The Deep Roots of Acting Philosophy Behind Frances McDormand’s Craft
Isaac Butler on Accessing Character’s Emotion
Acting is a curious thing. Practically anyone who watches Hollywood movies—which is to say pretty much everyone—spends a staggering amount of time talking and thinking about actors. We know intimate details of their private lives. We look to them to speak out about the issues of the day. We evaluate them constantly and festoon the better ones with a trunkload of different prizes. Yet when pressed to explain what good acting actually is, we usually struggle.
Even we critics, who are supposed to be in the discussing-art-in-depth business, often rely on a basic shorthand of “convincing” or “bravura” or “charismatic” or “well observed.” Sorting out what makes for a good performance can be like struggling to escape quicksand without the aid of a handy tree branch. Instead, most of us are more likely to follow Justice Potter Stewart’s famous adage about obscenity: We know good acting when we see it.
But how do we see it? Acting is contextual, of course. Moonstruck wouldn’t work without Nicolas Cage, but if you yanked his performance out of it and plunked it down in The Remains of the Day, the result would be risible. Nevertheless, most of us carry around a set of assumptions about what makes for good acting, independent of whatever we happen to be watching at that moment. We want performances that feel lived in—ones in which actors reveal characters’ psychology through subtle gestures and little facial expressions rather than indicating what they’re thinking and feeling.
We want emotions that appear genuinely felt, not technically re-created. We want actors to remain in character and not to comment on what they’re doing. In most cases, they shouldn’t really seem aware of the audience at all. We want to feel as if the actors have on some level become the characters, collapsing the distance between the role on the page and themselves. Unless the style of the project calls for something radically different, what we crave is authenticity. We want psychological and emotional truth.
Take, for example, an actor like Frances McDormand. Over the course of her career, McDormand has shown a remarkable versatility, on both stage and screen. In the theater, she performed frequently with the Wooster Group, one of the most important avant-garde stage companies of the twentieth century, but she’s also acted to great acclaim in realistic plays by writers like Tennessee Williams and Clifford Odets. In the meantime, she’s built a career as a prolific and gifted film and television actor, and she is second only to Katharine Hepburn in the number of Best Actress Oscars she’s received. Her performances—even when pushed to the stylistic limit in films like Burn After Reading—feel specific, and rooted in psychology, which she has called “the bottom line of it all.”
This was true even in her first film role, as Abby in Blood Simple, a part she landed shortly after graduating from the Yale School of Drama. Abby is a deceptively difficult character to play; she’s the center of the film, the battleground over which the male characters fight, but she has few lines. Instead, the role calls for constant reacting. The camera lingers on her face as she tries to piece together what is happening and how she should respond. It’s a role with few of the big moments we usually associate with great performances. An actor possessed with a keener sense of vanity would try to call attention to all of this, but McDormand’s performance is clean, simple. She serves the material, and she makes Abby feel like a real human being.
By McDormand’s own account, she struggled playing Abby. She had never been on a film set before. The technical demands of performing in that environment are very different from those of the stage. You must position your body precisely for the camera, which is in some ways your real scene partner. There’s also a jigsaw puzzle aspect to acting on film: In a play, you perform the role from beginning to end every night. In a film, you usually shoot a role out of order, and you are often called upon to hit emotional highs on command again and again and again.
Blood Simple’s final action sequence posed particular emotional and technical challenges for McDormand. In it, M. Emmet Walsh’s grotesque private investigator Visser has come to kill Abby and her lover, Ray (John Getz), but Abby thinks the man hunting them is her husband, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya). She sees Ray gunned down, and then, in terror, runs to his body, grabs a knife out of his pocket, and dashes to the bathroom to hide. McDormand had not read the scene closely enough to realize its emotional content, and she felt unprepared on the day of shooting. “I was like ‘Oh fuck. I’ve got to be—I must be hysterical. I’ve got to figure out how to do it fast, and then do it all day.’” She recalled an exercise from graduate school in which a classmate held on to her from behind while she struggled to get free until “it had driven me insane.” She asked someone on set to grab her and not let her go no matter what she did, until director Joel Coen called “Action.”
The results are in the film for a few brief seconds. McDormand, suffused with rage and grief to the point of hysteria, scrambles in a panic through the space and into the bathroom. When she heard Coen call “Cut,” she suddenly realized “I was going to have to keep it up all day.” She crawled under a table on set, trying to recover and protect herself. Joel Coen crawled under there with her, and calmly explained the next shot they needed, before simply asking her if she was okay. The day proceeded like this—McDormand performing at the height of emotion, retreating beneath a table, being coached by Joel Coen—before they finally got to a shot that, as he explained, was simply of her hands and wouldn’t require her to maintain the intensity she’d brought to the rest of the day’s work.
“That’s when I started realizing I had to have a system that did not require me staying in an altered state under a table somewhere,” McDormand said. “It was unsustainable, and it was embarrassing . . . It’s also when [Coen] learned how to direct actors, too, because that was not going to be sustainable for him.” The day’s shooting became the origin story of her mastery of film acting. It was also the origin story of her relationship with her director, with whom she fell in love that day. The two married in 1984, the year of Blood Simple’s release.
What McDormand needed to develop was a technique that would allow her to authentically experience the emotions and psychology of her character while maintaining control over the results. “There’s a really deep well of experience and emotional facility,” McDormand explained, “but it has to have a really tight lid. You have to be able to get the lid off when you need it and dip down into the well, but you can’t keep it open all the time or you won’t survive . . . the trauma of bringing it back.”While McDormand is not by most definitions a Method actor, the Method created both a system of norms and a stylistic and technical lineage from which she descends.
This is a challenge familiar to actors at every level of the industry in America today. But if you were to build a time machine, go back 80 years or so, and show people McDormand’s films while telling them about her struggles to use real emotion, they might very well find the whole experience baffling. Why, they might ask, would you want to really experience what your character is going through? Why would you think Olive Kitteridge or Nomadland—with their colloquial, often half-articulated American vernacular and revelation of character through subtle gestures—was good? What’s the point of all of this versatility she’s worked hard to display throughout her career?
It’s not that the films and performances of classic Hollywood are worse than what came after—it’s impossible to feel that way if you’ve ever watched Barbara Stanwyck or Cary Grant—but they are different. They obey different rules, different ideas about what a good film is, about what makes for a good performance. Something happened to overturn that old order, a revolution in how we think about acting. In the United States in the 1950s, that revolution was called the Method, and while McDormand is not by most definitions a Method actor, the Method created both a system of norms and a stylistic and technical lineage from which she descends. Like her predecessors, she lives in New York, not Los Angeles; she avoids typecasting; she loves acting for the stage; and she studied an American adaptation of the theories and practices of the Russian actor and director Konstantin Stanislavski.
Stanislavski’s ideas—and the Moscow Art Theatre, which he co-founded in the 1890s—upended hundreds of years of conventional wisdom about what acting was supposed to be, first in Russia and then in the United States. At the heart of Stanislavski’s revolution was the concept of perezhivanie, which, loosely translated, means something like “experiencing,” or perhaps “re-experiencing.” Perezhivanie occurs when an actor is so connected to the truth of a role, and has so thoroughly entered into the imaginary reality of the character, that they feel what the character feels, perhaps even think what the character thinks. Experiencing does not mean to fully become the character, or to lose sight of the self. Instead, the actor’s living consciousness and the fictional consciousness of the part they are playing meet. To Stanislavski, perezhivanie, which he also called “living the part,” was the highest ideal, the artistic mountaintop that all acting strove to reach.
For much of human history, however, perezhivanie in acting was undesirable. As far back as Plutarch, writers have been warning us against experiencing. In “Why We Delight in Representation,” Plutarch wrote that an actor who “is really affected with grief or anger presents us with nothing but the common bare passion, but in the imitation some dexterity and persuasiveness appears.”
Therefore, the former makes us uncomfortable, “whilst the latter delights us.” Not only is perezhivanie discomfiting, Plutarch believed; it could also be dangerous. He relates the story of a Roman actor who once became “so transported beyond himself in the heat of action that he struck with his scepter one of the servants who was running across the stage, so violently that he laid him dead upon the place.”
From the time of ancient Athens until the late 19th century, many agreed with Plutarch and disdained perezhivanie. Acting was supposed to be mostly technical. After all, the thinking went, was not experiencing the character’s state of being a kind of madness? Was there not something cheap and vulgar about it? How could an actor swept away in the experience of a part remember their lines or their blocking, or, as Plutarch mentioned, avoid harming their co-workers?
During the Enlightenment, experiencing’s irrationality made it an easy target, particularly for the French philosopher Denis Diderot. In his unfinished dialogue The Paradox of the Actor, Diderot argued that rationality and control were the key to great performances. “Extreme sensibility makes middling actors,” he wrote; “middling sensibility makes the ruck of bad actors; in complete absence of sensibility is the possibility of a sublime actor.”
The style of acting that most aligned with Diderot’s views was called the symbolic style. It was presentational, not realistic. Using pure technique, actors performed highly conventionalized physical and vocal gestures that represented the emotions. Acting education involved the training of one’s voice and body and the learning of the proper way to deliver specific kinds of text, usually through imitating an instructor. The greatest of these actors was the 19th-century French thespian Sarah Bernhardt, whose grand performances and eccentric offstage antics were the stuff of legend during her lifetime. Today, owing to the highly contingent and socially determined nature of how we think about acting, she’s often treated as a joke.
Stanislavski’s ideas about acting did not come out of nowhere, however. Running alongside—or perhaps underneath—the dominant symbolic style was another one, founded on and dedicated to experiencing. Plutarch also tells us of another actor, the Athenian Polus, who had been tasked with playing Electra in the eponymous tragedy by Sophocles. One scene of the play requires Electra to “lament and bewail” her dead brother Orestes while holding an urn filled with his ashes. To pull this moment off, Polus used an urn holding the actual ashes of his dead son and “filled the whole place not with the appearance and imitation of sorrow but with genuine grief and unfeigned lamentation.”
There have always been actors who followed in Polus’s footsteps. One of them, the Italian tragedienne Eleonora Duse, became Sarah Bernhardt’s chief late-career rival. Duse’s style of acting—dubbed verismo, or “realism”—was filled with unexpected pauses and unconventional line readings. Duse was known for occasionally turning her back to the audience if the moment demanded it, or speaking so quietly the crowd had trouble hearing her. She was, for the champions of perezhivanie, perhaps the greatest actor in the history of the world, a lodestar guiding Stanislavski and all who followed him.
Over the course of his career, Stanislavski inverted Diderot’s hierarchy of acting. He dismissed the symbolic style as “hackwork,” a series of clichés that one could literally learn from a textbook. The best actors, he argued, were the ones who had the greatest sensibility. Talent, to Stanislavski, was an actor’s capacity to experience. Yet at times his own talent deserted him. He faced the same problem that everyone from Polus onward had: There was no way to summon experiencing on demand. Inspiration might be the key to great acting, but how do you control something as mercurial and ineffable as inspiration?
Excerpted from The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act by Isaac Butler. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2022.