The Art of Acting…Like Yourself

I am listening to The Art of Acting, an hour-long interview on On Point with Tom Ashbrook with acting coach Susan Batson. The popular media calls her “The Oscar Coach” because she works with lots of A-list actors who have gone so far to thank her in their acceptance speeches.

I was expecting something kind of salesy, but I was pleasantly surprised at how down-to-earth and genuine she sounded. Batson has a book out now, Truth, Personas, Needs, and Flaws, for which actor Nicole Kidman wrote a heartfelt introduction (emphasis below is mine):

I can’t create unless I have truth–I have to feel it. Susan helps me to find the truth in myself and use its purity, intimacy, and honesty to make my work real. She’s helped me to nurture and protect truth in myself and in the characters that I’ve played. What I’ve learned from Susan is how to keep the truth alive no matter what. There’s so much more to acting than just creative success. It runs thicker and deeper than that. It has to–it’s in my blood, it beats through me. I know that it’s in Susan’s blood, too. I feel like we’ve been together my whole life.

I think there is an emotional amplification that happens with great acting, and that this has parallels to what I try to do with information graphics. In my work, I strive to uncover the essential ideas behind the problem, then present the entire solution with clarity. It is, in essence, the search for truth. And I’m not talking just about the veracity of facts; I’m also talking about truthfulness in our action and our communication, which is all about acknowledging that we are human. If you do not address that in your design work, at best you’ve created style. At worst, you’ve created an undeployable solution that will not stick.

At the 27:40 mark, Ashbrook asks Batson about her “trade secrets”, which she apparently describes in the book. She tells a story about how she had to create a “walking, talking human being” as a character for a director, and came up with the idea that every real person has a need, deeply planted by the time you’re like 5 years old. But since the world is a harsh place, we create a persona to cover the need, the “mask” that protects the vulnerability. When the need and the persona are in opposition, things get “jammed up” and what emerges is (and remember we’re talking about acting) the tragic flaw, which adds depth and subtlety to the character. She gave some interesting examples (from her book, which I haven’t read yet):

  • In the movie The Aviator, Leonardo di Caprio’s Howard Hughes had a “need to be mothered”, but he created a persona that was the opposite of being a “momma’s boy”, knowing no limits of adventure, to cover it up. However, the tragic flaw that emerges is that he goes crazy.

  • In Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry’s character has the need to “be loved”. The persona she develops is to push everyone away, “to be the porcupine”. The tragic flaw: she becomes a victim.

  • In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character has the need to be “pure and honorable”. The persona he developed: “to be a hustler”. The tragic flaw is that he loathes himself.

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p>Batson says that in these performances, there is a very deep, connective thing that happens, creating dimensionality and personality. It goes beyond mere acting. It’s very real, empathetic, and authentically draws from the great actor’s experience.

I couldn’t help but wonder how Batson’s model of need, persona, and tragic flaw could be applied to my own struggles. After all, I’m a real person too! In science, models are very useful for clarifying a situation and outlining possibilities. Because I’ve been interested in applying storytelling to my design work, this is a fruitful line of inquiry. And frankly, I still have to work out a lot of things for myself, just like other real people. Having the strength to “go there” and confront those basic embarrassing needs is very hard, but I think it’s a necessary part of working through my motivation to live my own life in alignment with my values. Perhaps my writing here is the “expression of my art”; since I can’t paint or write music, writing about my experiences, anxieties, and solutions to deal with them is my way of facing them. My solution: If I can do it, so can other people, and then so can I. It’s circular logic, but that’s how it works for me :-)

So give a listen to Susan Batson’s interview. I found it quite enjoyable.