This Wisdom Wednesday, multi-talented writer/director/star of Trust Me, Clark Gregg, shares the things he’s learned as one of the industry’s most versatile actors.
Boston native Clark Gregg may be familiar to most as S.H.I.E.L.D. super-agent, Phil Coulson, in the hit Marvel television show and film series that includes Iron Man, Thor, and The Avengers. However the actor cut his teeth appearing in features like The Usual Suspects, Magnolia, (500) Days of Summer, and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.
His directorial debut, Choke (2008), based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, had a sex-obsessed Sam Rockwell choking and conning his way to the bank in an effort to pay off his mother’s medical bills. This month, Gregg reunites with Rockwell for his second written and directed feature, Trust Me. Here, Gregg plays a desperate child actor agent, opposite crosstown rival, Aldo (Rockwell), who discovers a rising young talent that might be the ticket to his Hollywood dreams.
Whether acting as an agent of superheroes or child actors or working with actors behind the camera, Gregg’s insight is simply marvelous.
1. Be on time. When you show up on time, you send a message of respect to your co-workers and to the Acting Gods who recognize your baller attitude and will, when you least expect it, reward you for it.
2. Learn your lines. Not “sorta-kinda.” I’m talking in-your-sleep, automatic, frosty cold. If you are trying to remember what comes next, you cannot be alive to anything that might be happening in the scene. This diminishes your performance and leaves the other actors with the unenviable task of trying to interact with your checked-out blank stare. You’d be amazed how many talented actors deny themselves their best work by not facing down the demons and learning their words cold. Oh, and learn them the night before. They go in deeper while you sleep. #truefact
3. Learn your lines by rote. I was lucky enough to find my way into an acting class at NYU, taught by David Mamet and William H. Macy. Everything I know and most of what I say here can be traced back to what I learned from those two brilliant, generous men. One of the most valuable lessons they taught was to learn the lines “by rote,” which means you recite them with no inflection, like a robot. That way, when you act the scene, you will speak the line spontaneously in whatever manner serves your intention based on what is happening in that moment. This will always be different and more interesting than the way you said them in the imaginary version of the scene you were practicing alone in your room/car/subway because the audience will see something actually happening right then and there.
4. Find a way to get your attention off yourself. There are a very few things that feel better than the first time you get so lost in what you’re doing that you forget you’re acting. How does one accomplish that? There are many ways, but only one works consistently for me and that’s to gently place my focus on the other actor (or actors) in the scene. I generally find my scene partners’ behavior fascinating, partly because it delivers me from the hell of self-consciousness, but also because it provides a moment-to-moment guide to accomplishing whatever objective I might be playing in the scene. When I place my attention on that, the acting usually takes care of itself. As a smart actor once said to me, “The performance you dream of giving is never any further away than the face of whoever you’re acting with.”
5. Keep your work playful and alive. If you’re not having fun (even dramatic, tortured fun) playing the scene, then the audience probably won’t have much fun watching it.
6. Keep it simple. The work I love most always seems to come from an actor who’s had the courage to strip away everything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Then it stops looking like acting and starts to look like life. This is way harder than it sounds. I’ve managed it only rarely and usually on the way home when I was acting the scene in my car.
7. It’s all in. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the equivalent of: “I am so lost. How can I possibly play Hamlet when I feel so unsure of all of my choices?” Don’t fight it. Be grateful. That is the scene or the story coming to life in you. Whatever may be happening “on the day,” in your guts, with the weather, etc., when something falls and breaks on stage, don’t think. Just use it and be thankful for the input, wherever the hell it’s coming from.
8. Don’t be afraid to fail. Take chances. Fall down. Then laugh at yourself and get up. The worst thing you can be is careful, or worse, appropriate. The moments that feel like face-plants always somehow lead to the great stuff. Life is short. Tell the story the way you’d like to see it cause later you’ll wish you had.
9. Don’t wait for a break. Make one. Write your own play, or film, or rock opera. Then stage it or shoot it on whatever you have. Even if it sucks, it will make you somehow better, deeper or stronger. Then make another. Sooner or later one will be good.
10. Be gentle with yourself. The life of an actor can be a long road with crazy highs and serious beat downs. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul. That means accepting those ups and downs with a degree of stoicism and ignoring the people who suggest you’ll never “make it.” My excellent Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach, Renato Magno, always says, “Little by little, Clah-ky.” Your job is to keep showing up day in and day out and when you do that, before you know it, a little becomes a lot. So just keep taking the next small step that will make you a little better. They need someone exactly like you; they just don’t know it yet.
Trust Me is in theaters now and available by Starz Digital Media on demand and via iTunes.
Photo credits: Bob D’Amico (2013) and Starz Digital Media.
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