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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

My interview with Dallas acting coach Theresa Bell

Corey: When did you first become interested in acting?

TB:  I don’t remember not being interested in acting.  It wasn’t until the late 80’s that I actually did anything about it.  I was living in Dallas and I had a baby in 1983.  I was married but not happily.   As much as I loved being a mother, and I was a hands-on, full time Mom, I knew there was something missing.  I was watching Oprah, of all things, and there was a writer discussing his latest book and he asked the question,“If you could wake up tomorrow and remove all of your obstacles, your location, your finances, your education, your family, what do you want to do? “

It was so clear to me that I wanted to act. So, I discussed it with my husband at the time and he said, ‘”Well, go ahead and act.” In Dallas, we actually had a market, but it was mainly commercials and industrial films.  I had tremendous luck here, and I worked almost immediately. My first audition was for a Radio Shack commercial and I booked it.  After that, I continued to work steadily. In the late eighties Oliver Stone was in town doing Talk Radio. I auditioned for it and I got the part. I actually received my SAG card from Oliver Stone.  I worked a lot during that time but it was very clear to me that if I wanted to do more substantial, meaningful roles, I had to move to LA.   By spring of 1990 I was living in LA. I don’t think I realized at the time just how unusual my experience was. Inside of five months, John Crosby was my manager and the Artist’s Group was my agent. That first year I worked on Night Court, the TV show, three times and I worked with Oliver Stone two more times.  In December of 1990 I audition for Steven Spielberg.  He was doing Hook, and I auditioned for the part of a mermaid.  Right after I found representation, I was encouraged to work with Roy London.   At that time, Ivana Chubbuck coached Roy’s beginner classes so I had the great fortune of working with her for a few months before I matriculated to Roy’s class.  For so many reasons studying under Roy London is quite possibly the most life-altering experience I’ve ever had. I am very confident that my life would be very different had I not met him. He might be  the first man I ever met…that GOT me. He just really saw me and of course, didn’t objectify me. He saw my heart and my soul and he valued those things.

Corey: Do you have any sense of the roles changing for women, of there being greater room for their empowerment and their voice?

TB: Yes!  It has been an incredibly slow change but I do see it happening.  Last year was a wonderful year for some lovely films with great female characters which a wonderful female point of view.  I loved Brooklyn, Carol, The Danish Girl, and Room, I am also a huge fan of Game of Thrones, and one of the reasons is that those female characters are amazing.  They are allowed to be beautiful and powerful.  I don’t think we see that nearly enough in American films.  If a woman is drawn as an empowered character, she is often more like a man and has to sacrifice much of her femininity.  It’s a tricky balance but it can be done. I believe the solution is more female writers and directors need to be given the opportunity to tell these stories.

C: Do you think you learned or were taught about the role of being a woman in ways that you had to unlearn in order to act?

TB: I’m not sure.  The entire idea of “what is a man and what is a woman” has become very confusing since the feminist movement in the 60’s and 70’s.  I think we are still trying to figure that one out.  The short answer, whether it is in acting or in life, I believe woman have been handed a very small toolbox with which we are expected to negotiate life and the world.  I struggle with the burden placed on women to use their looks and sexuality to work the world. While interesting and often wonderfully beneficial, I find it very myopic that our society and film insist on these being the main tools or the only tools.  Women are such amazing creatures and I don’t like seeing them reduced to mere objects.   I suppose at one time there was a role I was expected to snap myself into - in life and in acting - that I just wouldn’t allow.  I still don’t allow it.  It is the reason I walked away from acting in 1995.  I was tired of playing the victim, idiot or accessory. This is also the main reason I began to write and it informs my coaching as well. 

Corey: What advice do you have for actors who go out to L.A.?

TB: The number one thing I always tell them is to have some money! Do not go out there if you don’t have some savings!   Be sure you have a flexible other job or  someone taking care of you. The other thing is you have got to get into class, stay in class, and then build that network of people that you want to work with. I really encourage actors to be real about who they are, because we live in such a fantasy industry that it’s easy to become deluded.   I remind them that while they will have a hundred times the opportunities, they will have two hundred times the competition.  And have something else, I always tell my actors to do volunteer work.  This, this can be a very narcissistic, all consuming ‘me me me’ profession. However, if someone helps a little kid who doesn’t have parents or who is sick, they will realize what’s important. It’s also hard to be down on yourself when you are contributing.

Corey: What is your sense of the camera and working in front of the camera?

TB: Well, actually in all of my classes but one, we have the camera set up and we record the scenes. I teach scene study and character analysis but it’s more for film and TV acting, not for stage. They can learn how to break down a scene, and I tell them there are certain things they have to be aware of in film and TV acting that are very different from theater acting.   The purpose of the camera in our classes is to allow them to become comfortable with it being there and to give them a way to see how they perform on camera.

Corey: What is your experience with actors being available to the inner work with their emotions or not available to opening up to it?

TB:  There are certain people that I just know I am never going to penetrate. I know some people are just locked up really tight. Sometimes I know they are just half-assing anyway. The choices I make as a coach are conscious and unconscious about when to push and how hard to push and when not to. Then, there are that handful of people that are in it for the long run, they are serious about it, they want to be challenged and even if there’s a little bit if resistance, I will keep pushing until I get the result that I think is needed. Oftentimes, I will finish it with, “thank you for going there,” and I’ll say, “listen, you don’t have to go to those places for an audition, but here’s the thing, if you really want the part and someone after you goes where I just asked you to go, they’re gonna get the role.” So if you can do that, then you owe it to yourself to commit to that fully, and also know how to take care of yourself and to recover from it once you do. That’s something I don’t think enough coaches give enough importance to, recovering from those circumstances.

Corey: Will you ever kick a person out of class? Do you have that boundary?

TB: Yes. If a person doesn’t show up, they’re not reliable scene partners. I’ve been really lucky in that I haven’t had any predator type people. I feel good that my actresses can approach me and say, ‘look, I never want to work with that person again, because …"

Corey: What’s your approach to ‘type,’ do you make them aware of type?

TB: Yes, I’m glad you asked me this.  Once or twice a year, I do a workshop on archetypes. And that came more from my screen writing, because as a screenwriter, I became very interested in Carl Jung and his idea of the archetypes in dreams. So I do an archetype workshop and the actors love it because its extremely interactive and they walk in… and their classmates write down immediately what type they see. I have one woman who, if she walked in the room, you’d say, ‘ok, she’s a young mom. I don’t care what they say, no matter what she gets hired for its going to be a young mom.’  Not that she can’t do this other stuff, but her gold is the mom stuff. And she should be auditioning for mom stuff all the time and it was a slam-dunk. But the value of the workshop is when an actor walks in and they don’t know their type. I had a young man take the workshop a few years ago and he saw himself as a lost soul,  but every person in the room put down “Charmer, Bad Boy.”  So, there was clearly a disconnect. Not that he can’t play a multitude of roles, but the one who runs the show is the Charmer/Bad Boy.  Sometimes in class, I’ll even give out a scene that goes against someone’s type, just because there are other lessons in it. And maybe they’ll never play a role like that, but it’s really good to know how to work those muscles.

Corey: Do you have a take on the use of the dream work in acting?

TB: I do not do the dream work with my students.  I spent two years working with a renowned Jungian analyst here in Dallas, but as much as I know about them, I don’t use them in class.  I don’t feel qualified.

Corey: Do you want to talk about your writing? About your projects and stuff?

TB: I would love to. Thank you for asking. Well, I’ve written nine screenplays.   This is one of the perks of being an extreme introvert. Extreme. So it is very easy for me to write.  I had two mentors in my life at that time that encouraged me to write.  One was a tv producer and the other was a benefactor of mine.   I enjoy writing and three of my screenplays have been finalist in various competitions.   It was only because of coaching that I came to believe I could actually direct.  I direct four classes a week.  I was actually invited by an actress who is also a friend of mine to direct a film for the 48 Film Competition in Mississippi in 2012 and in 2014 a friend of mine encouraged me to write and direct a short film based on one of my features.  I wrote, produced and directed Lullaby last spring and I am using it, as a calling card to try to get investors to invest in it.   Whether it’s Lullaby or something else—I am ready to make a feature. Everyone in the film is an actor that I’ve coached with the exception of the female lead and the little boy.

Corey: How do you define what’s different for this female character (in Lullaby) from what goes on in Hollywood?

TB: It’s her story.  It’s not her supporting someone else’s story. It’s hers.

Corey: Anything else you want to say about your writing or your work?

TB: I feel unbelievably lucky to be able to do what I do.  I love my actors and that they trust me with their talent is huge to me.  I also never thought I would ever be paid for speaking or for anything involving my mind so that is thrilling.  I feel like I am just getting started!

Corey: Are there any actresses from any era that you feel have, through their work, gotten up there and furthered the cause?

TB:  In the 30’s and 40’s women ruled the box office!    I could spend hours talking about how this changed and got so skewed but I will save that for another time.  I loved Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Judy Garland.   They made films where the focus was on the female character and they weren’t there just to support the man’s story.  Films were far more egalitarian at that time.  Today, I really admire Cate Blanchette.  From what I see, she is very committed to making films about women who have a clear and truthful voice.  Her acting is amazing but I love that she chose not to work in film for seven years until Woody Allen offered her Blue Jasmine.  It’s not about the money or fame for her, it’s about the story and the woman’s voice in that story.  I don’t think that actresses alone can change the world, not that any profession has the power to do that.  Any influence films might have, no matter how small, starts with the story.   A poor actress can ruin a good story but a great actress simply cannot make a bad story great.

Corey: What is your advice to the actress who is drawn to acting and is just starting her journey?

TB: When actors first start working with me, I don’t get into how they should construct their careers or offer a lot of personal advice.  As I get to work with them longer I offer more career advice.

In addition… and this has been a very hard lesson for me to learn… most of my life there was a belief that everyone on the planet had the same value system that I did. Of course that’s stupid, because they don’t. And so I've made mistakes, a lot of mistakes, thinking that other women value what I value, the truth, a stronger voice, a more accurate portrayal of just who we are.  I have learned to accept that some people just want to be rich or famous or just make a living acting regardless of the quality of the projects and while I could not do that, I certainly understand it.

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