LYNN NEARY, host:
Catching actors in the act of acting is what photographer Howard Schatz set out to do in his latest project. He enlisted Edie Falco, Peter Falk, Don Cheadle and many others and gave them a set of directions. Some were silly. You're a four year old letting the family's pet parakeet out of the cage. Others were tragic. You're a Marine gunnery sergeant coming back from patrol where one of your men was killed.
The actors conveyed the feelings behind those moments with only their faces and hands. And for every change of expression, Mr. Schatz snapped a photo. The result, a staggering array of actorly emotions in a new book of photography called In Character: Actors Acting.
Howard Schatz joins us from New York now.
Welcome to the show.
Mr. HOWARD SCHATZ (Photographer): Thank you, Lynn. Nice to be here.
NEARY: And with him is actress Martha Plimpton. She's also joining us from New York. And she participated in this book as well.
Thanks so much for being with us, Martha.
Ms. MARTHA PLIMPTON (Actress): Of course. It's my pleasure.
First, Howard, what were you hoping to capture about acting in these photos?
Mr. SCHATZ: Well, I didn't know too much about acting, actually. The creative process really interests me. I wanted to see what happened when you threw a ball to an actor, what could they do? And from the beginning of this project and throughout I was awed and really astonished. It's quite amazing what a really great professional actor can do.
NEARY: Martha Plimpton, what did you think of the project when you first heard about it when it was first proposed to you?
Ms. PLIMPTON: I thought it sounded like a fascinating idea. We are sort of fascinated with actors and their faces. Obviously, your face is sort of your most obvious part of your instrument. And you know, the examination of that seemed really interesting to me. So I thought, you know, that sounds wonderful.
NEARY: Let me ask you both about limiting the photos to hands and facial expressions. Howard Schatz, why did you make that decision not to have it be the entire body?
Mr. SCHATZ: I felt that what occurs in the face and then sometimes the torso with hands really would make for a great challenge. What can an actor do if that's all they're given? They're not given a scene, there was no makeup, there were no costumes, and I changed the parts on them. I had a man be a man and then I asked them to be a woman. I had them be children or old people.
NEARY: Was it George Segal that you had giving birth?
Mr. SCHATZ: Yeah, we put him in labor with a major contraction and he went through the entire contraction and then on his own invented the exhaustion and relief after the contraction left, and he did it silently. Some of the actors, I would say out of a hundred, maybe 10 or 20, made up their own lines. They needed to. And others acted in silence, and powerfully. George Segal went through this entire contraction in silence, but there it is as real as could be.
NEARY: Just so our listeners have an idea of the kinds of scenarios that were acted out, let's talk about yours, Martha Plimpton. You were asked to act out a little story of a waitress, I think a single mom, telling her lecherous boss that she's quitting her job, then begging for it back and then reacting when he agrees to take you back.
Ms. MARTHA PLIMPTON (Actress): The main thing I remember from my session is that I just hate being photographed. I really, really can't stand it. And for some reason there's something different between a moving camera. There's something much more vulnerable about placing yourself in front of a still camera. And so, Howard had to work very hard on me to get me to relax because I like to use my job as a way of sort of in some ways hiding who I am. I like to express myself through my work, but I'm not the kind of person who likes to show everybody my feelings. Do you know what I mean?
Ms. PLIMPTON: And I like to let the work do that.
NEARY: But if you were given that same scenario, you're a waitress, you're telling your lecherous boss you quit. You realize, oh my gosh, what I have done, you try and get your job back, he says you can come back. What is the emotional arc there? What's going on internally emotionally in an actor's mind to try and bring something like that to life?
Ms. PLIMPTON: The first thing I would come up with or that I would suggest might be running through that person's mind is fear. She doesn't want to work for this guy anymore, you know, and so she's furious with him. She's had enough. But then the second she actually does it, she instantly regrets it. I mean, the interesting thing for me is very often, in what way do we want to tell this story? Do we want to tell it in a way that it's a triumphant story of a waitress overcoming her fears, or are we telling the story of a woman who is terrified to go against authority? It all depends on the tale we want to tell. And it's just taking regular life and putting it outside of itself, making it bigger.
NEARY: What were the sessions like?
Ms. PLIMPTON: In a weird way it's like going into an audition without having read the script. It's like what the heck am I doing? You are a little bit at the mercy of someone else, which is actually, can be really rather wonderful, and I think, you know, the photographs that have come out sort of convey that.
Mr. SCHATZ: Sometimes I would throw another ingredient. I would say you're a teenage boy flirting with a girl, but now you're the girl, you're just thinking that you hope this football captain on the high school football team really likes me. Just to explore things and see where they went. And I was able to make things up as I went along.
NEARY: Well, what I was struck by in some of these photos was if I didn't look at what the scenario was and I looked at the expressions on the faces, I might not have guessed what emotion the actor was going towards. But then when I read what it was, it always seemed to fit very well. It wasn't my thought, my idea about it, but it gave me a sense of how nuanced acting can be. I might've expected an actor to look angry in one instance and instead they looked just very tired or world-weary and I was interested in the fact that actors would go to a sort of subtler kind of emotional place.
Ms. PLIMPTON: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Mr. SCHATZ: Some of that, in fact, is in the edit. Every one of them with a suggestion could express a variety of things that all said the same thing in a different way. And in a way I had a problem. I had an edit. I made 10, 15 photographs per direction and each photograph was subtly or more greatly different from the previous one.
NEARY: How much do you really think can be conveyed in one look emotionally?
Ms. PLIMPTON: Well, that's the thing. I do think we get our queues in life from the faces, you know, other people make at us. Because of course, you know, anybody can play angry. The question is what kind of angry are you, you know, and that's where the storytelling comes in.
Mr. SCHATZ: I think it's a really creative skill. I was lucky enough to sit in the first row and the only row in this theatre and, you know, be the only person in the audience for all of this wonderful performance. Couldn't wait to get the film back and see it. It was thrilling, tremendous.
NEARY: Well, thanks so much to both of you for joining us today. It was great fun talking to you both.
Ms. PLIMPTON: Thank you.
Mr. SCHATZ: Thank you.
NEARY: Actress Martha Plimpton and photographer Howard Schatz talking about the new photography book In Character: Actors Acting. Ms. Plimpton can be seen on Broadway in Shining City, and you can see photos from the book at our Web site, NPR.org.