Close Shots: Mona Lee on the Muse, "Method Acting," Unions and Why We Choose to Act
by Michele Deradune
I have wanted to devote a column to Mona Lee's special contribution via her acting classes for quite some time. There is a special magic I have often experienced - in every one of her acting classes - that makes something inside of me tingle with excitement. I think you'll agree that a little bit of that comes through in my short interview with her this week. I once had a dream that Mona Lee's classes at Brite Lites Studios became legendary. I have to say that when I awoke from that dream, I had to agree! So now, on to the interview:
MONA LEE: The main kind of acting that I like to do is for film, and that's not acting really, that's creating a trance state - the trance state of the character - so vividly that you begin to think and feel and talk the character. That is based on the philosophy of Constantin Stanislavski, who said if we vividly imagine ourselves in the circumstances of the character we will behave as the character.
And what I have is a nifty toolbox of ways in which to approach unlocking that character inside of ourselves basically. People have said I teach "The Method." Well, anybody who wants to know their theater history needs to understand that nobody knows what The Method is except for Stanislavski, and he's dead. Basically Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen went to the Moscow Arts Theatre and studied with Stanislavski for six weeks and then they came back to New York City and opened their studios and each said they were teaching The Method, but they were teaching really different things, which amuses me. Because they are really two different people. And they fought about it for years that, "I'm teaching the true Method."
My teacher, Eric Morris, I think has created the best map of the craft. He has taken all of these great teachers and their toolboxes and made a map of their work. If you would picture a wheel with spokes going to the center and in the center is the true character, he sort of delineated the "Choice Approaches," which we could call each spoke that goes into the center. He laid out what the spokes of the wheel are, and he didn't dream all these things up on his own. Like any actor, he studied with a number of teachers. You find what Choice Approaches work for you the best, and you tend to have your favorites. And but he sort of took all these great teachers' methods and made the map. Examples of the Choice Approach include emotional recall, sense memory, doing a character breakdown and understanding the character's special circumstances, improvisation, playing the character's action, sub personality work and voice dialogue work - where you just begin to talk as the character. You begin to explore the character that way and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
That wheel is sort of the craft or the toolbox. Most actors as they study their craft begin to be familiar with the toolbox. Different things work for different people. In my classes, I like to look at an individual and honor the uniqueness of that individual, because that's what is going to sell about that person. I don't think there is any kind of cookie-cutter mold or any one way that leads us to where we want to go or to God. I think there are many paths to unlocking creativity within a person.
I have a nice toolbox to go to as I look at the person, and I just try to use the Muse, which I will talk about in a minute, and my intuition to assist that person in being believable as that character. And that's a blast. That is an absolute blast.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: AND IT'S AN ABSOLUTE BLAST TO WATCH YOU DO IT.
MONA LEE: Uh-huh, it's really, really fun. I could get a rock to act, I swear to God. I feel like I could. One of the best performances that I ever got out of a person was a severely mentally handicapped girl. I really don't understand what the terms of her mental state were, but she was mentally challenged. Her family brought her to me because she was always enamored of acting. She can't drive a car and she can hold down only a menial job. But she began to take my class, and I thought, "Oh God, I've got her in here. How is this going to be for the other people?" Well, she worked on the character of Laura in GLASS MENAGERIE, and that was the first time I really understood that character. Usually it's played by a beautiful, smart but wimpy actress, you know, and but actually there are deeper things the matter with Laura - ways in which her brain works is different from the way others' brains work, which is maddening to Amanda.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: Is Amanda her mother?
MONA LEE: Amanda is her mother. Yeah. Anyway, it was just great. Everybody has the ability to act. We do it every day all the time, all day long, and it's a very natural thing to us. And then when you take an artist's text and you invite the Muse into it so that it becomes a Work of Art, then that adds a whole other dimension to it. It's a marvelous way to experience one's humanity and the humanity of other people. When one is experiencing the richness of that, then the energy is the room is so sweet.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: You know, I've seen the Muse come in a lot in scenes in your classes and experienced it there and in monologues, but is it possible to really bring in the Muse at a quick cold reading audition?
MONA LEE: Yes, because you've gotten so deeply in the trance state of the character before you've gone. I mean, I don't know about you, but when I get the script in advance-
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: I've rarely gotten the script in advance!
MONA LEE: Oh. Well, you do on Union movies. You do. They have been getting pretty good about getting maybe not the whole script but certainly your sides in advance. As soon as I read 'em off the fax machine I start. The creative process begins, you know. I start wondering about that person and that world they're in and I start to working and percolating in my unconscious and my conscious. You punch the Muse's ticket, and the Muse responds. And we work on the character. And some are going to fit us, suit us better; some are a stretch. Generally in movies we don't get the stretches. They are going to cast who is more naturally the character, you know? And who can blame 'em? But anyway, that percolation process begins, and so when you get finally to the moment where you get to do your performance - and I really do view it as a performance. People say it's not a performance, but it is. It's my only chance to do the role my way for these people. It's my only chance really to perform that part. If I get lucky, you know, I win the lottery and I get the part, then I got lucky and I get to do it several times. But that audition is that one time where I get to perform it my way. Energy builds up around a performance when we have that appointment time and we know the performance of approaching. The Muse, the energy, builds up.
Now if somebody just takes a script off the desk and hands it to me and goes, "No, don't read Mary. Read Nancy," I'll generally ask for some time to go out and look at Nancy. I'll take Nancy away and look at her. And then you've got to rely on the fact that your butt has been in acting class for X number of years, you've been doing plays, you've been doing parts and you have developed an actor's satchel.
There are only a limited amount of roles out there. There's a limited amount of plots. And that's the good news. There isn't an infinite number. There is a limited amount. And your category even limits the amount again. You have probably already sort of worked on that role through your study and experience, so you can go, "Oh, that's kind of like this character" and take that character out. It's sort of like a hound dog on a scent. You should be, if you've been working in the craft for a number of years, you should be able to take the script away and read over it for 30 minutes and be on the scent. And that's an instinctual thing. You've just got to go to the fact that you have that instinct and trust that in the past you have already explored that character somewhat and just do it. And that is sort of flinging yourself off the cliff with the Muse. And it's scary, and kind of a feeling of voluptuous panic, but that's the way that happens I think. And that's it.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: So, tell me what's been up your butt lately? No, I won't put that.
MONA LEE: That's kind of good though. That really says it.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: Oh, okay, I'll say it then.
MONA LEE: I think we're in a time of change. Certainly the actors unions are in a time of change, and change is a little scary. However it is inevitable. If you think it isn't, then you're immature.
As far as actors being paid properly by corporations in a Right-to-Work State [such as Texas], I fear that Right-to-Work is going to become more and more common in the States.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: You mean other states besides Texas?
MONA LEE: Oh yes. Because the corporations and the politicians have been lobbying. Some of them think it's not in their best interest to have their employees be unionized.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: How should an actor feel about their own self-esteem as an actor in regard to how much they do or don't get paid by whom? Give us a perspective.
MONA LEE: Well, it just really depends. I guess you have to understand the way the industry work. A studio is a corporation whose purpose is to sell entertainment, so they make entertainment products and TV series and so on. They hire artists and those artists make that product that the corporation sells. All the studios in LA and New York are required to work with the unions. All the writers have a union, all the directors have a union, the crew has a union, the actors have a union, the musicians have a union, the dancers have a union. And all those corporations abide by those union contracts to turn out their product. That means everybody wins; everybody gets paid.
Now there are corporations who utilize artisans and they are in non-union [or right-to-work] states, so they don't have to hire union talent and they don't have to pay individuals a standard minimum wage for that service. Naturally that corporation wants to pay the artisan very little, and because they are non-union talent and they are not organized they just have to take whatever they are offered. I mean, they have the choice to act.
When that corporation deals with a union, when they sign a contract they say all the actors will be paid according to the union contract. All the non-union people benefit from that as well as the union, because the benefits go to the non-union people as well, for free.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: Well, they are not getting pension and health.
MONA LEE: Yeah. Well I mean they are - without paying any union dues.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: Getting pension and health benefits?
MONA LEE: They are. They are getting all those benefits because they are working on a union contract.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: Oh really? You get union benefits? I did not know that.
MONA LEE: And you're not paying the dues. You are not paying for any of their services. The union people are paying for those services for you. The union has it all set up for you even though you're not a member of the union. I think it would be only fair, personally, for non-union talent to not have the privilege of the insurance and health benefits.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: I'm just shocked that they do! That's totally news to me. Well, and then what about the low-budget and no-budget independent films, and actors to have a way to get on the screen and get their video reels and get experience and have nice roles they work for free.
MONA LEE: Most of these things are stacking up on shelves everywhere.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: Yeah, but they work for free. What I was getting to is, and then you end up with TV stations - I sometimes wonder if they see all these actors working for free in independent films and they say, "Ah, well we'll get 'em free too," and then you up with like what we've had happen in Austin.
MONA LEE: That's a common assumption [by business] for centuries: the artisan will work for free.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: For centuries?
MONA LEE: Oh yeah. The artisan has not been valued. What is valued in our culture has been sales, not artistic skills. They are always and forever trying to cut out arts out of school curriculums. We're swimming upstream. They don't value us. They want to use our abilities. They just think, "They only do it because it's fun" and they don't seem to get that we have rent and groceries and bills and the expense of developing our craft. They just think we want to do it for fun or to be seen. And all of that is fine when is first starting out one's career, I guess.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: And certainly a lot of people do choose acting because they do find it to be fun and they do want to be seen. But that's no excuse not to pay them.
MONA LEE: That's right. Hear, hear.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
MONA LEE: I guess that there has been a lot of focus on the excitement of being in the indie things and getting better billing, getting better roles with each indie project that you do, which is really good too. I just want to remind people that acting is a Healing Art and it will deepen your connection to your humanity, to your core self. There is an aspect of healing and growth that take place when you participate in acting, and probably that's really the real reason that we do it. And some of us become so devoted to it that we're able to make the money that way, as we should.
But to remember: It is about evolving soul - not just a superficial rush. That's only going to last for a short time and then you're back to no job and being nobody. So use it as a way to become more who you are.
MICHELE DÉRADUNE: I love it. I love it. Bravo!
MONA LEE is the editor and creator of the Texas statewide "Biz Books" (see www.thebizonline.com), acting coach out of Brite Lites Acting Studio in Austin, Texas and Secretary/Treasurer for the Houston Screen Actors Guild Local in addition to being a talented actress who graduated with honors from Julliard, one of the foremost performing arts institutions in the world. Thank you, Mona, for this wonderful interview! -- M.D.
Michele Déradune is a single mom, film actress and voice talent represented by Ciao! Talents. She had a principal supporting role as Mel in SNAKE TALES (Winner "Best Independent Film Comedy" at the Gene Siskel Film Center), was featured in an unscripted movie by actor/director KEVIN SPACEY, and was the voice of Wakana in the English version of the Japanese anime SAKURA WARS 2. You can see Michele's online acting résumé at http://www.deradune.com/resume.htm.