Still by Rouzbeh Rashidi
Readers of my blog “Preparation For He”, will already know that I was in Dublin last week, filming He, the new feature film by Rouzbeh Rashidi. It's essentially about a man who has decided, quite rationally, to commit suicide, and so examines the important relationships in his life. Since Rashidi works not with a script, but only a brief outline, much of the film is created through improvisation, in a highly collaborative relationship between actor and filmmaker. I have decided to document the key acting challenges of the shoot and see if we can't learn something from them. Also, I have decided to split this blog into two parts: this week I will look at an improvised monologue scene which we did, and I will post another blog later in the week looking at a duologue scene, and some conclusions too.
Although I knew the outline of the film, when I arrived in Dublin Rashidi gave me some more detail in preparation for the monologue scene: yes my character was intent on ending his life, however, he did not have a specific reason as to why he was doing so, there was no one single trauma which had pushed him into this decision. He was a logical man, unemotional, a handyman who loved to construct objects like chairs and tables, but he was not depressed although downbeat. The idea of the scene is that I am leaving messages for my estranged wife and my parents on a voice recording machine, which I would then send to them. Again, there was not to be one overarching problem with them, more a general bitterness and disapointment, which of course was to be explored during the improvisation. As always, Rashidi sets the general boundary of the scene but everything within that boundary belongs to the actor, and there is just enough detail to spark the imagination and no more – it's a way of working which opens up rich creative possibilities for the actor by allowing him to take responsibility for his work (against the modern trend of infantilising the actor), although enormous creative will is required if those possibilities are to be explored fully. And my imagination was sparked immediately: I could see the scene in my mind's eye, I could see my face, and I could hear myself speaking slowly, and with a strange cracked voice, and I thought; “wouldn't it be great if I could have that crack in my voice for the actual scene”, but quickly dismissed the idea, as there wasn't time for me to work on it. Anyway, based on the information I had been given, I needed to give myself a concrete action, something to hang my hat on for the scene, and get me moving.
Rashidi wanted me to speak about a wife and parents, but how could I do so truthfully when, at this point, my wife and parents were merely images and impressions in my imagination, and what's more, had only been there for a few moments? I decided that the improvisation itself would be a literal exploration of those images and impressions, ie – I would actually observe the images I saw in my imagination and respond to them during the scene. I was unsure what the outcome of this approach would be, an approach which, to a certain extent, was experimental for me: typically my method would be to take the fiction I was being asked to participate in (e.g. – a playscript) and convert that fiction into physically doable actions that were in line with the author's intentions as I discerned them*. However, in the He improvisation, my action actually creates the fiction, the end product derives directly from my imagination, without external mediation – and so experimental because I don't know what the outcome will be.
I had been determined on this improvisation to be more patient than I had been in the past, where I might have felt that I should speak or do something purely for the sake of doing so, as oppose to waiting until I unearth something or have something to say or do. So, I expect to wait in silence for quite a time (as did Rashidi), like a seance. However, when the scene began, it began quickly, I hadn't had to wait and I hadn't had to force anything: an image formed in my mind of a kitchen, or more prescisely, the corner of a fitted kitchen, where I could see some cupboards and the tiled floor – it was a kitchen belonging to the family of a childhood friend of mine, why it came into my mind at that moment I do not know, but there it was. Now, on the floor-tiles in the corner of this fitted kitchen there were swipe marks, because the mother of my friend would move from the work surface of this kitchen to the sink by stepping across with her right foot, then dragging her left foot in a swiping action, and she had done this so many times that it had marked the floor. Anyway, I started the improvisation by combining this image of the kitchen with the notes Rashidi had given me: in my message to my ex-wife I began to complain that she was complacent in the way she moved from the work surface in our kitchen to the sink, and that it was this complacency which had made me start to hate her.....and the scene rolled on from there. My choice of action had worked straightaway (I'll most certainly be using it again), I was active and energized, full of intent and everything I said was grounded in truth. I had also decided to be more disciplined during the improvisation, stronger with myself, cutting away the waffle and censoring myself more rigorously than in the past, overall I wanted greater self-control, selecting precisely what I wanted to say. This approach suited Rashidi's desire for the scene to have a slow rhythmn, almost an emotional monotone, and this created wonderful long silences. The improvisation continued in 10 minute blocks with Rashidi asking me to focus on different aspects of my relationship with my wife in the first scene, and my parents in the second. There was no need to re-shoot scenes as we thought there might be, the improvisation was coherent, and it was a question of pursuing the same line of enquiry through to it's natural conclusion, and, miraculously, the crack in my voice which I had heard in my imagination, was present in my speech without any conscious application on my part – this is the weird voodoo aspect of acting I love so much – we all of us pretend we understand what acting is, but none of us really does. It is a very mysterious business.