How an Actor Prepares for a Role

The difference between nailing a scene and turning in a mediocre performance is all about "being present in the moment" while "really being outside of yourself."
  • Transcript


Question: How do you prepare for a role? 

Judith Light: I have a very complex, complicated and intricate process when I create a role that I don’t even know that I can really articulate. I have the most extraordinary manager who I have had for 30 years, who used to be a psychologist before he was managing in our business and... his name is Herb Hamsher. And I always talk to Herb about it. I always talk to Herb about the decision of choosing this particular role and because of his psychological background, even though he’s never been my therapist, he is able to talk to me knowing and understanding my psychology and understanding the psychology of this particular character. So, I begin there and then I read it over and over and over and over, and I continue reading it over and over, even to right before I do a performance once I’m into a run because there are always new things to be found and there are always things that are playing on me in my own psyche that I use and I call upon. 

I am dedicated also to making sure I am giving a performance, which means that includes the audience, whoever the audience may be. It doesn’t matter if it’s film or television. There's always an audience and I’m in a service business and I know that. And the other thing is that my connection to my fellow playmates, my cast mates, is extremely important to me because the dynamics of who I bring to that role are colored completely by who else is cast in that story. 

So, I spend a lot of time, I do a lot of very quiet, personal homework where I spend hours. There was a quote in the book about Eleonora Duse and the way she worked called “The Mystic in the Theater,” and they talk about how she would sit in front of an open window and simply think and use her imagination in relation to creating the character to see that person and know that somewhere it is inside of her and to find that treasure trove of that psyche and bring it forward because that character always has a very specific voice and I listened for the voice. I think a lot of actors do this too... It’s like you hear the voice of that person and you incorporate it into yourself. 

So, I have lots of different training from different methods, the method being one of them, but I incorporate them all for what I’m doing and what I’m working on. And sometimes, it clicks for me when I put on the shoes or the costume or the wig or the something. Something happens for me. so, it’s a lot of different disciplines from a lot of different places and also if it’s a historic piece, I do a lot of research or if it’s a particular psychological bent, I do a lot of research. So, it’s a combination of a lot of things. So, there you have it. 

Question: What makes the difference between nailing a scene and turning in a mediocre performance? 

Judith Light: Being present in the moment, listening, not thinking about yourself, really being outside of yourself. I’ve done performances where I’ve finished and Herb has been there and I’ve turned to him and I’ve said, “I think it went really well tonight.” And he would go, “Mmmm,” because all that told me was that I was watching me giving the performance and so I wasn’t really giving the performance. 

Oftentimes I’ve said to him, “Oh, no. Not there.” And he said, “Oh, you're absolutely incorrect. It was thrilling to watch that tonight.” So, it really is about losing self-consciousness and really making it about somebody else and making it about the audience and making it about yourself. It’s the paradox of having to have enough of an ego so you want the performance to be good, but also at the same time, knowing that you must get the ego out of the way in order to really transcend it and give a performance that creates an experience for someone outside of you. 

Question: Do you need to identify closely with the role you’re playing? 

Judith Light: Whenever you respond to a role, whenever I respond to a role, it’s because there is something that is calling me. I have a different context that I’ve developed over the years for my work, because before my work was always about taking the thing that I thought was going to help me "make it" in the business and now I take things because I experience being guided to take them. 

So, often times they are things that I need to be working on in my own life, and I’ll respond to it for some reason, but I won't find out that reason until I’m in the middle of the rehearsal process or sitting in front of that open window doing the work that I know that I need to be doing for this character. Searching my soul to find what I think actors have the luxury of doing which is living many lifetimes in one lifetime and working on your own psyche because only then, when I have created that, can I really give that experience to somebody else? So, often times it may not seem like it’s close to me, but there's something in there that’s close to me for sure. 

Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen