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Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Why British Television Is A Bad Model For Upcoming Actors in the U.K.

It's not often you hear the word 'subtle' next to 'American' - but when it comes to acting the Americans know how to do it. Whether it's a little indie film or a big Hollywood blockbuster; by and large, the actors know how to stay within the context and the reality of the film they're in. Films are the American art form, they're experts at it.

In England of course; the history is one of theatre. And it's something that bleeds onto the television screens in everything we do. Rather than be a role the British tend to act the role. This concerns me because in my experience most of the young actors I meet don't watch a lot of films, but they are quite up on their television.

And as I discuss 'good acting' with actors - we both have an idea of what good acting is; but they're based on different models. My idea of a good screen actor is someone who becomes the role. Someone who doesn't act with a capital A. They just submerge into the part. On British television however, you see the actors acting the role. When the script calls for them to be sad, they pull a sad face. Whereas when you watch a great Hollywood actor; they just access the sad within themselves, they internalize it. They instinctively know that if they can find the emotion within themselves it'll be released into the ether - the camera will pick up all the subtleties. It reminds me of when I was watching the 'Making Of' documentary on the 'The Green Mile' DVD. Frank Darabont was talking about how he had to keep the camera on Tom Hanks because so much was happening; even though nothing was happening, he was just looking at and reacting to Michael Clark Duncan's character. But that is what good acting is - listening and reacting in the moment.

When I look at British television; be it the soaps or the one hour dramas - the acting is all very laboured, very false. The actors are not attempting to find the reality; they are merely acting the emotions on a outward level. Their facial reactions and tone of voices change just like when you were made to do drama exercises in school. But when you watch this on screen; it is not in any way believable.

Now, this is generally fine. I don't really care about television in the UK. It's not important to me how people act on these shows. However, the problem for me is when it influences the films in this country and in the actors we produce in the UK. And it bothers me because they are influenced by the people they watch the most - on the television. When upcoming actors look at who is successful and doing a lot of work; their frame of reference is the people they see on TV. Therefore it is understandable that they see these in-work successes as models of how to be an actor.

So now we get to the split between what I want and what a British actor wants to do. When I am casting I see Morgan Freeman in my head. But the actor sees the guy who plays Phil Mitchell in 'Eastenders.' The PROBLEM with this - is simply that we are both aiming at different points. I can be the best director in the world; but the level of truth and performance I lead them too can't be like Morgan Freeman, because that is not their reference for good acting. They don't see him as the role model; they see television actors. Therefore when the actor is at their VERY BEST; they could potentially be as good as the guy from 'Eastenders'; but that is no good for me as it is not what I view as good acting.

This is a difficult thing to fix. Our country is steeped in the history of theatre. Of ACTING. Performers have a tendency to get anxious about their screen performances if they are asked to do less. When you give do less as a direction it tends to make the actor quieter or their actions change slightly; but they are still doing a role rather than being the role. And it's a fundamental difference.

What I love about American actors is that when I audition them I can never hear what they're saying. Why? Because they're not 'acting' in auditions, they're just mumbling away like their character realistically would. And that's when you know you have a great actor, when they are comfortable enough to be unnoticable. When they can just be real. It's priceless.

Of course there are exceptions to these rules - I know many fabulous British actors. However, as a generalisation - I think it would be great for actors who are training or recently finished training to really define WHAT good acting is to them. Find a frame of reference. Therefore - you know what you're aiming for. And I don't mean to act like another actor; I just mean that you need to know what good acting looks like to you. Not so you can imitate it, because that would be disastrous.

As for my frame of reference - I leave you with a clip of Morgan Freeman in 'Shawshank Redemption.' In a scene packed full of pain and emotion, Morgan plays the moment perfectly. There isn't even a blink of an eye out of place; he literally IS Red (his character) -- and every beat, every frame, every mannerism is completely in the moment. I think this is possibility the finest and most subtle acting I've ever scene.

This is perfect acting. Perfect being.

Care to share?


  1. I think I'd have to agree in some ways but beg to differ in others - I think yes there are probably more british actors who 'act with a capital A' but they stand out because of it, the best actors are the ones who you just don't notice are actors because they are so good they seem real, there are plenty of them out there on our screens just maybe not as respected as they should be!

  2. I could not agree more with you about acting in the Uk. The problem lies in the drama schools, which are generally forging masses of actors that are ACTING instead of living truthfully in the moment. Being an actor myself, I knew what good acting for me was when I started my career, but I could not find a school that made the difference, that taught me how to be real, without indicating. I finally came across Meisner acting, and it has made the difference. Obviously you can t expect to see yourself undergo a major transformation in a short time, it takes time (Meisner said it takes you twenty years at least to become a master actor), and what most of the actors forget is to train constantly. Once they step out from a 3years drama school, with their diploma in their hands, they think they are done! Not only they cannot act, but they don t realize that if you don t train your precious instrument, your ability to feel the emotions, you will soon be rusted and unable to act. Why should a professional dancer, continuosly train, why should a pianist always exercise and not an actor??? Problem number two: directors. And this is a note for you, "Front Row": nowadays directors don t have a clue about acting, they maybe know what they are aiming at, but they have no clue, how that is achievable. The result is that they give wrong directions, and the worst direction ever, is to say to an actor to do LESS. That is a result direction. You want an actor do less? Good. Find something feasible, something playable, say something that will not freeze the actor, and gently put him in a condition to do something different, if something is not working and the actor is overdoing than it means that you have to raise the stake for the actor, make the problem bigger instead of making it smaller and the actor will react to this condition in a much more natural manner!. Ultimately I think that Master Actors, are able to transform bad directions into something which make sense for them, without even putting into discussion what the director says. It would be good if the job would be done more professionally from both sides, in order to have this understanding and energy flow between all the elements of the crew, which is lacking most of the time nowadays on sets.

  3. Pilli - I completely agree with you. I rarely result direct. Although sometimes I find an actor does just need to be reminded "hey, you sound like an actor!" and they take it really well. And also, sometimes at 3.56am when you have four minutes until daylight, you don't have time to delve into what the actor needs, you just need the line said how it needs to be said; and if they've prepared, they can normally come through.

    But I agree, many Directors don't care for actors. I tend to be the opposite, I don't care about cameras!.

  4. I Completely agree, that is why both of them should be better trained and more professional.

  5. A very good insight. I don't like the British theatre acting either... In America they learnt a bit more from Stanislavsky...

  6. I'm coming up to sixth form which obviously means looking into career paths, uni's etc - so what would people's advice be on drama schools with regards to what has been said here because I don't want to go and find my self coming out as someone who can't act?

  7. Thanks for asking, Wolf. I think you need to follow your heart and your instincts on this. I think drama school can be good if it helps give you confidence and if it gives you the tools you need to access your feelings and find yourself as an actor. But there are too many drama schools here that focus on theatre. And the screen ones are often taught with the teacher sitting five rows back in the theatre, how crazy is that!

    Pilli studies the Meisner technique, as do many actors I love. Maybe you should do a short course in that. Doing a one week workshop in an acting style that inspires you can be more beneficial than a year or two on drama school.

    Also maybe you could look at doing drama school in New York or L.A. It might sound unlikely but it's often no more expensive than doing drama school in the U.K. Ask as many actors as you can for advice -- it's people in the industry who can share truth and wisdom with you on what path you should take. But ultimately - follow your heart.

  8. isn't acting for television different from acting for film? and acting for theatre different again?

    my producer always says that in television you talk about your emotions, in theatre you act them out, and in film you think them.

    do you think the acting on US tv different to US film?

  9. I think acting between TV and film is sometimes different, but it shouldn't be. Certainly in recent years, in the USA, that is less of the case. When you look at shows like '24', 'The West Wing' - and even going back to shows like 'Ally McBeal' the acting is of the same quality and often with the same actors as in feature films.

    What your producer says is interesting, but for me; I feel that comes down to the writing, perhaps - whereas, at least for me - the acting should be the same on the big and little screen.. the reason being that the goal should be truth. And truth will look the same if it is reached.

    Of course acting for theatre is VERY different - and that is meant to be a part of my blog entry, which perhaps I didn't articulate correctly; but I think that the theatre traditions of the UK therefore contribute to our poor screen-acting. Many actors will counter with the idea that 'acting is acting' and the training prepares them for both - however, I've personally never found this to be the case.

    Do I think US acting is different on TV to film?. Certainly not in the shows like mentioned previously, like 'The West Wing' - however, I do think there is a difference when you look at the day-time soaps in the US. However, this comes down a lot to directorial style and the writing; and even so it is still exponentially better than the majority of small screen acting in the UK.

    More interestingly Potdoll, what do you think? - And everyone else, I'm genuinely interested in your thoughts.

  10. The British TV lowers not only the acting standard, but also directing - in fact it lowers everything, including the grey cell count in the population of this fine isle...

    The entire UK-US parallel is sooooo... boring - being polite, I'd like to ask you: can any British actor act at the level of (the Austrian) Klaus Maria Brandauer in "Mephisto"?

    The lead actor of "Stalker" died of cancer after wading in the radioactive waters of the Zone...(so did the director eventually)...

    Do you study the history of cinematography in your film schools here? Or maybe it's just an intense two week course?

  11. Anonymous - you seem to be taking the role of someone more intelligent than the rest of us - and your questions aren't really questions at all. It seems an odd way to add to a debate, especially with the anonymity.

    I'm not sure what sort of response would satisfy you - because your question about cinematography already therein has a judgement, and I think you're aware that nobody here has probably seen the Austrian film.

    Maybe you could tell us more about your thoughts on how TV here is lowering grey cell count; and explain more about why you framed your questions in the way you did. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

  12. "Mephisto" has won an Oscar + lots of other awards - it's not an obscure piece of work. Brandauer got a Bafta nomination as the best newcommer for this role... it's history.

    I admire your passion about films - and your writing, there wasn't any judgement in my thoughts - in fact the whole issue of TV is very serious - it's such a powerful instrument of brainwashing.

    Back to relationship between TV and cinematography... Eisenstein warned everyone long time ago that TV has a bad influence on film-makers... it's a well known fact...

    As for the grey cells... try watching reality TV or soaps, or the rest of it (even the news!) for hours on end, like millions of people do every day... isn't it obvious?

  13. LOVE it! Couldn't agree more.
    I'm printing it out and putting it on my wall.

    AIL xxx

  14. Would you mind telling me what scene that was from Shawshank? I can't pull up videos on blogs.

  15. Studying the history of cinematography can improve the quality of acting hugely... can't tell more now, dear Pilli, I have to meet my friends (face to face), speak later...

  16. where has my comment disappeared to?

    i rambled on for ages, too...

    basically i was saying that it's a director's job to stop an actor over acting.

    possibly if our tv is bad (i don't watch much so I can't really judge) then it may be because of budget restrictions and actors and director's not having the luxury of time to spend rehearsing and playing and finding nuances and subtlety in performances. companies like hbo probably have time and money which makes a difference. we only see the cream here.

    we do have a history of theatre, which can make our acting different, (i was at an american seminar recently and the americans were raving about british actors and acting and envious of our theatre heritage).

    ultimately i reckon bad acting is usually down to bad directing.

    hope i am making sense and actually manage to post this comment.

  17. Hey Potdoll - your thoughts about budgets and time are, I think, very true - and I agree with everything you say. But I think that can only support the point the blog was making to begin with - which is that UK acting on TV (regardless of why) is a bad model for upcoming actors.

  18. Otherworldlyone - it's the scene when Red has his last meeting with the committee- and he tells them 'go ahead and stamp your little form sonny!' :)

  19. Hi Pilli - you raised a question of anonimity. It's not a bad thing (by the way, is Kid in the Front Row not anonimous?)- it brings attention to the thought itself, away from promoting yourself, or networking and so on...

    The question raised by Front Row, from my point of view, is very much connected to the fact that in this country there's been so much brainwashing going on that many people can't tell the difference between art and total rubbish (or between good and bad acting, directing - you can continue the list)... A Turner Prize for an empty room with the lights that go on and off... not to mention the unmade bed... There are many people who think "it must be art" whilst watching something excrutiatingly boring, ugly, or plain diabolical...

    Ask yourself why you want to create your piece of art - to see your face on the big screen, earn lots of money (and these are not bad things at all), or do you ever feel that you are prepared to die inorder just to do it... that's why I mentioned the lead actor of "Stalker" who died prematurely after filming in the contaminated waters of the Zone.

  20. Good morning Anonymous. In regards to the anonymity, it is true that also Front Row is somehow anonymous, names are just names and could have all made up after all, insn' it? The difference between you and Front Row, is that with Front Row I have a link to his facebook at least, where if I feel like communicating a thought , I can drop him a line or write a mail, even after having talked on this blog.

    Regarding arts: You are raising again another point which is surely linked with the topic but does not really answer it, I agree that art nowadays is sometimes gratuitous but you can t generalize it too much, I don t particularly love for eg. the work of Hirst or the famous cuts of Fontana, but I still respect the work as there is a concept behind it, that is the results of years of a personal quest. Not in all cases, true, but we can t discuss it here it would be too long, maybe we should open another blog about it.
    In my opinion, the industry itself is so corrupted that the individuals are facing themselves with a huge problem: being a true artist and starve or compromise with the rubbish that the industry wants to give to the audience and have something to eat in your dish everyday? As an artist, I have been frustrated many times, when for eg. after auditioning for a role in a play, both casting directors after my monologue in less than two minutes, began to cry, they were genuinely moved by what I did, truly without faking it. My job was done, acting is about being able to move the audience, about being truthful, but you know what happened? They turned me down, saying I was such a strong actress but that somehow they preferred to have something more regular, the Drama School robots as I call them! That was the day, when I finally decided that it was not worth compromise and beg in this corrupted industry and start to do things by myself, maybe a very ambitious project, but I am convinced that a new generation of artists has to raise their voice and start all over again, I am personally fed up of going to the theatre and hear actors shouting and faking, I could stand up in the middle of the performance and walk away, they don t move me at all. Same for the cinema. I am so bored to go to see a film where they need to put an explosion every five minutes in the film in order to keep your attention, when everything else, script and actors fail. Where are we going? In conclusion I think that actors, true actors, with a true passion for their art, should study seriously their craft, knowing consciously that it is not an easy job, and that it is not about them, being divas and shining in glamorous parties, but it is about the audience, are you able to move them or not? that is the only thing that counts.

  21. I feel we have entered into a new phase of this discussion. My original topic was basically that instead of seeing a talentless actor pull faces on a British drama, they should just watch Morgan Freeman do nothing (everything) in Shawshank Redemption.

    Now I feel we are all discussing WHY there is the difference, and the root of these differences. And that's completely fine - but I just wanted to mention that awareness, that we have shifted.

    As artists, we are moved to be the best (i.e. the most subtle). But the industry, as a whole, does not celebrate that. Because it is not the best way to make money.

    The problem comes when, rather than having two sides to the coin, i.e. 'artistic' against 'necessary' -- we have additional things on both sides. For example, on the artistic side, often comes 'pretentiousness' - and pretentiousness stands in the way of truthfulness. And I think there has been echoes of that is some of anonymous' words.

    And maybe there is a key thing to notice about Shawshank Redemption - it is PURELY about the art, and there is not a hint of pretentiousness ANYWHERE - which is maybe a key reason as to why it is loved by the whole spectrum of viewers.

  22. Bravo Pilli! (veramente brava!)

    What do you think of the acting in the film of Pupi Avati "Il Papa di Giovanna"?
    Is British art more corrupted than Italian, or the art in other countries? forget the US for now...
    (From my point of view the culture here is, if not 100% dead, but half-dead, or even 3/4! - maybe Front Row can revive it...)
    What do you think?

  23. oh! Anonymous...are you Italian then? thanks for agreeing with me for once...:-) It reminds me of the battle of Harry and Sally...! Honestly I don t remember very well Il papa di Giovanna, but I quite like Francesca Neri as an actress much less Ezio Greggio.(ehm...can you call him an actor???)..! It is a huge question that you are raising here, if Italian art is more corrupted than the British one, and what are you referring to exactly, to the cinema? If so, well, to be honest I have not seen recently a good italian film, in our country it seems that we are only able to produce rubbish like Vacanze di Natale and similia....a shame as our Cinema was one of the best in the world....but we have lost it completely, there are still some good actors around as in other countries but we have been also "eaten" but this big wave of superficiality that puts the audience in a very passive mode. I wish there were still people like Giorgio Gaber or Vittorio Gassman around... that are not putting the accent on their performance but on the effect that it has on the audience. I am fed up of seeing actors getting all emotional, thinking that this will impress us .... to be honest we dont care about someone else s "Perfomance" but the truthful way in which he/she lives the moment... a good actor does not need to die in tears...but make the audience weep....or laugh or feel the anger....did it happened to you recently??? ...if yes...pls tell me which film or play...!

  24. "Il Papa di Giovanna" is a recent film (2008), it was shown at BAFTA a couple of months ago at the opening night of the Italian Film Festival. Top class cinematography, in my opinion, - it raises uneasy ethical questions in a very disturbing story, and it's about unconditional love, forgiving, sacrifice, humility - it moved me deeply...
    I had a chance to speak for a minute to Pupi Avati - it's inspiring to meet someone like him, wider than life...

  25. In that case I will watch it and I will let you know my thoughts about it. Since you are still under anonymity, I will post a comment about it on this blog. Thank you Front Row for raising such a good debate, we have drifted away from the subject towards the end, but I think the reasons WHY the acting is not generally very good (not only in the UK I might add...). are worth being discussed, if we are not aware of the reasons that stand behind a problem, a change is unlikely to happen.

  26. SimonPeter says:

    I think something that has been slightly missed here is the style of whichever film, theatre piece or television piece is being made. For me, the actor's job is (obviously to find truth) but more to find that truth within the parameters of the production being made. So, yes, obviously Morgan is amazing, especially in Shawshank, especially in this scene. However, there are other actors, in other types of films and roles, who do a good job. Benicio Del Toro in Usual Suspects. Marlon Brando in Godfather. Seymour Hoffman in Capote. Hank Azaria in Along Came Polly. Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler. Tom Hanks in the Green Mile. All, in my opinion, great acting. But also completely different. They are completely in tune with what the piece needs, and they deliver their roles extremely well - by, as you say Kid, BEING, not ACTING. I agree there is a difference. And I agree that the former is the goal. These actors need to become a character who is believable and who exists in whichever story is being told.

    But for me, the problem is often more a clarity of aim and sense of being for any given project. Often, people making something don't know why they are making it - in the case of uk television it's usually just being written because there's a market there and it needs to be written. So no one cares, and actors try and put care in and end up looking like overacting idiots. I think a lot of tv isn't character based, and even lacks a proper story. It doesn't come from a place of truth, and the truth of it isn't important to the people who make it. As an actor, it is very difficult to work on something that has no heart. I think even Morgan Freeman would struggle to be interesting in Eastenders, because it isn't interesting.
    So, as regards the responsibility issue goes, the blame for bad acting if you will, it depends on the project. If the director sits down and says, I want this to be like a Billy Wilder film, or like a Hitchcock film, or blah blah blah, the actor gets more of an idea of how they should act - but I believe a fundamental problem is that a lot of actors don't even realise there are more than one way to play a role. They have to approach everything they do like eastenders, or like a whitehall farce, or like a Daniel Day Lewis film. But every project is different. It is a directors job to try and get that out of an actor (or preferably cast one who can do it without prompting!), but it is equally (and in fact more so) the actor's responsibility to already know what the production needs, and what the director wants.
    I think a major part of the problem is that a huge amount of work (financially speaking) for actors is tv work. And you won't get cast, and won't get on, if you don't 'ACT' (I am talking about in the UK) because the producers think that the general public won't know if someone's sad unless they pull a sad face! Ridiculous, sad, but true.

  27. Simon -- thanks so much for these comments, fascinating, very true.. I may quote you in future posts on the subject.