Do Nothing: Zen and the art of film-acting

Do nothing. An oxymoron. How does one do nothing? Doing implies an action right? Doing nothing is a very Zen concept. And critical to the art of film acting.

I was doing a movie once and we were shooting a close-up where I watch the man I am in love with walk away…forever. Right after the shot the director came up to me and said “you are a real film actress” “What do you mean?” I replied. He said “It didn’t look like you were doing anything when I looked at you, but when I looked through the lens I saw everything…” It was one of the nicest compliments I have ever received.

For the film actor, it’s so important to be able to do nothing—Jack Lemmon used to tell a story about being directed by George Cukor. Cukor kept telling him to “do less”, finally Lemmon said “If I do any less, I won’t be doing anything at all!” Cukor replied “That’s what I want!”

Now, having said that, you don’t just get in the front the camera blank–you have bathed yourself in the given circumstances of the script—the who-am-I, the super-objective etc. of the character. You have done this work so specifically that now you get to trust it. That’s what’s meant by the phrase: “Throw it away.” But you have to earn the right to throw it away; in order to throw it away you have had to do a lot of work! And then you don’t show your work—you believe it. I am reminded of James Cagney’s famous comment: “Plant your feet, look the other guy in the eye, and tell the truth.”

The camera likes to watch you live. And it knows when you are lying. It likes to watch you live truthfully–moment-to-moment. In life, we don’t know where any particular moment is going—we don’t have the script—we don’t know the end of the story. In life, when we try to achieve something, be it a soccer-player attempting a goal, or a young man asking his beloved to marry him, we can’t say with any real certainty how things are gong to turn out. So if an actor wants to be life-like, he/she must have a willingness to step into the I-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen of the moment. Furthermore, the actor must learn to love this feeling. If they are feeling an intense sense of I-don’t- know-what’s-going-to-happen when they go in front of a camera (or when they walk on a stage, or go into an audition, etc.) it is an indication that they are doing their work right! That is the Zen and the art of the acting process. You show up as a craftsmen—having done all your homework—and then you step off a cliff not knowing whether your clothing will snag on a tree leaving you dangling safely, you’ll have your fall broken by a soft grassy ledge, or you’ll land with a thud on the hard ground below. And the truth is, even when we have read the script we don’t really know what’s-going-to-happen when we are playing a role. Maybe a plane will fly overhead during our close-up. Maybe an earthquake will hit. Maybe our tears will be shed in a different place than they did when we were working on the role at home. A good craftsman uses all the actual uncertainly of life and does a kind of alchemy with it so that it becomes the uncertainty the character feels as he/she lives through the given circumstances of the script. Make friends with this feeling of uncertainty. It is life-like. And the camera will love you for it.

Think of the camera as a loving parent—an adoring witness who is fascinated by everything you do. A parent watches their child building his first sandcastle on the beach. The child works diligently, making towers and detailed parapets, begins to carve a deep moat around the base. Then a wave comes, and washes the castle away. The child looks to the parent questioningly. Maybe the child cries. The parent has an impulse to save the child from the pain—but understands that the child is learning a life lesson–to see the sandcastle washed away is part of the truth of life. The parent helps the child build another one.

Build your sandcastles. Keep building them. Play your actions, not the result of your actions. Do nothing. Just build your sandcastles. And let us watch you. We love to watch you.

All rights reserved, Jamie Rose, 2007,2008.