ELIA KAZAN ON ACTING

Elia Kazan on the set of Panic in the Streets, in New Orleans.

Kazan in Conversation
New York
Upper East Side
1993


Everyone asks about acting. It's not a stupid question. Everyone wants to know what makes a good actor; what makes a good director. No one asks these questions more often--and for longer periods of time--than actors or directors.

And no one has a definitive answer. The answer varies. The more you learn, the more you fail, the longer you live, the more the answers to things vary.

No one can teach anyone to act or to direct: An existing talent is only made stronger and clearer and smarter. So many people I could name came to me with extraordinary talents and instincts, and absolutely no clear idea how to utilize anything with which they had been gifted. A good director doesn't tell an actor how wrong they are, or how muddled. A good director is like the good friend my father was: A friend of his was depressed, in a bad way. Almost everyone told him to buck up, snap out of it, but my father only told him how much he missed his good friend, the real man trapped in whatever sadness had consumed him. My father's friend improved.

You do the same with any artist--actor, writer, designer: You remind them of what they have and what they've done and what they can do. You keep shining light on the path they're taking, and you occasionally help them with the heavy load they've taken on.

If a director is smart, he admits that good actors are ahead of him on the path: I always play catch-up, playing a sort of relay race with their talents. I race toward them and try to help them make it to the end. Great talents--a Brando or a De Niro--are far ahead of me, almost to the finish line, but I can tell them what they did in the race. Or I try to.


A good actor is intelligent in a rustic, basic, almost feral way: He or she has been observing people in various behaviors for a lifetime, noticing how they operate, how they think, how they take in information. Almost all good actors are recessive, shy. In an audition or a meeting, you can see the way their eyes move and their hands work, and you instantly recognize the child they were and the artist they're becoming. They are always studying, taking things in.

Some actors aren't really artists, aren't really good, but they have a quality, a look, that is ideal for a particular part. At that point the director merely keeps them in line and heading toward a goal, a performance, that is right for the material. Some actors receive acclaim for one of these performances, and then people wonder why they never repeated the goodness they once had. Well, it was used up for that one ideal performance. If they're lucky, they will build a career on cleverly sustaining and repeating that one, effective performance. You know who these people are. They serve a purpose; they have been useful. Just don't ever confuse them for a real actor, a real artist.

A good director or a good actor or a good writer--for film or theatre--has to have the capacity to love fully and messily; to really give of himself. A great deal of patience is required, and a rigorous maintenance of your mind and your body. You have to be alert. You have to be present.

The best performances--of all artists--have been loved into existence.

Elia Kazan with Jeanne Moreau and Robert De Niro on the set of The Last Tycoon.