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January 14, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I love hanging out at the evo-bio-themed blog GNXP: brainy people; hot and often dicey topics; lots of rip-roaring enthusiasm and spirit ... Hats off to Razib and Godless, blog-proprietors and posters extraordinares. Running such a blog must be like riding a mustang -- a challenge just to stay on top of it.

Part of what I love about visiting GNXP is getting to play the role of Mr. Arty in a crowd of science-and-tech brainiacs. (When I'm among ultra-hardcore, artsier-than-thou artsies, I'm often cast in the role of Mr. Practical or even Mr. Hard Science, neither of which I have any qualifications to play.) It's not like I have any choice. I'm the only arty guy within shouting distance, and I certainly don't have science chops. But trying to find something to contribute -- as well as trying to frame what I've got to say in a way that science-y types will both understand and not sneeze at -- is a challenge I enjoy. I don't do it well, but I get a kick out of trying.

I found myself earlier today writing a few comments about the topic of acting in the thread attached to this Razib posting. I hope I'll be forgiven if I copy and paste my musings here. I've dolled them up a bit and corrected typos too. None of the usual sourcing or linking I try to provide in postings. Instead, just bald assertions, unfounded speculations, and promiscuous reflections on personal experience. Here's hoping no one minds.

Hanging out with actors is great fun, if a little bewildering at first.

It's also quite sexy. Back in the days when vaudeville troupes toured the country, fathers would lock their daughters up when the theater people came to town. Why? Because the actor-guys could be seductive. Because they were actors, they could convincingly put on the kind of suaveness, savoir-faire-ness, etc, that smalltown girls found irresistable, even though these actor-dudes were in reality pretty seedy characters. The actors could make the smalltown daughters think they'd fallen in love. And, being actors (ie., professional seducers and enchanters), the actor-dudes loved seducing and having a good time. So they were prone to leaving many heartbroken, sometimes pregnant, lassies behind them. As well as outraged daddies.

In fact, it wasn't all that long ago that actresses and prostitutes were considered close kin. Grouping them together made intuitive sense to most people: actresses and hookers were both understood to be professional seducers, who could make you believe in an illusion ("we're in love!"), and who could do so at will.

(One way to make historical sense of the 20th century acting school known as The Method, btw, is to see it as an attempt by theater performers to assert themselves as more dignified than they'd been seen to be before. They were fed up with being seen as clowns and hookers. They wanted to be seen as professionals. So they put on their eyeglasses, and they embraced a philosophy ...)

Non-actors often love actor-creatures and their acting powers, and find them fascinating. That's why we watch them on the screen and the stage; it's why some people cluck over their personal ups and downs in the celebrity press. But when non-actors encounter actors in the flesh, they often find the acting package upsetting. Where's the real person in there? Who and what to trust? Do actors really mean anything they say or do? Meeting, hanging out with, and knowing actors can trigger off all kinds of metaphysical crises in the non-actor.

An extreme example: the non-actor who gets into a love relationship with an actor, only to wake up one day and find that the person he thought he knew has morphed into someone else entirely. Actor-person waltzes off into a brand-new life; non-actor-person is left standing there, thinking "What the --?" As a consequence, "No more actors for me!" is a pretty common refrain.

On the other hand, there are also those who know how to take actors, and who enjoy them for what they are. Essentially: quicksilver, ever-changing, histrionic, foolish/sweet, semi-real (but only semi-real) creatures who wake up in the morning without any idea of who they really are, and who come most into their own when they can pour everything they have and are into an external container, ie., "a role." That's why actors often say that they're most themselves when they're playing someone else.

Romantically speaking, what loving and enjoying actors for who and what they are often translates into is a one-night, two-week or six-month affair -- however long it takes to live the emotion and the attraction out to its end. Then you wish each other well and move on.

Downside: a lingering feeling of "what was that all about?" Upside: loads of fun, drama, and passion; great sex; and she doesn't hate you afterwards. For a guy, this is really something to encounter. There are guys who rejoice erotically in actresses because -- unlike most women -- they don't have long-term expectations, and they don't hate you after it's over.

They're creatures of the moment, of instinct, and impulse and passion. Sydney Pollack once said that one of the dumbest mistakes a director can make is to intellectually explain a role and expect that to work. Actors, he said, do indeed need to get what's needed, but they work intuitively, not intellectually. Once the moment (and the passion) has passed, it's over, and it's time to move on to the next one. That's an example of the actor's ethic: be true to the moment, and when the moment changes, be true to the new moment. To do or be otherwise is to be a Bad Actor.

The acting-thang is a hard phenomenon to analyze. Which helps account for the fact that there have been very, very few writers who've been any good on the subject of acting. A lot of people can manage a flip observation or two about an actor or about a performance. But how many can tell you about what a performance means, or where it comes from, or what went into it? Two of the best are Simon Callow and Steve Vineberg, both of whom have a lot of acting experience themselves.

And how to account for the fact that the actor-type keeps showing up in populations? There's always been, and I suppose there's always going to be, some kid who comes into his/her own when he/she stumbles into Drama Club, or whatever Drama Club's equivalent is in other space-time-culture continuums. The world of make-believe -- of over-intense emotionality, and of seducing and playing with audiences -- is one that makes instant sense to certain people, and that does so in a way that'll never make sense to most of us, except as spectators. As participants ... Well, most of us feel we're doing pretty well if we painfully learn how to do some timid public speaking. But actors love displaying their bodies, their faces, their voices, and their emotions in front of crowds. They live for the chance to do this. Yet they're often rather shy as well. Explain that, please.

Maybe there's a GNXP way to interpret these facts. I'd love to think so. My own armchair-philosophizing guess is that humans have a built-in need to be aesthetically transported. As a consequence, we throw off a certain number of individuals who devote themselves to specializing in these activities. (God knows it's also fun to try to figure out why we might have this need to be aesthetically transported in the first place.)

And how to explain how actors do what they do? How do they get this thing? What is it? Where does it come from? I've hung with actors a lot, and I even took a couple of years of acting classes. (A great personal-development thing to do, by the way, as well as a super way for a single guy to meet actresses. As Tom Hanks once said when asked why he went into acting: "That's where the prettiest and loosest girls were.") Me-as-an-actor was a sad and excruciating sight: I've got all of a sandgrain of talent, and a reluctant sandgrain at that. It took a lot of coaxing and encouragement for my dinky talent to emerge at all.

But despite these experiences with acting and actors, I still don't have any idea what the basic acting-thing is. What I did come away with was the impression that acting talent is something like athletic talent: for an actor, it's simply part of the organism's equipment. What seemed plain as day to me was that real actor-types are on the verge of acting 24/7. They don't study acting as I did, in order to learn how to begin to act; real actors have to be held back from acting. They take acting classes in order to get a handle on a basic, character-based talent that they're already bursting with.

But what is that talent? And why should any person be born with such a thing? Beats me. I revere it, though. I'm moved deeply by performers, who often lead really difficult lives for the sake of pursuing their art. I often find myself thinking that actors are the purest and most courageous of all artists. They're exposed in ways no other artist is; unlike writers and painters, they've got nothing at all to hide behind. And they put more out there, in more immediate/existential circumstances, than any other artist does.

FWIW, and as far as I've been able to tell, acting talent is far more widespread among gals than it is among men. This may be a little culture-specific. Americans have a view of acting that makes it seem kind of (forgive the word but it's appropriate here) pansy-ish. And there are cultures -- Italy, for eg. -- where acting isn't felt to be unmanly in the same way.

That said, acting still seems a more female than male kind of talent. The Wife (who has a lot of the actress in her, although she writes instead of acts) suspects that it's because acting talent is, to some extent, a kind of exaggerated female-itude. If autism is maleness (the love of systems, order, rules, etc.) taken to the extreme, then acting is femaleness (or some aspects of femaleness) taken to the extreme.

The Wife's hunch makes sense to me. Guys often adore systems, structures, rules, organizations; they'll introduce them even where they aren't needed. Which reminds me of an exchange I once had with my high-powered and successful businessgal sister. Me: "Guys are better at organization, no?" Sister: "I've always seen that differently. I've always thought that women were better at dealing with chaos."

Women often seem to have natures that are more shape-shifting. They're more adaptable, and often more empathic. They're also often more soulful, or at least seem to have easier access to their deep feelings than guys do. (Of course, they're also -- in the US, anyway -- more used than guys are to costuming themselves, making themselves visually desirable, and projecting their emotions.) And all of these abilities are big parts of the acting-talent package.

As a consequence of this, I'd be willing to bet that great male-director/female-actor partnerships are always going to be more common than great female-director/male-actor partnerships. I'd bet that there are always going to be more male artists who come into their own as systematizers and organizers (in other words, as directors), and that there will always be lots of female artists who come into their own via empathy and physical self-expression (in other words, as actresses)...

Mighty scattershot! But I'd be curious to hear about other experiences with actors and acting, as well as any theories or hunches anyone might have about what this acting thing is all about. Where does it come from? Why does it exist at all? What's it like to encounter?



posted by Michael at January 14, 2005



(1) I commend you for not saying anything about actors coming from awful childhoods and "needing to escape." Peter O'Toole made a good point about that. He didn't think that explained anything. As he said, it may explain needing to escape, but not why certain actors are so GOOD at it.

(2) In general I think the reason that there are fewer female director/male actor combos is because there have been fewer female teacher/directors. But when there are...think of Stella Adler and Brando, or Nora Ephron and Tom Hanks. Actually, I think the teacher and the student being different genders makes a lot of sense either way. Actors, as you mentioned, like attention, and a coach of the same gender (whether the same gender is male or female) is a competitor in a way.

3. I've heard several rather accomplished actors, including Hackman, Streep and Jane Fonda all say acting may be the one thing that kept them sane. Streep said it was fortunate she became an actress, because otherwise she would have been a madwoman. Perhaps certain emotions and identities are just closer to the surface for them, and they must have an outlet.

4. Jodie Foster thinks its just sort of "there" or not, like whistling, or being double-jointed. She said it is basically an unschooled skill, and that acting classes, etc. just make people who aren't too good PASSABLE. She doesn't think people who really know how to do it need classes. However, I do think its something more people are in touch with as children...because as many have pointed out, if you tell a child---"make believe a dog is sitting next to you, and pretend to pet it"--all kids can readily do that. Adults get self-conscious about that.

5. The "in love today/gone tomorrow" thing apparently works even on other actors. Even rather notorious swordsman Gary Cooper said about Ingrid Bergman: "I never had a woman more in love with me than Ingrid. The day after the picture ended, I couldn't get her on the phone." Ooops. Roberto Rosellini said---again about dear Ingrid---"Never marry an actress, because they are also actresses in bed." Of course, Roberto knew something about actresses in bed, so Ingrid was a bit late in the game for him to be figuring this out!


Posted by: annette on January 14, 2005 4:07 PM

Great stuff.

For some off-the-top-of-the-head evo psych speculating, a man's chance of gaining a leadership role, with all the attendant benefits in status and access to desirable women, increases if he can improvise the role of being a Big Man in his daily life.

Orson Welles talked about how he always had to play the King or whomever is the highest ranking man on stage; if he plays a lower status character, it confuses the audience because they keep looking to him as the man who would naturally be in charge. James Earl Jones and Sean Connery are similar "king actors." My 12-year-old asked why Connery's character Alan Quartermain is the leader of all the superheroes in the movie "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" even though he doesn't have any superpowers. I explained, "Because he's Sean Connery and the rest of them aren't," and he seemed to find that a satisfactory explanation.

It can really help in real life to be able to play variations on the role of Big Man or King Actor (paternal mentor, man of wrath, indomitable leader, etc.) But, on the other hand, having too much acting talent that you need to play a huge variety of roles is a detriment in attaining real world leadership. Peter Sellers might be the best example of somebody who could imitate anybody, but whom nobody would trust to lead them because of a fear that there's no inner man they can trust.

Ronald Reagan might be the best example of somebody with the right balance of both acting skills and acting limitations to achieve leadership in the real world. He mastered the craft of acting extremely well, which served him superbly in his political career. Further, audiences liked him because he radiated sincerity and civic-minded idealism. On the other hand, he almost never rose into the realm of art because audiences could tell that he wasn't "in the moment" as well as the greatest actors. He tended to lack individualized chemistry with his leading ladies because he seemed to be more interested in abstract issues of justice and politics than in the beautiful woman in his arms.

And indeed he was. His fellows actors trusted him, in part because they could tell he wasn't a great actor and therefore when he played idealistic heroes, he was calling on some of his inner self. So, they elected him head of their Screen Actors Guild, and from there, as his acting career declined, he went into public speaking and politics. And he turned out to be relatively idealistic for a politician, yet highly successful at politics for a man who was something of an idealist.

So, it's feasible that some degree of acting talent in men could have been selected for as an aid in attaining leadership positions, with the Peter Sellers-types as overshoots of the optimal combination.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on January 14, 2005 4:13 PM

First that comes to mind - adaptation.

Very roughly: women are physically weaker, so to survive we had to develop adjusting-to-situation rather than commanding-the situation skills. Next - it is more productive to try to foresee changing (and potentially dangerous) circumstances than act after the event. Side consiquence: women are generally better at sensing "you'll catch a cold if not wear wool socks" thingy or => false play => intrigue in the workplace, so-called "female intuition", etc. But I digress.

Some are better at the next logical step- separating theoretical change-of-circumstance from intuitive to deliberate, playing "what-if-I'll be-in-this-situation" literally.

Not very well put, I'm afraid. Have to work on three screens at once.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 14, 2005 4:34 PM

The eternal question--at least, among actors and those who are interested by them.

Speaking from personal experience, the acting impulse comes from two things: a burning desire to connect authentically coupled with an utter inability to do it any other way.

Perhaps this is where the actor from troubled childhood paradigm springs. If your natural outlets for authentic human connection get cut off--e.g., if you grow up in a household that's alcoholic or violent or overly populated, etc.--you must find other ways out.

Of course, the same thing could be said of any form of artistic expression. ("Crumb," anyone?) So there are probably a couple of other things at work here, too. Most actors I've known have this bottomless need to be "seen", to be approved of, to be loved. There's also a lack of centeredness that most actors share, a not-understanding (and often, not-liking) of who we are at our cores.

Of course, there are also plenty of people who probably feel this way and think they want to act and are lousy actors. I'm not sure on where I stand with the native ability issue. Honestly, I've seen miracles happen in acting class. Seriously--people who just sucked wind for *years* and then all of a sudden...BAM! You can't take your eyes off of them.

I actually think this supports this idea of burning need + inability to do anything else = Real Actor. Again, in my experience, those people who suck wind but find another outlet leave--happily. The ones who stay AND get better? They show a profound, humbling ability to set aside their fears and do it anyway.

I have no proof of any of this. All I know is that the more I've been able to define myself and like myself, the less *need* I feel to act.

Cool post. It's got me thinking...

Posted by: communicatrix on January 14, 2005 4:44 PM

I was an actor for 25 years and am something else now. I was good, but not very successful. I'm not bitter about it, but the fact is I really did expect to be very successful. All I can contribute to this thread is a little speculation about why I was not.

In fact I did become an actor literally to get laid. The only college that accepted me had men only in the theatre, music and art departments. No talent for art, not much for music, but I had been in a couple plays only in pursuit of a particular girl. Hey, presto, a theatre major. It took a few years to figure out I might be good at it and a few more to commit to it professionally. Once there, I became fascinated with techique. But then, what else is there? It's a business, like any other, and I knew a number of actors who got up every day and put in twelve to fifteen hours every day working it. You go to class. For what? To get an insight into a particular scene that is essentially mobile literary criticism. Oh, now I understand the scene. But how do I do it?

Just like plumbing. By doing it. Insights into the art of acting involved understanding that the art was in the writing and the acting was a craft that involved painstaking details and an endless process of failure, failure, failure, success. That's how you get good.

But how do you get great? How do you pop up above the others? Well, I think that does involve art. Craftmanship I was ready for, art is so much harder.

There's a cruelty to any practice of art that is beyond where most people want to go. Don't mistake me. Among the sweetest, most open-hearted people I know are people whose craft and careers I most admire. But at the center of these nice people there is an astonishing lack of limit to what they will and will not do to further their needs. No one would accept the burdens of painting, writing, acting, dancing, up to their own standards unless they had no other choice. It's hard. And whatever progress you make just redefines the challenges. I got winnowed out. I'm glad I'm out, really, even though I'm certainly not where I expected to be. You can be one tough cowboy and not get through Seal training.

I'll tell you what the payoff is, though, at least for me. In those moments on the stage when I was as good as I could be I would define it this way: I was transparent. There was no space between me and the mind of the audience. They knew exactly what I was thinking and feeling, my frustrations and hopes, at least for a moment, more, deeper, than they knew about the person next to them. They got to look into a person -- his whole life -- in a way they could experience nowhere else. That's why people go to the theatre. That's the essence of catharsis.

Posted by: Mike Hill on January 14, 2005 10:45 PM

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