My husband, Michael Lewis, and I used to have heated discussions about what is the difference between performance and acting. We had these discussions mostly because of my insecurity about acting. I loved acting even during all the years it caused me anxiety, subjected me to humiliation and harsh criticism and made me cry. A lot.
But one day I realized my own beautiful truth about acting: I will never run out of art because I never stop learning. Acting is bottomless. That is terrifying, beautiful and such a strangely comforting paradox. “Running out of art” has been my greatest fear since I was 15.
In the last few months, I have come to a new realization about acting after I wrote an outline for an epic about a family’s history since slavery. It was (and is) a difficult story that begins with a man beating his wife to death.
I started my process on-camera as I always do with monologues by the central character in order to flesh out who, with whom, where, and why. By the time I had done an hour’s worth of time on camera in character, the central character, the ghost of the murdered woman named Blue, was not the central character anymore. In fact now, Blue may only be a 5 second pan of a bruised body under a sheet.
How did this shift of focus happen? That’s not really the question – the question is whoshifted the focus? The answer is the three women who drive the story and cause a chain of events to occur that completely changes the status quo. These three women went on camera and started telling their story. The first time Blue, a slave, is beaten by her husband, a mulatto who is the Master’s only son, the eldest female house servant will not let her in the big house to escape her husband. When the Master starts dying a horribly painful death from illness, his wife, who lost all of her own sons in infancy and hates her husband and his son, does not get him medical help nor does she try to help him as he endlessly screams in pain. As he dies, his son’s mother, who is traumatized and mad from being beaten and raped as a child, laughs until her distraught son begins beating his wife outside. That is the story the characters tell.
And letting a character tell its story is what acting is, I think, through an actor’s performance. On camera or on stage, the medium is the messenger, not the message itself.