Book Review 49: Acting and Other Flying Lessons

When I initially undertook to write a book about acting several humbling thoughts confronted me. As I've never before taught acting, per se, the main question pestering me was, "Gary, Just who the hell do you think you are?" " That one held me up for some time, and as I didn't know quite how to I answer it then, and still don't—I decided to move on and write the book anyway.

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Gary Graham had a recurring role on Star Trek Enterprise, playing Vulcan Ambassador Soval. While he may not be a household name, he has successful made his living as an actor for more than 30 years. In "Acting and Other Flying Lessons" he shares some of the things he's learned over the years.

This is a good book, but I'm a little disappointed because it's just a draft or two away from being a great book. The main problem with it is the structure, or rather, lack of structure. It's a book that could benefit greatly from a stronger outline. A strong editor could improve the organization and probably cut the page count by 15-20%.

It appears as if Graham started with the ideas he wanted to convey and just started writing. There's great stuff in here, but it's in paragraphs that pop up in the chapters. It's almost as if he stumbles onto them.

The book might read better as a series of articles. Or perhaps it would work better as a weekly blog.

That said, it's still worth reading. If you are interested in acting, or presenting, there is value here.

In this review, I'll talk about what Graham was trying to achieve, how successful he was, and ways he could have better accomplished his goal. Then I'll talk about some of the key acting tips that he shares, and in some cases how they apply outside the field of acting. Finally, I'll talk about some of the acting industry anecdotes he shares.

Graham's goal with this book was to write a practical introduction to the field, so that new actors know what they are doing when they show up on the set. He intended to cover the basic mechanics of being an actor -- who you talk to, where you go at the start of the day, who's who on the set, etc.

I believe that if I'd had that information early, I could have devoted more of my concentration to the job at hand, instead of learning set protocol, where to go, who to look for, what to do and how to do it, etc.—and consequently could have gotten more career mileage from my early professional effort

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Even though I don't plan on being a professional actor, I find this information quite fascinating. The basic operational information of what you do when you show up someplace is often missing from most ventures.

It extends beyond big things like jobs to simple things like restaurants. Have you ever walked into a restaurant and not known what to do? Do you seat yourself of wait for the hostess? Do you go to the counter or go straight to your table? When there's no sign telling me what to do, I get very stressed at a new restaurant. Tell me how things work, and I'm much more relaxed.

Those initial steps are often overlooked, and Graham attempts to address that in his book.

Graham does cover those sorts of things, but they sometimes get buried in his other stories about acting, or in his lessons on art of acting. Unlike a memoir, or a theoretical book, a practical lesson book should have stronger organization. I would like to have seen Graham start each cahpter with an introduction to the topics he was going to cover, and call out the key lessons at the beginning.

In a novel you want to build suspense. In a memoir, you want to share your life experience. In an educational book, you want to share knowledge and promote the retention of that knowledge.

That takes a different approach to the material. It by necessity removes some of the spontaneity you want the reader to feel in other genres. Here, we are not just along for the ride. We are not just here to learn something about Graham or understand the history of the industry better. We are here to learn more about the practical aspects of acting.More than in other books, the author needs to tells us what he's going to tell us, tell us, and then tell us what he's told us.

Graham would have done better to structure his chapters around the key lessons he wants to teach us, discuss those lessons, then choose key stories from his own life to illustrate those stories.

All those elements are in this book, but they're scattered within chapters.

As the author moves through the material in an educational book like this, it's good for later chapters to build on earlier ones. The author should be able to assume that if the reader is reading Chapter 6, they have already read the material in Chapter 3.

Graham has a tendency to repeat his stories. When they appear later in the book, he's often using them to illustrate a different point, but he introduces them like it's the first time he's telling the story. It's fine to refer back to previous stories, but he should assume the reader already read them .

Here are two examples.

Back in '87,I starred in a sci-fi picture called "ROBOT JOX" (Did I mention?) that we shot in Rome. The film was originally called ROBOJOX", a much better title, but the "ROBOCOP" people threatened to sue unless we changed it—even though our production preceded theirs by six months. They had a bigger budget (and could hire better lawyers, I guess), so we acquiesced and called our picture "ROBOT JOX." Go figure, everybody wants to rule the world

Page 218

I did not see him again until we were on location in San Francisco. We were shooting in an adult bookstore in the strip club district and my first scene was just George and I—and I was to do all the talking—acting opposite an industry icon, the internationally famous George C. Scott. Imagine in your first scene on your first big movie having to take stage opposite George Patton!

Page 299

Graham talks about Robot Jox earlier in the book several times. By the time we get to this passage on page 218 anyone who doesn't know he starred in Robot Jox obviously hasn't paid any attention at all. The story can still be effective, but refer back to it. Don't introduce it again.

It's the same thing with his discussion of George C Scott. He's already told elements of this story in his section on Matching. He even set the scene there. Yet again, he is introducing the story and covering well trod material rather than simply referring back to it

The second to last chapter in this book doesn’t quite fit. In it, Graham gives a different section to a variety of actors and talks about his experiences with them.

Now it's not a bad idea to do things like this, and in a book about the basics of acting there is definitely some benefit to it. But the execution is the issue. As it is, it might have worked better as an appendix to the reset of the material. It's a lot more memoir heavy than the book calls for. These stories could also work as monthly magazine articles, or weekly blog posts, or as similar episodic content.

Assuming they are going to stay in the book, however, they do need tighter structure. Again, given the education nature of the book, the lessons should be more obvious. In some of the stories, Graham talks about what he learned from them. In others he just talks about how great this person is to work with as a fellow actor.

It would have been more effective to start (or end) each of these sections with the specific lessons Graham learned from that person, or the specific lessons the reader can learn from that person. Call it out and these anecdotes become much more valuable.

Perhaps outline each of these section like this:

  • What I learned from this person.
  • Who this person is.
  • How I learned the lesson.
  • How I applied the lesson.
  • How you can apply the lesson.

Or some similar structure. If there is not particular lesson to draw from that story other than that Graham is a fan of that person, cut the section. It doesn't advance the purpose of the book and doesn’t need to be there.

Graham also needs to be careful about undermining his own points.

In one section he talks about fight scenes and other stunts. He emphasizes the importance of taking your time, getting it right, and if something goes wrong, stopping to scene so no one gets hurt.

To illustrate his point, he tells the story about a fight scene that went wrong. He accidentally hit another actor, and the other actor almost got carried away.

It turned out all right—but with a different actor, less experienced with less self-control, who knows how it would have turned out?

Again, my ardent note of caution here is this: With stunts, if something goes wrong—stop immediately] It's not that big of a deal to reset and roll again. Yes, accidents do happen, nothing is one hundred percent safe. But someone getting hurt needlessly is unforgivable. Use your head. And always remember. IT'S ONLY A MOVIE.

Page 207-208

The problem with this story is that nothing happened. Graham would have been better off citing a story where someone did not heed the advice to stop as soon as something goes wrong and that resulted in negative consequences of some sort.  This story seem like one he wanted to tell, but couldn't fit in anyplace else.  It reflects a lack of prior planning while writing the book.

But enough about the organization of the book. There are some great gems in here, and I'd like to explore them.

It's interesting to note that a lot to the key acting lessons that Graham discusses really have nothing to do with acting. They apply just as well in most professional endeavors.

  • Be professional. 
  • Show up on time. 
  • Work hard. 
  • Treat people well.

He tells one story about sitting around a campfire with other crew member on set. Folks started talking about an actor they had worked with recently. A couple people had similar negative experiences and shared them.

The producer said he had been thinking about hiring him for a movie fie was to produce next in Canada, but after hearing that he said. "Well, forget that. I certainly don't need that bullshit."

I couldn't believe it. Here we were, middle of the night, freezing our butts off in the mud, and a Hollywood casting decision had been made. That actor lost a job (a good job) at four-thirty a.m. m a muddy field in Yugoslavia—and he didn't even know it.

Always be a professional. Word gets around.

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Part of making movies and TV shows involves matching. Once a scene is shot, they will start filming it again from different angles. They'll shoot close ups and reshoot other parts. It's important for the actors to perform the scene exactly the same way, from intonation to motion to props. This way the editors can easily cut the scene together for the final product. Doing those same things over again is called "Matching."

Career advancement note: Actors who can match well end up with more screen time because they cut together like butter, the editing looks seamless, and the actor's performance look great. Become an expert matcher.

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In short, if you make the editor's job and the director's job easier, it helps you in the long run.

It's a lesson that applies in the business world as well. When you can make a coworker's, boss's, or employee's job easier, it can only help you do well in your professional life. And often, the best way to do that, is to do your own job well.

A postive attitude is also an improtant asset. Just because an actor has had some success does not mean they can look down on others. There are few people that have such star status they can get away with an "attitude." And even then, that may not last long.

It doesn't matter what those actors wear to the audition, all the producers see is the Attitude. Then the actor can't figure out why he doesn't work more.

Be in a good mood. Nobody wants to be around a downer, so carry a good mood into the office, even if you have to manufacture one. Optimism is a trait that opens many a door. It's all about energy. Negativism and depression suck the energy out of a room. It's palpable, you can feel it, you can almost hear it. Be a source of light.. .warmth assurance.. .and yes, love. And if you can't muster love for these folks sitting in the audition room, for your fellow man, then focus on your love for acting. Or your love for your wife and kids, your Mom, your cat, your Harley.. .something. Bring your love with you when you walk into the room.

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While Graham is talking mainly about the audition process, the same principle applies when talking about the corporate world. Obviously things don't always go well, but approaching things from a nihilistic perspective or with a "bad attitude" (whatever that means) does not help the situation. People want to feel there is an opportunity to win -- that things can get better, even when things are falling apart. A positive outlook is just as important in an acting career as it is in any other career.

The old adage applies in the film biz: The cream rises to the top. There is nothing stronger than the human will. If you have a goal, a dream, and it's reasonable, and you believe you can achieve it, there is nothing that can stop you. Except, of course, yourself.

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Regardless of your current life or career situation, your subconscious mind will direct you toward whatever you place before it.

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One of the most important lessons I learned when I took motorcycle classes was that you should never look at the object in your path that you want to avoid. If you look at it, you will hit it. Instead, look at the path around that hazard, and if you are focusing on the path you want to take, your bike will take you there.

Goal setting is a natural off shoot of having a positive attitude. You have to believe you can do it, and then you have to pursue it. If you focus on the obstacles to success, your subconscious will take you into those obstacles, just as your motorcycle will take you into that wall.

Positive attitude carried Graham through a lot of the early missteps in his career when he didn't quite know what he was doing.

I'd heard that being in a play could help land an agent, so I started auditioning for plays. I didn't know what I was doing really, but I was young and eager and went for it. Youthful enthusiasm can cover a multitude of sins—and sometimes even a lack of substantial technique.

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Graham did study acting. Taking classes is part of the hard work involved in being an actor. Being exposed to other performances and understanding why actors make the choices the do is one way to learn. Just as important as the theory, though, are the practical lessons. The hard work never stops.

I dove into the curriculum with both feet and hit the stage running. I couldn't get enough. Scene classes, sensory exercises, auditing the master class with Lee Strasberg, art-film nights with classmates. Actor's Studio guest speakers (honest-to-god-stars! Well...one or two anyway George Peppard, Roddy McDowell. Ellen Burstyn. A telling omen: I asked Roddy the question, 'What are you doing now?' thinking he must be on some exciting film project. He looked at me with brutally candid eyes and didn't miss a beat: "Looking for work." He said it like, "That's the reality, kid, get used to it." Twenty-four years later, I've come to find that find that an actor's main job is to get a job).

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In his chapter on Acting Lessons, he talks about some of the teachers he studied under. For example, he studied under Kim Stanley, an acting teacher and alcoholic.

With Kim it was always the drink talking—and sometimes the drink made a lot of sense. I loved the year I studied with her. I learned about taking huge chances, losing my fear of making an ass of myself, and throwing caution to the wind on stage. And most importantly, I learned to listen to my own inner voice and trust my own instincts.

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Acting classes are just one part of being an actor, though:

In the final analysis, acting is self-taught. Learn all you can from the best, but largely you will end Up discovering your technique on your own. Yes, acting classes are great—expose yourself to as many different sources as you can, and keep studying even after you start working—but life is the greatest teacher, and ultimately it is from your own well you draw.

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There's a lot of great practical information in the book, but there's also some good acting theory. The part I found most interesting was where he talked about crying on stage. Or acting drunk. Many amateur actors may try to force tears. Or the may try to stumble around as if drunk.

Graham points out, however, that people to not behave that way in real life. They don't try to cry -- they try to avoid crying. The drunk doesn't just stumble and slur -- the drink tries not to stumble and slur.

It is this struggle to maintain composure that we find so very compelling. This is the very essence of great drama, of great I pathos. To merely succumb to tragic events tells us nothing new about the fragile fabric of life. But to witness folks in denial and shock, masking the horrific reality, this can be compelling. And to experience someone who rages against the assault, who defies the destroyer, who fights the good fight to hold it all together when the world has fallen down upon their head—that's the stuff great novels, movies and plays are written about.

It's heroism that man aspires to, not victimization. No one wants to pay nine bucks to sit in a darkened theater and watch a bunch of victims succumbing to their pain and hardship. We will pay it gladly and encourage our friends to come, however, if you show us that heroic resistance to calamity, the battle of the brave to overcome their desperation—and if you give us an heroic struggle against all odds, with twists, turns, close-calls, several good laugh and a moving love story.. .well, not only will you reap a huge payday. but your mantle will likely sport Oscar gold.

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Likewise, a highly emotional scene can be like a pot of boiling soup on the stove. We stir it up, cover it, let it boil, the lid jangling and spitting hot water. But if the soup isn't boiling over, why lift the lid? In your scene don't create the blowing off of the pot lid, rather, create the heat, which in turn creates the boiling over of the soup that blows off the lid—then the way it manifests itself in the scene will be free and natural and real. Nothing will be forced, fake, or phony Your emotional responses to the events you've created in the scene will find their own colors of expression and will be perfectly valid and intriguing and engaging and interesting to watch, no matter what you do—because it will have arisen from your own personal reality, your own personal truth.

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He tells the story about when he and another actress had a scene together where they argue. The practiced it in a more subtle way -- not with other the top screaming, but with the goal of trying not to explode. As they practiced their lines, and assistant director approached. He mistook it for a real fight and awkwardly backed away.

But that A.D.'s misconception told us we were right on the mark in our rehearsal. It's because we weren't acting' a scene about two people arguing—we were arguing, really arguing, and using the screenwriter's words to do it.

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While being professional and working hard is important, it's also important to take chances. Actors are in an interesting position in that it is difficult and expensive to fire them.

At the same time, don't allow yourself to become rigid with paranoia about making the wrong suggestion, or doing something silly or inappropriate. And absolutely do not worry about getting fired. (This is Actor's Paranoia and nothing more.) I believe I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: It's a huge expense for the producers to hire an actor, put them in wardrobe, make-up, pay them for the day—only then to fire them and recast the part, reschedule the shooting, switch to a cover set while they recast, etc. Believe me, no one wants to do it, so you really shouldn't worry much about that remote possibility.

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While it may be easier to be fired in a corporate setting, it's still not an easy undertaking. In the working world, bosses don't want to fire people. They want success. They want employees to do great work. Firing people is not something most people enjoy. From a practical perspective, bureaucracies make it difficult, and expensive. They want people to do well, to bring forward alternative suggestions (in the right context), to take an interest in what they are doing, to approach it with passion, and to aspire to success.

Eventually, an acting career will stall and it's time to take a different approach. It's been said that, "If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got." When what you are doing isn't getting results, it's time to change.

If you work hard and are blessed with a career in acting, you may find at some point that your career appears to be stalled out. Stagnant. Nothing going on. This is the nature of the beast, and these doldrums happen periodically. The key is to keep the faith. as they say, and hang in there. Keep working at working. Keep increasing your employability. You may have not set foot inside an acting workshop or graced the stage of a small theater for some years—take this opportunity to step outside your comfort level and Stretch yourself Humility is a cleansing experience. Get out and read for small theater parts. Take that workshop. The worst that can happen is you'll have a lot of fun. But there's also the possibility that the experience will return to you a sense of forward momentum to you career. This perception, however artificially contrived, is precious life blood to an actor.

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There are great stories in this book. And Graham writes well. His sentences and paragraphs are a joy to read. But the organizations behind them needs work. He's got plenty of raw material here; there's a great book (or two) in here. It just needs more structure, organizations, and a stronger editor's pen.

He started out writing a book about the basic mechanics a new actor needs to know. Unfortunately, Graham seems to have lost track of that goal in large portions of the book.

"Acting and Other Flying Lessons" is a good book that could have been a great book. As it is, it's worth reading whether you are an aspiring actor or just someone interested in the field.

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