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.