I often get asked by actors, “What is my homework?”
Obviously, if you’re doing a film that takes place in 1917 and is based on a true story of what happened during the Communist Russian Revolution, and you’re playing a famous Bolshevik revolutionary ”“ then duh! of course you’re going to do your homework.
But is that really homework? Isn’t that just common sense? Isn’t that curiosity? Isn’t that the desire to play? And learn and grow? Isn’t that simply you wanting to know as much as you can about something you need to know before you jump in and portray someone who really existed? Isn’t that getting the facts straight instead of living in a world of “alternative facts”?
That’s research. That’s commitment. That’s you showing that you care.
But “homework” that actors often believe they should be doing often has very little to do with what we think it does. Actors often make the mistake of doing homework to prepare themselves for that which can’t be prepared. Like love, tragedy, loss, heartache, joy, desire, surprise, rage, ecstasy and anguish. Like life, these are actual moments that are evoked out of us and we allow ourselves to experience in the moment in our work.
In other words, the homework you need to be doing has to do with living your life.
I was recently teaching at our studio in London and had an experience on the tube, of all places, that’s an example of the kind of homework an actor should be focusing on. That is, discovering in your own life where you hold yourself back. Where you have judgments or shame. Where you edit or shut down. Where you become self-conscious or scared. That’s homework. I mean, it’s not “homework” ”“ it’s conscious awareness about how you don’t allow yourself to be fully human. And it has ramifications for you in your work.
I was cruised on the tube. Hard. Like circa 1990’s hard. Like pre-social-media-dating-apps hard. The way people used to give each other “the look” before we all became chicken-shit and hid behind our phones to make a non-connected “connection”.
Anyway, this guy looked at me . . . like whoa! “You lookin’ at me?” Like I was thinking, “Take a picture it might last longer!” But he was hot so I stared back. And then I started feeling all weird. Embarrassed and self-judgy. Awkward and shameful. Like there was something wrong having an electric moment with someone. Like sexual connection between two people was something to hide from and be critical of.
So I became aware of all this stuff going on inside my head and how it made me feel and decided to just go with it. So I stared at him and decided I’d approach at the next stop. Which I did. Right when the train lurched and threw me off balance and practically in the lap of another commuter. Awkward. So much for keeping it “cool”.
I stared. He stared. The doors opened and I stepped out. And that was the end. I didn’t want to get his number. I wasn’t looking for any end-result. I just wanted to explore this as a “homework” exercise as to how vulnerable I might allow myself to be in a situation that I hadn’t experienced in a long time.
If you feel like you need homework in your “acting” start doing it in life. That’s where all the real homework occurs anyway. Being brave. Feeling feelings you normally don’t allow yourself to feel. Telling the truth. Communicating with someone what you need to say even if what you need to say might be difficult to express. Having an opinion. Moving out of your comfort zone. Trying something you normally wouldn’t do. Saying yes to the moment.
It’s a way of life. Acting isn’t “acting”. It has to be a philosophy of how to be. It’s the Art of Living that then shows up in your work. And you’ll begin to realize that the things that hold you up in your work are the very things that you’re working on in your life. All process. And so it all goes. A wonderful, bizarre journey of full-circle moments.
You might call epiphanies and awareness; evolution and expansion “homework”. I just call that being on the journey of you. And it’s more important than any acting homework you will ever be assigned.