Warner Loughlin’s intellect and courageous spirit shine through the instructive nature of her book, resulting in a work that is informative and pleasurable to read. In An Acting Revolution – the Warner Loughlin Technique, she challenges actors to understand their characters so intimately that they transmute into them during their performances. When loyal to her system, the actor no longer acts as a character but becomes him or her. Ms. Loughlin’s thoughtful approach is bound to benefit aspiring actors and established pros alike. It is with great delight that we welcome her to BCB today.
Amy M. Hawes: You describe “third-eyeing” as an actor’s real-time evaluation of their character portrayal and claim that this process takes the joy and the believability out of a performance for the actor and also their audience. Why does this happen, and how does your technique eliminate “third-eyeing”?
Warner Loughlin: Third-eyeing happens when you are literally watching yourself execute predetermined beats. And really it happens because like all people, actors want to do well. Without a clear process into the psychological depth of a character, the actor will plan out what they think an action is supposed to look like. For example, if the script says that the character is being seductive in a particular moment, sometimes the tendency is to ‘play at’ sexy. That might manifest as a seductive walk; flip of the hair; half-moon eyes, etc. This creates a robotic, stilted kind of shallowness to the performance.
It’s far more fun to investigate the life of the character in such depth that you get lost in the moment. With my technique, an actor is able to actually feel what the character is feeling so there is no need to ‘play at’ something. It’s much more organic and far more believable.
AH: I can always tell when an actor is acting as a character versus being a character. In my experience, actors who are able to become a character are rare. Do you believe your technique could transform the performance world?
WL: That would be lovely! True transformation into another human being is impossible, right? But it is possible to so fully embrace the life of a character that you automatically think the thoughts of the character, have the viewpoints and outlook of the character rather than your own personal thoughts. We accomplish this through Emotion with Detail. It’s part of the technique that allows you to fully feel the emotionally pertinent events throughout the life of the character, beginning around age four, five or six. So ultimately your reactions are more ‘knee-jerk.’ You walk as the character walks, talk as he or she talks, think, react and feel as the character because you’ve allowed yourself to experience so much of the character’s life.
AH: In a related question – A friend and I improvised a quick scene between a wealthy couple who interact quite formally. At one point, it seemed like he was thinking something but didn’t want it to show on his face. When I asked him about it later he said that he knew Muffy’s answer about how many gin and tonics she’d had was probably inaccurate but Percy loved her and didn’t want to call her out on it. He was Percy and thinking as Percy during that conversation. Should that kind of integration between thoughts, words, and action be an actor’s goal? Can it be?
WL: I adore improv! What fun! And yes, the smooth integration of thoughts, words, and actions is exactly what you want. It’s a beautiful thing! And something that is very achievable.
AH: Would you quickly explain the traditional approach of substitution acting, and why it can be both ineffective and damaging?
WL: The very definition of ‘substitution’ is using one thing in place of another. So the actor using substitution replaces the character’s emotion at hand with a personal emotion. This might occasionally be fine for stage work, although it can also be unreliable. If the event in your own life was particularly traumatic, your innate desire for preservation can stop you from bringing up the emotion in the moment. You just don’t want to feel that emotion all over again. But let’s suppose you do bring up that emotion from your past. Two things happen. When you use that particular moment in your life over and over again you can become desensitized to it. And then you’re panicked in the moment to come up with another substitution that will work. At this point, you’re now thinking about your inability to get to the emotion in the moment rather than simply experiencing the emotion.
Deciding to use a particular moment in your past at specific moments in the scene can also create anticipation (you know the moment is coming up), and resistance (your mind doesn’t want to revisit that past tragedy.) On set, where you have to repeat a scene, take after take, your substitution runs the risk of growing tired, old, and ineffective. I’ve seen actors using substitution be capable of only one take. Not a good place to be.
And if it’s a particularly tragic event from your past, and you let yourself go to that painful place, it’s likely that you won’t just feel the pain of it for that day alone, you’ll continue to suffer long after. The past wound you learned to heal and move on from, is now a fresh wound that you must heal from again. It’s unhealthy and unnecessary. And chances are, you bring that darkness, sorrow, and angst into your personal life as well.
AH: As part of your process, an actor must make choices about why a character acts as they do. Why do the specific choices matter less than an actor’s commitment to them? How can commitment and belief lead to authenticity that is tangible to an audience?
WL: Each actor will look at a character and make different choices concerning that character’s behavior – because just like every character is somewhat unique, of course, every actor is unique and will look at a character through their unique lens. In terms of commitment and belief, if the actor doesn’t believe it, then neither will the audience.
AH: When an actor works with a script, how much information actually comes from the screenwriter’s dialogue and description, and how much is created afterward?
WL: That completely depends on the screenwriter and the screenplay. Some scripts are very detailed in terms of who the character is and what the character’s past was like. Others may elude to the character’s past, but don’t go into details of any kind. More than often, the actor will need to create much of the backstory of the character. And it’s fun!
AH: Having no formal acting training, I was surprised that actors are encouraged to write extensive backstories for their characters. To me, this seems like forcing it rather than letting the backstory arise naturally. What part of your technique involves applied effort, and what part requires intuition?
WL: I’m not a big one for writing the backstory of a character. I much prefer to ‘live’ it as much as possible through Emotion with Detail. After a careful psychological analysis of the character, this technique allows the imagination to live out the emotionally pertinent events of the character’s life. When you write the backstory out, there is a tendency to edit as you go – to want to get it ‘right.’ The whole point of the backstory is to be able to feel what the character went through to get to this particular point in life. Just inventing it and writing it down, may inform you, but that will fall short of helping you feel it. And feeling it is the whole point.
AH: What was the primary motivation in creating your technique? How did you arrive at the specifics of your step-by-step approach?
WL: For years I used substitution in my work. But there were times that I could not pull the emotion up when I needed it. And there were times that I did get to the emotion, and suffered much pain for extended amounts of time long after the job had ended. In using that substitution I was asking the pain to be present again. There came a point in which I knew I had to quit acting if I wanted to be a healthy human being. It was a dark time. But the thought of not acting was soul crushing. There must be a better way I thought. Imagination based techniques out there at the time were somewhat better. But I found they didn’t go as deeply into the character as I wanted. I truly wanted to feel as the character feels; think as the character thinks. People are fascinating to me and there is nothing more rewarding than stepping into a character’s life and experiencing their unique emotions. I had a lot of psychology in my background. And I started thinking, that a character really is just another human being. I began to study how we store emotions in the brain, and why; why we recall certain events and not others. Truly this technique simply replicates how a human being forms emotions, thoughts, and behaves accordingly – all based on how they grew up and under what specific circumstances. Arriving at the specific steps really occurred as I began teaching it – trying to explain to someone else the process that had helped me.
AH: If you could give just one tip to an actor when they go to their next audition, what would it be?
WL: Be super prepared. And, fearless. Always go in to give something, and never to get something. Sorry, that was three 🙂
Warner Loughlin studied Contemporary Literature and Shakespeare at Oxford University and received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She now lives in Los Angeles, CA with her family. Visit her at www.warnerloughlin.com.