“Working With an Animal in Method Acting”
Ever watch an actor like Daniel Day-Lewis in a film and wonder how he manages to pull off the range of roles that he plays? Have you ever taken a close look at Charlize Theron’s work in Monster and been stunned by her detailed physiology and how it’s nothing like anything else she’s ever done? Ever get a good look at DeNiro’s Raging Bull and wonder what he’s working with to get that kind of intensity and how did he sustain it? Well, there isn’t one single answer to these questions but there is one thing that all these actors have in common in their approach to these roles: Animal Work.
So what does that mean exactly? It means you learned and use an exercise created by Lee Strasberg back in the glory days of the Actor’s Studio. Brando used it to create his ground-breaking characterization of Stanley in Streetcar Named Desire and Method actors have been using it for a long time since. In recent years, I do feel like Animal Work has gone a bit out of vogue and I think that young actors need to be reminded of this exercise. Now certainly there is a textbook aspect to acting but it’s also very much an oral tradition, you need to hear about things to know about things. If acting teachers stop using an exercise, it can get lost in a generation because these things have a way of falling through the cracks. Animal work is an important tool for the Method actor and if you don’t know about it, you should.
Now that you know about it, what exactly does it do for the actor that’s so worthwhile? I can think of several things off the top of my head. (1) It’s a great way to get at character and find ways to justify actions that you might find completely alien to yourself. (2) It’s also a great way to get you out of your head, one of Sandy Meisner’s big mantras. (3) The animal gives you a funnel for your impulses (4) The animal gives you permission to play games you don’t normally play and lastly (5) the Animal helps you discover the character’s true voice. This, of course, is no little thing because vocal production is a major element of any characterization, the voice is one of the actor’s superpowers. But like all things pertaining to acting, it only works when it’s based on some emotional truth and not an imitation or a copy.
The character’s voice is a critical element in every actor’s work but how do you arrive at it? Well, if you’re playing a historical character, you can study recordings of them if they exist. You can do all kinds of research but if that voice isn’t coming out of some sort of organic discovery, then it’s going to be little more than mimicry. Remember the cardinal rule — If it’s real for the actor, then it’s real for the audience. That means you have to discover the voice through physical exploration and sensory work, which will lead you to something unique and real. If the actor makes the connection, then whoever’s watching the actor will too, be it a live audience or the camera. Bottom line here — it’s either real or it’s not.
Fine, sounds great but how do you do it? Like with all things connected to the Method, step-by-step and detail-by-detail. Now in a regular class, I would have you work on the animal in several stages that are related to different tasks but here we’ll just cover the discovery stage of the animal body. First off, you need to do a little research and that means a trip to the zoo. Now lots of students will ask why they can’t work with an animal that’s close at hand, like their dog or their cat? Well, you can really but it’s much more informative and rewarding for you to work with an animal that’s not personally familiar to you. I say this because when you’re working with your domestic pet, you tend to jump right into their personality and that’s really just another form of imitation. What you’re really trying to get at is a form of character that’s very different from what you know personally, so that means stepping outside of your comfort zone, which is something you should be doing in acting class anyway, right?
You also want to be working with a physical body that’s going to spark your imagination, so that needs to be something unfamiliar, hence the zoo. So when you’re doing this exercise for the first time, you shouldn’t have any agenda other than working with an animal that doesn’t live with you. Later on, you’ll want to consider the needs of the character but right now, it’s just for you. When you get to the zoo, take a walk around and see what you’re drawn to. Maybe you have an idea in mind about the animal beforehand but if you don’t all the better. The point of this trip is discovery, so let that be the guiding principle for you. When you do have your animal in front of you, let your imagination be a clean slate and just observe the animal in detail. Watch how the animal walks, how they use their feet, their hands, how they move their head and how they solve problems. Watch how they eat, how they sit, how the animal is in motion and how it is at rest. Give yourself some time, at least an hour or two, take pictures if you want, to refresh your memory later on.
Method work is all about the details, so really look at your animal carefully and you’ll want to compare their body to your own. You also want to pay attention to things the animal has that you don’t have like claws, wings or a tail, which almost all animals have. Lastly, you want to look for their center of balance and take that into account for the next part of the exercise. After you finish your homework at the zoo, you’ll have a sense memory of your animal and you pour that into your imagination like cake batter. The next part is where you use that sensory information to layer the animal’s body right onto your own. Like working with a sensory person, you recreate the animal out of thin air, sense memory and raw imagination. If you’re not familiar with this process, I recommend you go back into our blog and do a little more reading, so this all makes sense to you.
Once you have the sensory animal in front of you, you’re going to lift it up and drop it right down on top of your own body, like a transparency. Again, you keep working for detail and you want to see the animal’s body layered right on top of your own. I always say start with the feet and work your way up, taking your time. See that animal’s feet right on your own and start to feel how your new feet are different, how they feel as well, not just the visual. Remember, this is sensory work, so you want to employ as many of your own senses in this process as possible. How do the new feet feel on the ground? How do they feel rubbing on each other? What can you do with these new feet that you couldn’t do before? You should be asking yourself every sensory question you can think of, as you’re layering the animal’s body onto your own and exploring it in detail.
As you continue to layer the animal body onto your own, you’ll go higher and higher. You’ll also want to pay close attention to how that new body makes you feel? Stronger? Heavier? Lighter? More aggressive or more careful? Are you having any impulses because of this new body? When you get to the hips, you’ll want to pay close attention to your new center of gravity and how it makes you want to move. When you get up the head, make note of your new eyes, your new mouth, teeth and your new ears. You want to explore in sensory detail, your new abilities of sight, hearing and smell. For those of you already familiar with sensory work, this will make perfect sense of course.
It should go without saying but it’s worth repeating that you should avoid indicating your animal to anyone watching you. Remember, this work is just for you, so you should avoid any impulse to perform the animal in any way. Once you have the animal’s body firmly layered onto your own, you’ll want to begin exploring how the animal moves. You want to discover how the animal sees your environment, how it sounds to the animal, how it smells, etc.,. Again, you should really take your time with this process, the goal here is always about discovery, not arriving at any particular place.
When you have the animal really going, pay special attention to how it makes you feel and what it makes you want to do? Your focus should begin to shift to the animal’s behavior and how it interacts with the world at large? This is a separate but related discovery process and this is where you start to build a character that’s quite different from your own. If you haven’t started making sounds as the animal, you should definitely start with that now. When you do begin exploring your animal sound let it come out of whatever movement or activity you’re engaged in. Whatever sounds you get, you want them to be organic and not coming from some preconceived notion of what your animal should sound like. You want to avoid cliches, cartoons or imitations in this work, what you want to discover is what’s real for you.
At the start of animal work, you’re going to come up with all kinds of physical behavior, sounds and impulses, all of which are valuable to the actor in the creative process. These help you with impulses, improvisation, they free you from cliches and get you out of your own head. You’ll want to refine these behaviors as you go along, adapting this character to the particular needs of the scene and the script. In the classroom, I would have you perform certain tasks as the animal and interact with other animals in the process. You might begin your animal work on all fours but at some point, you’d also want to make the adjustment to human posture. As with all Method exercises, the actor will keep elements that work best and toss out things that don’t, along with bringing your animal behavior to a more subtle level.
The ultimate goal of animal work is to build a physicality that’s different from your own, which in turn, drives human behavior that’s also different from your own. It’s about physical and emotional discovery, adaptation, impulses and generating an original voice that makes your character’s desires achievable. Want to turn in a performance that rivets your audience and makes the critics notice you? Try doing some animal work. Sounds complicated or too difficult? It isn’t really but it does require patience, a good eye and a little advice from the animals.