This year, the Creative Lab at HIFF 2014 Actors Workshop was held at the Doris Duke Theatre and featured a free public conversation with award-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden. Harden has been featured in a variety of films including Miller’s Crossing, Flubber, The First Wives’ Club, Into the Wild, Meet Joe Black, Polluck, and Mystic River, and will star in the upcoming film adaption of Fifty Shades of Grey. She has also won a Tony Award for her performance in the play God of Carnage and has been nominated twice for an Emmy Award.
After she was introduced, Harden began her speech with how much she loves acting because she loves being a part of storytelling. She described how watching actors in a play or movie can make you feel a range of different emotions, whether you want to laugh out loud from joy or cry tears or sorrow. When you watch the characters get physically or emotionally hurt, you may also feel that pain through them. This form of empathy, she said, is what binds us all together in humanity and what distinguishes us from any animal.
Something she talked about that I thought was interesting was finding the motivation of the characters. Harden said that the goals of every character are to love and to be loved. This sounded strange considering there are characters who do things that don’t seem very “loving” at all, but according to Harden, these goals are the same for everyone, but are just carried out or portrayed differently. No matter how their actions are performed, ultimately every character desires to be loved, affirmed, recognized, respected, and validated.
What I thought was the most important part of her speech was the actor’s ability to be vulnerable. As a theater student, I have found this to be one of the biggest challenges of acting. Harden mentioned simple examples of watching people cry in movies and how she can’t stand it because even when they cry they still look too pretty. She actually enjoys it when she sees people cry with their faces turning red and snot squirting out of their noses because that’s more realistic. It’s not pretty to watch, but it is close to reality. Harden said in order to convey real, authentic emotion, one must be able to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, one must empty his mind of himself, not of individuality, but of his ego. It’s hard, but in order to connect emotionally with the audience and play the part convincingly, the actor has to let go of himself and be willing to look unattractive to convey vulnerability.
Near the end, Harden shared a story of one of her first experiences of auditioning as a young, undiscovered actress. Basically, she chased a casting agent down to her plane to hand in her resume, and all the passengers in first class laughed at her. Afterwards, she still didn’t get the part, mainly because she was told she needed to change her looks via plastic surgery, which she was not willing to do. I must admit, I respected her more for that. Despite the failed experience, Harden declared that she could look back on it with a smile and be proud of herself that she did something very brave. That was her last piece of advice to young actors, to encourage them to be brave.
Overall, it was educational and enjoyable. Marcia Gay Harden was very down-to-earth and funny. I am very glad I got to participate in this experience, and I look forward to attending the workshop again next year.