Originally posted on November 26, 2009 at “Find Your Light”
No character is perfect, and no actor can be either. A need for perfection might be a strong character choice or motivation, but no one is perfect. It is an impossibility.
In her autobiography, “Lessons in Becoming Myself,” Ellen Burstyn tells the story of an exercise she did in class with Lee Strasberg, in which she created the image of a cup of coffee in her mind. She carefully constructed the cup in her imagination until she could see and feel the dimensions, and feel the weight of the drink in her hand. As she worked, Strasberg called on her and asked if she rode horses.
As she attempted to keep her concentration on her imaginary cup of coffee, they discussed her knowledge of horses, until he said, “You don’t have to ride that cup.” With her perfect cup still in her hand, he asked her, “What would happen if you made a mistake? … Go on, make a mistake!”
“And that began my new life,” Burstyn shared. “Lee told me that the first step was the willingness to make a mistake, to suffer the humiliation of daring to risk, to grow. I just had no idea how terrified I was not to be perfect.”
For many actors, struggling and unyielding faith are just part of “paying your dues,” in the hopes of one day meeting success — but having that ambition and optimism is not enough if you have fallen out of love with what you do. Demanding so much of yourself — to put forth the perfect image, to dress correctly, to deliver your lines in a certain way, to be a part of the right crowd, to project the best image to the public — is futile if you are empty inside and striving for perfection.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 says,
“And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues* of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames† but have not love, I gain nothing.”
One of Stella Adler’s mantras was “agitate from your essence.”
What you feel, what you give of yourself, and what you bring to the stage must come from within you. It must be motivated deep inside so that you can give every bit of yourself to your character.
In other words, do not be a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal — a hollow attention-grabber spouting lines emphatically to an audience or striding perfectly in front of a camera. Giving 100 percent is not about the effort you put forth alone. It is the total commitment of yourself to your character, and your ability to let go, step aside, humble yourself and let that character drive you.
Dare to make a mistake. Dare to take a chance. Dare to be in love with everything and give everything you have within you to the world. Let go of the control, step out of the way, and just be.
†early manuscripts say “body that I may boast”