Monday, December 17, 2018

Samuel L. Jackson's MasterClass presents students with the challenge of playing iconic scenes TO the icon

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About three and a half years ago, I reviewed Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass in Acting. It was my first experience with MasterClass, and one that was extremely positive. Though I have little interest in being an actor, watching how he guided other actors ended up being it's own kind of master class in directing a performance. There's a lot I took from that class that I expect I'll apply in my own directing.

That class is no longer available, owing to Hoffman having some bad behavior exposed in the wake of #MeToo. I've been meaning for a while to review another acting class, and as my one year All-Access Pass approached expiration, I decided to take in Samuel L. Jackson's teaches Acting.

Jackson's class is different enough that you don't feel like you're getting the same kind of experience if you happened to have seen Hoffman's when it was available. If you put a gun to my head, I'd probably say I prefer Hoffman's because he tends to get a little deeper in the segments where he's working with acting students. There's a tradeoff, though. Jackson has six students in his class segments, which he divides into rotating pairings of two.

Since it's a Samuel L. Jackson class, it's not a surprise that Jackson chose scenes from his movies. (This is another contrast with Hoffman, who used other films he had no connection to.) This EASILY can be an acting trap because Jackson is such an iconic performer that even if you're not playing an iconic SCENE, it's easy to fall into imitating Jackson's energy and rhythms. One of the scenes is an iconic Jackson moment - the climax of Pulp Fiction. The students tackle this with varying degrees of success, and it has to be nerve-wracking to play such a scene in front of the guy who earned several acting nominations for it. Jackson challenges the students to explain what the scene is about - particularly the meaning of the Bible quote that Jules recites near the end.

The people who understand the meaning of that quote and are able to bring a little of themselves to the role rather than just imitating Jackson tend to give the stronger performances. Subsequently we see the same students perform scenes from The Negotiator and Kingsman: The Secret Service, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the students who found their own way into the Pulp Fiction diner scene also tend to be the stronger performers in the other scene. We're not given the students' names (unless I missed them in the credits), but the young red-headed woman gives a very strong Jules performance that serves the scene and feels wholly unique from Jackson's own interpretation.

Jackson gives notes, but his direction is often less specific than Hoffman's was. He's good at identifying what's not working in a scene and offering advice about how he would build a character, but he seems more inclined to work with what he's presented rather than give a direction that completely alters that actors performance. That said, just seeing six different interpretations of a scene is kind of its own acting lesson and it doesn't take long before the viewer is coming up with their own performance notes. As good as Jackson is, it's the diversity of students that really makes this segment work. Seeing their process makes this more than just Jackson saying "Here's how I build a character."

I like a lot of the straight talk Jackson has for his students. He says, "Don't say to [producers and directors at an audition,] 'I don't think my character would do that,' because they're right. Your character won't be doing that because you won't be getting that job." He advises actors to try and take a direction even if they think it's wrong, encouraging them to think about all the ways a scene could be done ahead of time. Then they're in a better position to take that direction and incorporate it into what they've already done.

He also tells them "You take every chance you get to act" because you never know when someone will see you and feel that you're right for something else they're working on. "Nobody can teach you how to get your break," he says, but "if you ain't prepared when opportunity knocks, who knows when he's gonna be coming back that way." Later he talks about how his wife would ask why he had taken an audition for a couple small roles. His answer was "I think that writer's talented, and I think that director's gonna direct another movie and even if I don't get this job, they're gonna remember my black ass when I leave out of there. They're gonna know 'I know exactly who I need to hire for this next movie.'"

There's a lot of practical straight talk of that nature, sort of a working actor's school of hard knocks. Since Jackson has walked the walk throughout his career. He tells a story about being offered the role of Jules in Pulp Fiction, then finding out that another actor blew the filmmakers away and was on the verge of getting that role. This forced Jackson into an acting competition where he showed up to play ALL of Jules's scenes for the producers, which meant he had just days to do all the work of building a character that he normally would spend weeks on. This story takes some interesting detours but the end result is that he blows them away with his performance and finds out later that they fully intended to give the other actor the part until that acting session.

He also discusses how working on A Time to Kill gave him a lesson in how editing can change the intent of a performance. He saw his role of Carl Lee Haley as that of a father who wanted his daughter to know that he would always protect her, and when he murdered the two men who raped and beat her, it wasn't an act of vengeance but an act of love - making sure they wouldn't hurt her again. But he felt that every scene that spoke to that motivation got cut out of the film and that what was left gave the impression of his character as a "conniving Negro" (his words) who was playing the system to beat a murder charge. It gave him the lesson that no matter how much work he put into his performance, there were always factors that could alter its intent.

Other lectures delve into how Jackson builds his characters. I may never look at his hairstyles the same way again now that I know the impact that a Lawrence Oliver retrospective had on him. He noticed that Oliver looked different in every role and that inspired Jackson to think more about his look - and specifically his hair - when he approached a role.

It's not all about the external of a character, by the way. There's a lot of thoughtful advice about creating a backstory and biography beyond what's on the page. By way of example, he even contrasts two of his roles that are superficially similar, but markedly different.

Overall, it's a solid MasterClass. Jackson is engaging and leads an effective class that carries his strong point of view. There are times if I considered that might be a drawback, if there's too narrow a focus on "what works for Samuel L. Jackson," but really, people aren't paying for Acting 101 - they're paying for Jackson's experience.

I don't know if I'll have an opportunity to compare it to Helen Mirren's acting class, but from talking to some of my actor friends, most of them would be satisfied with what Jackson delivers here. For non-actors, I don't know if this is quite the resource on directing actors that Hoffman's class was, but it remains a solid window into the other side of the creative process.

You can order Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting for $90 here.

Or, for $180, you can purchase that All-Access Pass and get access for a year to EVERY Masterclass available. For that go here.

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing (review)
Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy (review)
Steve Martin Teaches Comedy (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
Ken Burns teaches Documentary Filmmaking
Margaret Atwood teaches Creative Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing
Dan Brown teaches Writing Thrillers

Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting

Christina Aguilera's MasterClass 
deadmau5's MasterClass 
Herbie Hancock teaches Jazz
Hans Zimmer teaches Film Scoring
Reba McEntire teaches Country Music
Usher teaches Performance
Tom Morello teaches Electric Guitar

Stephen Curry teaches Basketball
Serena Williams teaches Tennis
Garry Kasparov teaches Chess

Wolfgang Puck teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking.
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking Techniques II: Restaurant Recipes at Home
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking Techniques II: Meats, Stocks and Sauces
Dominique Ansel teaches French Pastry Fundementals

Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography
David Axelrod and Karl Rove teach Campaign Strategy
Chris Hadfield teaches Space Exploration
Daniel Negreanu teaches Poker
Paul Krugman teaches Economics and Society

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