
First a quick digest of the article: author Terrance Rafferty makes many assertions that bumble about throughout the piece. The most important, in my opinion, is the comment that (in relation to their more successful British counterparts) American actors have less appreciation for training and technique.It’s undeniable that Brits, Canadians, and Australians are taking high-level American jobs left and right. Rafferty’s list of non-American TV actors playing Americans is astounding.
“On any given night of channel surfing or Netflix browsing in the past few seasons, you’re likely to have happened upon an English actor or two playing a 100 percent born-and-bred American: Andrew Lincoln, David Morrissey, and Lennie James on The Walking Dead, Hugh Dancy on Hannibal, Charlie Cox on Daredevil, Freddie Highmore and Olivia Cooke on Bates Motel, Damian Lewis and Rupert Friend on Homeland, Eddie Marsan on Ray Donovan, Janet McTeer on Battle Creek, Dominic West and Ruth Wilson on The Affair, or Hugh Laurie on House.”
Rafferty describes the lot of American actors as having “on the job” training. A crop of younger actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Reese Witherspoon, Keri Russell, Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, and Michael B. Jordan all having learned their craft as child actors in commercials, TV shows, and the few odd films. He suggests that perhaps the lack of “meaty role” opportunities early in their careers ill-equips these actors later on.
For me, however, it’s not about the lack of meaty roles, it’s about the lack of preparation for how to play those roles when they come. This is where the Brits’ and their training comes in handy. The Brits have Shakespeare. His plays are the backbone of their training, and when you learn how to fill the language and experience of Shakespearean drama, and allow it to be real, then you can take on anything from super villains to intimate lovers.
American actors could also study Shakespeare, and it would teach them a great deal. But even more than – we have our own classics to study: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, William Inge, Eugene O’Neill. And here’s the thing – the American actors who forged the modern style of film acting DID study those playwrights. Brando, DeNiro, Pacino, Hoffoman – they learned a technique to bring the experience of the characters in those plays to personal, honest, relaxed life.
All of those actors learned Method Acting from Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio. My own teacher, Salome Jens, also studied with Lee and continues to pass on his instruction to this day. But there are no notable teachers or schools continuing this kind of instruction. And worse, it continues to be distilled into ingredients that don’t actually have anything to do with the method. What Rafferty calls “on the job training” really just amounts to an attempt by young actors to imitate the naturalistic style they see these older actors perform, but with no real knowledge of how to do it correctly.
And so a style persists, yes, but one with absolutely no substance. So what gives?
According to Rafferty: “The training…no longer has the sort of allure for young American actors that it did in the days of Brando and Dean and Clift and, later, De Niro and Pacino. Sweating out improvisations and emotional-memory exercises at the Actors Studio or the Neighborhood Playhouse doesn’t seem the best way to get noticed anymore.”
In other words – American actors aren’t in it for the technique, they’re in it for the fame. And the work it takes to get there is of no interest to them. On the occasion of James Dean’s death, Strasberg said, “As soon as you grow up as actors, as soon as you reach a certain place, there it goes, the drunkenness and the rest of it, as if, now that you’ve really made it, the incentive goes, and something happens which to me is just terrifying. I don’t know what to do…”
And if actors don’t seem to mind the difference between the real stuff and a cheap substitution, Hollywood is certainly no connoisseur. Yet there go those Brits, with that certain extra-special something that makes it that much easier to believe their performances.
Rafferty calls it the ability to have fun and play pretend. I call it craft.