Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, and a plethora of other acting greats honed their craft at the legendary Actors Studio, which was co-founded in New York in 1947 by Elia Kazan.
To commemorate the Actors Studio’s 75th anniversary, the Academy Museum will be hosting a series of film screenings on Sundays. It began on August 7 and will continue on August 28 with a screening of the 1974 drama Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, which was directed by an early Martin Scorsese and starred Ellen Burstyn, who is currently the co-president of the Actors Studio together with Al Pacino. After the screening, there will be a question and answer session with Burstyn present.
The stage and screen legend who won an Academy Award for her work recently gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter in which she discussed the creative alchemy that takes place behind the doors of that illustrious institution. She describes it as “a gymnasium where [actors] work out.”
Along the way, Burstyn revealed the reason why, after half a century had passed, she still remained committed to reprising her role in The Exorcist. It is a movie that set the standard for an entire subgenre, and the performance it features is unparalleled.
I believe that a lot of people are familiar with the moniker “Actors Studio,” but that’s about the extent of their knowledge.
Could you give a brief overview of what the Actors Studio is and how your involvement with it impacted the trajectory of your professional life?
I was already established in my field. I didn’t really have any training in acting. My first time trying out for a play was in 1957, and it was for a lead role on Broadway. I got the part, and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is pretty easy, I can do this.”
Then, as time went on, I noticed that some actors seemed to know something I didn’t know, such as Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean, Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, and Kim Stanley.
This was the case with all of these actors. I was aware that they had all worked with Lee Strasberg and were all associated with the Actors Studio, so I made the decision to inquire about the information that they possessed that I lacked.
And [in 1967] I left Hollywood and moved back to New York, where I began my training with Lee at one of his private schools before moving on to his studio. It was an event that altered the course of my life forever.
I studied with him for a few years, and then I tried out for a spot in the studio. I didn’t pass the first audition, but I did the second one, and I was accepted as a lifetime member. I kept studying at the studio until Lee passed away.
When he did, of course, everyone was worried that the studio’s days would be over because he was the heart and soul of the studio.
However, the studio continued to operate successfully despite his absence. But those of us who were invested—Al Pacino, Paul Newman, and I, Arthur Penn, Shelley Winters, and many others—were on the board, and we did what we could to keep it going. To this day, it continues to exist. Today marks the beginning of our 75th year in business.
What kind of activities takes place within the structure? You’re putting in work on the set, right? What is a typical session like there?
They get together once a week on Tuesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and during those sessions, actors bring in a scene that they’re working on; there are always two scenes for each session.
After performing the scene, the actors discuss what they’re working on, and then they meet again the following week.
Sometimes it could be that they are attempting to fully grasp the situation, and other times it could be that they are preparing for a specific role. I find that incorporating some form of exercise into my preparation for a challenging task is quite helpful.
There are times when they are simply addressing a personal issue that they have in their role as an actor. In the case of relaxation, for example, let’s imagine that they always get too tense when they are working.
They are not attempting to realise it for the purpose of performance; rather, they are attempting to get through a scene while keeping their body relaxed. As a result, they are not attempting to do the scene correctly.
It might be any type of personal difficulty, or it could be any goal. After the action is over, they explain to the moderator that it was Lee for a very long time, followed by myself and Estelle Parsons; Shelley Winters moderated; Paul Newman moderated; and so on.
After that, the moderator will ask for feedback from the audience, all of whom are members of Actors Studio, and they will state what it was that they worked on.
And they will describe what they observed to them. Have they witnessed them genuinely working on the project that they claimed to be working on? Were they successful in doing what it was that they set out to do?
After that, the moderator will make their remarks to the actor. Because this is when the person who is sitting in the chair moderating shares their perspective on the work, this is the section that is the most challenging to discuss.
And that brings us to the conclusion. When someone successfully auditions and is accepted into the group, they are a member for life at no additional fee and we like to think of it as a gym where we go to work out. They do not make any contributions. They are welcome to use the studio for whatever creative endeavours they have in mind.
When Kazan first established the studio, he expressed the hope that it would serve as a secure environment in which performers could hone their skills.
And that is how it continues to be even though Kazan and Strasberg as well as some of the other moderators have moved on, but we continue nonetheless.
I would suppose there is a significant demand for admission from the public. How does an actor get in?
There are two rounds of auditions: first, there is a preliminary audition, and then, if they do well in that one, there is a final audition.
This is the most common method of entry. Now, the Actors Studio also offers a master’s degree programme at Pace University.
When graduates of this programme become actors, they are exempt from having to complete a preliminary because we are aware that they have been trained by our instructors.
Therefore, they immediately go to the final audition. In addition, a significant number of them go on to become permanent members of the Actors Studio, although this is not always the case. Some do, some don’t.
How many lifetime members are actively participating at this time?
It is difficult to explain what the active state is because it varies. People can be members for years without coming, and then all of a sudden begin coming after having not attended in years.
When I last checked, there were 2,000 members on both coasts; however, just because there are 2,000 members does not mean that they are all active members. I would estimate that there are approximately 500 people who go in the combined states of New York and California.
Sometimes an actor will live in New York and attend the studio there, but then they will get cast in a series that is filmed in California, at which point the actor will move to California and attend the studio there. I would say 500, as I believe it to be an adequate number.
And is everyone there acting in the method, specifically the Stanislavski method?
The term “method acting” refers to something that simply does not exist. There is no such thing as average acting; only good and poor.
And if you watch someone else perform and think, “Oh, that’s method acting,” then you have just witnessed poor acting. mostly because the technique shouldn’t be obvious. I believe that quoting Lee Strasberg, who described the approach as follows:
“It is a process of training the mind to respond to fictitious stimuli,” is the greatest way to explain what the method entails.
That is a completely different approach from what we have been hearing recently about performers going to tremendous efforts to remain in character and doing crazy things to get “genuine.”
That is a pretty interesting contrast. This is not an example of method acting. That is a perversion of the truth. Acting with the method involves working with an imagination that has been really trained.
Fascinating. Therefore, I feel compelled to ask: as you were getting ready for The Exorcist, did you bring any of those scenes to the Actors Studio to go over? Because you are successful in selling that picture.
Your reaction is so raw and so genuine that there is no room for doubt that what is transpiring in front of you is, in fact, taking place.
No, but I believe that serves as a fantastic illustration of what an actor can become aware of as a result of training.
One must genuinely use their imagination to react appropriately to imagined stimuli. That is a good illustration of what I mean by it.
Because, after all, I’d never done anything remotely like it before. Therefore, I needed to utilise my imagination to transport myself there in such a way that the experience felt real to me.
That is the thing that we are always working toward, and that is figuring out how to make the fictional conditions real for us so that we can react to them as if they are real. They are genuine on the inside, yet what you see is the result of your imagination.
It has been brought to my attention that you are currently delving back into the realm of The Exorcist. Is that what you mean?
Yes. Indeed, that is the case.
Throughout the years, I have no doubt that this question has been posed to you a multitude of times. Why now?
You should know that what ended up happening is that I said no to several different versions of The Exorcist 2. I have always answered in the negative. Even though they gave me a significant sum of money this time, I declined their offer.
After that, they took me by surprise by coming back and saying, “We have increased the offer by 50%.” I responded by saying, “All right, let me think about this.”
When I saw how much money it was, I thought to myself, “Wow. Permit me some time to think about it. The following idea that popped into my head was, “I get the impression that the devil is trying to figure out how much I’m worth.”
The next idea that popped into my head was, “My price is a scholarship programme for exceptionally outstanding students enrolled in our master’s degree programme at Pace University.”
That will be my fee. After that, I went back and negotiated with them, and in the end, I was able to acquire what I wanted. In addition to that, I offer a scholarship programme for aspiring young performers.
Isn’t that a wonderful thing?
That information has been shared, right?
I just got a scoop. Thank you.
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Thank you very much. And the majority of the photo was taken by me. I have a lot of respect for David Gordon Green, who writes and directs movies.
I had a conversation with him in which we discussed the screenplay and other related topics, and I assured him that I would give him four more days if he required them.
And since he’s already cut the movie and he needs the four days, I’ll be returning in November to shoot those additional four days. In addition, it is scheduled to be released in 2024, which will coincide with the celebration of The Exorcist’s 50th anniversary.