Recently, Austin Moran of Film Monthly got a chance to talk with Anthony Abeson, one of the most respected acting coaches at work today. After graduating from Columbia University and membership in the Directors Unit of the Actors’ Studio, Abeson went on to direct theatre companies in New Zealand, New York and Washington, D.C. With directors Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski, Abeson participated in theatrical projects in France, Poland and the United States before returning to New York to join the drama department of the High School for Performing Arts, where he taught students like Jennifer Aniston and Esai Morales. Currently putting the finishing touches on a book about acting, Anthony Abeson works as an acting coach and teacher in New York.
Austin: You studied under some of the acting greats: Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook and Stella Adler. What impact did your contact with those masters have on your approach to acting?
Anthony: I knew starting out that I wanted to study with the giants, to directly experience their teaching as opposed to getting it from the student of a student of a student. It’s funny, some of those teachers didn’t even like each other—the Strasberg/Adler rift comes to mind. All those people’s approaches to acting were as wildly various as they themselves were. I think this served to inoculate me against any kind of recipe in acting. As Konstantin Stanislavski said: “no recipes, whatever works.” Sadly, I think now is a time of tremendous recipe orientation in the acting community.
Austin: How so?
Anthony: Let me give an example. I had a student who signed up for courses in one of these acting systems. This woman was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, and this course cost a lot of money. She wasn’t connecting with the method being taught and after four weeks she said the course basically made her feel like she sucked. It was a total undercutting of her confidence in her ability and talent. She told her instructors and they said, “Well, if you sign up for the two year program, you’ll improve.” That’s crazy. Any training worth its salt should be immediately useful, and one approach can never be right for all actors. I make my students leave after two years so they don’t fall into recipes. There are no recipes for human beings. I tell my students, the only guru is the kangaroo.
Austin: You got your start in theatre, summer stock, off-Broadway, etc. Do you see fundamental differences between the craft of acting for the screen and that of acting for the stage?
Anthony: Aside from technical particulars, no, there shouldn’t be differences. Both the stage and the screen actor are coming from the same place, that of finding the interesting truth in their material. Some things are truth, but uninteresting. I knew an actor who said, “When I eat, it’s art.” But that’s not interesting. A tremendous amount has been stirred up about stage acting being too big for film and television. It’s true that the third balcony requires a different size than the close-up, but that’s mostly a question of packaging. First you’ve got to have something in the package.
Austin: In your forthcoming book, “Must Be Strong Actress … and Look Great in Lingerie: Restoring the Ancient Potencies of Acting,” you lament that film and television are “succumbing to the dominance of type over talent.” Beautiful actresses like Vivian Leigh have always been popular. Why is superficiality in acting worse today?
Anthony: Although Vivian Leigh was beautiful, she was translucent, tremulous. You could tell that she was so fragile that she could break instantly. You felt for her, and Elia Kazan cast her in A Streetcar Named Desire for her beauty, yes, but also for that fragility. Now it’s changed. The title of my book is not something I made up. That comes from a real breakdown for a part. One of my students recently had an audition with a network. We prepared two monologues, one from Chekhov and one from Williams. When he called me after the audition I asked him, “Which one did they like, the Chekhov or the Williams?” He said, “Neither.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “They didn’t see either one. They wanted to see me with my shirt off, holding an automatic weapon.”
Austin: What do you blame for this type of casting?
Anthony: The drama critic Eric Bentley said, “We have a mediocre culture and a theatre to match.” To understand this type of “pretty face, six-pack abs” casting, you need to look at the larger culture it is arising from. There’s an emphasis on sexuality and violence today at the expense of emotional truth. In the 60’s, there was talk about revolution, and there were movies about hippie freaks, etc. As one of the few long-haired hippies with a SAG card, I was in some of them. It’s no accident that we’re seeing now a prurience in the entertainment industry. I would say this is not a golden age of acting.
Austin: How can an actor interested in emotional truth get work in a culture of superficiality?
Anthony: A good actor can create regardless of the material. The important thing is to raise the material, not lower yourself. An actor needs to develop an eye for the humanity of the character and the interesting truth. If you’re connected to your material, we will be connected. If you’re riveted, you will be riveting. It’s not about displaying yourself, it’s about revealing the truth.
Austin: One of your most famous students, Jennifer Aniston, had to lose a lot of weight before landing her signature role on Friends. Isn’t displaying one’s body a part of acting?
Anthony: The industry has every right to envision a character’s look. Those demands are always going to be there. I tell my students, stay in good shape. Go to the gym. But don’t let that take the place of your ability to create the life of the human spirit.
Austin: Why was Jennifer Aniston special?
Anthony: As a young actress doing a scene from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, I remember her coming backstage upset that the audience was laughing at her performance. I told her she was funny. She began to get offended. “I’m not funny,” she said. “I’m a serious actress.” “No,” I said. “Funny is good.” You know, Chekhov used to complain that Stanislavski made all his characters into crybabies, emphasizing what was grim and sad, not finding the humor in his plays. Chekhov thought of his plays as comedies. The humor is there in them, but it’s very pastel. Jennifer’s performance that day was truthful and funny. She was in her teens, but she found the way to make Chekhov humorous. There’s a lot of depth in her she doesn’t get the opportunity to show. I wish she would try Molière and O’Neil. She deserves to work with the giants.
Austin: What are some bright spots in film and television today?
Anthony: Recently I saw the HBO program, Big Love. I was just astonished. The whole cast functioned as an ensemble and was doing really interesting , truthful, good work. That kind of thing is possible in the marketplace.
Austin: What are some of your best moments as a teacher?
Anthony: It’s going to sound corny, but every time an actor is able to achieve something that they were capable of but not yet able to do—that’s a breakthrough. It’s illuminating—they are lit from within. I think of my students as matches looking for the striking surface. Once an actor and I find the striking surface and the actor bursts into flame—those moments do stay with me.