By John Swanbeck
Why did the film camera break up with the actor? The actor wanted to get serious and the film camera was just looking for a little action.
My first job in show business was as an assistant to Mike Nichols. Mostly I watched him work, and I have a theory about what made the actors’ performances in his films so great and why every great actor wanted to work with him. He was that all too rare breed of serious artist and consummate entertainer, and the reason why so many actors’ performances in so many of his films were so memorable, so powerful, and so award winning is because he directed his actors to entertain as serious artists. Most actors are good at the part about being serious artists. What they forget, at their careers’ peril, is the part about being entertainers.
What’s the difference? The difference between an artist and an entertainer is the artist does it for the art and the entertainer does it for the audience. What makes great actors great, and makes filmmakers want to cast actors in general, is when actors are both. As film artists, it’s all of our jobs, actually, to entertain our audiences, so that we can then move them, inspire them, provoke them, make them think, and want to change the world. Consider the examples of Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis, inarguably two of the most serious, dedicated actor-artists of our time. And, yet, no one can say that, when they are acting, they are not also putting on a show. It’s one of the reasons we love watching their great acting.
Many actors recoil at the idea of being entertainers because they think being entertainers cheapens their art. On the contrary, being an entertainer not only enhances an actor’s art, it is the main reason the actor’s art connects with an audience. It is the “entertainer” part of the equation that sparks an audience’s imagination, taps into an audience’s emotions and dreams, and inspires an audience to soar beyond the limits of the human experience.