An actor is a prism. The writing is the light.
Each writer, being utterly unique, will create a different variation of light.
Each actor, being utterly unique, will refract light in his or her own distinct way, before even thinking of making a choice about the matter.
A director’s job is to look at the light, figure out which prism does the best job refracting that particular light, and manipulate a bunch of prisms during rehearsal or shooting so in combination they create a light show… like that. No… Like THAT.
So one thing you can do is ensure you, the prism, are clear, not cracked, not sharp to hold, that you’re easy to move this way and that, and that the light shines through you in a nice vivid way. Meaning: say the damned lines correctly and in order, and of course imbue them with reality and emotions appropriate to the situation of the story and the tone of the script, and style of the writer. Once you do that, the nature of your instrument – including age, voice, look, body, ethnicity, etc – will either contribute to your being right for the part or not. So the part of that equation you really control is the “imbue them with the reality and emotions appropriate to the story point and tone of the script and style of the writer.”
Now: Picture the prism with a brain. And the brain generates all these damned thoughts about light, about what the prism should do with light, it argues about the color of the light, it offers up a bunch of doubt about whether the prism should be a prism, it wonders if it should refract light at all, and it’s decided it will give it another six months of refracting light before going to grad school to become coal. Perhaps the prism comes to the grand light show of The Biz with occlusions and cracks, and just as soon as the prism repairman has got it shiny and new, the prism, of its own accord, jumps into acid during a party at a friend’s house, falls down on the asphalt, drags its ass home, only to wake up a few hours later looking at a hammer they picked up at the party next to them in bed. Then they complain about how their agent sucks. Yeah, that’s why you’re not getting some light to refract.
Obviously each actor should be able freely to pass light through the prism – anger, humor, irony, love, exasperation, overall dynamic range…. etc. Occlusions present themselves as an inability to present vividly some of that light. The light gets stuck in the prism. Will the proper thought get it out? Perhaps, but I am known for being highly dubious that there is a blessed correct thought the actor may think that will really change much about their acting. Sometimes the answer is simply to stop thinking about it. And since thoughts are unknowable outside your head anyway, the entire black hole comprised of discussions about thinking the right thought have very little value to me. Picture a prism in your hand, and you’re moving it it this way and that, you’re checking out the light on the wall. If that hunk of glass is thinking something while you do that… it’s pretty damned unimportant.
But certainly you are a form of prism – your body, voice, appearance and emotional register are the unique glass through which the lines shall pass. This hunk of glass is going to do something to the writing, and we hope it’s something swell, but we all know the combination of light and prism has a lot of permutations, subjectively analyzed by the director and whoever else is casting. So you can take it easy on the analysis of both your innards and how you can change refraction a little bit this way or that. The hunk of glass is a hunk of glass and if it’s clear and communicative and channels light cleanly it will definitely be of use to someone in the casting arena. The longterm effort is often to remain clear and communicative even when it seems not one person in this business thinks you’re the prism for the job at hand. Be easy for a director to pick up and move here and there.
For most commercially-tilted film and network television, I’d say the prism should shut the hell up and be a prism. The writers have created light – it has a quality, a color, a certain style to it. When it runs through a certain kind of prism, the effect is exactly what they want and what advertisers will pay to make commercials for. There simply isn’t much the prism is going to contribute to that equation by manipulating its innards in some effort to do a double-special super-personal omni-sexual refract that will just blow these producers away. It’s pretty much the light, the prism, and that’s that. I’m not seeing very much ‘character’ work on network television – the people you see in those roles are pretty much exactly as they appear when they are a guest on Letterman. The most productive work your brain can do here is to ensure you’re one of the prisms that gets called in on a regular basis, so you get a chance to refract a lot of different light for a lot of different people.
The frustrating part of being a prism with a brain is that by having a brain you’re constantly pulled in the direction of using said brain to monitor refraction, modify refraction, doubt refraction, and it’s possible you have now forgotten you already have all sorts of qualities that are going to refract light if you’d simply let yourself do it. Actors tend constantly to monitor refraction and change it, occluding it entirely sometimes, rather than ensuring the prism is in good state and being seen by a lot of people. Milton would sometimes say, “Acting is actually easy, the difficulty is in seeing how easy it can be.”
Are there circumstances where prisms need to think about light? Of course. The point I’m making with this metaphor is that I believe your average prism is thinking too much about how to refract, and often to no useful effect whatsoever. If you have on your hands a delicious bit of theatre writing, or its television cousin known as the badass cable series, or a terrific independent movie, where the stories, characters, and scripts are far more audacious – here the work can certainly benefit from a sharp intellect and bolder character work, so you can decide to cancel out all “red” from the light and man, do you suddenly pop in the role.
There are some special prisms out there for sure – Streep, Day-Lewis, Depp, Oldman, and umpteen others who can seemingly refract light in an entirely different way for each role. And as a teacher you every so often come across some of those special hunks of glass, and one does your level best to develop that talent as fully as possible. But looking at the entire spectrum of light being created for all content across the acting universe, there’s a lot of work to be had by a simple, clear, healthy, vibrant prism. You don’t need Vladimir Horowitz to play chopsticks.
Then there’s this one: you might have on your hands a prism with a particular occlusion that’s perfect for a certain light, and if that light is really popular, you can have an occluded prism that is in some friggin’ demand. That can be pretty infuriating if you’re the really special kind, to see that occluded prism booking jobs right and left while you sit alone and splash gorgeous light across your one-bedroom in the Valley.
Tricky thing, this calibration of light and prism. The point here is to try to get actors to separate the light, the prism, the people who are picking prisms for various reasons, and try to focus their attention on what will be useful for them over the long haul.