This is the phrase that Laurence Olivier supposedly uttered to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man after the latter ran around the block to appear appropriately out of breath for an upcoming scene. Whether this is a true story or not, it depicts the difference between two major schools of acting thought.
One is that what appears before an audience must appear real, and the other is that it must, for all intents and purposes, be real.
A recent performance in Germany in which a group of actors decided to use real vodka in place of water for a play about a drunken binge ended in disaster.
You may recall the recent story of the actor in Aspen who accidentally stabbed himself on stage with a real knife.
My friend and fellow blogger, Jennifer Zukowski (who is also an author, professor, and ninja) has an entire section in her book, Stage Combat (linked below; You're welcome, Jenn), about the many dangers inherent in performing a real slap on stage.
When I see an actor perform a drunk scene very well on stage, I am thoroughly impressed. If I were to find out later that said actor had actually been drunk, I would definitely feel a bit cheated.
That's how I felt when I found out that Jamie Foxx had worn contacts in Ray that actually made him blind for up to fourteen hours a day on set. I'm not saying it wasn't still a great performance. It just wasn't a great performance of a sighted performer acting blind. (See John Malkovich in Places in the Heart or Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.)
Generally, I'm not a big fan of having able-bodied actors perform disabled roles if there are plenty of equally capable disabled performers available. (I'm talking to you, "Glee.")
However, if it must be done then I'd rather see the employment of acting chops over cheap tricks.
Most importantly, what if Mr. Foxx, who had only a few days' or weeks' experience getting used to being blind (and he got to see again at the end of the day, remember) had taken a dangerous spill on set? What if he suffered an injury that kept him from working for weeks, or worse. All in the name of "keeping it real?"
That's not acting, that's exhibitionism or "stunt acting" in my opinion. and don't get me started on actors who insist upon doing even the most dangerous of their own stunts. That's a blog for another day. I will say this: if whether or not someone else's having a job the next day depends upon your ability to jump from a helicopter onto the back of a moving truck, use the stunt man - i.e. someone whose potential injury isn't going to shut down production for six weeks. Enough about that for now.
The article about the German actors/ "rocket scientists" who thought getting drunk for real was a good idea reminded me of the time that I was in a show with a couple of fencing scenes, and one night my fencing partner showed up with liquor on his breath lamenting that his girlfriend had dumped him for someone else. Later in the show, I apparently began to resemble this "someone else" and I found myself actually fending off an unchoreographed attack. I won, but let's just say that the "disarming" of my opponent wasn't pleasant for him.
The "magic" of theatre is that we present a seemingly uncontrolled sequence of events in a highly-controlled way. That bears repeating:
The "magic" of theatre is that we present a seemingly uncontrolled sequence of events in a highly-controlled way.
I am known for being meticulous in controlling any physical contact between actors onstage, whether it's staged combat or a romantic kiss. I'm not opposed to some physical improvisation within certain parameters, but I have found that about seven times out of ten, when an actor says during rehearsal that he or she was "okay with" an unrehearsed bit of contact from another actor onstage, the director (often me) gets a call at home later that night from the same actor with "a few concerns."
I've been accidentally punched, purposely slapped, thrown into furniture, kicked, stepped on, and more in shows where directors did not take an active interest in creating a safe, controlled environment on stage or where actors decided to play fast and loose with choreography or were overcome with zeal during a staged fight.
I've covered quite the gamut of circumstances in this blog entry, but I think it can be distilled down to one key idea:
When in doubt, just act.
Oh, almost forgot. Jenn's book. It's part of my library. I recommend making it part of yours.