A chat with the man behind the Oscar nominees
March 24, 2000
(CNN) -- Acting coach to such award-winning stars as Helen Hunt, Hilary Swank, Michael Clarke Duncan and Jason Alexander, Larry Moss has been teaching the art of acting for more than 26 years. After teaching in New York at Julliard and Circle in the Square, where he was musical director for eight years, Moss moved to Los Angeles and founded The Larry Moss Studio, which has been in operation for 10 years. Moss and his partner, Michelle Danner, are the founding directors of the Edgemar Center for the Arts -- a new two-theater multicultural complex encompassed in Frank Gehry's architectural landmark building -- opening in Santa Monica in September 2000.
Larry Moss joined the CNN chat room on Friday, March 24, after his appearance on CNN's "TalkBack Live," to discuss his work as an acting coach to Oscar nominees and winners alike. Moss participated in the chat from the CNN Los Angeles bureau and CNN provided a typist for him. The following is an edited transcript of this chat.
Chat Moderator: Larry Moss is joining us via telephone from Los Angeles. CNN is providing a typist for him.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Larry Moss, and welcome!
Larry Moss: Hello, audience members! I'm happy to be here!
Chat Moderator: When did you first become interested in acting?
Larry Moss: I think when I was probably, I know it sounds weird, but it was when I saw my first movie, when I was about 3. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time alone, and so I'd go to the movies as often as I could, and the movies became like my family, and the actors were like my parents and siblings. I spent my life in the movies, and made a decision very young that I'd be an actor, and became one. I worked in New York, on and off Broadway. Later, I realized that I loved acting, but when I started teaching, I really found out that I loved it. I'm very grateful to have found that, and I love it.
Question from crash: Mr. Moss, what does it take to make it in todays Hollywood?
Larry Moss: It's a very tough question. There's no easy answer to that. I'm a great believer in working on your talent. Stella Adler, a teacher I had in New York, said it's not enough to have talent, you have to have a talent for your talent. I think that means going to classes, working on your voice and body, reading great plays, novels, history. It's not that it's being intellectual, it's that you have to have an ability to understand people, and understand life. There's a lot of fantasy about acting, that if you're attractive and meet the right people, you can have a career. That's true to an extent, but that can be a nightmare, because the person that gets it on looks alone, they end up a disaster. There was a great actress in Hollywood, Geraldine Page, who won an Oscar for "The Trip to Bountiful" ... she did a film with John Wayne in the '50s called "Hondo," and got an Oscar nomination for that ... but the powers that be in Hollywood thought she was too ugly to be a film star. She didn't work for 7 years.
But she went back to Broadway and was a huge success, so Hollywood had to use her. She ended up winning another Oscar, and was a success. So ... she worked on her craft, and made it. Kevin Spacey said at the Actor's Studio interviews on Bravo, "I wanted so much to be successful, but I wasn't good enough. I had to work very hard." It takes an enormous amount of work. You have to study and feel things. You have to let yourself be hurt, and laugh, and be angry. You have to be aware of the five senses, what we see, smell, taste, touch and hear... it's an enormous part of bringing acting to life. You study them year after year. You have to experience acting all the time. No opera singer or tennis player or Wall Street broker would dream of not working every day on their craft. But an actor might say, I work out every day, and I have an agent, so I'm an actor. That's crap. You have to be a person of integrity, a person of true feeling. And you have to study.
Question from Pace: How difficult is it to "take on" your role ... to really get a feel for the character you're playing?
Larry Moss: I'll take Hilary Swank and Michael Clarke Duncan, since I coached them. ... What Hilary did was to live as a boy for a month. She tried to pass herself off. Sometimes she failed, and then she knew she hadn't gone deeply enough into the mannerisms and voice. She worked diligently for a month. We worked on the script for several weeks, for hours, breaking down each scene. She also felt a lot of pain, because she had been a beautiful girl all her life, and suddenly had to feel what it was like to be "abnormal" in the eyes of the world. She felt how people hated her androgyny. It made her understand how to play Teena Brandon, and know what she'd gone through. One of the reasons Hilary is so incandescent in that role is because she paid the price to know what it's like to be in that situation.
In the case of Michael Clarke Duncan, he had never had to reach into his emotions for a role, and feel the kind of anguish, pain, that John Coffey had to reveal in "The Green Mile." So, when we worked, we talked a lot about his life in Chicago, growing up poor, without a father, being exposed to racism, etc. He began to weep, remembering. It was his pain of living as a black man that helped him open himself to the abuse that John Coffey suffered and transcended to his spirit. All of which Michael has in great abundance, by that I mean spirit and great pain. So, actors who give great performances work very, very deeply. It doesn't just happen out of luck.
Question from Chris: Mr. Moss, are you familiar with the teachings of Sanford Meisner and if so, what do you think of his techniques?
Larry Moss: Sanford Meisner was my very first teacher when I began acting in New York. His technique is excellent ... it concentrates on being aware of what's going on with the other person. As you begin to be aware of what's going on with the other person, you leave yourself alone, and your natural impulses come through. Your acting comes from what you observe in the other person. It helps people to be less self-conscious. Meisner's technique uses the imagination. In other words, in order to get emotional for a part, you might think of someone in your life, but create an imaginary circumstance where something sad or joyous happens to them. You imagine it, and your emotions begin to respond. It's called "as if."
Question from Sunny1: You've been very successful as a coach. Are you turning away students?
Larry Moss: Yes, I do have a long waiting list.
Chat Moderator: Do individuals ever approach you or do most of your clients come through studios?
Larry Moss: I get my clients from studios and from private sources, both.
Question from SisterSledge: Mr. Moss: Can a good acting coach take a so-so actor, and change him into a star?
Larry Moss: It's possible, but they'll have to pay a price for becoming more open emotionally, freer physically, and expanding their imagination. They have to work hard, but it can happen. It has happened.
Question from Pace: In "American Beauty," Kevin Spacey comes across as one of the most "real" roles I've ever seen in a movie ... would you say that "acting" like a real person is more or less difficult than playing a role that is more, for lack of better word, noble?
Larry Moss: Kevin Spacey is wonderful in "American Beauty." Certain actors are right for certain roles. They have a certain palette they can paint from. Some actors have less colors in their palette than others. No matter what role you work on, it takes enormous dedication to understand what the writer wrote, then find a humanness in yourself, so you can understand the humanness in your character. Some people, like Daniel Day Lewis or Meryl Streep, change themselves enormously from role to role. They change their appearance, their vocal rhythms and tempos. Other actors, like Clint Eastwood or Barbra Streisand or Robert Redford, play very close to their own personality.
You have to know through studying parts how much color is in your palette. Once you understand your range as an actor, for a character actor like Streep or Day-Lewis, it becomes joyful, because it's something you do with ease, with your talent. Other actors can't play far away from themselves, they have to play close. It's not better or worse, it's just the nature of talent. You have to be smart, and understand through studying what your instrument as an actor is capable of. That's why it's so important to study.
Question from crash: Which are the best parts, regular or character actors?
Larry Moss: They're all interesting, if they're interesting to the actor who has the role.
Question from SisterSledge: Who was your toughest student?
Larry Moss: I would say students are tough to help when they are shut down to what they feel, and they've lost their humanness, they've lost their ability to feel pain and joy and humor and sensuality, and be alive. Those are difficult people to work with, and they usually leave acting because it's too painful. They're asked to open up their emotional life, and some people just can't do it. I dont judge them, but to be an actor, you have to be open. It's the only way to be good at it. It's difficult to work with students who refuse to "feel."
Chat Moderator: Who have been some of your favorite students?
Larry Moss: I loved working with Helen Hunt, Jason Alexander, Hilary Swank, Michael Clarke Duncan, Noah Wyle, Sharon Lawrence, Hank Azaria and many, many others.
Question from vik: To what degree does a great performance depend on the depth of the script (for instance, "Music of the Heart" had a poor script, yet Streep got her 12th nod for it).
Larry Moss: Yes, the performance is really dependent on the writing. In the case of Meryl Streep, she is an extraordinarily resourceful actor, and the part she played was a great role. She knew it, and she found identification with what that woman was trying to accomplish in getting music to these children to save their lives. She used accents and vocal patterns, and she knew when she read the script that she could do it. Even if the script wasn't written for her, the part was there for her to explore.
Question from K_J_HuTcH: Have you noticed that the best actors are able to communicate the difference between what their character is saying -- and what they are really thinking?
Larry Moss: Yes ... we often don't say what we feel, and a large part of life, necessarily, is lying. You hold back the truth in order to save feelings. You say, "I enjoyed the meal" so you don't hurt feelings. We all act all the time. What acting is, is saying something and thinking something else, and the audience can feel what you're really saying. It's called counterpoint ... that's what great acting is about. I mean, you can say hello to someone, when what you really mean is "go to hell." It's not the lines, it's the life.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
Larry Moss: Acting is about showing people what it is to be human, both the beauty and the ugliness. If that interests you, and you want to be able to pay the price to feel all that, and educate yourself, and work hard, and do it when you don't want to, then you have a chance to be a working actor.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today!
Larry Moss: Thank you so much for listening! I appreciate your questions!
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