How Do Actors Learn?

by Carol Iannone

According to an article by John Podhoretz, James Gandolfini found playing the evil don of the Soprano Mafia family in the television series The Sopranos corrosive of his own well-being. Citing a book about the actor, Podhoretz writes that “Gandolfini lived his years as Tony [Soprano] as a kind of torment. The only way he knew to play this man simmering with violent rage was to duplicate those feelings inside himself and then essentially vomit them out (or hold them in) on film. . . . Tony was first and last a monster, and Gandolfini had to be Tony, at least psychologically, to play him.” Podhoretz adds that loyal viewers could actually see that doing this “was eating Gandolfini alive.”

If this is true, it is quite alarming, and is taking American-style method acting entirely too far. We should find out how acting is being taught in our MFA programs and schools of drama. There is no need for actors to destroy themselves personifying evil. I defy anyone to find performances more terrifying than those of the actors who portrayed the hideous Mr. Hyde in the various Hollywood versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — John Barrymore, Fredric March, and Spencer Tracy. As far as is known, none of them had to rip out his guts to do it, and all of them continued in long careers afterwards in varied roles.

Of course, those films, and the work on which they are based, have a moral center, unlike The Sopranos and many other of the newer long-running television soap operas, which in the interest of ratings tend to lose moral focus and descend into sensationalism and nihilism. “As for the higher-quality prime-time soaps,” Martha Bayles writes, “they typically hold out the promise of a morally satisfying resolution but fail to deliver one, because they don’t want to foreclose the possibility of being renewed. This is why, after the first season or two, even the best dramatic television series — The Sopranos, The Wire — lose what moral clarity they originally possessed, as most of their characters never have to reckon with the consequences of their actions.”

I never understood the excitement aroused by The Sopranos. The several episodes I saw were dark, boring, and meaningless. The only thing I thought the series accomplished, unfortunately, was to make Italian Americans look like the Missing Link. Be that as it may, dramatic training in the English style does not require the actor to descend into the depths of depravity. Christopher Plummer once told an American director: Don’t bother about motivation and all that, just tell me how you want something said, and I’ll do it. As Lawrence Olivier advised Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man, after seeing the younger actor’s strenuous efforts to “get into the part” (this may not be an exact quotation but it’s close), “Why don’t you try acting, my dear boy?”

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