Something Not To Think About

How an actor chooses to approach a piece of material is the most
essential professional decision they will ever make. Whether it is
for a play, commercial, episodic or feature film, the question of
how to prepare is paramount in most actor training programs. All
these programs have the same goal. That is to insure that the actor
is in his optimum state of creativity when the moment of truth
arrives. The majority of “methods” to accomplish this subscribe to
similar techniques. The words “break down the scene,” “find your
objective,” “find the beats,” “find something in your own life to
correlate with the character,” can be heard in universities and
acting schools all across the country. Most programs emphasize the
importance of extensive rehearsal and extensive “homework” on
the character including a bio and a back-story.
I have been fortunate enough to appear in over two hundred
television shows and feature films. Some good ones too like “Field
of Dreams” “Con Air” “Catch Me If you Can” and I recently
appeared as fired Detroit auto worker Samuels in Jason Reitman’s
“Up in the Air.” The number of times I used the aforementioned
techniques? Zero.
Though this will be a contentious debate for as long as there are
actors, I propose there is certainly a different, if not better way. It is
a way of working that is being validated more and more by the
latest neurological research. It is difficult to label, but for our
purposes here, we will call it “choice-less awareness.”
I first heard of this intriguing approach when I arrived in Los
Angeles in 1976. In looking to further my university training, I
immediately set out to find a good class. I actually sat in on one of
Stella Adler’s classes when she was still teaching. But it felt as if I
was re-plowing the same field.
Then I met Charles Eric Conrad. The moment I joined his class
everything changed. His approach to acting was a hundred eighty
degree turn from traditional training. The work being done was
consistently powerful, spontaneous and exquisite. And I booked
the first job I went out on working the way he suggested. Two
scenes on “Starsky and Hutch.” I never looked back.
After four and a half years of study, I left the Studio and embarked
on a gratifying thirty year career. In 1991, Charles called and said
he was considering retirement and asked me if I would like to
continue the teaching. I was honored then and honored now to
carry it on at my acting school The Steve Eastin Studio in Toluca
Lake, Ca.
The Difference
At my Studio our objective is clarity. John Cassavettes called it
“The ability of not knowing.” The human brain consists of two
lobes. The left brain is analytical. It is the voice in your head. It is
the part of the brain that, plans, worries, anticipates the future, and
can often make us miserable. It is linear. It can think of one thing at
a time. The right brain is the realm of the senses. The neuron
receptors for instinct and intuition reside there. A thin cable called
the corpus collussum through which information passes back and
forth connects the two lobes. The latest research has shown that a
high degree of activity in the left brain (thinking) causes a
corresponding cessation of activity in the right brain (sensing).
They even have a name for it. It’s called verbal overshadowing.
Essentially the training we do is to quiet the left brain so we can
hear our hearts. For centuries, poets have called it “the wee small
voice within.”
The psychologist Carl Jung was a pioneer in this area. He called
the right brain the collective unconsciousness. In that deep place
that listens to the voice in our head is every human being that ever
lived. We have been men, we have been women. We have been a
murderer and been murdered. We have conquered and been
conquered. We have loved and lost and loved again. Again this
concept has been validated by recent DNA evidence. This is
incredibly powerful information for an actor. If we can quiet the
left brain, which is emptying out of our personal self, we create the
capacity for experiences of another to pass through us i.e. the role.
Another contention of Jung was that the collective
unconsciousness had an intelligence of its own. He called it the
creative intelligence. And he felt it to be autonomous. It is the
primordial, instinctive intelligence of the jungle cat.
This may all sound esoteric and ephemeral to you, but you must
remember that it is the left brain that is judging or questioning it. It
is extremely pragmatic and practical. Some examples: An actor
working in choice-less awareness appears extremely confident
because doubt exists only in the left brain. An actor that does not
have a preconceived idea of what they are going to do is in what
Cassavettes calls “the realm of all possibility” so they are a joy to
direct and are not threatened by last minute changes.
The top directors are hip to this. In a six month period a few years
ago, I worked with Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott and Brian
DePalma back to back. All three eschewed rehearsal. They wanted
that first take on film. It’s for the same reason Miles Davis paid his
musicians not to rehearse. He felt that their excitement in playing
the arrangement for the first time could be felt in the music. I
understand Woody Allen doesn’t even let his actors see their lines
until they arrive on the set. Spielberg was quoted as saying “Every
time an actor says a line they lose some of their innocence.”
In the interest of practicality, I will walk you through my process
in getting and filming “Up in the Air.” I received my sides prior to
the audition for the casting director, Mindy Marin. I read the
dialogue flat, out loud in a monotone once. Immediately, I could
feel things shifting around inside me. So I put it down. At the
casting office I ran it one more time in the same way. We
emphasize sight reading mechanics at my school so I was good to
go. I went in and read. It felt like Samuels hit me in the head with a
hammer. I was asked back to read for Jason Reitman the next day.
It was different than the day before because I really couldn’t
remember what happened then, but the hammer came down again.
Three months later, I’m in St. Louis filming with George Clooney
and Anna Kendrick, who is a doll by the way. Same thing. I
memorized it flat, out loud in a monotone and did it for the first
time on the set. I sensed it was going well when wardrobe had to
change my shirt after two takes because of tear stains. It seemed
my optimum state of creativity was present at the moment of truth.
Two things about this way of working are particularly dear to me.
The first is that it is not a concept you have to believe in. It is not a
theory. If you give the ability of not knowing a try with enthusiasm
and an open mind, you will have a powerful experience that will
verify it for you. Secondly, it makes acting really fun. All of the
“homework” and “breaking down” can get tedious. And “making
choices” automatically sets up the duality of “Am I making the
right choice?” When I was a kid playing cowboys and Indians on
the Colorado plains, I dreamt of being an Indian. Before we started
playing I didn’t ask “Is my Indian a Lakota or a Pawnee?” “Did
my Indian have a troubled childhood?” No. When the game started
I immediately became a sinewy warrior galloping my imaginary
appaloosa across the prairie. Choice-less awareness returns the
child like wonder that made us want to act in the first place.
-Steve Eastin