“Where are the Pacinos? Where are the Hoffmans and the DeNiros? Where are the up and comers like the guys who made the edgy, grimy films of the 70s so great?” So went the lament during an era when filmgoers had experienced a shift to a newer, softer and younger “model” that had burgeoned during the 1980s.
And oh, had the teen-agers piled in and piled on: Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio and others had become known as the “the brat pack” and largely became the “newer” breed of film star. There were traditionally trained actors in the mix, to be sure, but Hollywood latched onto “kids” whose training was either flat-out nil, or who learned their craft not on stage as had so many of their predecessors, but while the cameras were actually rolling.
The trend continued with an endless stream of children and adolescents: Leonardo DiCaprio, Andrew McCarthy, Meg Ryan, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Tobey Maquire, Reese Witherspoon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dakota Fanning, and Jennifer Lawrence, to give just a small sampling. “Kids”, many of whom started in television and proving themselves in that medium, were moved along the Hollywood conveyor belt and then graduated to roles in feature films. Increasingly, this had became the process of development for the new American movie star. And so, with some exceptions, most notably foreign actors from English speaking countries (e.g. England and Australia), it continues.
What happened? Certainly, there was no dearth of the swelling numbers of conservatory trained actors coming out of the increasingly popular and competitive degree drama programs in America. Yet many of this group seemed to be moving into an ever-expanding television market while the more “established”, if less formally trained younger actors kept advancing to the more rarefied air of film stardom. By the 1990s a seismic shift in the way Hollywood recruited their young had taken hold and the culture of men and women had now given way to the boys and the girls.
In more recent years, however, Hollywood, largely through the burgeoning power of the internet,has been able to discover, or at least “see” more of the work of actors in foreign countries who appeared to have acquired a certain gravitas– largely attributed to training –that was perceived to be lacking in the American actor. Increasingly, foreign actors were being recruited and in the minds of some at least, to be “taking over” the American film and television industry. Hollywood was aware that many, if not most actors in foreign countries where English was the mother tongue, were eager to come to work in the United States. Here the chances of having an international career were far greater than staying home in the United Kingdom or Australia were likely to provide. And most of these actors were willing to work for moderate wages, at least in the early stages of what would often turn out to be ever-expanding careers.
Still, we were told, repeatedly, that the “training” of the foreigners was key. Well, yes and no. Much of what was written in this regard did not hold up under actual research, although the knee-jerk “they are better-trained” seemed to be a de-facto association, especially with the British. However, over time a surprising number of British actors, often Academy Award/Emmy Award winners/nominees, happily revealed that they had “no training whatsoever.” Perception and presumption go a long way.
As we moved into the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century the quantity of scripted American television product was in a state of seemingly unlimited expansion, doubling and tripling the previous amount of content found on the air some years earlier. “On the air” itself took on a somewhat new meaning as broadcast television had made room for cable and both were now facing competition from the newer streaming services of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. And so, the demand for new “series regulars” expanded along with the quantity of television itself. It was then that we really started to observe the mass escalation of British, Australian, Scottish and Irish actors who were often being selected over Americans, and many Americans wondered why there weren’t “enough of us” to fill the demand.
There were. Yet there is more to being cast as a regular on a television series or a lead in a feature film than simply the ability to be able to “do it.” Much, if not most of being a candidate for employment at high levels of the industry requires being at a career level to realistically expect being considered for the assignment. Understandably, studio and network executives want/need to feel that whomever is chosen has, at least to some degree, already proven themselves and shown some consistency in quality of work and reputation.
What was unknown to most Americans was just how many of the British and Australians being insourced had attained remarkably impressive credits in their homeland prior to their engagements here in the USA. Many had already appeared as regulars on a series or two and had either won or been nominated for major acting awards including those given out by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). Again, the internet radically aided and abetted an easy way to “discover” and cherry-pick the cream of the crop from English speaking countries. Increasingly, and even today, studio and network executives spend a great deal of time in their offices streaming television and film from foreign countries.
Searching for talent “over there” has become far more figurative than literal. Obviously, in times past, this method was a non-option. So to those who said “Why?” one response was: “There’s a lot of high-level casting to be done and there are a lot of highly experienced actors we can consider.” In other words, to those who asked “why” the simple answer seemed to be: “Why not?” With the influx of foreign actors, Hollywood was able to provide American audiences with new faces, but new faces who were not inexperienced- which helped to create a win-win situation for executives in Hollywood and for the actors from foreign countries as well.
Dab smack in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century there emerged in the United States a classically-trained stage actor, a man- not a teenager – who began his training as a young adult. He was getting some early “buzz” for his extraordinary work in drama school and being discussed, potentially at least, as “the young generation’s answer to the days and likes of Al Pacino.” Oscar Isaac Hernandez, born in Guatemala, was brought by his parents to the United States as a five-month old infant. The family arrived in Baltimore, moved to Louisiana and ultimately settled in Miami, where Isaac was raised and educated. Showing a strong talent for both music and acting early on, Isaac auditioned and was accepted into The Juilliard School’s prestigious Drama Division where he performed a wide range of contemporary and classical works culminating in his final production in the title role of “Macbeth.”
Following graduation, more Shakespeare beckoned with Isaac garnering a lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor summer production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” There is nothing unusual about a newly minted alum from an A-list conservatory being cast in a New York Shakespeare Festival production, but landing a lead role so quickly- one week after graduation- is a tad out of the ordinary. But then, so was Isaac. He continued to do more classics and contemporary productions at other A-list New York theaters including Manhattan Theatre Club, along with the expected-at-the-time New York actor’s rite de passage appearance on an episode of TV’s Law & Order, along with one film.
Then something happened. Television pursued Isaac, and in a pretty big way. Not unusual for a high-profile, well-trained New York actor appearing in lead roles at the city’s top theaters, but what was unusual was that Isaac declined. Nicely, politely, as is always his way, but nevertheless, he declined. It wasn’t that he had a different or specifically planned “other” strategy, nor was it ego, but such was his talent that Isaac pretty much found himself in a position to accept what interested him and decline what didn’t. And so, minus television he proceeded to build his career in the more old-fashioned New York style and maintained his focus by going back and forth between film and theater, very much like the career of, well Al Pacino, to whom he was now being regularly compared. None of which is to say that had he opted for a television series his film career would have derailed, but given the commitment and scheduling that accompanies most television, he would have been far less likely to have been able to choose the film projects that interested him and be available to do them as their schedules would require.
In fact, after the Law & Order episode, Isaac would be absent from the small screen for many years until he was well-established in film and an HBO mini-series called “Show Me a Hero” would prove irresistible to him. For his performance in “Hero” he was honored with a Golden Globe Award. If audiences felt they needed a young Pacino, they had one. And then some.
One major difference between Isaac and Pacino is that when Pacino decided to tackle Shakespeare it was well after he was established as a movie star and his early efforts with classical material were met with disastrous response. Considered well-trained in his era, Pacino’s background apparently lacked the training that a classics-oriented conservatory would provide the newer and equally serious actor of today’s generation. Despite a relatively recent spate of magazine articles expressing sentiments including “The Crisis in American Acting” and “The Decline of the American Actor”, (articles which proved only to be about movie stars), training in the finest American drama schools is more extraordinary and challenging than ever before. And along with that go the standards for acceptance into such programs. Many top degree programs have a one to two percent acceptance rate which consists of auditions and multiple call-backs with grueling twelve or thirteen hour days of being put to the test by the faculty and administration in order to be admitted. Those who nostalgically long for the days of the old New York theater training programs heralded in the articles to which I refer above, often forget that some of those schools of yore granted entree simply “by interview.”
And so we move to the second actor of this discussion: Adam Driver. Born in San Diego, Driver was also accepted into and trained at The Juilliard School. Again, we had a young man, in this case a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, beginning his formal training as an adult, and entering his profession fully grounded and classically trained. Immediately upon graduation, he earned admission into the highest levels of New York theater, including performing lead roles in Broadway productions of such British playwrights as George Bernard Shaw and Terence Rattigan. Driver, like Isaac before him, quickly did his obligatory Law & Order. Then something happened that proved very different from Isaac’s experience. Television beckoned in the form of HBO’s Girls and Driver accepted. And whatever Girls was or wasn’t, this was no ordinary television show.
From the very first episodes many critics felt that Driver, from an acting standpoint at least, was the heft and substance of the show. As Girls was finishing its fourth season, the future of Driver’s character seemed uncertain. Not coincidentally, the demand for Driver’s services in the world of feature film was burgeoning. At this point, many felt the show was losing its edge. Clearly, Girls wanted Driver to stay. As the seasons wore on, it was Driver who continued to receive Emmy nominations while Lena Dunham’s, at least in the acting category, had subsided.
But here’s the thing: Girls was a twenty-eight minute episode show which, with the exception of one season, ran only ten episodes per season. The amount of content along with the schedule of the show made it considerably easier for Driver to accept other projects than had it been a one hour show with twice as many episodes per season as Girls. So both Driver and Isaac had the good fortune of having somewhat flexible schedules to pursue what they chose to pursue.
What, then, is the upshot here? Just this: contrary to what has reached mythical proportions in the media, there are actors who are raised, educated and classically trained at top American drama schools who start their careers as adults, not as children or teenagers, possessed of the gravitas attributed largely to their British counterparts and who are themselves, moving forward in modern day film. As mentioned earlier, there is no dearth of such actors who are wildly successful in American television at this time, but seeing a new breed of what some feel is an older world model of actor thriving in film once again is a joy. And in the “unconventional” leading man movie star category as well. Yet, call Oscar Isaac a “movie star” and he won’t like it. Call Adam Driver a “leading man” and he says, “I’m like a sight gag.” Unconventional indeed.
I am blessed that my work allows me to see and mentor new and compelling, classically trained actors of great substance. I will continue to tell stories of their professional journey in upcoming “chapters” of this series. Stay tuned.
Brian O’Neil is the best-selling author of Acting As a Business: Strategies for Success: Fifth Edition. A former talent agent, he teaches at many of the country’s top drama programs including The Juilliard School and New York University. He coaches privately as well. For more information, please visit http://www.actingasabusiness.com.