This week I watched Down Terrace, a brilliant film a about a crime family who live in a nondescript terraced house in order to masque their ill-gotten gains, and who spend most of the film receiving visitors there in an effort to find out who “grassed” on them for a previous, unspecified crime. It's a highly unusual picture and could be described as a slice-of-life crossed with a film noir.
It's the kind of film where one experiences the joy of recognition: we see ourselves in the characters, we recognize their behaviour and little verbal exchanges, their humour and their resentments are ours too, there's a truth to it. The acting is universally excellent, however I was especially taken by the performance of Robert Hill (playing Bob, the head of the family) and in particular his silent work where we simply see a thought flash across his face. It's subtle, it's animated, it rings absolutely true, it's detailed without descending into a fussy and irritating “naturalism”. His rhythm is superb, as when he is polishing some wine glasses during an argument with his son, and delivers the line “stand the fuck back man, or I'll stick these glasses in your face”, with the precision timing of a punchline. I had never heard of Robert Hill, or seen his face, I wondered if he was one of those exquisite stage actors who had simply refused to do screen work until now. I knew that to get the performances this good they would have had to rehearse rigorously over a period of time, for it is the paradox of acting that only thorough extensive preparation can true spontaneity in performance come. But then I thought about the low-budget nature of the film, and my hunch was that Robert Hill's performance had been produced by the alchemy of the non-actor, and that this was his debut. However, after a little research, I discovered that not only was he a non-actor, but Robin Hill (who plays his son Carl in the movie), is infact Robert Hill's son in real life, and further, the house used in the film, was actually the Hill's family residence. Here's a quote from director Ben Wheatley, taken from the Timeout review:
“You wouldn't be able to get that kind of reality from actors unless you rehearsed the absolute living shit out of them for months. That awkwardness only comes from real relationships.”
I confess that at first I was a little disappointed they hadn't been through the arduous grind* that comes with the application of craft. Robert Hill's performance was the continuation in a long line of non-actors making brilliant debuts. In these instances, the non-actor is cast in the role because there is something special in their persona which matches the character, and the results are often brilliant. However, it is also true that the non-actor is often good only for the one role, and tends to disappear afterward, or if they do continue, they rarely enjoy the glory of their first performance subsequently.
Over the years, the actor is forced to contend with the technical and psychological challenges brought forth by being consistly placed in new situations; there are the myriad directors each with their own method of working (for example, some like to improvise from scratch, while others insist on working from a locked text) , then there are the endless varieties of script, countless auditions, difficult colleagues, wrong turnings, dead ends, and disappointments. The true test is whether the actor can not only survive, but make himself strong enough to flourish and produce work worthy of the audiences' time and money. A one-off great performance will not see you through.
If the actor is to proceed then, he must find a technique which makes sense to him, and which has been proven to stand-up under intense pressure. The actor who does not possess this, will not be able to bare criticism, and will feel very uncomfortable accepting a compliment, because he doesn't know what he's doing. This actor will forever be seeking everyone elses good opinion of his work but not his own, and when a good opinion is not forthcoming, this actor will feel worthless. This actor cannot enjoy his work, and his life is not his own.
Once the actor has defined and practiced a concrete aesthetic, then, and only then, can the actor begin to liberate all that he has to offer, and experience the exhilaration brought about by an act of true creation.
*Vince Lombardi Snr said he never met a good man who didn't love the grind.