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Monday, September 24, 2012

*My interview with Ivana Chubbuck

I first met Ivana Chubbuck in 1990. I had moved from New York and my N.Y. teachers could only coach me by phone. No internet. No cell phone yet. I prepared my first episode of "thirtysomething" on a payphone call to Manhattan. But I needed someone local, someone good. Ivana was my first L.A. coach and she quickly proved that she had the eye and the talent to make powerful choices with any text I brought her. In time, she developed a stable of actors that worked with her, including Halle Berry, Brad Pitt, Charlize Theron, Jim Carrey, James Franco, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jessica Biel and many others. Ivana has her own studio firmly established on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Ivana is also the author of the best selling book, "The Power of the Actor." 

This interview took place on September 22nd, 2012.

Who has inspired you most? bottom line.

My father.  He is a holocaust victim who escaped from Germany when he was a teenager -- yet he succeeded as a lawyer, here in the states.  He used his trauma, not to self-destruct like most people do, but rather to overcome and win.  Which is the basis of my technique (the Chubbuck Technique).  I saw how effective it was first hand through my growing up years.  He was also a workaholic – something I got from him too.

What are the earliest films you remember being moved by?

In film school I saw “Queen of Hearts”, “The Fixer”,  anything by Bunuel (satire at its best).   These films made me want to become a part of the process.  I not only work with actors, but I script doctor, and work with directors.

What actors and actresses from the 30s and 40s do you admire most?

Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Katherine Hepburn. Charlie Chaplin, The Marx Brothers (except Zeppo, and Gummo),  James Stewart

What did you think/ how did it feel when you heard your name spoken by an actor in their Academy Awards speech?

Humbled.  For me the best part, for example, was when Halle Berry won the academy award and called me the next morning and said, “this is our Oscar, because it’s your ideas on the screen.”  I find it’s the more unpretentious actor who makes the craft more important than fame, that is more likely to get that fame – not as an end to itself, but just a part of the package.   I know this, as all the actors that I’ve helped to become stars (and there are over 100 of them) – their focus was on learning, they weren’t afraid to expose their innermost secrets and darkness, were willing to take the risk of making bold choices, and had an intense work ethic.

You are one of the most hard working people I know. How many hours do you spend per week teaching and coaching? 

About 80 hours a week, sometimes more, if I’m working in workshops abroad.   And I do those a lot.  Just this year, I’ve been working in Austria, Greece, Australia, Italy, Copenhagen, Dublin, and soon to go to Venezuela and Dominican Republic and Israel.  But when you love what you do, it doesn’t seem like work. 

You worked hard to make your vision of coaching actors a reality. I’m not sure everyone gets to hear that journey. Do you want to share any of that? Where you started and how you made it all happen?

I was an actor, who started to teach to “support” my acting habit.  I ultimately found that my joy of teaching the craft far exceeded actually being an actor.  So I quit acting, and became a fulltime coach and teacher.  I find great joy in being the nurturing force behind the scenes.  And when one of students either makes a break-through or lands that star-making role, I feel like a proud parent.  I know my resource and my motivating behavior is part of that actor/writers/directors success.  Again, like a parent feels when their child succeeds. 

Opening a new studio can be a challenging time. Did students flock to you immediately or did it take time to get a following that big?

Success in any business takes time to create.   It takes falling on your face, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, having epiphany moments, exploring, growing, always learning.   As I grew as a better and more substantial teacher, so did my following.  I don’t sit on my laurels either, I think if a teacher stops learning, then a teacher should stop teaching.

Actors bring a lot to their training, sometimes a lot of baggage. Their issues, vulnerability and the need to be guided to the next level in their work. What are some of the greatest obstacles you have have dealt with when teaching actors?

The best way of looking at all that “baggage” is not as obstacles,  but rather as gifts.  The more issues you have, the more colors you have in your palate to use in your work.  I truly believe it is those that are without baggage, that are the less interesting people in the world.  If you look at the most important people in history and in the present – they all have so much baggage – but they become “dynamic” individuals as they didn’t perceive it as baggage but as the substance that makes the mountain that needs to be climbed and conquered!  Great way to look at life too.

Do you ever suggest an actor attend therapy?

Sometimes actors confuse acting with therapy, and although there is some therapeutic aspects that emanate from working from personalizations, it is no substitute for the real thing.   A question I get asked a lot is “if I go to therapy, will I lose the elements I need for my work?”  I believe people confuse therapy with a “cure-all”.  Therapy doesn’t take the pain away, it just helps you understand how to incorporate it in life’s choices so that you can live without being self-destructive, but rather in a healthy way.  Therapy helps one to understand themselves better.  An actor who really understands him/herself has a lot more colors to pull from.  It’s a good thing, if you think you need it.

If an actor does have a successful audition and gets a callback, how should an actor approach a callback? 

Wear the same thing, and tweak what you’ve done in the previous audition to make it more high stake, and more specific.  Never go in doing exactly the same thing you did before.  Bring more to the work.  They expect that each callback you’ll be better, not precisely the same.  But don’t change it radically, just add.

I have had friends who were very talented slowly destroy themselves living in L.A.  Have you ever watched a student self destruct, and if so , what do you think a teacher can do in that situation?

Hollywood isn’t for everyone.  Often actors come here expecting the same accolades they got in their hometown.  But an actor has to realize, there’s millions of dollars resting on whether the actor can pull in an audience.  The people who produce tv and movies see it as a business.  And it is!  It’s not a popularity contest, it’s whether the powers that be can see you as someone who can take the millions they’ve invested, and make even more money by casting them.  If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, as they say.  It takes the mark of a very empowered person to deal with all the day to day bullshit that one has to deal with here.  But if you can withstand it, continue to see failure as a momentary part of life, and overcome and win in spite of those that are your naysayers – then your success is very, very, satisfying.  Because you have bounded over the highest hurdles and achieved!!  

I tell my students this, see Hollywood as a challenge, like an extreme sport.  You don’t always win, but it’s in the trying to win that creates adrenalin and then the journey to success becomes much more enjoyable.

What is a healthy way for an actor/ actress to handle oneself while on the journey of making an acting career?

Don’t have tunnelvision regarding the business.   There are other important things that you can invest your time in, as well.  Charity work, hobbies, sports, etc.  This way you integrate your life with more than acting.  It also makes you a more rounded person, and ultimately enables you to have more to draw from – because you are living life, not just performing it.

There are some actors who can communicate thought on screen. There are others who do not. Aside from talent, what do you see as this internal process?

If you read the chapter in my book, “THE POWER OF THE ACTOR” there is a chapter on INNER MONOLOGUE.   If you duplicate real human beings, when they are not speaking, they are having a massive amount of thoughts that are very specific regarding what’s going on in front of them, and who they are communicating with.  We must duplicate the true human process by thinking, responding and feeling, even when those thoughts aren’t voiced.  The truth is an audience can read the thoughts of an actor if they have a lot going on in their mind.  The audience too, can perceive when nothing is going on in the actors head and it tends to be off-putting for the viewer.  An actor can actually steal a scene without any or little dialogue by using Inner Monologue.  But, again, it is best explained in my book, in the Inner Monologue chapter.

How do you feel an actor can use your technique best in approaching the tight shot? This is where making bold choices has to be tempered to address the technical demand of being so big in the frame, hence so big on the screen. 

Do the same work, but make it a tad smaller by internalizing it.

You have an amazing ability to connect an actor who is holding their audition his or her own present life circumstance in a way that serves the piece. Can you say anything about how you approach this?

Auditions are just the opportunity for the casting/director/producers to see your abilities as an actor.  They want to see the character come to life, not to see tricks.  I just give the auditioning actor the same tools I use when they are actually doing the part. In this way you can be authentic.

You always make amazing choices, what inspires you?

Weirdly enough, I get those ideas from the actor themselves.  I feel from the actor, a subconscious need to “do” something, yet the actor doesn’t “do” it for fear that it will be perceived as “too much”.   Censorship in any form is antithetical to the artistic process.  I just intuit that particular actor’s inner instincts, make them do what they instinctually wanted to do, maybe add a bit more for flourish (which comes from me) – but basically its an ensemble creation.  A good teacher doesn’t direct, a good teacher helps to exorcise an actors gifts, make them aware of it, help to bring it out, then let the actor “fly” from there.   I don’t want to control talent, I want to inspire greatness!

With all the energy you encounter in class, how do you take care of yourself as a teacher? 

I feed off the creative spirit of my students -- it energizes me.  I truly miss all that “energy” when I have my 3 week down time at Christmas.  All that energy keeps me young in spirit. 

You set up circumstance so very clearly, do you ever use improv as a learning tool in class?

Yes.  I also think it’s okay to ad-lib when you are doing comedy.  In the audition, or work situation – with comedy, they look to see if you can roll with the big boys.  Most comedy movies (and often tv) have a good deal of improvisation involved.  You should be up to task.

Do you ever kick an actor out of class? Once you realize there is such a conflict building, how do you handle this situation?

NO, for me its about the craft, not a clash of egos.  If the actor doesn’t feel that they are being well-taught, they have the option to leave.  I don’t feel that I should in any way see myself as a guru, or have that “God complex” where I should in any way dash someone’s dreams and aspirations.  I leave it to the student to decide they might be better served elsewhere.  And I wish them much luck wherever their journey takes them.

How has the expectation of the actor (and teacher) changed since the 70s?

Back then, “less was more”, they were just discovering Stanislavski and truth in acting, So, being still, and letting it happen in the eyes was the desired result.

In present day, “more is more”, -- acting is more about making bold choices, of course based in absolute truth – but bolder nevertheless.  And bringing more physicalization to the work because behavior is key.  We should be able to turn down the sound and still laugh and cry in the right places.  That can’t be done with just standing there and emoting.   Duplicating real human behavior, is creating a set of behaviors that are applicable to the character’s reality, thereby making the character unique.  This has to be done organically...The Power of the Actor gives you the tools to do this.

Some actors on screen look as if they have chosen a character secret. That there is a secret that they have operating and no one will know it. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Having a secret, that makes sense to the character, and your personal life is a great way to up the ante of the character’s journey.  I talk about this all the time.  However, you must do this last, it’s not the only piece to the puzzle, but a great addition to all the details and choices that you’ve made regarding putting some weight to the character that you are creating.   

Brando has said that we are all actors, and that we are acting everyday in our lives. While this may be true, why do you think he refused to speak about the internal processes of professional acting?

What actors are supposed to use in their work are their secrets, their vulnerable underbelly, their insecurities, their fears, etc.  Brando, like many actors, want to keep the mystery in their work.  Let people fantasize about the glamour of an actor – the truth is it’s hard work.   It takes a lot of courage to use what most people consider too difficult to deal with.  I agree with Brando, let the actor create a character that people can believe is real.  By revealing the process, it takes away the audiences ability to believe that the character portrayed is genuine and not of the actors making. 

What is the task of the beginner? Where does the beginner start technically?

A beginner should study, study, study.  If you go on auditions before you are ready, you have effectively burned a bridge.  It’s hard to get back into a room when you screwed up the first time.   Give yourself at least 6 months to a year of concentrated study time.  Then, and only then, should you put yourself in front of the people that can hire you.  

Can you say anything about the approach to coaching teen actors?

I find that many schools have been using my book as a text book in the upper classroom levels in Highschool (as well as colleges and universities around the world).  The  Chubbuck technique is based in the science of behavior, and psychology, and cultural anthropology.  Science. Thus, like any social science course, should be applicable to teens 15 and up.

After working with a coach,  actors leave to go to their auditions with  a wonderful sense of the work but many never let you know how it went. How do you learn to accept that as a teacher?

It’s really not about my ego, and how I got someone a job.  I’m elated when someone books something, whether informed or not by the actor themselves.  It means what I’m teaching works, and that is most important to me.  It’s my job to be inspired to inspire other’s to greatness.   If that happens, I’ve done what I set out to do.

Do you remember anything about how we first met in 1990 when I was shooting thirtysomething? 

I remember our work together and all the trials and tribulations that you were going through in your then present relationship and how we infused it into the work as a way to better deal with your circumstances.  I find if you use what is presently hurting you in one’s work, it’s a very effective way to find catharsis – both for you, and the audience who might very well be going through the same thing.  Better to “paint” with one’s emotional pains, and therefore create a beautiful “canvas”, then to sit and let it fester becoming a metaphoric malignancy within the actor’s system.   I also remember you being very special.  At the time I was writing for TV Guide, and they asked me to pick out 10 stars of the future.  I picked you!

You and I have worked together many times. You are amazing at your ability to make choices that move the actor. Your eye is truly one of the best. Thank you for all your work and for taking the time to answer these questions. 

You are welcome...!

                    click for Ivana's website


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