This is a blog about what I consider to be the most valuable acting lesson I’ve learned in my young career to date. It holds true for writing as well.
A few weeks ago, at a college-ish party, someone cheekily asked me on the spot and apropos of nothing what my favorite thing in the world was. Normally I would get flustered by such a vague and impetuous question, but I had been thinking about it a lot lately anyway, and I immediately spat back an answer of which I’ll admit I was pretty proud. “Grace” was the answer I gave.
During acting training, we spent a great deal of time first trying to figure out exactly who we are and what moves us. It’s not so easy a task as one might imagine, especially for someone who has previously grown up an emotionally guarded and stunted nerdy type that sprouted into a full blown mechanical engineer. A major reason acting appealed to me so much, in fact, was this sense that I had of a lack of emotional openness in myself that I admired in so many people, especially in actors, performers, and artists. The ability to be vulnerable before others was something I had never had the strength to permit in myself and something I coveted greatly. I even battled deep-seated fears that I would one day have children and not be able to adequately express my love for them.
So, during this first year at the acting school, I spent an inordinate amount of time imagining depressing, joyful, hateful, tragic, and funny circumstances, among others, trying my damnedest to accept them into my being and be truly moved by them, with a little success here and there, but with faltering consistency and limited depth of passion.
During one particularly dramatic monologue near the end of my second year at the school – a monologue about confronting a dying brother - my teacher stopped me in the middle of trying to cry and made a very simple suggestion. “On that line, how about you smile at him?” At the time, it felt pretty high up in the list of absurd things I’d ever heard, but I was certainly open to an alternative to what I was doing and I gave it a try. Funny enough, the instant my cheeks began to tug at the corners of my mouth and my teeth started to see the light of day, and almost against my will, there welled up within me an reservoir grief I never knew I was capable of feeling. It was baffling, but it was exhilarating. “Hell, that was actually pretty good!” I thought afterward.
Dissecting what had happened later that night, I realized what my teacher had really shown me. It’s not just sadness and grief that moves me, but it’s a beautiful positivity and grace in the face of that suffering that can really break my heart. I ask you to consider for yourself, which is more powerful: watching a young man crying at his dying, pain-racked father’s bedside in the hospital, or seeing that same father put a smile on his face to try to cheer up his boy? What if he told his son a morbid joke at his own expense? I’d need a whole box of tissues. On that note, humor is often the quickest and most powerful way to find the lightness in something tragic, thereby endearing your character to the audience, and more importantly, to yourself.
It’s the beauty in the gesture - this grace despite misfortune and pain - that reminds us of the true nobility of which human beings are capable and can open up our hearts like nothing else. It is why someone doing their best not to cry is usually so much more compelling than someone in a puddle of tears on the floor.
Now, for every character I prepare, I always try to remind myself to ask “Where’s the beauty in this? Where’s the grace?” Otherwise, I know I will likely find myself up on stage or in front of a camera, not really engaged, pretending to feel something, which is one of the worst feelings in the world.