Life and Acting: Jack Garfein
After months of polite pleading, I finally wore Jack Garfein down, and he invited me over to his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I’d long admired the legendary director and acting teacher, and wanted him to share his thoughts on the elusive craft of directing actors. I was looking for quick, easily implemented tips. What I received was much deeper and harder to learn.
“If you want to create something extraordinary, or something truthful about life, about human beings, first you have to deal with it,” Garfein said. “You have to find it in yourself, and then be open enough that if the actor brings something that you didn’t see, reveals something more, you’re open to it.”
When Garfein was a young director in New York, he called a local playhouse to ask if they could send over their graduate students for a casting call. Ten men walked into the room. He sensed that one of them would make a good assistant; another, he instantly knew, was the man for the role. “Casting is an intuitive process,” Garfein told me. That young actor was Steve McQueen.
Years later, Garfein was trying to attract a studio to produce what ultimately became his masterpiece, the 1962 film Something Wild. MGM wanted to make it, but studio folk were alarmed at how Garfein wanted to depict the rape that begins the movie, and the manner in which the protagonist deals with it. They wanted big changes that would take away the film's stunning ambiguity, and water it down. “Intuitively, I knew I couldn’t compromise,” Garfein said. Consciously he didn’t know why. “But I knew it was wrong. I trusted that in myself.” He turned MGM down and made the film with another studio for significantly less money, but without compromising.
Fifty years later, Garfein found himself watching the film with an enthusiastic festival crowd. He was a weeping mess—not because his long-forgotten masterwork finally was getting the appreciation it deserved, but because he'd had a revelation about the movie's main character. "That girl was me. I'd never realized that before," Garfein said. It wasn't until then that he understood why he fought so hard not to compromise. "When a director does a film, he has to permit the relationship to somehow come to him even though he may not understand it or know it—he fights for something not based on other movies but on a reality that he feels inside of himself."
Letting the unconscious take the wheel is how Garfein always has worked, and now "intuition,” “subconscious,” “life,” and “love” are the words he uses most in his teaching. For me, these words court cliché, their meanings so slippery as to approach meaninglessness. But Garfein has lived a life so raw and real and full that when I listen to him their true meanings are restored.
Jack's biggest revelations, his greatest breakthroughs, have come through love and acceptance. And the respectful examination of all that makes up his "self," both good and bad, is what fuels that love. For Jack, this process of inner observation and outward love isn't just helpful to the director; it is essential, foundational, when the director is searching for answers in the work. "Observation of your own life, in a deep way, even the ugly parts, not to be afraid of that, and to be open to other people, through love, that's how you can find it," Jack told me. "Because through real love you’re open. Real love. Not based on bullshit, on money, success, but based on caring and wanting to grow as a human being through this person. And if you don't have a person to love, then through love of the universe, God, the mystery."
If Garfein hadn't survived eleven concentration camps as a teenager, his life would still be extraordinary. He was among the first five Holocaust survivors to arrive in the United States and, remarkably, just seven years after the war, in his early twenties, he was directing acclaimed plays in New York. Besides McQueen, he discovered Ben Gazzara and George Peppard, and put James Dean in his first play. Before Garfein's marriage to the brilliant actress Carroll Baker ended badly (the two have barely spoken in fifty years), he directed her in her greatest performance in Something Wild.
He sponged up wisdom from Elia Kazan, John Ford, and George Stevens while watching them shoot their legendary films. He directed plays by his friend Samuel Beckett, spent many Sundays with his other buddy Henry Miller. Jack always has some perfect nugget of wisdom at the ready that was bestowed upon him by the masters he’s rubbed elbows with. But his most valuable sagacity regarding directing comes from his own experience.
If there is a more elusive field of study, I am unaware of it. The volumes upon volumes written about directing actors (even words written by the most respected authors) actually add up to nothing, maybe even less than nothing, when the director stands in the field in front of that wild-eyed beast called the actor. I say “less than nothing” because directing actors is the only endeavor I am aware of where choosing to say absolutely nothing is often much more helpful (to the actor) than anything you might choose to say. One tried and true bit of direction that works for one actor can just as easily have actual negative effects on another. The same goes for exercises, training methods, rehearsals, or the deliberate avoidance thereof. It can be a paralyzing minefield.
When actors are asked what makes a good director, the most popular answer had to do with creating a safe environment for them to work. I asked Garfein how he creates a safe environment. And what does that really mean? “Bullshit, is what it means,” Jack said. “What’s so amazing about actors is very few know about acting, so they hear phrases and lines and they use them without any meaning. When they say, ‘safe environment,’ they mean details of where they are going, what’s happened before, etc. Well, if they know how to use it, great. But the point is they have to do all the work, not the director.”
That's a challenging answer. Or liberating? Garfein himself had to go through a process of challenge and liberation with his early mentor Lee Strasberg, the director of the Actors Studio. The development of Garfein's own acting and directing technique started with a slow and painful transition from deferential underling of Strasberg to total defection from his "method.” He details Strasberg's transgressions against him, and the craft itself, in Life and Acting, an amazing half-memoir-training manual hybrid. "Though peerless at recognizing talent and possessing an uncanny appreciation for the personal in an actor’s work,” Garfein wrote of Strasberg, “he was nevertheless ignorant of the basic tenets of human nature that formed the special discipline of this art.”
Jack told me a story of confronting Strasberg as the latter was guiding students through relaxation work on a beach in Malibu. Determining that relaxation, in this case, meant docility and frictionless amenability to a director's will, Garfein enraged Strasberg by likening the exercise to a manifestation of fascism. "Of course there’s tension before you work," he explained. "Why? Because you’re trying to create something and that’s the most challenging thing in the world. But still, how do you get out of your present reality and step into that reality? It’s not the tension. The tension tells you something. The tension tells you not ‘relax your muscles,’ the tension tells you there’s something you’re not doing that you have to do in order for the involvement to come by itself." So perhaps the exercise of relaxing misses the point.
Garfein very much believes in creating a situation and a scenario for your actor that would compel him or her to respond in the moment, without getting caught up in “performance.” A significant part of this is helping actors create a real connection to the objects around them in the scene. “It is essential that the placement of objects reflect a precise history of how they ended up in the condition and place where they are found,” Garfein writes in Life and Acting. “Things should not be placed as a general illustration of a character’s life. They should express the inherent nature of the way his or her existence revolved around them.” It’s the simple process of turning something general into something specific that makes all the difference. The more specific the actor gets about everything in the scene, the more connected he or she is, and the more alive the performance. This seems pretty straightforward and simple. But I’ve seen countless productions where the lack of simple specificity is palpable.
Garfein’s first film, The Strange One (1957), takes place in a military academy. He hired all real ex-cadets and young officers to be in the marching scenes. On the first take, Garfein noticed that despite knowing exactly how to march, they were just going through the motions. Before rolling again, he announced that there would be a contest. Judges would decide the best marching unit in the shots. First prize $400, second prize $200, and so on. The results are on display in the film. Dozens of men giving it their all, fully committed. “They were all non-actors, but I gave them the action they needed,” Jack said, “Something to bring it out.”
One last word on intuition. Specifically, Jack’s. In that story I retold, about discovering Steve McQueen, I mentioned that Jack had an intuition about another young actor that day as well. But instead of giving him a role, he asked that young man to be his directing assistant. “But I’m an actor,” was the reply. “I know,” Garfein said. “But I think you’ll be good.” And he was. Twenty-five years later, that young actor-turned-director came up to Garfein at an event in Paris. “How the fuck did you know?” he asked. That man was Sydney Pollack. How do you develop your intuition? I should’ve asked Jack that myself, but it’s an embarrassing question. That’s not something you learn. It’s something you live.
A Chekhov quote hangs above Garfein’s desk at his studio in Paris. He is very fond of the quote. He recited it to me more than once, and now I’ll leave it with you: “If you want to work on your art, work on your life.”