AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Some of today's biggest stars, like Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and Adam Driver - they have something in common. They studied under the same teacher at the Juilliard School in New York City. His name is Moni Yakim. And he has played a role in the lives of literally thousands of performers. Alexandra Starr attended Yakim's class and has this profile.
MONI YAKIM: Inhale deeply, rectifying spine and...
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Then 18 Juilliard drama students exhale as a group, as they stand on their tiptoes. Moni Yakim, their movement teacher, guides them through the process of lifting themselves up.
YAKIM: These ropes pull the arms now, pull the shoulders, the chest, the waist, the pelvis, and then...
STARR: It's taxing. And the students are sweating. Yakim urges them on.
YAKIM: Go for it. Go for it now. Let's see how much you want it.
STARR: A lot of Yakim's class is physical training. But there's also improvisation, which can turn a little wild.
YAKIM: Let the physical attitude now impact your inner life. And that lead you wherever it would. Vocally and physically, you are on your own.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Vocalizing).
STARR: Moni Yakim was born in Israel more years ago than he cares to say. He's taught movement at Juilliard since the school opened in 1968. He's the longest-serving member of the faculty. He says his class prepares students to embody roles.
YAKIM: Embody means the entire being - the psychological aspect, emotional, mental, physical.
STARR: Yakim trained as a mime, studying with French masters at Etienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau. He's not just teaching his students technique. He says that by pushing them out of their physical comfort zone, he's expanding their imaginations.
YAKIM: And in acting, you have to use a lot your imagination. And the imagination does not go naturally to places where the body knows that the body cannot go there. And the more you free the body, the more you are capable, the freer the imagination is to go wherever it needs to go.
STARR: It's gone far for a number of students. Kevin Kline was in the first class Moni Yakim taught at Juilliard. Adam Driver passed through several years ago.
YAKIM: Adam Driver was a delight because this guy worked his tail off. After a class where everybody was utterly exhausted, he would still do 20 pushups. I mean, he was ruthless about the work.
STARR: Yakim is still close with Driver's "Star Wars" co-star Oscar Isaac. He studied with you came almost two decades ago. When he was cast as Macbeth in a Juilliard production, Isaac says Yakim reminded him he was playing a soldier.
OSCAR ISAAC: And he talked about the profession of the man. You know, (unintelligible) - this is a guy that holds - what? - a sword a lot. You know, like, well, what does that do to your arm? How does that change your shoulder? How does that change the way you move, where your center of weight is?
STARR: Isaac worked with Yakim when he was cast in the Coen brothers' movie "Inside Llewyn Davis." He plays the lead, a 1960s destitute folk singer who's couch surfing across New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah?
ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) Hey, it's me, Llewyn.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah?
ISAAC: (As Llewyn Davis) Can I come up?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No.
STARR: Isaac says Yakim helped him find his character's bearing.
ISAAC: We just started kind of moving and talk about the burden of life. And he moves like a camel, actually, you know? And so we just started finding that camel movement, someone that's walking against the wind. For me, that was a major part of playing that character - holding onto those physical things.
STARR: Juilliard students don't take Moni Yakim's class until their second year of training. They do get a taste, though, before they enroll - during callback weekend. That's when 40 to 50 prospects come to New York City for a final tryout.
ARIANNA GAYLE STUCKI: That was the class that made me say, I need to come to this school because it was so intense and also so joyful.
STARR: That's Arianna Gayle Stucki, one of Yakim's current students. Her classmate Gabriela Saker is from Cuba. She says that because Yakim keeps a quick tempo in class, she doesn't have the opportunity to overthink. It's made her less self-conscious.
GABRIELA SAKER: You get rid of your inhibitions. You can make a fool of yourself. But also, you take the work seriously.
STARR: That day, Moni Yakim instructed Saker and the other students to get out of balance but not to fall. She did fall. But that seemed to be the point - finding the limit of what she could do and resolving to push past it next time.
For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.
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