Description image

Orson Welles on Acting - 'Take Away from Yourself to Reveal the Truth of What You're Doing'

06.21.12 @ 4:00PM Tags : , , ,

Can you look inside and see a murderer? A saint? A fascist? In this thought-provoking clip, Orson Welles shares some of his views on acting, and how great performances depend on the act of revealing — the ability to show those parts of ourselves that are the character.  Whether you agree or disagree, it’s worth checking out and pondering:

“Acting is like sculpture, it’s what you take away from yourself to reveal the truth of what you’re doing that makes a performance”

If an actor takes on a role, it’s (hopefully) because something in them resonates with the character on the page, consciously or unconsciously.  They understand the character, not because the actor is a murderer or saint, but because they can see echoes of the character’s best or worst impulses in themselves and believe they can bring this to the performance.  For a given scene, a good actor may be able to temporarily enter the character’s mind, stripping away everything that keeps them from being a murderer (while staying in control), or a saint, and enabling them (at least for that moment) to reveal what a human being with the character’s traits and dramatic situation might be like.

It really speaks to the difficulty of acting, and the art and craft that goes into good performances.  What do you think?  Does Welles’ thought seem true in your experience  of acting, directing or watching performances?  For actors out there, is this idea reflected in your approach to roles?

If you’re curious about where this clip comes from, it’s from a documentary called Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (you can read more about it at that link, it’s basically an archive of never before seen footage and outtakes from various of Welles’ films and unfinished projects).  If you want to watch the whole thing on-line, check this link out.  It looks fascinating.

[via Open Culture]


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 20 COMMENTS

  • Beau Dameron on 06.21.12 @ 4:11PM

    This is excellent commentary by one of the best actors ever to grace the screen. Too many times, actors simply recite the lines on the page without truly understanding what is being said. Often, this comes across as the actor only having one “character”, when it is actually poor acting. A good actor can do just as was said, and find those parts within themselves that define the character they are portraying.

  • Randolph Sellars on 06.21.12 @ 6:32PM

    Interesting article and clip. I’ve seen a lot of Well’s films and I haven’t seen many of the characters that were featured. Orson was certainly a great actor (at times) and a brilliant director. He describes an interesting “subtractive” approach to “finding the character” that still allows for broad interpretation and methodology on the part of the individual. Exactly how an actor goes about stripping away any traits or mores that are not part of the character is left up to the actor.

  • “the filmmaker is the only artist that cannot afford his own tools” -Orson Welles

    if he was only around in the digital age

    • Randolph Sellars on 06.21.12 @ 9:40PM

      Nice quotation Chris!

    • Well, today the filmmaker can afford his own tools. Not so much for really big productions, but the situation has improved a lot because today you can buy a relatively inexpensive camera that doesn’t need a lighting truck with 5kW and 10kW lights to deliver a really, really nice cinematic picture.

      I am really ashamed of myself at how little I produce with what I got. But there are others making really impressive films these days with very small budgets.

      I really hope that the industry at some point recognizes that there are a lot of great filmmakers out there who never get a chance of making it into the mainstream because the high level executives are still stuck with the old-fashioned idea that making horribly expensive block buster movies is the only way to go…

  • As an actor I always find it interesting when people are struck by the craft and skill that goes into acting. Even when the striking is slight. Here’s a humorous take on the same issue.

  • I like the comparison with another art form. Michelangelo said sculpting wasn’t carving something out of stone, but removing the bits of stone that are un-necessary to reveal the sculpture that was already there. The comparison with a more concrete art form helps illuminate the nature of what it is an actor does. Much of acting school is learning to get out of your own way and allow the impulses inside you (those bits of you that are like the character) come out. It’s a useful metaphor. There’s a lot more to it than “say the line like this”

  • Orson Welles was not only one of the most talented filmmakers, actor, writer, director. He also was among the ones with integrity, which is something that is not abundant nowdays.

  • Orson’s quote which has stayed with me for many years;”In the depths of your ignorance – what do you want from my life?”

  • A few years ago, when I was assisting in a film-school short, I witnessed a young talented actor break out in tears after a scene where he very successcully played a rapist. He played it so well, with raw force and emotion, everybody was stunned by his performance because it was so life-like. It was just like watching a real rape (I imagine…)
    When the director said cut, nobody said a word, and the actor turned away and started crying.
    He had incorporated the pure evil force of the rapist so well that it got to him really badly for a moment – but everybody on set had been able feel it as well, and although they actually wanted to cheer him for his great performance, they all just stood there in silence.

    But usually, i am just impressed at how good actors are able to switch in and out of their roles so quickly, it is almost frightening.
    I can remember an experience with this really talented young actress who I had the pleasure to shoot with, and who is a really, really awesome person, always joking around with everybody on the team – and then she closes her eyes for two seconds, the director says “action” and she starts yelling at another actor in pure, psychotic rage. It is so real that you get goose bumps, but when the director says “cut”, she turns around, smiles at you and says something funny.
    It is so much fun to be able to work with good actors!

    On the other hand, it is horrible to work with people who can’t act, but are supposed to, or even worse, think they can act…
    That is why, when I work for tv, I usually avoid putting normal people in the position of having to act. Most people can’t act at all, and it is just awkward and involuntarily funny when they try. Sadly enough all the scripted reality stuff on tv these days makes a profit of exactly that…

  • i wonder what Daniel Day Lewis has to say — most talented, sincere and greatest actor working today IMO

  • Daniel Mimura on 06.29.12 @ 3:21PM

    Whatever. IMO, Orson Welles has only ever played…Orson Welles.

    Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great filmmaker. The Trial is my single favorite movie (if I had to pick)…and he’s a great actor (and director and producer, co-writer…etc…)

    …but he was one of the actors that just played himself again and again with the same voice and same mannerisms and pacing. This sounds like a slight, and it can be…but some actors don’t have range, they just play themselves, and many can do it really well, and audiences can empathize and connect…etc… Kevin Costner does great playing baseball players or bicycle racers, but he should never play Robin Hood… That’s an extreme example, but gets the point across. Pacino plays himself again and again and again. He does it very well, but excluding Dog Day Afternoon, I’ve never seen him show any range. He has his technique…(he talks quietly and then he starts yelling…and he goes back to talking quietly…etc…) He plays Pacino and he emotes and you empathize…but it’s different than taking yourself away to build the character, the subtractive process that Welles talks about and compares to sculpture. Welles never took himself away from anything…his ego would never let him. And don’t get me wrong…ego is often good and necessary…how many other 25 year olds have the force of will required to make a Citizen Kane? (That’s ignoring the actual quality of the film…just to get it DONE, especially at an age when it is genuinely hard to get people to take you seriously.)

    I kind of think that for the most part, there are actors that just play themselves well and then there are actors, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Daniel Day Lewis being perfect examples, who are very different in every role, sometimes so subtly so you might not notice it at first.

    This is not a flame. I just have my own opinions on acting, and I would never say that to any actor’s face if they just played themselves time and again. Knowing that and recognizing that is a good thing for directors to get the most out of their casts. As redlettermedia so eloquently points out…Lucas horribly miscast Samuel Jackson in the new Star Wars films. He’s not really a good choice to pull off playing the wiser restrained jedi…he’s more of a bad muthaf-cka…

    Wow..that was a long post. I just wanted to say “Orson Welles only plays Orson Welles”…but then I felt the need to preemptively defend myself.

    • @Daniel: Johnny Depp is a good example of an actor managing to play different characters entirely – don’t know if he takes away parts of himself or emphasizes others though (would that be the same thing?)

      • Daniel Mimura on 06.30.12 @ 4:17PM

        Yeah, JD is a good example.

        And yeah, additive vs subtractive…even to go back to the sculpture analogy Welles uses in the clip…well, it’s assumed he’s talking about clay or marble…if he was talking about metal sculpture, that’s an additive process (usually), not subtractive…so either direction you come from, it amounts to the same thing, ultimately.

    • Welles would be the first to tell you that having “range” is not the same thing as being a great actor. There are roles certain people are never going to be well-suited for. Welles was very conscious of his own limitations, as well as those of the actors he considered for roles. He was also fond of saying “If they look the part, you can make them act the part” – one of the reasons he was always incredibly irked by people playing Lear far too young/early in their careers. To the extent that he “only played Orson Welles”, it was in no small part due to him only taking the roles he knew he would knock out of the park. Actors who can knock a wider range of parts out of the park aren’t necessarily “better” in terms of the quality of their acting, just more versatile.

  • I remember when Orson Welles was once interviewed by Michael Parkinson and was asked who he considered to be the greatest actor of all time. Welles said James Cagney. The answer seemed to surprise Parkinson. I was too young to remember the reason / explanation, but it’s an interesting choice.

  • Welles was undeniably an amazing talent. Sadly, he took enormous amounts of time to complete projects, and that has never fared well with the Hollywood business model. The reality is that most financial backers will not let you spend limitless amounts of their money for as long as you want. His artistic ego fought against him.
    As for actors, I have to agree with many of the comments above. We don’t have actors in films anymore, we have types and personalities. Character actors saved enormous amounts of time for the writer and director in exposition in films from the ’20′s, (and Television from the ’50′s). But you don’t cast actors these days based on their talent, you cast them based on their look. And since skin is the commodity of the day, not talent, you’re going to get products that reflect the age of the ticket buyers. Hence, muscled, chiseled men, and thin, beautiful sexy women who have a modicum of camera technique, great stunt doubles, and a lot of VFX for the younger audience.

    In other words, honest, brilliant and insightful “little” films can still get made, on your dime, but are strangled without distribution deals. .