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True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet

February 12, 2016


William H. Macy mentioned this book on the podcast Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. I’m not an actor, but I sometimes direct them in the sound booth or second-hand (via the director) on commercial shoots, so I thought it might be helpful to read a little about acting.

This book brought back a lot of memories from my film classes in undergrad and grad school, as its central theme is a takedown of method acting, or the Stanislavsky system. A primary system of acting preparation for the past 60 years, method acting is based on the idea that the actor should inhabit their character, should do everything he or she can to understand the character’s motivation in order to truly embody that character on stage. Extreme tales of method preparation have become Hollywood lore—Christian Bale losing 63 pounds for The Machinist, Robert De Nero putting on 60 pounds for Raging Bull, Daniel Day Lewis remaining in character through the entire filming of Lincoln, Jim Carrey’s continued (and reportedly annoying) portrayal of Andy Kaufman even when the cameras stopped rolling for Man on the Moon, Heath Ledger’s frightening, month-long embodiment of The Joker for The Dark Knight, Leonardo DiCaprio sleeping in an animal carcass for The Revenant, Marlon Brando’s entire career. The list is long. Mamet thinks it’s “a lot of hogwash.”

“The actor is onstage to communicate the play to the audience. That is the beginning and the end of his and her job…The actor does not need to ‘become’ the character.” Mamet says this often, using different metaphors:

“It is as useless as teaching pilots to flap their arms…”

“It will not help you in the boxing ring to know the history of boxing…”

“Does the musician devote his energies to forgetting that what is in front of him is a piano…?”

“In order to play lacrosse, you have to know the rules…you don’t have to put yourself into a lacrosse state of mind.”

“The skill of acting is like the skill of sport…Like sports, the study of acting consists in the main of getting out of one’s own way…”

These analogies, while redundant, vividly make the point.

“The fantasy that the play brings to life supplies everything we need to act.” In other words, you don’t need to know your character’s background or motivation. You need to know the script, what’s on the page.

Not being an actor, I don’t know enough to agree or disagree with Mamet. But he’s a persuasive guy with plenty of experience. That said, he’s also a writer and director, the person you might expect to level such criticism at actors. I suspect Mamet feels like he has too often had to tell an actor, “Stop thinking and just read what’s on the damn page.”

This is a provocative book. At its best parts, it rises above a criticism of method acting and is about artistry and growth. Peppered throughout are insightful truisms, applicable outside of the theater as well. Such as this little gem: “The beginning of wisdom is the phrase ‘I don’t understand.’”

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