5 Lessons from Jeffrey Tambor’s Acting Workshop at SXSW 2013

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AUSTIN, TX: “I’ll just start talking. Hi, I’m Jeffrey.”

And with that, Jeffrey Tambor strolled out onto the stage, bare save for three chairs, at SXSW’s Vimeo Theatre and gave one of his acting workshops, which have become the stuff of legend around here. This is the eighth year he’s flown down to Austin to conduct a session with young actors, in front of a crowd of directors, actors, and fans. And although he is best known for his comic work (primarily as George Sr. on Arrested Development and Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show), and he’s the kind of born entertainer who can’t help but make this audience laugh, acting is a very serious business to Mr. Tambor.

“I love training,” he announced, late in the session. “I studied with a great one, I mean Jessica Walter was in my class. I love to study. I studied all the way to my fifties.” Now, he trains. The first half or so of the session consisted of intense scene work with the two actors, both in SXSW films (A Teacher‘s Lindsay Burdge and The Bounceback‘s Michael Stahl-David); the second, a Q&A with Tambor and his actors.

It’s riveting to watch Tambor the director, particularly if you’ve only seen him as an actor. His criticisms are cutting, sharp — and accurate. But once the actors started working with him, his love for them was equally uninhibited. He’d bark out little confirmations between their lines: “That a boy!” “That’s the best moment you’ve had.” “She’s great! I wish you could see this.” “I’m happy.” “That’s great.” “Perfect! It’s perfect. And there you are.”

Over the course of the 90 minutes, Tambor imparted plenty of wisdom. Here are five of my takeaways from the workshop, to both actors and directors:

1. Be different

“I did a thing with a young actress, and she was off-camera,” Tambor recalled. “And she did all this stuff, amazing stuff. I was not aware of this actress, I said whoever the fuck this actress is, this is some of the most brilliant stuff I’ve ever seen. She was irreverent, hair was in her face, lipstick was kinda off, she was just throwing these lines out, she was wonderful. Camera came around to her [Tambor claps his hands], you know what happened. First thing was they got the hair out of her face, second thing is they made her lips nice, they put all of this together, and the third thing that she did was she straightened up her act, and in straightening up her act, she ruined her performance. It was like everybody else… We have this desire to either be different, or like everybody else. So Brecht said, ‘I fled from the tigers, I fed the fleas, what got me at last? Mediocrities.’ We are all afraid of it, and yet we are all striving for it. Because we do not want to be different. We do not want to go against the grain. We want that pilot. ‘Did you like that reading? Because I can do it another way. How do you want me to do it?'”

2. Take chances

Tambor recalled working diligently on a scene with Anthony Hopkins for Meet Joe Black, figuring everything out ahead of time. On the way there, he put on shoes that were the wrong size: “I’d never worn these shoes before, and I started to wobble. And I went — on the way to the set! — I went, as I’m wobbling, I said, ‘Oh my god, he’s a drunk.'” In the workshop, he gave his actors bizarre directions — to overact, to talk too slow, to use a bad accent, to physicalize in strange ways. But it took them to some interesting places. At one point, watching a strange permutation of the scene, he announced, “I will buy that line reading and I will buy that. None of this is making sense to me, but acting is not a rational act.”

3. Don’t be afraid of overdoing it

It got a little tense between Tambor and Stahl-David, an easygoing guy with a natural inclination to play the humor of a scene or situation. But when Tambor got the actor to go dark, he cornered Stahl-David. “Why don’t you act this way? Because you’re so good this way. Seriously. I’m really curious… This is so real, this is so good, this is so earnest. What is that other horseshit?” Stahl-David said that he has ideas about being simple, which Tambor pooh-poohed. “People overdo in life!” He told a story about doing Measure for Measure for Joseph Papp with Meryl Streep, remembering her getting an important phone call, hanging up, and going into a joyous boilermaker. “That’s what makes her Meryl Streep,” he said. That gesture, “that’s huge, because we are taught not to do that.” He warned his young actors of “just giving me a piece,” insisting that “no one can do what you can do, so why don’t you bring you? And let’s knock off the bullshit. Like we all have to do, and I have to do this every day of my life.”

4. Desire your access

This is a tricky concept, and I may not do it justice here. But once his actors were really going, Tambor says, it created powerful moments. “This is what the Greeks talk about, with the muse, about when you’re in the moment, you don’t care, you have all access? That’s all I cared about. You saw about three or four moments where these actors had all access today… And that’s all I care about, is that we have access. That when we go into the rehearsal room, we have access… I want access. I want all my ideas. I want all of them. I want all my best ideas.”

5. Directing is like sex

“You’ve all had sex, right?” he asked the crowd, just to be sure. “So in sex, you’ve gotta talk… In sex, you sometimes say, ‘Um, a little to the left, if you don’t mind.’ Or we go, ‘Hey hey hey hey hey hey. Hey hey hey, that’s good, hey hey.’ Or we go ‘Mmm, I don’t do that.’ Right? That’s directing, basically. It’s a little of this, a little of this, and a lot of shutting up. A lot of mixing the brew.”

When the 90-minute session concluded, the applause was thunderous. The actors looked exhausted, but invigorated. Behind me, an actress and a filmmaker exchanged information. Other attendees talked animatedly about how wonderful the experience had been. And Jeffrey Tambor thanked his actors.