The “Hintergedanken” of acting


— Hintergedanken, a German word, which means “thought in the very far back of your mind.”

My hintergedanken these days is the word transformation, what does it mean to transform? Can it be done? Is experiencing the “I AM” of another character a very useful illusion, Or is it a red herring?

As always in Art, you will find different — strong — opinions on the subject, all of which are acceptable in my book. Hey, as they say, in war and Art…or is it love? Well it should be Art trust me !

In all honesty in this article, I will not try to answer these questions; it is impossible to do so in let’s say a 2000 words, this subject is a book all on its own.

But I promise to do so in the chapters to come, hence “PART 1.”

In part 1, I will try to open up the discussion (with myself), perhaps pose more questions(to myself), and finally, rant, swivel, turn, and (most likely) choke under the weight of my own thoughts. Hey, the subject begs me to!

But let’s start with one of my two favorite teachers, Michael Chekhov.

In his 1953 talk to American actors, Chekhov begins his speech by addressing “transformation.” In his speech, he states that every truly talented actor or actress has inside of him/her inherently or to use a better word “naturally,” that deep desire for transformation. Of course, Chekhov here is not referring to noses, costumes, and wigs but to our desire as actors to transform to something different — from within.

He then goes on talking about a specific cast of actors known as “personality actors.” What did he mean by the term?

Well, it is nearly self-explanatory. Personality actors tend to play themselves, they shape every character to match the predilections of their personality and their essence. These actors — mind you many times very successful — don’t really “transform” according to the character given to them by the writer but instead bring the character to match themselves.

However, when we have a play in our hands, we must consider what the writer is giving to us. Therefore lets agree on stage you are going to be reduced to 95% of yourself; after all, there is this valuable 5% of shift that has to happen due to the given circumstances set by the author. You know, the all too familiar Bio, place, date — the who, when, where, what, how, and why.

Chekhov then goes on and clarifies that admittedly there are “types” of people, “archetypal types” if you prefer, and each of us might resemble a particular type -for example, the “beautiful man” or “woman”, “zen”, “femme fatal”, etc.- but the temperament of the “type” you are playing, cannot be the same in every play, or at least it ought not to.

He then tells us that personality acting is like a painter painting the same self-portrait every time; it tends to be repetitive, boring, and in my mind, a form of single-minded exhibitionism.

So transformation is indeed necessary. But what are the already known and well-paved roads of transformation? Well, there is an inner transformation :

The inside-out school (psychology, analysis, research, motivations, intentions, inner actions, etc.)

So there must also be an outer transformation: the “outside-in” school.

But I suspect you already knew the terms.

But perhaps by mentioning the former, you thought, “American actors/method acting etc.” And by mentioning the latter, numerous English actors popped into your head.

They certainly do in mine — for example, Lawrence Olivier, the notorious nose and wig wearer. Some people regard the latter type of transformation superficial. They declare that Psychological means trumps all.

But to quote Meisner : “There is no right or wrong, only true or not true.”

I believe that both ways are valid as long as they feel true to you, and as long as they enable you to feel and to be true on stage.

In my book transformation is a subjective illusionary inner state that can be invoked either by an inner process or by outer means. And as we will see later on, it is a very much necessary state — processes aside.

So back to Olivier, he used outer means to reach this inner state, how about Marlon Brando? Did he only use inner means to transform, or did he also use outer means to elicit this elusive inner state?

David Thomson, in his excellent book “why acting matters,” writes :

“It was possible for Olivier skeptics to sigh over his black face, his Ali Baba’s cavern of new voices, and the great collection of noses from which, notoriously, he began many of his roles. Those attributes seem to expose Olivier the pretender, the helpless devotee of makeup and mock-up, the actor who could never resist any challenge to his versatility. In the first great fame of the Method — in the years after Streetcar until about the end of the 1950s — it was possible for Strasbergians to make an Olivier seem not just mercurial or versatile but ungrounded, or uninterested in substance. So it was the alleged realism, the emotional actuality and the integrity, of Brando’s Stanley and then his Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront that became banners for the Actors Studio. But then see what happened with Brando: he was a paraplegic in The Men; he was a biker rebel in The Wild One; he was a Mexican in Viva Zapata!; he was a punch-drunk boxer in On the Waterfront; he was Olivier-like as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar; he was Napoleon in Désirée; he sang and danced as Sky Master-son in Guys and Dolls; he was a comic Okinawan in Teahouse of the August Moon and a blond German officer in The Young Lions — where, truth be told, his accent was not as credible as Olivier’s in Marathon Man. Brando had no paralysis: he does not really seem like a stricken man in The Men; he looks like a hero pretending to be an invalid. He studied paraplegia; he went to stay in a veterans’ hospital; he did all the research he could to understand the experience of war’s victims. He was not French or Okinawan or German or Mexican. In all those roles he used makeup — noses sometimes; he altered his hair and he found a new voice. And he seemed entertained by the idea of taking on ever-wilder challenges, even if sometimes — as in Désirée — you can see and feel his dismay over the poor scripts and note the first signs of his famous inwardness turning towards disillusion and contempt. If there is a vital difference between Brando and Olivier, it is in the fact that Olivier never yielded to that contempt, to its eventual self loathing, or to a fatigue with pretending”

I truly believe that the holistic approach is more valid for the actor’s work. I think that all the great actors knew it, even if it happened to be by instinct. Acting talent needs more elbow room than one acting dogma. And to be blunt it is more fun — period .

Apparently — and disastrously — most people believe that teachers like Meisner, Strasberg, or Chekhov set camp with only one out of the two schools of thought. But they didn’t; They appreciated acting in a holistic way; they just prioritized differently (unfortunately sometimes in disregard of their student’s predilection.)

But why is transformation important?

Do you know the term “creative state.”?

This is what Stanislavsky chased around for the largest part of his life. I am about to do it injustice but for those who don’t know anything about the creative state: Its that feeling you get when everything flows on stage, when you are in the now, then and there, thinking like the character, reacting like the character, under the given circumstances, without any “Resistance,” without thinking.

This creative state — called by scientists the state of “flow,” by athletes “the zone” by jazz players “the pocket” — is something that actors unarguably desire. It’s not a new concept not by far; in ancient China, it was called “Wu-Wei,” the Art of effortless action.
One way to invite this creative state begins with concentration. By concentrating on what is happening in the moment and by responding to what is happening as it is happening. Thus responding to what is happening as if it was real, in other words believing in it — accepting it, taking it on Faith.

“From Absorbing to being Absorbed”

Now Faith is the most challenging quality to train into an actor, but it is vital if we want to live truthfully, as Meisner said, under the imaginary circumstances!

We lure Faith in sometimes by “doing” bit by bit, by performing our inner actions. If you do so, then unavoidably, you start living, even if you are still not necessarily believing! But if the execution of inner actions are the inside out way for “transformation” (remember? thinking and being like the character in the moment and the given circumstances)

Can “outer means” invoke the feeling of “transformation” and help us with the feeling of Wu-Wei? can they help us with our creative state?

I argue they can, because they also help with believing — FAITH!

However this time we allow ourselves to first be Absorbed (by the illusion) so we can then in turn absorb.

therefore :

“From being absorbed to absorbing.”

What I am about to describe, I believe you all have felt. At least at one time or another during your lifetime.

I am talking about a feeling of being someone else for a split second, you can’t exactly pin it down, and just like the phenomenon of deja-vu (the feeling one has lived a present moment before) so there is also a feeling that you are someone else for a split second. Let me clarify what I mean.

Question :

Has it ever happened that you just smiled unexpectedly in a specific way or talked in a particular tone, or your body stance or hands did something peculiar in the moment, that made you freeze and think:

“shit, I just smiled like my best friend!”


“I just talked like my Dad.”

I bet you have, and like the curious and investigate nature all actors possess , you might have fooled around with the feeling to conjure it back.

Maybe a specific look, a smirk, the way you were fixing your hair, etc.

Do you know what else would have changed if you kept this illusion up? Your behavior, your demeanor, the way you thought, and your reaction to any external action!

so is what I am describing an inside out or outside in?

Well, one would argue outside in? Right? its something your body, you voice , or your face did.

But the real question is: did it change you inwardly also?

Let me give you another example, if you wear jeans and a t- shirt for the most part of your life when you happened to slip into a three piece suit for the first time did you feel a diffrence?

Did it change the way you moved ? Felt ? or even spoke ?

Now for argument shake, let us agree that both camps equally try to bring forth this illusion of being.

The I AM.

And PLEASE let us call it an illusion because that’s what it is!

Of course, it is still you (in both camps) its always going to be you, in fact even if you feel for a few minutes you ARE your Dad or your best friend, if I happen to call out your mom she will not necessarily see anything different on you. Even if I shave your head and fake tattoo your face, it’s still going to be you!
But who cares

All I care about is this inner subjective feeling of transformation no matter where it comes from, inside or outside. How YOU Feel And how you BEHAVE! That’s why it is an inner state!

Both means inner or outer are equally powerful as tools for an actor! Always in combination and never to be neglected.

both do come with a warning :

The outside in :

No mimicry!

I am not talking about you “playing” your Dad or indicating to me how your Dad looks or sounds like! I am talking about the sense that you are walking into another man’s or woman’s shoes for a split second BY OUTER MEANS (more about that in part 2)

The inside out :

No over intellectualization

The inner state of “transformation” is to be experienced not conceptualized. Remember “too much analysis ends up in paralysis” Don’t dwell to much on the bits and pieces, or your are going to loose it and start self indulging.

But the question remains, are outer means exactly as valid as inner means ? And Is “transformation” a necessary illusion that helps us with our Faith?

Yes and yes!

Michael Chekhov* knew that ! that’s why he tried to combine both psychological and physiological (psychological gesture, characterizations through an invisible body, etc) in one ! inner and outer at the same time.


But surprise-surprise !!!

So did Meisner, and even though the first year in the Meisner training, seems to be a bit dismissive on working “character,” The second-year work is dedicated to text analysis and indeed to character work. (and through the exercise of “impediments” adding a layer of outer means as well.) Thus transformation!

Phewww, I think I reached my limit for today

(see I told you 2087 words and still, so many questions unanswered )

As always love and respect