Our latest blog installment features insights about training, natural talent, and positive thoughts from acting coach and actor, Mona Lee.
ML: The amateur entertainer came first. My dad was a magician and I got my first taste of showbiz as his magic helper. He gave me so much joy in the creation of his illusions. I loved being tucked under his table, handing up the bunny and the dove through the secret hole in the center. Feeling the audience and hearing their amusement and applause was so delightful. That experience sparked my interest in theater as an adult.
I remember when I first got into acting I was lonely for connection — connection to my core and with others. Acting gives me a family. It is sometimes a family on wheels, because movie-making trucks in to locations and trucks out, so with a new project the family changes. It’s like being a migrant worker, but when you get to the next location your people are there. I’m always looking for my people. I’m most likely to find them in the dramatic arts.
I use the dramatic arts (film, theatre, psycho-drama, ritual, and myths) to champion the self-expression of people looking to deepen, experience catharsis, and have fun with their neighbors.
AT: What process do you use with your students?
ML: I use the “anything-that-works-method.” I lean towards the system developed by Constantin Stanislavsky and evolved by Stella Adler and Uta Hagan. Eric Morris, one of my teachers, did an excellent job of mapping all the choice approaches that have ever been utilized by teachers of the craft. Think of a wagon wheel and the spokes of the wheel. Each spoke leads to unlocking the truth of the character. It’s like that statement “All roads lead to God.” An example of some of those spokes would be sense memory, emotional memory recall, creating a comprehensive backstory, etc. There are at least 27 ways to unlock a character.
To have a dependable craft means understanding the methods that exist and which method works best for the individual actor. When working with an actor, I get a good sense of which approaches might best bring out a truthful performance. I am not a proponent of any one over the others. People are so different. I don’t want to lock students into one paradigm. They might not like a choice approach and think, “If this is what acting is, I don’t like it.” I like them to have a big tool box with lots of options. To me, that is what the craft is.
Because actors need to be able to handle scripts well, I maintain a large library of scenes. To have a decent acting satchel, an actor needs to have sampled the roles casting directors type them in. I have the scripts that have the roles. I also do a lot of directing in my classes because the ability to take direction is the mark of an accomplished actor, and direction is used to get to the realization of an honest moment.
AT: We hear the phrase “natural talent” in our business. Do you think such a talent exists? If so, what makes someone a natural?
ML: I used to think I knew. One of the worst actors in my class at Julliard works all the time, way more than me. I like this formula (Talent + Skills + Marketing + Contacts = Success). You can be a C talent, have C skills, A+ marketing savvy, A+ contacts, and have a successful career. You can be an “I know in my heart I am an A talent, God gave it all to me talent,” have B skills, D marketing, and F contacts, and never get anywhere. See what I mean?
AT: For how long and how often do you think an actor should train?
ML: As long as he/she wants to work for money, an actor needs to get on-the-job training or be in class.
AT: What are some common challenges you see for actors, and do you most often see them overcome with training?
ML: The most common challenges I see among actors are lack of self-esteem, feelings of guilt, and thinking they do not deserve to enjoy their working lives or fulfill their destinies in the world. They are overly obedient to their parents, society, religion, propaganda, and the opinions of their peers.
Those actors will self-sabotage, be very nervous, and not follow through with the formula. It is hard for them to hear their own voice, to reconnect with their painlessness, and to answer the calling of their heart. Training supports healthy self-esteem, supportive friendships, goal setting, being true to oneself, learning to honor and love oneself no matter what, taking risks, and unlocking one’s passion.
AT: What advice do you most often find yourself repeating to actors?
ML: The same advice I give my inner actor. Our job here in Earth School is to love ourselves, not to become rich and famous. Hopefully, rich and famous will come out of the purposeful dedication to loving ourselves. Actors hear “no, no, no, no, no, no, yes, no, no, no, no, yes, yes.” What will keep us in our careers is loving ourselves through the “Nos.” What I say to myself over and over is, “Mona, you don’t need this casting director, producer, whomever to love you. I love you. I love you no matter whether they choose you or not. Nothing is going to come between my love for you, certainly not a bunch of strangers.”
An audition is an opportunity to put on a little show for these people. They will either book you or not, but love does not come from the bosses. It comes from Spirit within.
AT: How do you describe a skilled, qualified actor?
ML: Takes direction quickly. Is in the Now. Stays heart-centered. Good connection to the Muse. Let’s the Muse flow through.
AT: How have you seen the industry change in the past five years and how have you adapted?
ML: I had a great year a couple of years ago. There were lots of money-making jobs. But it’s definitely slowed down. I chalk it up to our poor incentives and less jobs for women, and even less in my age range. But we are powerful creators and I don’t want to block any flow with suppositions that might not be true. I keep throwing positive thought forms into the quantum field like “anything wondrous can happen for me still,” and “anything is possible.”
AT: Is there a super power you’d like to possess?
ML: I’d like the super power of absolute trust in God. This power would enable me to make a switch from living through a physical body to living directly thorough my heart. To know unflinchingly in my heart that God will always have my back and care for me would be an awesome Super Power to have.
AT: What is your wish for the local acting community, and the industry at large?
ML: More jobs, money, creativity, friendships, support, and love. More producers and bankers funding home-grown projects. Before I get too old, I want a leading role on a TV series and just drive to work to an Austin film studio every day.