“If you want someone to serve the film, you don't want too much bullshit. You want someone who's committed, who's going to show up on time, who's gonna be in your corner. When you need someone, I'm the guy.”
The above is a quote from Mark Ruffalo in a recent interview which piqued my interest, and I was all set to write a panegyric about how Ruffalo was one of the great underrated American actors, before I decided to think a little bit more deeply about what he was saying.
Ruffalo here, is really telling us he is a committed actor, because all the points he makes are simply different examples of what a committed actor does. He has created a list of selling points, good reasons why you should hire him. I confess, however, that I was a little shocked by this, for many of those qualities listed, in my opinion, should be standard practice, not special features. I'm not knocking Ruffalo, I admire the guy, and I'm glad he celebrates these qualities, but I think all actors should be committed actors.
Commitment means the exclusion of all other possibilities, when you make a commitment you cut away all other options, total commitment implies a lack of concern for anything else except reaching your goal.
And the goal of the actor's work is to communicate the play* to the audience, and this communication is what the actor is committing to. And the first expression of this commitment is time-keeping. Not only turning up to work on time, but turning up 15 minutes early. To keep time well requires self-discipline, focus, strength of mind, and a healthy respect for life generally. Nobody ever won an Oscar for timekeeping though, it is as unglamourous as learning lines, but no less important. I learn all of my lines by the first day of rehearsal. I didn't used to, I used to learn them as I went along in rehearsal. But now I memorize them by the first day, and not because I'm a smart-alec or want to be competitive, but because I can function better: I am freer to play the scene in different ways, and play it fully, I am less self-conscious and more adventurous in my choices. Before I can confidently remember my lines, there is a tendency to lean on the script, like crutches. There is no magic recipe for learning them either, it's just a question of knuckling down with a bit of good old fashioned hard work: relentless repetition in other words. I cannot act until I can do the lines habitually, never searching for them, and this allows me to act at full tilt, in the moment. When I first started out, I, laughably, only used to half learn my lines, believing that my searching for the correct line made my performance somehow truer, more “real”. Nonsense, it had the reverse effect, often leading me to anticipate my next line because I was scared I would forget it as I hadn't learned it properly.
If the actor is not committed to serving the play, then what is he doing? Oftentimes, one finds actors in the company who would prefer to play politics, and seek power over their colleagues as oppose to simply doing the work at hand. Typical behaviour of this kind of actor includes: speaking with the director as though they were best mates, treating their colleagues like second class citizens, alternating between wanting people to kiss their ass and hold their hand, and always acting first to serve their vanity. They see the production as little more than a mechanism for expressing how “special” they are. This kind of actor is not interested in the play, much less the audience. And perhaps that is what Ruffalo meant by “bullshit”.
So the committed actor then, understands that the production as a whole is greater than himself, and strives to “serve the film”. The committed actor not only shows up to work early and knows his lines cold, but supports the production and it's director. He prepares properly, and is able to rise above petty politicking or disturbances. He shows respect, loyalty and courtesy towards his colleagues (and patience when the same is not forthcoming). The committed actor never complains, and cherishes the privileged work he does.
Commitment to work is a fundamental tenet if one is to become an artist.
I use the word “play” as a catch all phrase to include: film, television, radio, web, mobile device, and all other performance platforms.
NB – I highly recommend Ruffalo's performance in Kenneth Loneragan's “You Can Count On Me”, Laura Linney is also very good, and a wonderful script allows for some good old fashioned dramatic acting.