I Do My Own Stunts Part 2: Authenticity
Actors these days seem to be so focused on realism that they have forgotten how to use their imaginations. This reliance on “authenticity” is why so many actors and directors make dangerous choices when it comes to staged violence. I recount an anecdote about this very thing* in Chapter One of my previous book, Stage Combat, but I have heard so many more stories like this and worse in movies and stage since that book came out in 2006, and I think we in theatre really need to look at this enslavement to realism again. The mistranslation of Stanislavski can and does get taken too far, too literally. “My dear boy, try acting” is my current attitude about especially those actors who are willing to risk life and limb (and looks) in the name of what they think is authentic.
In current series Sherlock, Lara Pulver (Irene Adler) remembers Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock Holmes) asking her to “really lay it on”**with the riding crop in a scene where her character is whipping a valuable cell phone out of his character’s hand.
Why did Cumberbatch feel the need to request this (well, she was playing a dominatrix, maybe he’s just into that sort of thing. But seriously)?
The director and actors of this series are very talented, experienced, and professional artists–was there no possible way they could have staged the whipping so that Pulver’s energy was dynamic enough looking without actually having to whip the star of the show? (Answer: of course there was.) By the same token, Cumberbatch should have asked to be drugged, since his character has been drugged in that same scene. Why was the authenticity of his performance not in question when acting the reaction to the drug, but somehow was when it came to the violence? In a previous scene, there’s no way he would have asked Martin Freeman (Dr. Watson) to really punch him in the face, in the name of authenticity. Was taking a whip to the shoulder less dangerous? (…and a slap to the face–did he take her slap to the face too, anyone know?) (Answer: no, it certainly wasn’t.) Does Cumberbatch really have no imagination, that he had to literally feel that pain in order to act it in a way that was realistic? (Answer: he must have a great imagination or he wouldn’t be such a good actor.)
This may sound a bit crackpot, but it’s a recent theory of mine that the emphasis in American (and British) acting schools on this extreme version of Stanislavsky–that is, psychological realism–is stunting actors’ imaginations, stopping their creativity. To hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to Nature is not actually holding up Nature. Acting is a craft, an art. Actors create authentic-feeling moments, but at no time are they performing realiTY, only realiSM. It’ still acting. And when it comes to staging violence, that’s what it should be.
Stay tuned for I Do My Own Stunts Part 3, where I will discuss “Reality TV” as it pertains to these concepts.
*Chapter One, footnote 2 in fact.
**Sherlock Series 2 Featurette, iTunes, also found here. This below quote from TVbiz.com is a charming version of the exchange, and makes it seem as though Cumberbatch regretted asking her to hit harder:
LARA PULVER says Benedict Cumberbatch has only got himself to blame for moaning that she whacked him too hard in their whipping scene in Sherlock.
The actress who played dominatrix Irene Adler in Sunday’s episode, told TV Biz: “Benedict said, ‘It’s all right, Lara, you can hit me harder.’
“I was like, ‘Oh can I now, Benedict Cumberbatch?’
“Imagine how many whips I am going to receive in the post now!”