“with professional actors they have an imaginary in between you and them. In other words they have some model in their minds about how to act, or how someone did it before, or some techniques, visual or physical, they can use....it's as if you are writing a book and you are two” - Albert Serra
Serra is a filmmaker who primarily works with non-actors. He says he doesn't like professional actors, and the above quote gives us a clue as to why. What Serra is really doing here, is criticising actors in general for a lack of creativity, or more precisely, a lack of in-the-moment creativity: actors work-out in advance exactly how they are going to do the scene, down to each gesture, each facial movement, each inflection, and simply implement this preparation regardless of what is actually happening in the scene as it unfolds (and regardless of what the other actors in the scene are doing). This approach makes it that much harder for the director to work with the actor, because the actor has already set their performance in stone. The model of acting Serra talks about, is the model of the employee-actor, whose goal is simply to rubber stamp a performance of complacent, base professionalism, and where every effort is made to explain the character rather than create organically, because the greatest terror is that anything the actor does may be even slightly misunderstood, every I dotted and every T crossed to absolute death, and any semblance of art is eliminated mercilessly. Of course, all this leads to the bland, meaningless, presentation-without-mistakes type of performance which so dominates contemporary acting, and which so irks filmmakers like Serra.
There is the non-actor and there is the employee-actor, but there is also a third kind of actor: the artist-actor. This actor arrives at the scene with nothing, and creates something out of that nothing. For sure there is preparation – memorising lines, understanding what is happening in the scene, practice – but artist-actors don't merely re-produce this preparation and call it “performance”, they use preparation as a tool for liberating their creativity, the preparation is a means and not an end. The artist-actor responds to what is actually happening in the scene, and responds regardless of their preparation. They come to the work ready to discover. And the work that is produced with this approach is intense, various, intriguing, and true. Also, by creating in-the-moment, we are closer to the actors source personality, as oppose to the layers and layers of guff piled on in the name of technique, and being close to the source leads to a more vivid performance. Artist-actors don't bring things to the scene, they simply try to understand what the scene is, and fit themselves into it. The employee-actor almost ignores the scene entirely, and sees the whole project as an excuse to showcase themselves (“my character wouldn't do that”), and in a sense, this is what Serra is referring to when he says; “it's as if you are writing a book and you are two”: the actor is, without invite, bringing things in from outside the original conception of the project, which effectively creates a rival to the original conception, trying to turn it into something else, hence two authors. The artist-actor is flexible enough, sensitive enough, and good enough, to respond to whichever way the director may want to work the scene. The artist-actor does not want to co-author but serve the form. For actor-artists, aesthetic truth is the goal, and organic creation is the way to attain it. These artist-actors struggle enormously in a world where little more is expected of the actor than having the right colour hair.
The mistake Serra makes (and others do too) is to speak of actors in general – he is effectively saying all actors are the same, and take the same approach. Clearly this is not true. It is a shame that a filmmaker of Serra's calibre sees it this way. More broadly speaking though, it is utterly crucial that we recognise and endorse artist-actors, otherwise they will disappear in that gap between employee-actors and non-actors, and the art of acting will disappear with them.