Cliff Osmond with Dean Martin in the film, Kiss Me Stupid.
As you know, Art of Hustle rarely – if ever – focuses on craft and aesthetics, which are already very wonderfully covered (and in great detail) at art schools. However, in this latest podcast, we go over a lot of fun and useful tips for acting – mostly because lessons from working on stage and on screen can translate directly to survival tips for life and career. Theatre artist or not, please give a listen! This episode is dedicated to the legacy of actor and mentor, Cliff Osmond. You’ll hear about such great pieces of advice like:
Mentioned in this episode:
Download this from iTunes now for free! Please rate the series and leave a comment to join in the conversation. Thanks!
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Anthem: Hello everybody and welcome back to another Art of Hustle podcast episode. My name is Anthem Salgado. I am your host. And today we have a special treat for you in that we’re changing the format a little bit and dedicating this episode to the late Cliff Osmond. For those of you who are unfamiliar allow me to read you his biography.
Cliff Osmond born Clifford Osman Ebrahim was born February 26, 1937 and lived through December 22, 2012. He was an American character actor, television screenwriter best known for appearing in the films directed by Billy Wilder. Cliff Osmond comes to the acting business from a variety of venues, a member of Kappa Alpha Sigma Honorary Business fraternity, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Mr. Osmond received his bachelors degree in business administration from Dartmouth College, holds a master’s degree in business administration from UCLA where he also advanced to candidacy for his PhD in theater history. Osmond made more than 100 appearances in television and movies working with such notables as Jack Lemmon, Peter Sellars, Shirley McLain, Carroll O’Connor, Kim Novak, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau, and Jodie Foster. In 2010 he wrote a book about his career and acting titled Acting is Living, Exploring the Ten Essential Elements in any Successful Performance. Concurrent with his film career, Mr. Osmond conducted weekly scene study classes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and all over the nation. He has taught an estimated 20,000 plus students over the length of his career.
Today we are joined by two of his students, Fred Pitts and Marte Mejstrik. I am pronouncing that correctly?
Marte: Mejstrik, right.
Anthem: Mejstrik, okay.
Marte: Close enough, closer than most.
Anthem: Thank you.
Fred: Actually it’s pronounced Wilson. I just want to help.
Anthem: Fred Pitts has been acting since he was five. He has performed with numerous Bay Area theater companies including Berkeley Rep, Custom Made Theater, Pear Avenue Theater, New Conservatory Theater, among others. He also has been in several independent films as well as local and national commercials. He is represented by JE Talent in San Francisco.
Marte Mejstrik, a native Nebraskan and 22 year San Francisco resident has been acting in film, television, and stage since the early ’90s. He is the co-founder of Teatro Vagon, a San Francisco based multicultural theater group that emphasizes works with multiethnic casts. In addition to performing on stage, his duties with Teatro Vagon also include producing and directing.
Fred: Thank you.
Marte: Thank you.
Fred: Thank you for having us.
Anthem: So, I think for the folks who don’t know Cliff that well, the reason we’re putting together this episode is to celebrate his life, his work, and probably most of all his wisdom. Folks who attended his classes often came away with acting lessons but also life lessons.
Marte: Life lessons, absolutely.
Anthem: So those are what we’re going to be discussing today but maybe first we can begin with how you guys got into acting and at what point did you guys begin studying with Cliff?
Marte: Go ahead.
Fred: Thank you very much.
Anthem: Fred is up.
Fred: How did I get into acting? I was put on the stage when I was five years old by my mother in the kindergarten production and we — it was a Christmas show and I remember very distinctly I sang a song called “Happy Go Lucky Little Sled” which my mother still has a recording of. And I had a knit cap and knit gloves and I remember sweating to death. That’s all I remember, so since I was five years old I’ve been doing some stage production every year of my life since then.
Anthem: And Marte?
Marte: Pretty much similar although not quite that young. I went to a very small high school in the Midwest. There were like 43 kids in my graduating class but we did the traditional junior class play and the senior class play. And so I was in the junior class play and in my small little town, I just remember all of the praise from my performance which was really kind of ridiculous but it was kind of a first. But it was great and I would say that I got the bug but it became dormant for the next, probably 20 years. I didn’t get back into acting until my late 30’s.
Anthem: Oh wow.
Marte: And that’s when I met up with some people who were involved and we started talking about our — just like Fred mentioned our childhood experiences on stage or in front of a camera. And one thing led to another and I started taking classes, doing training, got an agent, auditioning, you know the things that everybody does and haven’t looked back.
Anthem: That’s awesome and this is an interesting thing that folks should also know about Cliff’s classes is a lot of times when he gets students in his class they’re known to follow him for many, many years which we all did. How long did, Fred, did you study with Cliff for?
Fred: Oh Lord, I was trying to think about this. I think I started in 1999, that’s about right because I moved to San Francisco in ’97 for a job and I started doing small little shows in San Francisco, little one act theater festivals because there were many in San Francisco, still are. And I think that I found Cliff’s picture in TBA because he used to advertise in TBA and I signed up and you know went to the first class. And I don’t remember the scene, I don’t remember my partner but I remember completely overacting in the scene and I remember the first thing he said to me when the scene was done, which you both probably can attest to the experience. The scene was done because he had you read through it the first time when he says — he was talking to the person and he said, “Fred, what was that?” I just remember thinking okay, I was trying to accomplish goal. “Oh good okay, so if I watch you do that, you wouldn’t convince me.” And I remember that’s exactly what he told me and I thought, whoa this is not going to be fun. But I remember it was fun because he wasn’t mean, he was just trying to get me to think of acting a different way. I very distinctly remember that first scene. Like I said, I’d like to remember what it was and who I was acting with but I remember what he said.
Anthem: Yeah, it left an impression on you.
Fred: Yeah, like a big footprint on my chest.
Marte: Well you just brought back a memory. I started with Cliff I think in about 2006 or ’07.
Anthem: I love that.
Marte: But my very first scene I do remember because it was traumatic. And so it’s engrained and you know Cliff had this — and you guys will attest to this, but he had this amazing ability to very quickly assess where a person is in the study of their craft. And would point you towards what you needed to work on. He had — we first — I called him up. Somebody gave me his name so I called him up. And first of all I was shocked that he picked up his own phone you know. And we’re chatting and I said I’d been studying with so and so for a number of years but I understand that you have a very active group and I would like to join with you. So he said of course, come to the class. We talked, he asked me a few questions, but not that much. And then sure enough the scenes came and he’d always send his scenes out prior as you know, prior to the actual class so we had time to prepare. And I’m reading the scene and it’s a very intimate scene. I’m thinking okay, I’m the new guy so he’s going to give me something easy, kind of a fluff scene just to see who I am. No, just the opposite and sure enough I’m the first scene; I’m on the floor. This very attractive girl is right up next to me, much younger than I am. I’m in my — at that time I was probably in my mid to late 40s. And this very attractive girl and it’s a very intimate scene. And he kept, Cliff kept — you know he could see that I was a bit nervous, first of all being in the class for the first time, first of all having Cliff just right on top of me. And then this girl and he kept “Okay now start pulling his shirt out of his pants. Okay now start pulling it up — okay now start rubbing your –” you were in the class. You remember this —
Fred: I remember this.
Marte: Okay, so this was quite a few years ago.
Fred: I remember this, wow.
Marte: So this is how my first introduction to Cliff’s class was. But I got through it.
Anthem: In the deep end.
Anthem: Cliff is known for a lot of his isms, these sort of —
Fred: What you mean, Cliff-isms.
What is my goal?
Anthem: Cliff-isms. They might be words of wisdom, you might call them mantras. But they’re things that kind of stick with you over time. So we’re just going to go over a couple of them and for the folks in the audience, the listening audience that may not be familiar maybe you can tell us a little bit more. So let’s go to one of the most basics. And the corny thing that a lot of people know actors to be asking themselves well what is my motivation? But in Cliff’s class he always says what is my goal? Why is that important to a scene?
Marte: I think you need to have a very defined idea of where you’re going in the scene. You have to have a goal otherwise you can’t be emotionally and physically connected to it. And if you’re not then the audience is not. And it has to be steeped in reality. And I think if you don’t have that motivation. If you don’t have that very clearly defined goal in your mind before the camera starts rolling or before the lights go up, you will not be connected to that particular character and why should the audience? If you’re not involved, why should they? So goals are extremely important. Motivation is extremely important because it’s what put you in that place.
Anthem: And it was also about specificity.
Fred: Well in any scene you do, especially in a scene class or any kind of an acting class there’s always a conflict whether it seems apparent or not and one of the things that Cliff — I remember clearly Cliff saying to people is you really want to get to the point where if you’re performing, you want the audience to feel like they’re looking in the window in someone else’s house and seeing reality. So your goal is to present a reality. We don’t — he would always say that we don’t have conversations unless we want something. So in any scene no matter, whether it’s an argument or whether it’s funny or whether it’s just two people having what seems like a nonsensical Seinfeld kind of conversation, each person has a goal whatever it is trying to convince the other person of something. And that’s what I think goal is or motivation is. You have to go into any scene or any performance, whether it’s a scene or whether it’s a play or whether it’s a film and understands what it is you want from the other person and the other person has to have a specific goal because that’s what life really is. We don’t have random conversations for no reason. You know we all want something at some point. And I think that’s what he was trying to get us to remember is that no matter what the scene is, even if it’s just talking about you know football, you know one person’s opinion of a football game, another person’s opinion of another football game and then something about a marriage, there’s a reason the two of them are having a conversation and the fluff may just be the tap dance around the purpose of the conversation.
Anthem: Yeah, the big idea.
Fred: Yeah and that’s kind of what you have to remember. It’s like okay, so I’m going to tap dance around this and then I’m going try and convince Marte that he needs to leave his wife, no matter what the words are, but that’s the idea. So you really want to have that goal in mind because the other thing he used to say was, it’s funny because when I was married before hand my ex-wife was a tennis player and we used to have these conversations, I said basic analogy. It’s like a tennis match. You can practice all you want to with your forehand, your backhand, your overhand, your serve, etc, but once you get in the match your opponent may change tactics. Your goal is to win. So yeah if he’s hitting your first serve every single time, change it, you know change the speed. If he’s hitting your forehand every time, change it. You have to change what you’re doing because your goal is to win no matter what. Winning means convincing somebody of your point of view.
Anthem: And this is an interesting point you bring up, with acting but like in many parts of life, you have a goal, which might stay the same, but your tactics have to ready to adjust given the circumstance you’re given.
Marte: Absolutely, agreed. Yes raise the stakes.
You can’t practice reality, you can just prepare for it
Anthem: So I’m going to bring up this other thing that Cliff used to say a lot as well, you can’t practice the scene, you can only practice for the scene, which is sort of what you’re alluding to.
Marte: Right, yes.
Anthem: So I mean you already sort of described it but do you have anything to add to that Marte?
Marte: Well what you said, you practice for the scene, not practice the scene because the scene is — once you step up on stage or in front of the camera. That is reality. You can’t practice reality. You can just prepare yourself for what might happen. So I think that’s basically what he meant by that, is you don’t practice the scene. You practice for that moment when you are living reality in front of an audience on the stage.
Anthem: Okay, let me be devil’s advocate then. If anything can happen, then why bother going through the hardship of memorization at all?
Fred: There is a specific goal.
Anthem: What is the value?
Fred: There’s a specific goal that any and every play write, scriptwriter wants to accomplish in anything. So your job as an actor is to take the words you have been given, the concept that has been developed by somebody else and to bring that to life. It’s like I used to tell this analogy. It is like you can have any kind of tennis coach you want to who says this is how you should prepare for this match. This is my idea of how you can win. It’s their concept. It is only a way of preparing you for life. As the three of us can talk about, we’ve all had different parents. We’ve all gone through different things. They’ve all prepared us for life in different ways. I walk out in the street and something different can happen and I’m not prepared for it. I don’t know this is going to happen so the point of all of it is you prepare yourself for anything, anything. And if it’s — people have seen Some like it Hot 1,000 times, most people have. And if at some point it gets to be a stage production, great. But if you have different actors doing the same story line it may be a little different than the film, but the bottom line is here’s the script. Here’s the story. Here’s what has to happen. Any and every actor can come up with their own tools with how they need to get to that goal.
Fred: How they interpret it.
Marte: Exactly, right. Those words.
Fred: Exactly, you climb Mount Everest; no one said you have to do it this way. You just want to get to the top. So the three of us can have different ways of getting there, as long as we get there, that’s what’s important.
Marte: Right, right. I started sailing about the same time I started acting. And I was learning both crafts at the same time, both skills. And from a David Mamet book that I wrote. I kind of adopted two of his mantras and one of them was expect the unexpected. And I think that’s what we prepare for, to expect that unexpected. Like Fred was saying, the script is — we’re storytellers. And regardless of what your artistic medium is, whether you’re a musician, a visual artist, a dancer, a singer or on stage. We’re essentially telling a story, conveying a story to our audience in the realm of acting we have that story prepared for us in the form of a script. And so you have to prepare so that you honor the story, that you’re able to convey the story that you chose to do that was written by the play write or the screen writer, to the audience in a manner that they will understand and get it. So that’s the preparation, you learn your lines basically. Learn your blocking. And then when you get on stage you live it.
Getting out of your head
Anthem: And that would probably also help you stay out of your head, which —
Anthem: — I think we’ve all been there where the camera turns on and you’re supposed to dive right in and maybe for the first two lines it’s kind of smooth and then all of a sudden things start to get clunky really fast because you’re stuck in your head basically still practicing what you should have practiced the day before.
Marte: That’s probably one of the biggest lessons as being back new to acting that I learned from Cliff was that preparation is so important. That’s why he would always send out the scenes that we were going to be working on in advance to give you that time to prepare because you — if you don’t have it — like you said once the camera’s rolling it’s too late if it’s not already engrained in you and you’ve not already made your choices, it’s too late.
Fred: But one of the things to add to what Marte was saying was Cliff always talked about how important it was to essentially become fearless because as an actor the tendency is to memorize the script, understand the script, stay with what you think will work and stay, I guess the best term to use is safe. What ends up happening is you don’t end up reacting in reality. When we’re walking through streets, or like right now we’re having this conversation, he says something, I react to it. I don’t know what he’s going to say. I don’t know what you’re going to say.
Fred: But we’ve all seen it in class where you’ve done a scene the second or third time and you say a line a certain way and your partner yells at you, gives you a completely different delivery and your response is still the same as it was before. You’re not reacting to reality. You are just staying with your planned plan of action I guess is the best way of saying it. So that’s one of the biggest problems and one of the biggest things that actors have to overcome is becoming fearless, trusting yourself.
Marte: And more fluid.
Fred: Yeah and well it’s all about trust. It’s trusting the fact that you will be able to live on stage, as Cliff used to say, as fully as you do in life.
Marte: Absolutely, right.
Fred: You know we don’t hold back in life. Sometimes we do, but the goal for all of us, you know we all have our different personalities in life. He would always say, yeah you’re passive or you’re aggressive or you are very methodical. In this scene that doesn’t work. So we all have the ability to be angry. We all have the ability to be a racist. We have the ability to be a really sexually alluring individual and it is coming out of our comfort zone and being relaxed and okay with being that part of our personality off that we just don’t use. And I think that’s the biggest goal with what we were talking about before. You prepare but you have to be real.
Marte: Well the other mantra that I referred to before was learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Fred: Absolutely yes.
Marte: And you can only do that if you’re prepared.
Marte: You know if you find all of a sudden something happens in front of the camera or on stage that you weren’t expecting, you can only deal with that, you can only be comfortable dealing with that if you’re prepared, otherwise you have nowhere to go.
Anthem: Yeah, you don’t want to be unprepared and uncomfortable.
Anthem: (inaudible) combo.
Marte: Right, it’s true.
Anthem: And the thing that I think that Fred that you were starting to point towards too is when you deliver a reaction that is canned, what you fail to do as an actor in that scene is stop listening and that’s one of the recurring themes and lessons in, well Cliff’s classes but I imagine many other acting classes. You have to really listen. What can you guys add to that to help the audience understand what really listening means.
Marte: Well you know basically it comes down to being totally there, totally involved. And part of that is listening to what your scene partner is saying. I mean I always try to look at any of my performances, whether on camera or on stage, from the front row from the audience’s perspective because they’re the ones that we’re telling the story to and for. And if I’m not involved, if I’m not listening to you or to you or to my scene partners, why should they? You know why should I expect my audience to be fully engaged in my performance if I’m not? And you can only be fully engaged if you’re listening. And like Fred said before, something — all of a sudden in this take, your scene partner might do something completely different than they did before. If you’re not engaged in listening, you’re just going to react as you always reacted and it’s going to be false.
Fred: Yes, that’s very true. It’s interesting Marte mentioned something because we both have done a lot more stage, I think it’s fair to say, in the last few years —
Fred: — than we moved kind of away from the film aspect. Not to say there’s really a difference between that kind of performance because Cliff always used to say, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing film or stage, it’s the same thing. When you’re doing stage — at least with film you have the, I will call it the safety net of a retake. You don’t do well with a scene, you can do it again.
Anthem: That’s true.
Fred: With live theater, there is no retake.
Anthem: That’s it.
Fred: The retake is the next day but it’s a different —
Fred: — day, it’s a different audience; it’s a different reaction. So when you’re on stage live, that’s where listening really comes into play and I think that’s how it helps people who do film. When you do stage first, you’re on stage with somebody, there’s an audience that’s reacting. You have someone in the moment and you have no choice but really listen to what they’re saying because if you’re not listening, your reaction does come across false and or stilted and the scene dies and the audience doesn’t care. The audience is paying money, as Cliff used to sometimes say, they don’t want to see boring. You’re paying money to watch other people deal with the things that you sometimes don’t want to deal with.
Anthem: You’re watching people unravel.
Fred: Right, they like watching other people be uncomfortable because it gives themselves a sense of oh my life is okay, whether that’s true or not but that’s what makes theater riveting. If you think of all the best scenes you’ve ever seen or the plays, I’ll give an example of Marte’s theater company did “12 Angry Jurors”, “12 Angry Men” —
Marte: “12 Angry Men.”
Fred: — whatever version you want to come up with it. We’ve all seen the movie but in it’s inception it was different because you had 12 angry people who had listen and react to themselves and that’s the kind of script which brings theater alive because you can’t do that scene or that script rehearsed with the same reaction no matter what.
Fred: It just makes it uninteresting.
Marte: Oh absolutely and also the art of listening is — I remember Cliff telling a story once where one of his students was saying that, “Well I feel that my performance, you know that in this particular part of the scene. I’m just supposed to listen. I’m not saying anything. I think I’m boring.” Well his response to that is, “Listening is not boring as long as you’re involved.” And he used the example of take a two-year-old child and watch them trying to tie their shoe you know without knowing how. They are so engaged in just looking at the laces and just trying to figure it out. Just be that involved even though you’re not actually doing anything. He said, “One of the most interesting things in the world is sometimes somebody just being present and being involved.”
Fred: It’s interesting because to dove tail on that, he also in class mentioned a couple of times when you watch films and you watch an editor put a film together, he says, “Just pay attention. If you see a two-person scene and most of the camera shots are the person talking, you can tell the person listening is just not there. But in any really well done film with really in tune acting you’ll have an equal balance of shots of the person talking with shots of the other person reacting.” That’s a sign of someone who’s really listening and actively engaged because if you are really there, sometimes watching the person react is more interesting than watching the person talk.
Anthem: It’s part of the dialogue.
Fred: It is yes.
Marte: Even if they’re not talking, it’s the silent part of the dialogue and it’s totally unfair, I mean I was taught early on that the number rule in acting, in performing is take care of your scene partner.
Marte: And there is absolutely nothing worse than disengaging from your scene partner who has a monologue or a lengthy speech and all of a sudden you’re zoning out. That is so unfair to your scene partner because he needs that involvement. He needs to see that he’s connecting. And it goes both ways.
Fred: Ironic you mention that because I was trolling Facebook which I do more than I should because really, it’s crap. But American Theater Magazine always has these interesting post and one of the posts today was, “What was the best audition advice you ever got?” And there were, I don’t know how many responses but the one that struck me besides the one of have fun was, “Always make sure to make your scene partner look good.”
Marte: Yes, yeah.
Fred: And I remember Cliff saying that, that’s one of the goals to have.
Anthem: And for the folks out there who are listening, if it hasn’t been made obvious already, these are all things that you can apply to regular life whether you’re an actor or not.
Fred: Yes, absolutely.
Marte: Everything Cliff taught us in class, or at least what I walked away from his class could be applied immediately once you get outside the classroom door.
Anthem: Absolutely. I mean it’s important to have a goal in life. It’s important to practice your craft as much as you can but also maintain a sort of flexibility for anything that might happen on the stage or in front of the camera. It’s important to really listen to the people you’re engaging with and also to, as Marte just said, have your scene partner’s back. And that’s really — those are all meaningful things. What do you guys remember about — this was another tip that Cliff would have about listening, sometimes he would say lean in. I don’t know if you guys ever got that advice but there were times where I felt like I had a hard time staying in and he would tell people to literally, physically lean in. What can you guys say about that?
Fred: What it means to me and what I took away from it was you’re engaged if you’re leaning in. One of the things I as an actor and I think a lot of other people as actors I guess succumb to is you don’t want to be uncomfortable. And what ends up happening in the scene is — you used to talk about how you get uncomfortable and you kind of retreat. So if you’re in an argument and you think you’re losing you don’t dive in and make your point. You kind of back up or turn away or your voice gets lower or you whine, one of his euphemisms was, “Don’t whine, win.” You know you would kind of back away. And what he really was trying to emphasize was in any kind of discussion with any kind of, I hate to use the phrase courage but any kind of courage within a scene, it has to be, no matter what your goal is to win. And it really is leaning in, listening, engaging, being forceful, trying to push your point forward because when you retreat, you are giving up. And for the audience you lose interest. And for yourself you lose that energy. You lose that drive. You lose that motivation to achieve the goal, which he always talks about. You know what is your goal? If your goal is to convince Marte that he needs to quit his job and I’m walking away leaning back with the points I’m making, I’m not going to have as much emphasis. So that’s what it kind of means to me is just leaning in and engaging and not retreating because it just appears like you’re giving up.
Marte: Exactly Fred. What it means to me is that it’s one of those — you know acting, performing is a physical activity. And by Cliff saying, “Okay lean in.” He’s asking you to do something physical which brings you back into the game. All too often lets say Anthem you and I are in a dialogue. Okay you’re speaking and if I just — what happens too often is instead of actually listening to you, I’m thinking, “What’s my next line? What’s my next line?” And it goes back to the being prepared. And if you’re not totally trusting yourself, you know instead of listening like I should be, I’m thinking, “Okay what’s my response? What’s my response? Okay here it comes.” And Cliff’s saying, “Marte lean in.” All of a sudden it takes me out of my head and puts me back into that moment where I should be.
Anthem: That’s active.
Fred: Yes it is active, yes.
Tactics: End runs in football and in life
Anthem: I don’t know if you guys might remember this one because I’m not much of a football fan. I watch from time to time but Cliff definitely liked his sports and he would say, “When changing tactics sometimes it’s like an end run in that you’re not always having to go forward to move the ball forward.” Do you guys —
Anthem: — recall this?
Fred: Oh yeah.
Anthem: What can you share about that?
Fred: Well I think it’s again, it’s your job in any scene is to win. And it’s just a tactic that — an end run basically to me is okay —
Anthem: Well for people who don’t watch football.
Fred: Okay. (Inaudible) football.
Anthem: Go ahead, you probably have more.
Fred: So there’s thing about football where you’re trying to go down the field to score a touchdown and you can either throw it to a wide receiver or you have a gentleman, female, whoever who’s just basically going to run the ball and advance it and you can either just run straight up the middle of a bunch of people and try to plow through a pile of folks. Or you take the ball and you see 30 people in front of you and say, “Oh no I need to go around the side to get this amount of yards.” So that’s kind of what an end run really is. It’s like you’re either going to go straight ahead or you’re going to change your tactic and say, “There are too many people here, let’s go around this way.”
Marte: And that’s exactly what Cliff meant is change your tactics.
Marte: If you start seeing — a scene has to keep building, building, building, building. And basically you keep raising the stakes. If you’re trying to win, I’m trying to win. Every time I do or say something, you counter that. And so you keep changing your tactics. All a sudden if we keep trying to go down the middle, we just become like a shouting match.
Anthem: Exactly, yeah.
Marte: Let’s do an end run, okay. I’m going to back off a little, we’ll go around this way and see if I can get you from the other side, you know with a softer approach. So it’s just another method of giving your performance more variety in the tactics that you chose to achieve your goal, to win your argument, so forth. So I think that’s basically what he means is don’t all — it don’t have to escalate to the point where it’s just anger, anger, build, build, build. Sometimes you just take a step — same thing when you’re having an argument with your wife, your girlfriend, your mother, whoever, you know sometimes you got to be very, very strict about what you want, very hard core. And then you see that’s not working so you just kind of, okay maybe I’ll just slide around this way, “Honey come on. It’s all right. It’s going to be fine.”
Anthem: So you might use power and then you might use logic and then you might use —
Fred: Right, it’s about tactics.
Marte: It’s all strategy.
Fred: Its humor here doesn’t work, okay serious doesn’t work here, pleading doesn’t work here, you know I will be nice.
Marte: Which is the most exciting thing to me about acting is because you’re handed a script, you’re handed these lines and the lines need to be said as written. You know you stay true to the author’s words but it’s up to you as to how you chose to use those words to achieve your goal. And that’s the most exciting thing about acting.
Don’t whine, win.
Anthem: Here are three that go really well together, so I’m just going to introduce them all at once, don’t whine, win — don’t suffer, solve — don’t complain, convince. What the hell does that mean?
Fred: It’s kind of what we’ve talked about in the last 45, 50 minutes or whatever. You know when you are trying in life to make a point or either convince somebody of something. We don’t say, “Come on in. I need you to go with me. I want to do this kind of thing.” That’s not going to get you anywhere. That’s the, “Don’t whine, win it,” is look Anthem, this is the best thing for you and here’s why, X, Y, Z. It is not sitting down and suffering going, “Oh you’ve said something mean to me. I’m going to be pouty over here in the corner.” No, don’t say that kind of shit to me. You know you really need to go after what you want. So I think in general it’s the idea of you don’t retreat unless you really have to, in which case in acting you really don’t have to.
Anthem: In which case it would just be a change of tactic too.
Fred: That’s really all it is but if it’s a change of tactic it’s not permanent.
Fred: You know it’s a momentary let me re-gather and then you go back in with something else.
Fred: But it’s not the, “I’m going to whine or suffer or complain and whimper and that’s going to get me my goal,” because that’s not interesting to watch.
Marte: Totally, I mean again as I mentioned before, I always try to approach every project that I do from myself sitting in the audience first. And who wants to sit there for two, three hours and listen to somebody whine through their lines? You will disengage from that person very, very quickly. I was watching an old movie the other day, it happened to be on from the 1930s, don’t remember the name of it, could care less because one of the main characters in it was this lovelorn, you know typical story. He was in love with the girl who was in love with somebody else. He whined all the way through this and you know I just couldn’t — I kept thinking of Cliff and that line, his “Don’t whine, win.” And this performance of this movie, and it was back even before, late 20s, early 30s, very old movie, before I think acting really became, how should I say it, modernized or just more real. And I just kept thinking of Cliff’s words that this guy — Cliff would have just torn this guy apart, no doubt because he was just whining through the whole thing. And it was so apparent.
Fred: Well just to make a, I don’t want to say counter argument but to say about films that are old where people actually, even that era could act, there’s a film which I saw for the first time that many people know. It’s called It Happened One Night, which won best picture in 1934. I think it was Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. And you have two — it’s basically a two-person show or two-person film. But you watch it and it works because they both have their goals. And they both stay with their goals the entire film so you’re fascinated to watch. You don’t lose interest. But to Marte’s point, there are a lot of films out there and a lot of stage productions; you know I’ve seen a few where you say, “How was the acting?” “Oh it was okay.” But the actor takes one note and stays there. And there’s no variety. There’s no change in tactics so why should I care?
Getting grown up
Anthem: You know I remember Cliff explaining this, about why “don’t whine, win” should be a rule. And his idea was that the only people who should be allowed to whine are children.
Fred: Yeah that’s absolutely true.
Anthem: But he said there’s a science behind it because they are literally helpless. They can’t do anything without an adults help. So that might be their only tactic to get something or to get someone to help them. But as you get older playing frustration, playing whining, playing suffering is actually unacceptable because, well you’re a grown up now.
Marte: Yeah you’re an adult, exactly.
Anthem: Yeah, get your act together.
Fred: And you make a valid point that Cliff used to talk about all the time with us is playing an emotion. You don’t play an emotion. You’re in a scene. The emotions will come. They will change. So you don’t decide to play lovelorn or play sad or play angry or play whatever because that’s just not interesting to watch. And it doesn’t solve the problem that you have been hired to solve. When you’re cast in a role, whether it’s a film or a movie or theater or stage production, whatever, your job is to bring your character to life and solve.
Anthem: Exactly. And the emotions are the result of your trying to solve.
Fred: That’s exactly right, yes.
Marte: And if you’re truly trying to win, to solve, to reach your goal, you’re not a victim. You’re just — somebody who’s going to whine through an entire performance is a victim. You know they made up their minds and you’ll never win, achieve your goals by being a victim.
The direction is “Action,” not “Emote.”
Anthem: And Cliff also used to say, you know when the director is ready to start the scene, he says, “Action.”
Anthem: He doesn’t say, “Emote.”
Fred: That’s right.
Marte: Exactly, what I think is also very, especially for a lot of new actors who are either trying to break into the business or people who have been around as well. You know we have a lot of — we’re always getting offers from people for new playwrights, new scripts and so forth. Really analyze your scripts, read your scripts and if your particular character calls for that type of a character approach where you’re whining, you’re playing this victim, you might want to question the —
Marte: — validity of the script.
Saying no to gigs
Marte: You know not every script — very quickly I did a short film, this was a number of years ago. And I was pretty proud of my performance. I was just — it was really kind of the first thing I really did on camera outside of class and so forth. And I had a lot of fun making it. It was just a 16-minute short and all excited. And I gave it to Cliff and I said, “Hey watch this and give me a little feedback.” And he did. And took it home back to LA with him and watched it at home. And I remember I was on my sailboat a couple of days later and he calls me up and he said, “What is this crap? Why would you do this?” And I was just like — I was kind of speechless and I said, “Well I know I’m kind of –” He said, “No it wasn’t you. You don’t have to accept every script that’s handed to you.”
Anthem: That’s a lesson too.
Fred: Absolutely true.
Marte: And as an actor, you have the right to turn certain things down if you don’t feel that the material is written well. And so his take on that and I learned a lesson from that.
“Good acting is like Rome. It has one center, with many roads leading to it.”
Fred: Something else you mentioned which has always struck me for the years of taking class with Cliff. Cliff was never one to criticize any acting method out there. But one of the euphemisms we all know very well is what kind of acting do you teach? “I teach good acting.” Which is what he taught and what was interesting is we can all attest to this when we would go to class and you would have this new student who had never done acting before in their lives and could remember the script. And they would go up on stage and invariably most times, more than not Cliff would look at them and say, “That was good,” because they weren’t taught any kind of what you call bad acting.
Marte: Bad acting. No bad habits.
Fred: No baggage, no traits, no habits, they just didn’t know. It was just here’s my script, here’s my goal, here’s my scene, this is what they did. The problem we all have had is we’ve all been through different acting classes where we were told whether in class or from some other actor or some other teacher that you have to perform this way and it’s just not true.
Anthem: It becomes presentational.
Fred: That’s exactly the point; it becomes presentational, which is the idea of not playing the emotion. You know you play the scene, you play the goal. What’s the scene about? You know this person isn’t whiny. This person doesn’t view themselves as whiny. They don’t view themselves as a victim. They think they are the successors so your goal is just, what’s the goal? I want you to marry me, that’s the goal, convince.
Marte: Exactly. I think too many teachers, ones I’ve had in the past and I’ve had some good ones but it was really through Cliff where I learned the art of acting. I think a lot of teachers out there teach technique, a lot of technique and with the emphasis on getting the job, good auditions. But Cliff was so much, I mean he would — technique was always second in my opinion second to him because those things can always be worked out, you know camera angles, blocking, you know that’s the director’s job. And that’s the tech people so he would free you up so that you could just really focus on, like I said the good acting.
Anthem: You know he just reminded me of one I did write down but it’s worth including. When it comes to a performance he would also say, “I would rather have a living slightly,” I mean forgive the metaphor but I think the point comes across, “I would rather have a living, slightly deformed baby than a perfect baby that was dead.”
Fred: Yeah exactly.
Anthem: And I think what he was trying to get across is it’s better to fumble and stumble through a performance as long as it’s genuine than to have something perfectly acted and then there’s just no soul in it what so ever.
Marte: That’s exactly what he meant and I heard him use that on several occasions as well and straight to the point.
Anthem: And that’s probably true of many art forms, not just theater.
Anthem: I did not get a chance to drink with Cliff as often as you guys did.
Marte: Or as much as we did.
Fred: Drank more than we should.
Anthem: Yeah, okay so before we close out, maybe you guys can share some of the post class pieces of wisdom that I might have missed out on.
Marte: Well you probably had your favorite place that you would go with him but for some reason Cliff and I got on this Sinbad’s kick, you know right outside of the studio where we had our classes. So we started going in there right after class and we’d have two, three, seven glasses of wine or whatever. And then I’d give him a ride home — did I just admit I drove? No.
Fred: Yes you did.
Marte: Somehow we would get home.
Fred: He would take a limo.
Marte: We would take a limo to drop —
Fred: Or taxi.
Marte: — him off at his —
Fred: We are (inaudible) alcoholism in Cliff’s class.
Fred: We never drank, we drank grape juice. But it was other alcohol.
Marte: But this is where you really got to know Cliff. And you know Cliff had, as you said in the opening, a very lustrous career as an actor before he ever got into teaching. And over 100 television episodes that you still today you turn on an episode of Gunsmoke and there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to show up in one eventually and many others. But you know he never paraded any of that. But you’d get him talking. You’d start asking a few questions and he had just the marvelous stories of that time in his life. He was a very genuine person and a very open person. And we just had great conversations. Yeah those are moments that I will cherish.
Fred: Well I can wax on for hours. I think — I don’t know how this started but when I started, this was probably — you were at Brannan Street weren’t you?
Anthem: I was.
Fred: You were, you were not. He used to have a studio down off of Mason Street and then he moved to 2nd and Brandon, which is where I started. And the way the place was set up was he had a studio in the front with chairs and in the back he had his office. And at some point, I don’t remember how, I would just show up to class early and I’d sit back in the back office and somehow we’d just start talking about stuff. And that evolved into class being over and I lived kind of out near where he was going so I would drive him home and we’d end up at the place called The Brazen Head, one of many places where we would frequent after class but that’s usually where we hung out. And that’s where I got to know Cliff the man. And I don’t think we really ever talked about acting. We’re both history fanatics. I mean I’m a history major and that’s all I ever read and talk about and so those are the discussions we’d have. We’d talk about history. We’d talk about politics. He was one of the most well read and I guess most completely educated people I ever met. He could speak on any subject. He had his opinion about things but he was always willing to hear your argument. So we’d have these wonderful discussions about stuff whether we were on the same page or diametrically opposed, usually on the same page but sometimes not. And other people would join and we’d have these four and five and six people discussions about things. And yes there was alcohol involved but not as much as we portray there really was.
Marte: That’s true.
Fred: We weren’t that bad. But that’s where you got to know Cliff the man and you discovered that when you took classes with Cliff, for me it was not just acting but more — it was kind of free therapy as acting. You know you would go to class and you would deal with your own demons and you could deal with them in your scenes and in class. And he started actually saying to people, this is free therapy. And that’s what I remember about spending time with Cliff. You know I will bring up the fact that once his illness came out and I heard about, knew about it but I spent time with him this summer. I was actually in Santa Monica on my own personal discovery journey as I’ll call it and I had a night and I thought I would stop by his class and he wasn’t teaching but he was actually at home. And I got to see Cliff in his environment, in his house with his wife. And we spent four and a half, five hours just being Cliff. And yes he was at the time undergoing chemotherapy, so me being in medicine I kind of expected that (inaudible) look was, but he was the same person. It was the politics, it was the history, it was the “What the fuck is that?” the same stuff. And I think that’s really what I think a lot of people remember about Cliff, not just as an acting teacher but as a friend. I mean one of the things we haven’t mentioned is the fact that one of the things that wasn’t in his bio was he was not only a director but a personal friend to a lot of well known actors, one of which is Armand Assante who I remember when he won his Emmy for doing Gotti. He got up there and thanked Cliff Osmond for being his mentoring teacher and you kind of realize that that’s the effect that Cliff had on people.
Fred: It wasn’t just being a great acting teacher, but for almost all of us, Cliff was a friend.
Fred: And a mentor.
Marte: Armand Assante also wrote the forward in his book.
Fred: Yes he did.
Marte: And it just very — I do remember as well that we’d be sitting in, more than one occasion we’d be sitting in Sinbad’s and the phone would ring and it would be —
Marte: Yeah, Assante because if Cliff was anything, he was a true, a mentor in the truest sense of the word.
Marte: And here’s a very successful actor, living on the east coast in film projects and all that and he would call Cliff pretty much any day or night to get his opinion, as his advise. And Cliff would be sitting there and just doing just that. I think probably until his last day he was — he really cared about his actor.
Anthem: Yeah, and folks should also know that his book, from what I understand is available online.
Fred: Amazon, yes.
Anthem: At Amazon.
Fred: Among other places.
Anthem: So it’s one that I have on my personal bookshelf and would recommend any actors out there to pick up as well. Where can folks find out about your future projects?
Fred: I personally don’t have a website because I haven’t gotten organized enough about that. But if people want to see me on stage, go to a website called custommade.com. I’m actually performing in Eurydice, which is a play by Sarah Ruhl, really well known play. Apparently I’m playing the father and it runs essentially from St. Patrick’s Day until the middle, end of April. So go to custommade.org and look it up.
Anthem: Thank you, and Marte?
Marte: And our website is teatrovagon.org. We are, right now we’re in a bit of a — my two partners and I, we formed the company in mid 2011 and we did five shows just like literally back-to-back to back. And so we’re in a bit of a hiatus right now. So you’ll find information about our company and as soon as we start gearing up again — two of my partners are involved in other projects right now and as soon as they’re back going, we will get more information up there. But all of our past projects are well documented on our site.
Anthem: Fantastic. Gentlemen, thank you.
Marte: Thank you.
Fred: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
Marte: Yes, thank you.
I hope this podcast episode resonated with you. And that you have some good takeaways to carry with you in your own career and creative pursuits. Which of these tips was your favorite? Please let us know in the comment box. Know people who might enjoy listening to this conversation? Let them in on it by clicking the share buttons below.
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