Change Your Life #9: Tom Noonan

July 3, 2011

Tom Noonan's The Wife

Your job as an actor is to be present in the moment. If you are able to do that with an open heart that is all you have to do. An actor has no obligation to the script – no obligation to the director – no obligation to the other actors – no obligation to the audience. An actor’s only obligation is to his character – to the truth – and that can only happen through his commitment to himself – his commitment to the moment. And I don’t mean this in the selfish, petty sense. When you are truly present you transcend your ego and become connected to something beyond yourself. This job of being present is a simple task but it is often very difficult.

There are four or five transcendent moments in a person’s life. (They are often highly dramatic but they as often are quite mundane and seem unimportant on the surface) These moments inform your entire life and often make you who you are. A great play/movie will have that kind of moment – and if you’re lucky enough are in such a play/movie you have the opportunity to experience a transcendent moment over and over again in the shooting. If it’s a play you get to experience that moment everynight of the run. That’s why acting can be so great. It is very good for the soul.

Having to play a character you don’t love is like having sex with someone you don’t like – it has it’s moments but in the end you feel disgusted (you know what that feels like) and you can’t wait to leave. And in the case of a long shoot or the extended run of a play, that disgust can hurt your soul.

I believe that acting is a talent that you are born with – it’s not something that you can really ‘learn’ or teach. Some of you may find that a discouraging thought but it’s meant to be liberating. You don’t have a lot of control over your process so let go and see what happens. You will either feel it or not – you will either have fun or not, and in the end that’s what really matters: are you being fed by your acting. If you are then nothing else really matters and you are a lucky person. If not, move on – don’t pursue of something that is not feeding you.

There are two parts to acting as there are to any art. One is you – you are the basic material of your work. How interesting and gripping and human a person you are in life will come through in your work (IF you let it and IF you have talent.) If you are talented and you experience something acting, the audience will get it – you don’t have to show them. In fact the process of hiding what you are feeling is in itself dramatic and makes what you are feeling all the more apparent to an audience (and yourself). Make it personal – if it’s not personal it’s not worth doing in my opinion. Do something else. The Beatles weren’t that great musicians – but their work was personal and fun and that fit the era. Be incomparable – Laughton, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Dylan… Don’t compete – you can only lose because you are one with

The second part of acting is the skill you learn through working and studying. That is a lifelong process – it never ends. I’m here to help you primarily with the second part of the equation but if I help in the first all the better. Acting is you – your ability to connect to something bigger than yourself.

To me acting is the ability to be believe in the moment. Your main job as an actor is to be as much in the moment as you are capable of. Many people are confused today about what acting is and how it functions in drama. I believe that if a play is well written, all you have to do is be there and say the words. The play will take care of the rest. Your job as an actor is NOT to make the play work (that’s the writer’s job) – it’s not to please the director (leave that work to his friends) – and your job is not to connect with the audience (that’s their job) – it’s simply to be there – to give this character a chance to exist, and this is his or her only chance to live. Just look around and see what you see – listen to what you hear and respond with whatever you are feeling. Acting is not being sad or being funny or being a character – it’s being you – in the situation. The first part of that equation: being you, is what you must work on first. Believing in what’s going on around you is a skill you will develop with time and experience.

There is only one you. Your job as an actor is to be that as much as you possibly can. This can be a very difficult process at times but it is essential. If done with commitment and heart, acting can make you a better person. It is a noble vocation. When you go into an audition you are there to show them YOU. Not the character that is on the page – just be yourself and be as present as possible. You may not get the job you went in there for but you will have practiced real acting and the director and the casting director have seen the ‘real’ you and when a part that you are right for comes along, they will call you – and then you will be doing the kind of part you were right for.

Acting uses the material of human behavior. That is something you experience (hopefully) every minute of the day – awake or asleep. Pay attention to yourself – pay attention to people around. My belief is that people almost NEVER SAY WHAT REALLY GOING ON WITH THEM. Most of the time people use behavior strategically – to get something. People almost NEVER say what they are feeling. It takes an extraordinary situation for people to speak without hesitation from the heart. People learn to hide what they are feeling – hide what they are thinking. So for me, acting should mirror that. Play against the lines in a script – if, on paper, the character is happy, do the lines crying. If the lines, on paper, seem angry, do them as sweetly as you can. If you are supposed to be one thing, do the opposite. The words will carry the one meaning, you give them the other side. If you echo the meaning of the words with your acting no one will watch you – they don’t have to – the script is already giving them all the information. Give the other side of the story. Which is what people do all day long. Their behavior betrays what they say. A friend comes up and says how great it is to see you but he keeps squeezing your arm in a hurtful way…etc.

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