So You Want to be An Actor? Meet Joe Palese, the Shadow Coach
I had the pleasure of attending Joe Palese’s acting class in Sherman Oaks. His method of training the actor makes me want to get up and start performing. There have been so many acting coaches in this town and they have introduced over the years methods of training that, in my opinion, have only led to the confusion of acting.
I sat down with Joe after his class to find out why I wanted to jump up on stage and start performing. Joe was taught the art of acting from Academy Award® winning actor Martin Landau. Joe tells me that Martin Landau influenced and shaped his approach to the reality of acting. As an actor, Joe has worked with James Earl Jones, Tom Beringer and the late John Belushi. He was a series regular on Hill Street Blues; Joe has been acting and teaching for over thirty years!
Q: I understand you are the first acting coach to depart from what we have come to understand as the rule of basic training?
A: I’m not quite sure what you mean by “the rule of basic training.” I believe you are referring to my approach to critiquing scene work. I can’t speak to any other acting teachers’ approach to the work. My format is two parts. After the scene is performed on stage with a full set and appropriate props and costumes, the actors come off the stage and we engage in the first phase. This may consist of questioning them. The first thing I ask is “How did you feel in the scene?” This question is important immediately after the scene because when the actor is working on set and the director says “cut,” the actor has to make adjustments that are necessary to make the scene better in the next take. I ask this question immediately to condition the actor to do the same when working on a film or a TV show. After the actors make their initial assessments, I will either validate or adjust their choices. Each scene has its own special problems, but there are some choices that are basic to all scenes. Emotional preparation, scene objective, relationship and transitions or beats, these are intrinsic to all scenes. After this process I will either validate or adjust their choices. Phase two of the critique we move back onto the stage. I say “we” because in this phase I side coach, or as I call it, “shadow,” the actors as we go through the scene, while I monitor the actor’s inner monologue making sure moments are carved and objectives are being played.
Q: Do you stay with the actor instead of sitting and providing a critique?
A: Yes. When I’m shadowing the actor I can really get a sense of when the inner monologue becomes weak. At that moment, the actor stops thinking as the character. When this happens, the actor ceases to be honest and real and the scene becomes false. The audience will only feel what the character feels- no more, no less. Hence, if you can think as the character, you can do no wrong. After we’ve worked through the scene the second time, we come off the stage again for a recap. The actors then get together during the next week to work on their adjustments and bring the scene back to class the following week.
Q: What is the biggest difference with the actors of the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s?
A: The biggest difference is the approach to the work. The actors of the 1940’s had a representational approach. Sometimes honesty and truth in the moment suffered. Studio actors were not necessarily working from an internal organic place, but some instinctively got there. Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy and Gary Grant, to name a few, found ways to make their work organic and honest. The group theatre changed this. They brought Stanislavsky’s approach to the stage and eventually to film in the 1950’s and 60’s. Actors like Brando, Montgomery Clift, Martin Landau, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters, to name a few, were mesmerizing audiences with real emotions on screen. They were using techniques to access feeling and emotions from their own lives and injecting them into lives of the characters they were playing. This forever changed the approach to the work and what would be accepted by audiences.
Q: You seem to take responsibility for the training of an actor, why?
A: Actors come to me with something very precious – their dream. They ask me to train them so they might fulfill that dream and on to a successful career in film and television. It is my responsibility to help them through training to fulfill that dream.
Q: What is lacking today in film and television?
A: The human experience. I feel we are losing that sometimes.
Q: Are you in the moment with the actor as you follow them through their scene?
A: Yes. I am totally in the moment with the actor. I can read what the actor reads from the other actor and I feel what they feel. I could do this from my seat in the audience/class, but then I would be just getting results as an audience does. When I shadow the actors I am inside their world, inside the wall, and I am better able to feel the truth in the scene, yet always allowing them to take me along with them, and careful not overpower the actor and play the scene myself. I must only be the shadow,
Q: I understand it is not uncommon for the actor to give you credit for having secured the role?
A: Actors do call me and thank me for helping them, particularly when I coach them privately for an audition. It still excites me when someone I’ve coached gets a job, whether it’s a series regular or a featured role. It’s still always fun for me to get those calls. When I work with the actors, I feel like we are on a journey together. Ultimately, the actor walks into that audition alone. My job is to make sure they are prepared.
Q: How many celebrities in film and television apply the Palese system of acting?
A: That’s a difficult question to answer because the tools and techniques I teach have been around since the days of Stanislavsky. Even the legends of acting, such as Strassberg, Meisner and Stella Adler, to name a few, borrowed and adapted their approaches to the work from people before them. It’s a craft that’s been handed down generation to generation. I was fortunate to get it close to its source and I try to keep true to what I was taught.
Q: You studied with some of the most renowned acting coaches of this century. What was Martin Landau like as an acting coach?
A: Martin Landau is one of the kindest, most generous teachers I have ever known. He is an artist in the truest sense. I don’t think class goes by without my referring to some gem I learned from Martin. Milton Katselas was also a major influence on me. He was brilliant in his choices, and I learned to be “bold” and to “take chances” from him. If choice scares me, I must do it,
Q: What do you think makes the actor?
A: This is going to sound cliché, but hard work and commitment. There are many actors in L.A. by name only. Martin Landau’s motto was “Actor’s Act,” and I am a firm believer in that. Being an actor is like being an athlete or a dancer; you can’t just show up for the game or the dance recital and expect to be at the height of your game. By working your craft, you keep the creative juices flowing so when the auditions come you are loose and primed for whatever the instrument needs to do.
I’ve noticed over the years that scenes with dialogue are getting shorter and being replaced with action scenes; it seems our attention spans are shorter. I watched a documentary recently about World War II which focused on the letters from servicemen to their loved ones. These letters were written so eloquently elegantly. Now we text or “tweet,” using bad grammar and symbols rather than full words to express ourselves. My job is to get actors to “think” again, to stretch their imaginations, to bring the human experience to an audience.