Michelle Danner, one of Hollywood’s leading drama teachers, has helped everyone from Penélope Cruz to Chris Rock prepare for important roles. Here she talks about Shakespeare, exercises and why kids at drama school should be ‘the very best tree they can’.
How did you get into it?
I was acting – that was a pretty good prerequisite – and when I then started to direct a lot of actors were asking me to coach them. It felt like a natural transition into teaching acting and I started to do that around 1990.
What’s a typical day for you?
I wake up and do some journaling, then I do a little workout and as I’m the artistic the director of a two theatre complex in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, designed by Frank Gehry, I go there to teach classes. I am also a film director, so I’m currently in post-production for a movie I directed. My hands are very full.
Are most people we see on screen natural born actors or do they usually have to work for it?
A lot of people discover early on that they have a gift for it, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to work for your talent. Stella Adler, a wonderful, iconic teacher that I studied with for several years, said you have to have a talent for your talent, which means that talent is not enough – it’s the willingness to work for it. Going to class gives you an artistic foundation and some tools, and lets you learn the craft, just like if you were going to be a lawyer or an engineer.
How often do major Hollywood actors freshen up their acting skills with a coach?
Well, I can give you a couple of examples. I worked with Chris Rock on a project called Death At A Funeral when he wanted to really make sure he gave a performance that had gravitas – and he did, he had wonderful reviews. When Gerard Butler was preparing for Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes he came to work with me; Shakespeare can be challenging. Actors want to be as prepared as they can be and it’s always great to have another person who can help out.
Do you have a forte?
People would probably say I am good as an acting coach in that I help people to open up emotionally. I help people find their emotional triggers so they can use them in their work.
So they don’t always just take the soft option?
No – when you get offered a role as an actor that you wouldn’t normally play, it’s a chance to show something completely different, and actors just jump at that. I work with a lot of actors when they’ve got a part that they feel to be challenging.
How do you help them?
I do a lot of different exercises with them and also people do their own research. They go to interview characters that are similar to whoever they are playing, they watch movies and other performances that might help. There’s a lot of things in terms of inspiration. I always tell my actors to start a little book and put in pictures and images and music – anything that can inspire them.
What are you able to do with someone to make them compelling?
There’re lots of tools, but one of the main ones that I truly believe in is investing in the life of the person that you are playing; understanding psychologically, emotionally and physically who this person is. You have to create their life; their back story. I teach a class called The Golden Box all over the world – including Dubai, which is a place that I love – and I go very deep in talking about all of the tools that you can use to create the life of the character.
Can you tell us a bit more?
I have a list of questions that you answer that talks about the moment your character was born, who their family is, how they were educated, their dreams and so on – we’re talking about peeling back the layers and going in-depth so that you really own a person who is three dimensional. Once you really understand the guts of this person, you can let go, and one of the things when acting in front of the camera is the degree to which you are able to let go inside of the character.
How common is it for actors to maintain their character’s persona in the dressing room?
There’s that wonderful story of Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and how amazing their performances were because they kept improvising throughout lunch. Of course, 99 per cent of people go back to the trailer and just relax, but if you do have this camaraderie with your co-stars and you’re able to keep improvising, then a lot of that comes back when the director says ‘action’.
What qualities make a great actor?
It’s the willingness to risk something; to be alive, open and out of your head. And empathy.
Finally, why do school drama teachers make kids pretend to be a tree?
I don’t know. I don’t do that, but what I would say is that if you’re going to be a tree, then you’ve got to be the very best tree that you can be.