Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 13, No. 4, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Daniel Charchuk
Lynda Renée
Betsy L. Chunko
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors Serge Gamache
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Being an actor
is about changing who you are.
Will Smith

We are fascinated by them, and based on the numbers (TV ratings, entertainment shows, gossip columns and magazines), we simply can’t get enough of them: the stars and starlets of the silver screen. How is it that they are so able to occupy our thoughts and fantasies and monopolize our conversational life? Does our abiding obsession with people whom we have never met, will never know, make the case that we are borderline batty going on unhinged? Or is our fixation in fact not at all irrational, but a collective confession that we are fascinated by power which predicts the behaviour described above?

The first myth to put to bed is that we are obsessed with the lives of the great actors because they are celebrities, the beautiful people who vicariously answer to our deepest longing for recognition, identity and adulation. All of this of course is to a certain extent true, but that is not the primary reason why we are consumed by, envious of the life (both on and off screen) of the actor. What draws us and keeps us locked in his orbit is his highly specialized power which is the same in kind wielded by the super heroes that we encounter in comic books, science fiction and mythology. What separates the actor from his fictional counterpart is that in the real world his power is observable and palpable. The same skills he uses on the set are the same he seamlessly employs in his daily life, which gives him an almost inhuman advantage when it comes to procurement.

To better understand what distinguishes the actor from the rest of us, we must begin with what the great actors all have in common: an extraordinary ability to deliver lines (penned by someone else) as if they are the living issue of their own flesh and blood and real life experience. In short, we don’t believe they are acting, so convincing are they. The great actors, like elite athletes, are paid millions and sometimes tens of millions of dollars -- such are their extraordinary skills.

But they are not supermen with super powers, just as we are not strangers to their art. I am invited to a good friend’s house for dinner to meet his new wife. She has prepared a dish that disappoints and I try (projectile vomiting notwithstanding) to the best of my ability to convince her that I have enjoyed her cooking. Her happiness during the course of the meal and evening will be directly proportional to my acting ability.

Over the course of a lifetime we find ourselves in situations which require performance, so that most of us become -- in varying degrees – passably adept at pretending to feel something we don’t feel at all. In our daily life, there isn’t one of us who doesn’t wish that he could act better in order to partake of -- with a nod to Freud’s pleasure principle –- the just rewards. Life teaches us that the spoils of whatever is at stake -- in romance, job interviews, commerce -- go to the best actor.

What separates our small and occasional acting success from the actor’s is that he is able to deliver the goods on cue, every time and in every situation, which makes his accomplishment central to the awe, envy and bafflement aroused by his gifts.

How is he able to convince himself and everyone else that he is feeling, for example, a terrible loss, when in fact he does not, or that he is amused by someone’s behaviour when in fact he is ashamed of it. How does he execute this sleight of mind? How is he able to overrule his true feelings?

As many actors have acknowledged in interviews, the key to their success is not to act, but to convince themselves into believing what they are supposed to feel. In short, they are able to perform a psyche job on themselves, that, combined with practice and natural ability, kicks in on command.

The very specialized expertise wielded by the actor enables him to supply whatever is emotively required for any given situation. I am nervous, apprehensive and perspiring profusely in respect to a particular woman I am meeting for the first time, and am seriously considering wearing rubber underwear for the occasion. In this same situation, the skilled actor (think Leo DiCaprio) has already imagined and rehearsed what the situation calls for: being calm, charming, witty and confident. On command, which is the art and discipline of self-command, the actor, in respect to everything except his physical appearance, will be able to best answer what this woman wants and expects, which is why he mostly gets whatever he wants whenever he wants it.

And if we are all-too-quick to diss the successful actor for being vain, arrogant and of gargantuan appetite, we must concede that it would be foolish of him to refuse or overrule his exceptional ability since in each and every situation it works to his advantage. Acting, as an adaptive trait, is doubtlessly favoured by natural selection, just as envy is our confession that we want what someone already has for which there is no cure other than getting it. The happy person, therefore, is one who envies wisely (pragmatically).

What intrigues us most of the actor’s power is that it serves him equally on the set as in real life. It is an aptitude that is not lost on the politician who is obliged to take positions on any number of issues which he personally doesn’t subscribe to. The campaign trail is study or exercise in stylized method acting that every successful politician must master. President Obama, who took Ronald Reagan’s acting prowess to another level, states in Dreams From My Father that he considers himself “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” So much for vision and more prima facie evidence that one Edward Gibbon fits all

It is hardly a coincidence that the great actors give better interviews than almost any other kind of entertainer. Good acting requires both exceptional practical and psychological intelligence when assuming the persona of a character for an acting role or real life. The actor must step into a complex situation whose history and emotional underpinnings have been long established. He has to analyze and empathize quickly and convincingly, and make us believe that he is personally familiar with the entire history of the situation and the persons who have evolved it.

So who is the actor, or what remains of him if he inventing himself in perpetuity? What kind of self does he possess?

It would be a mistake to conclude he has no self, or center, when in point of fact he has only decided that his center doesn’t serve him well. For practical reasons, he chooses not to be himself since it doesn’t work to his advantage. His true or real self comes out when he is alone and, over time, in his intimate friendships and relationships. Actors learn to be wary of close or long-term relationships because once the true self has been outed, it cannot be put back in the box. Even flawless acting cannot mend a deliberate hurt or insult because the aggrieved knows the apology or stated regret is insincere. Like ours, their marriages are not made in heaven. Acting is like a magic act; it only works so long as you don’t suspect it or haven’t figured it out.

Before we accuse the actor of being inauthentic, we must bear in mind that nature blesses adaptability. We would never label as inauthentic a First Nations person who abandons his hunting and fishing way of life in order to study computer science. For trading in his feathers for Fortran, he might be called a traitor but never inauthentic because his choice is so self-evidently beneficial.

Human beings are uniquely malleable and existentially responsible for the selves they choose to become. An insecure, complex ridden actor who over time rejects his centre (his ‘real’ self) and refashions himself into his opposite and is rewarded for his efforts cannot be accused of being inauthentic for his remarkable adaptability, just as an evil person who becomes a good person cannot be accused of being inauthentic for rejecting his former self. Our real selves are constantly evolving to best answer what a particular situation requires. “Man learns when he disposes everything he does so that it answers to whatever essentials are addressed to him at any given moment” writes the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Like no one else, the actor embodies this exceptional competence. Am I a hypocrite if I am able to convince someone that I feel his or her pain if I really don’t since I will be rewarded with this particular person’s friendship and respect which I deem essential for my well being, or, if I pretend to my boss that I enjoy my work when I really don’t if the rewards impact positively on my sense of self-worth and family life? Our true selves and centers are constantly in flux, responding in kind to both the passage of time and personal choice.

More than anyone, the actor is exceptionally positioned to ask the largest questions of authenticity because being himself and losing himself occupy the same place in time, and trace the same gestures. So when we taken an exceptional interest in the moments of an actor's life both on and off screen, we have created an opportunity to question our own authenticity, since our awe and envy identify a lacking in oursevles from which -- by constitution or act of will -- the actor is spared, which in turn enables him to accomplish in minutes what might take us years.

Definition of to act: to behave in a specified way or to take action.


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