Noble Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky On Acting in Cinema
When I make a film, it is ultimately I who answer for everything, including the actors' performances. In theatre the responsibility of the actor for his achievements and failures is immeasurably greater. It can sometimes be a grave drawback for the actor to know the director's plan too well at the start of shooting. It is for the director to build up the role, thus giving the actor total freedom in each separate section—a freedom that cannot happen in theatre.
If the film actor constructs his own role, he loses the opportunity for spontaneous and involuntary playing within the terms laid down by the plan and purpose of the film. The director has to induce the right state of mind in him, and then make sure that it is constantly sustained. And the actor can be brought to the right state of mind by various means—it depends upon the circumstances of the set, and on the personality of the actor with whom you are working. The latter has to be in a psychological state that is impossible to find. No one who is downhearted can hide the fact completely and what cinema demands is the truth of a state of mind that cannot be concealed. Of course the functions can be shared: the director can compose a partitura of the characters' emotions and the actors express them or rather, find themselves in them—in the course of shooting. But the actor cannot do both things at once on the set; in theatre, by contrast, he is obliged to do both as he works on his role. In front of the camera the actor has to exist authentically and immediately, in the state defined by the dramatic circumstances. Then the director, once he has in his hands the sequences and segments and retakes of what actually occurred in front of the camera, will edit these in accordance with his own artistic objectives, constructing the inner logic of the action.
Cinema has none of the spell of direct contact between actor and auditorium which is so strong in theatre. And so cinema would never replace theatre. Cinema lives by its capacity to resurrect the same event on the screen time after time—by its very nature it is, so to speak, nostalgic. In theatre, on the other hand, the play lives, develops, builds up rapport . . . It's a different means of self-awareness for the creative spirit.
The cinema director is rather like a collector. His exhibits are his frames, which constitute life, recorded once and for all time in myriad well-loved details, pieces, fragments, of which the actor, the character, may or may not be a part . . . In theatre, as Kleist once observed very profoundly, acting is sculpting in snow. But the actor has the happiness of communicating with his audience in moments of inspiration.
There is nothing more sublime than that unison of actor and audience as they create art together. The performance only exists as long as the actor is there as a creator, when he is present, when he is: physically and spiritually alive. No actor means no theatre.
Every theatre player has to construct his own role within himself, from beginning to end, under the guidance of the director. He has to draw up a kind of chart of his feelings, subject to the overall conception of the play. In cinema such introspective building-up of character can never be admissible; it is not for the actor to make decisions about the stress, pitch and tone of his interpretation, for he cannot know all the components which will go to make up the film. His task to trust the director. The director selects for him moments of his existence that express the conception of the film most accurately. The actor must not put constraints on himself, he must not ignore his own incomparable, God-like freedom.
When I am making a film I try not to wear down the actors with discussion, and am adamant that the actor should not connect any piece he plays with the whole, sometimes not even to his own immediately preceding and following scenes. In the scene in Mirror, for instance, where the actress is waiting for her husband, her children's father, sitting on the fence and taking puffs of a cigarette, I preferred Margarita Terekhova not to know the plot, not to know whether he would ever come back to her. The story was kept secret from her so that she would not react to it at some unconscious level of her mind, but through that moment exactly as my mother, her prototype, had once Moved through it, with no foreknowledge of how her life would turn out.
There is no doubt that her behavior in this scene would have been different had she known what her relationship with her husband was to be in the future; not merely different, but falsified by what she knew of the sequel. The feeling of being doomed could not but have colored the actress's playing at that early stage of the story. At some point—quite without wanting to if it was against the director's wishes—she would have revealed some feeling of the futility of her wait, and we too should have felt it; whereas what we had to feel here was the singularity, the uniqueness of that one moment, not its connection with the rest of her life.
Often enough in film, the director takes upon his conscience things that go against the wishes of the actor. In theatre, by contrast, we have to be made aware in every scene of the ideas that go to build up a character—that is the only right and natural way. For in theatre, things are not done to order; theatre works through metaphor, rhythm and rhyme—through its poetry. Here we wanted the actress to experience those minutes just as she would have in her own life, happily unaware of the scenario; she would presumably be hoping, losing hope, and then starting to hope again. Within the given framework of waiting for her husband, the actress had to live out her own mysterious fragment of life ignorant of where it might be leading.
The one thing the film actor has to do is express in particular circumstances a psychological state peculiar to him alone, and do so naturally, true to his own emotional and intellectual make-up, and in the form that is right only for him. I don't mind in the least how he does it, or what means he uses: I don't feel I have the right to dictate the form of expression his individual psychology is to take. For each of us experiences a given situation in his own way, which is entirely personal. Some people when they are depressed long to lay their souls bare, to open up; others want to be left alone with their unhappiness, to close in on themselves, to avoid aU contact with others.
Original, unique expressiveness—that is the essential attribute of the cinema actor, for nothing less can become infectious on the screen or express the truth.
For the actor to be brought to the required state of mind the director has to empathize with the character. There is no other way of finding the right note for the performance. You cannot, for instance, go into an unknown house and start shooting a rehearsed scene. It is an unfamiliar house, inhabited by strangers, and naturally enough it cannot help a character from a different world to express himself. The director's first, very specific task is to convey to the actor the whole truth of the state of mind that has to be achieved.
Naturally, different actors have to be approached in different ways. Terekhova didn't know the whole scenario and played her part in separate bits. When she first realized that I wasn't going to tell her the plot or explain her whole part, she was most disconcerted . . . But in that way the different pieces she acted (and which I subsequently put together like a mosaic to make up a single picture) were the result of her intuition. At first it was not easy for us to work together. She found it hard to believe that I could anticipate—as it were on her behalf—how her role was going to come together in the end; in other words, to trust me.
I have come across actors who right up to the end could not bring themselves to trust completely in my reading of their role; for some reason they kept straining to direct their own parts, taking them out of the context of the film. I regard that kind of actor as less than professional. My idea of the real screen actor is someone capable of accepting whatever rules of the game are put to him, easily and naturally, with no sign of strain; to remain spontaneous in his reactions to any improvised situation. I am not interested in working with any other kind of actor, for he will never play anything beyond more or less simplified commonplaces. In this connection, what a brilliant actor the late Anatoliy Solonitsyn was, and how I miss him now. And Margarita Terekhova eventually understood what was being asked of her and played easily, freely, believing without reservation in the director's purpose. Such actors have a child-like trust in the director, and I find this capacity for trust extraordinarily inspiring. It was so easy to infect him with emotions, to achieve the right mood.
It is terribly important that the film actor should never ask those questions that are traditional and perfectly appropriate in theatre (and almost statutory in the USSR where theatre actors to a man are brought up on Stanislavsky)—'Why? What for? What is the key to the image? What is the underlying idea?' It was my great good fortune that Tolya Solonitsyn never asked questions like that— which to me are patently absurd — for he knew the difference between theatre and cinema. Or Nikolai Grinko—tender and noble as an actor and as a man; I love him dearly. A serene soul, subtle and with great depths. Once when Rene Clair was asked about how he works with actors, he replied that he doesn't work with them, he pays them. Behind the apparent cynicism which to some might appear to be the only point of his remark (and that was how a number of Soviet critics took it), is concealed a profound respect for the professional who is master of his trade. A director is obliged to work with the person least fitted to be an actor. What can one say, for instance, about the way Antonioni works with his actors in L'Avventura? Or Orson Welles in Citizen Kane? All we are aware of is the unique conviction of the character. But this is a qualitatively different, screen conviction, the principles of which are not those that make acting expressive in a theatrical sense.
Unfortunately I never developed a working relationship with Donatas Banionis, who had the main part in Solaris, because he belongs to the category of analytical actors who cannot work without knowing the why and the wherefore. He cannot play anything spontaneously from within himself. He has first to build up his role; he has to know the relationship between the sequences, and what the other actors are doing, not only in his own scenes but in the whole film; he tries to take over from the director. This is almost certainly the result of all the years he spent in the theatre. He cannot accept that in cinema the actor must not have a picture of how the finished film is going to look. But even the best director, who knows exactly what he wants, can seldom envisage the final result exactly. All the same Donatas was very good indeed, and I can only be grateful that he played it rather than anyone else; but it was not easy.
The more analytical, cerebral actor assumes that he knows the film as it would be, or at any rate having studied the script makes painful efforts to envisage it in its final form. By assuming that he knows how the film has to be, the actor starts to play the 'end product' — that is, his conception of his role; in doing so he is negotiating the very principle of the creation of the cinema image.
One of the differences between theatre and cinema is that the screen records personality from a mosaic of imprints on film, brought together by the director into an artistic unity. To the stage actor theoretical questions are of great importance: you have to work out the basis of each individual performance in relation to the overall concept of the production and develop a schema of the characters' actions and interactions, the pattern of behavior and motivation that has to run through the play. In cinema all that is required is the truth of that moment's state of mind. But how hard that can sometimes be! How hard it is not to prevent the actor from living his own life. - From the book: “Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting In Time.”