I have decided to be more serious about acting, so I am taking more classes with my acting coach, Nancy Chartier. Let me tell you about her.
First off, she’s a really good actor. This is Nancy’s list of credits from the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) — go and watch some of the movies. I did. She’s really good.
I think she’s a teacher because she really loves teaching. She has a way of correcting you, or telling you to behave, that makes you feel good even when you’ve screwed up. I wish every teacher could do that.
I usually take the Friday night kids class at her studio. At the beginning of this year, she moved into a really cool new studio right on Central Expressway in Dallas, and it’s really close to our house. But when I have a big audition coming up, or when I need help rehearsing for something, we book extra private lessons, too.
Yesterday, even though it was the first Saturday morning of summer vacation, I didn’t complain about getting up early to have breakfast and get dressed to go to a lesson with Nancy. She spent an hour with me helping me get ready for an audition next week.
Working with a Great Acting Coach
I have taken classes at KD Studios, the Dallas Children’s Theater, and with another acting coach I did not like at all. I like Nancy’s classes best because she doesn’t want to try to make me look or sound like anybody else.
She calls us her “star babies”, and sends us emails that start “Hello, stars!” It’s pretty funny, but she does make you feel like a star.
Not very many people tell a kid to trust their instincts, but Nancy does. If you ask what you are supposed to do, she might wind up getting you to tell her what you think you should do, but she doesn’t let you get away with just saying something silly.
She makes you think about it, and come up with something that works, even if you can’t say why. There’s this one acting school here in town that I can usually tell which kids have gone to. They’re like these little robots who all seem the same. You can’t spot someone who’s taken Nancy’s class — until you show up on a set, and see all the faces you recognize from the head shots on Nancy’s walls, or from classes. That’s because we’re the ones who get hired. Not that Nancy would say that going to her classes will get you hired. She wouldn’t.
For Friday classes, we get an email on the Monday before class that tells you what the class is going to be. Sometimes we work on “cold read” auditions — that’s when you show up for an audition without knowing what they are going to ask you to do. If it’s a cold read class, you could be asked to do anything.
Nancy has these cabinets filled with all kinds of props to help you during class, but during an audition, you can’t usually bring props with you. But I like practicing with props. Like I have this audition next week where I am supposed to hand this girl a binder covered with butterflies because set her old notebook on fire and burned down the chemistry lab. (Well, I didn’t burn down anything, but the character I want to play in the movie burned it down in the story.) During the audition, I won’t have anything in my hands, but because I’ve practiced with a real binder, I know how it should feel, and how I should move. I think that helps it look more natural, and less rehearsed.
Sometimes Nancy has an improv class, where you are given an idea, and you have to work with another actor and come up with a scene that acts out the idea. I love improv. But the classes I need most are the ones where you are supposed to memorize your lines ahead of time, so that you arrive to class “off book”.
“Off book” means you don’t have a script with you during an audition. Nancy will send us a script on Monday, and she says to memorize it “flat, without inflection” first, and then add in the movements, tone of voice, and expressions after you’ve memorized the words. The first acting coach I had just said, “Here, memorize this.” That was hard, because I tried to do everything at once. Now I memorize the words before I do anything else, and it goes a lot faster.
When to Take Acting Classes
I think I will probably take acting classes as long as I am an actor. It’s like going to circus class, or taking karate. You don’t just go, take some classes, and then graduate after you have learned everything you ever needed to know.
The first time I took an acting class, I was about 8. It was a summer day camp at a local theater school called KD Studios. For me, it was just playtime. I wasn’t serious about it at all. I just showed up and had fun. At the end, we did a showcase for some talent agents, and one of them wanted to sign me, but my grandparents said “no”. I think I am glad they did, because I wasn’t ready back then. Now I am ready to work, and I want to work.
But even though I have an agent and I’ve booked some good parts, I’ve still got so much to learn. Nancy’s classes show me that every week. One of the best things about them is that I get to work with some really great kid actors — some of them the same kids I see at auditions, auditioning for the same parts I am trying out for.
Some agents and acting coaches will tell you that other actors are your competition. My agent, Linda McAlister, and Nancy tell us that other actors are your peers, your network of friends, and the people you have to trust when you’re on set. They also tell us that when a casting director or a director looks at two people going out for the same role, if both of them are equally good, they’re going to pick the one who has the right “look” for the film that only exists in the director’s mind.
I’m short (4’7″ tall), and I have freckles. My friends Shane Shuma and Dakota Buchanan are both younger than me, but quite a bit taller. Shane has red hair and a lot of freckles. Dakota is a blond with big blue eyes. A lot of times, I will see their names (and several others) on the sign-in sheet at an audition. That’s fine by me. It gives me the chance to see my friends — and we might wind up working together, which is always cool.
But the truth is that no matter how good I am, or how good Shane and Dakota are, the director isn’t really going to pick one or the other one of us because of how well we act during the audition. They’re going to look at a lot of stuff we don’t know about. Like if they’ve hired two blue-eyed, blond grown-up actors to play the parents in a movie, Dakota has an edge. (Yes, they could dye somebody’s hair, or make them wear contact lenses — but it’s easier if they don’t have to.)
And sometimes they hire somebody for some skill that isn’t even part of the scene you’re auditioning with. Like Shane is a really, really good tap dancer — and I can juggle and do karate. So we might audition for a scene that doesn’t involve any of those things, but the director knows there is another scene where it would be nice if the kid could do something else, so they’d rather hire the kid with that skill, plus the acting ability.
Every kid I know who works a lot in commercials, TV shows and movies still goes to acting classes. My agent, Linda McAlister, requires that everybody on her roster — even grown-ups — take workshops, classes, or private lessons. There’s always something new to learn.
A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting for my class at Nancy’s studio to start, and this guy came into the waiting room. He looked familiar, but somebody’s mom recognized him right away and said, “You’re Agent Pierce from 24!” His name is Glen Morshower (I recognized him as the general in Transformers — and he’s been in a ton of other TV shows and movies from Hawaii 5-0 to Moneyball, X-Men: First Class, and Revolution.) I wondered what a famous actor like that was doing at my acting class, so I asked him if he was a friend of Nancy’s, and he said yes, they were friends, and that he comes in whenever he’s in town.
So if an actor like Glen Morshower who gets hired all the time by directors like Steven Spielberg thinks she’s a good coach, no wonder I do, too!