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Mindful : August 2015
he first day I came to work with Claire Danes on the set of season four of Homeland, it was immediately clear to me that all of Danes’ accolades and awards were well deserved. Her persona is lucid, grounded, and empowered at the highest level. And for the first time in a long time I had the feeling that I needed to raise my usual game plan to another level. Frankly, she kind of scared me. So strong was the power of her focus that I had a real moment of gut check that felt something like, “Hey, are we ready? Because she sure as hell is.” After the initial shock I saw this for what it really was: an excellent opportunity to approach my work mindfully. Our characters were initially hostile and suspicious of each other. On set, I was the new- comer on her turf, but ironically in the show she was the newcomer coming on to my turf. The intensity of our interaction allowed me to capitalize on my initial fear and substitute it for the conflict that needed to arise between us. As our characters became more familiar with each other they grudgingly formed an alliance that served the needs of the story and gave Claire and me a chance to have some fun together. Believe me when I tell you that giving yourself over to Claire Danes in a scene is as close to a transcen- dent experience as an actor can have. Like a wire walker performing without a net, she risks every- thing, and any sav vy actor can essentially follow her lead to a wonderful outcome. I learned as much about mindfulness from her as I have from any teacher, though she and I never discussed mindfulness at all. We didn’t have to. She was supremely mindful in her approach and that mindfulness was pervasive. What Good Acting Requires The characteristics of good acting vary among actors and with the demands of their characters. Yet some characteristics, while not universal, are usually evident in what we refer to as “good work.” Clarity is high on the list. Poise, insight, humor, passion, and dignity are most definitely in the mix. And a sometimes underrated skill is also necessary: the ability to listen really well. That’s because a good deal of what actors do is react to other actors or situations. When we practice listening with genuine depth and con- viction we find truly marvelous moments. And audiences are drawn in by the silent awareness that listening creates. In a sense, anyone who can read well can imagine how a scene should be played. Good writing sparks the imagination, and if you’re a good reader you can imagine the characters, setting, and plot of a good script. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had as an actor has happened when I’ve been reading a script for the first time. It all plays out like a movie I’ve directed where I also starred in all the parts. Who wouldn’t enjoy their version of that? But bringing scenes to life is an entirely different matter. Assuming you have the talent—and frankly that’s a chimerical thing that can’t be learned but, if possessed, can be clarified—one way to approach acting is to be organized. By “organized” I mean that every nanosecond has to be connected to a larger arc of the character’s progression through the story, and it must appear spontaneously, with com- pelling verisimilitude, or the audience won’t be interested in what you’re offering. While working with Robert Duval in The Great Santini, I had some very demanding emo- tional scenes to fulfill. The central conflict of the film is an exploration of a warrior without a war and the family he takes that out on. I played the role of the teenage son, Ben, who tries to navigate the complicated, sometimes humiliat- ing, relationship with his father while attending a new school in a new town. You can’t just bring tears or passion to this type of work. You have to root it firmly in the arc of the story and con- T I learned as much about mindfulness from Claire Danes as I have from any teacher, though we didn’t discuss mindfulness at all. 62 mindful August 2015 performance