I have heard these two sentiments uttered on many occasions in classrooms and workshops and videos. I am not here to repeat these sentiments because I don’t believe they are particularly helpful pieces of advice for any actor.
Mainly the reason why it’s said so often, as far as I can tell, is that on the surface it looks like that is what great actors are doing — taking risks and making interesting choices. It’s a superficial observation at best. These actors I can all but guarantee you did not do the things they did for the sole purpose of being risky or interesting. If they had it would likely have come off as superficial. This is why this token piece of instruction to actors is so poisonous. Let’s tackle why that is.
What is risky? What is interesting? How will you know that you are being that? How will you know that others will know that you are being that? Is what you find interesting what someone else will find interesting? Is your risky the same as a casting director’s risky?
The first massive elephant in the room with this nonsense of being interesting and taking risks is the fact that it’s completely unknowable. You will never know if what you are doing is either of these qualities, which is reason enough that we should question this commonly thrown around jargon.
The next thing is what happens when the actor tries to be interesting and risky because it brings up the questions inferred above, “what would be risky?”, “what would be interesting?”. A contrived choice is the most likely outcome since the typical reaction is to think up something removed from the context of the scene — what is being done is for its own sake. In addition, if you have to “think” it up, it has to come from something that you have seen or experienced in the past which means it has to be contrived on some level because it isn’t responding to what actually is.
For me, there is a fundamental issue in the actor’s approach and training which has created the presence of this token advice. Much of which has to do with trying to get it “right”. Which is a topic for another time. To make it short, I see so many actors who are so concerned with getting it right because to a large degree they have been indoctrinated into the view and approach that a “right” actually exists through the various methods and techniques that have been reinforced. The actor closes off and is incapable of attention and taking spontaneous action (which are the “risky” and “interesting” things great actors do).
So if you want to take risks, act on those impulses that rise up. Don’t ignore them. Those hunches, those intuitions about your character that move you, that excite you, that give you chills… When you allow yourself to act on those parts that aren’t necessarily rational, you are daring to show who you really are and that’s the greatest risk of all.
If you want to be interesting pay real attention and really respond to what is going on in the scene. In Meisner training, you discover how fascinating it is when someone is actually absorbed in what is happening. Watching someone perform a seemingly mundane activity with sincere investment becomes a riveting spectacle. Really talk, really listen, really do what you’re doing.
You’ll be so interested in what’s happening you won’t have time to think about whether you’re being interesting, but that’s exactly what you will be.
In this light, it occurs to me that this whole business of being genuinely interesting or risky is more of a byproduct as opposed to premeditated action. Something that may only be measured and weighed after the fact and utterly subjective. It means that as actors we can simply focus on playing the moment at hand with full commitment and allow the rest to take care of itself. I think we can all take great comfort and relief in that possibility and finally put this tired notion to rest.
Evan C. Schulte