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The Trouble with Actors

February 28, 2014

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I’ve been thinking about the casting process for Eivissa, and perhaps the most intriguing dilemma is how to tackle recruiting one of the story’s major characters, Kelly, who comes with a striking anomaly – she doesn’t utter a single line in the film. That said, I cannot overestimate how key a component Kelly will be – the actress playing her should, in all probability, be billed as one of the film’s top half-dozen performers – but how do you go about selling this role to a seasoned professional, or even aspiring actress, fresh out of drama school, looking for a succulent monologue to focus their attentions on and to ultimately add to their showreel?

Now clearly, film is a more visual medium than theatre, but most actors still process the comprehension of their craft through their character’s actions and dialogue. The simple snag with Kelly is that she’s dead – in the film she doesn’t exist in any normative realm of human behaviour; she is a spectre, a cipher, a beautiful icon through which the cerebral baggage of lead character Elliott’s colossal grief is played out on. Kelly encapsulates the film’s aesthetic spirit, and as well as recurring regularly throughout the film in her own right, the actress will need to be suitably photogenic and capable of registering searing emotion and sentiment through her thoughts and presence alone (although of course appropriate cinematography, editing and sound design will assist in this conjuring of a celluloid persona for Kelly).

This quandary has reminded me of a common fault-line between actors and, for want of a better word, ‘arthouse’ filmmakers down the years. As mentioned earlier, loosely speaking 90% of actors are institutionalised to process their own method through conventional, learned theatrical paradigms: What does my character say? What do they do? What is their ‘journey’? What are their motivations? While a lot of industrial, commercial cinema naturally compliments that process through three-act narratives, conflict and resolution arcs and conventional frames of reality, some filmmakers seek to branch out on that literary’form of representation – to present diegesis as something transcendent: the senses, sound, light, image, fractured chronology. After all, isn’t the truthful state of our emotions and memories a more complex and ephemeral experiential dimension?

This fault-line ties in nicely with the forthcoming, ultimate backslapping luvvie-fest that is the Oscars. Terrence Malick, the arch filmmaker of mood and poetry, was horrendously chastised and condescended in an actors roundtable before the ceremony two years ago. See the below YouTube link for more insight, although, incidentally, the actorly guffaw about Adrien Brody being top-billed in The Thin Red Line, only to find Jim Caviezel ending up with the biggest role, is unintentionally hilarious as you only have to watch that film to know why Malick was absolutely right to centre his film around Caviezel and not Brody.

I was particularly drawn to the comments of Christopher Plummer, an actor I previously admired, and who incidentally went on to win the Best Supporting Oscar that year for his marvellous turn in Beginners. He lambasts Malick for being “terribly pretentious”, which is highly tendentious terminology to use in the first instance, considering every writer-director who sets out on a project presumably has some inherent ‘pretension’ to even deign to tell their story. Let alone by Plummer’s very same logic, Malick should conversely be applauded for seeking to engage audiences through their emotions and with transcendent themes, rather than perpetuating industrial cinema’s age-old parlour-game of seeking to flatter audiences with all things literary and dramaturgical (narrative, genre, character). Amusingly, Plummer’s hermetic actorly lens betrays him anyway, when he levels a petty accusation at Malick of tampering with his seminal speech in The New World. Presumably by that, Plummer means he had originally delivered the monologue to camera and in a comprehensibly sequenced juncture in the narrative. Instead, in the final cut, Malick conceives of the monologue (which is incidentally still hugely effective and beautifully delivered by Plummer) as disembodied commentary over some resonant imagery depicting the metaphysical geography of the lead protagonist that the words evoke.

Another alumnus of The New World, Colin Farrell, famously dismissed Michael Mann’s Miami Vice and his own association to it, for being a similarly “uninteresting”, obtuse work. Again, this is another classic case of the limitations of actor-centrism, and further evidence that in arthouse works better to leave the directing to the directors (and dare I say the critiquing to the critics?) Miami Vice is exactly so interesting because of its unusual, highly cerebral deconstruction of the action movie genre, and is told as much through its scintillating digital photography, gorgeous colour schemes, swooping cinematography and striking soundtrack, as it is through Crockett and Tubbs being exhaustively-charted three-dimensional characters: the whole point of the film is to dramatise their internal conflict as seemingly ultra-professional ciphers.

So all this brings me back to the upcoming casting of Kelly for Eivissa. Shall I just jump the gun and cast a model – someone who will have no undue expectation of exercising their actorly craft, and who may just suit the visual aesthetic of my piece? Well the answer is “maybe”, because I’m a strong believer that acting – and certainly film acting – is about more than just the standard character arc; it’s about the search for truth, whether that be through something fleeting – a gesture, a look, a vocal inflection – as well as the trained reprisal of emotion. Yes, Kelly may be a cipher (and didn’t Sean Penn once foolishly bemoan his crucial turn in Malick’s The Tree of Life as being nothing more than a ‘cipher’?), but aren’t characters ultimately always subordinate to the narrative trajectory, another layer of the film’s mise en scène? And in the right hands, a glorious piece of mise en scène, such as Toni Servillo in the baroque cinema of Paolo Sorrentino, is as valuable an actorly contribution as say the broad performative melodrama offered by Cate Blanchett in her Oscar shoo-in Blue Jasmine(February 2014)

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