How spirituality ties into acting, the traits that make an actor successful and how online casting changed the industry
When deciding what kind of Hollywood professional I wanted to interview for my first blog post, I immediately thought to start with the foundation of the industry: the craft of acting. Without it, what could Hollywood ever be? So, to answer my questions about what acting is and what makes an actor good, I thought of Zak Barnett, teacher and studio-owner of Zak Barnett Studios. He’s digging deeper with his ‘Spirituality, Entertainment, Activism’ approach to the art. Also joining us for our mid-day meal was John Rushing, teacher and new Director of Development at ZBS. What I thought would be a simple lunch interview about acting and actors, turned into a profoundly informative, philosophical and open dialogue uncovering new layers to something I thought I knew all about. Find out how actors really transform into some of your most beloved characters with Zak Barnett and John Rushing here.
Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about the journey that eventually brought you to teaching in Los Angeles.
ZAK: Hmmm, well it started as me being an NYU dropout. Very inspiring, I know. I moved across the country where I created a theatre company in San Francisco. At 21, I was the artistic director and we performed at a local college that eventually asked me to design their bachelors and masters programs. For 9 or 10 years I designed the program where I would have liked to have gone to. It was for actors who were also writing and directing and creating their own work. I centered it around activism and spirituality and how that fits into the artistic process. Then, I made a movie that brought me to LA. I started studying at an acting studio where I was asked to start teaching. That gave me insight into Hollywood and the needs of all the different genres- horror movies, Disney projects, procedurals, etc. Those are the main bullet points.
JOHN: I was a child actor since the age of 5. I started in theatre and eventually started doing commercial, TV and film work out of the Dallas market. My dad wasn’t too hip to that so I ended up studying philosophy in college where I picked up an undergrad and graduate degree. I went to law school and became a trial lawyer. Trial law is, to some extent, teaching and storytelling. It’s explaining to a jury a particular view of the world. I didn’t love being an attorney, though. Eventually I started getting involved in Chicago theatre and producing and then decided to become a full-time actor. I did a two-year Meisner program and was lucky enough to find consistent work in commercials and Chicago theatre. When I moved to LA, I studied at the same school Zak did and began teaching there, as well. I’ve coached in China, Canada, for big movies and small. I’ve coached unknowns and stars. And, I don’t know, turned out I was good at it. Or maybe I just like talking too much and that turns you into a teacher.
ZAK: Hahahaha. It’s one of the criteria.
Zak, when did you know you would eventually open your own acting school?
ZAK: I feel like I knew from the beginning. I always knew that this art, to me, is a lifelong process of mastery, and ultimately, the transcendence of self into selflessness. So I knew I wanted a hub of investigation into the art form and to surround myself with the best possible teachers I could find. And that’s the real intention behind this school. I don’t want a studio where it’s me and a bunch of mini-me’s. I wanted a studio where I would be challenged by the other teachers. So I’m creating a network of people who are really trying to evolve the art and are asking themselves those [spirituality, entertainment, activism] questions and then the students get to be a part of that conversation.
John, how do you feel when Zak calls you one of the best acting teachers out there?
JOHN: Well, I feel really lucky to be a part of this studio. For Zak to say, ‘I want creative, engaged teachers and not just people that are implementing a mini-me kind of vision’ is exciting. We are asking questions like, ‘How are we contributing to the art, how are we exploring it, making it deeper for ourselves and our students.’ I really think I learn as much, if not more, from my students than they might from me. It’s this amazing symbiosis where it’s not a top-down approach. There’s a really cool dialogue that’s happening between the student and the instructor that builds on each other and opens up new avenues to explore the art.
And why do you think acting is an important art?
ZAK: That’s a great question because I really believe it is. For me, acting began after I had a traumatic event happen in my late teens and I lost my proprioception, which is the knowledge of where your body is in space. So I thought my back was on my front, I didn’t know where my legs were and acting became a sort of rehabilitation to put myself back together again. I had to learn to use my human instrument on an emotional, physical, psychological level and it’s been profoundly healing. But overall, I believe acting is empathy turned into art. You have to look at your connections between people, not what separates you. If you’re going to become a character, you can’t judge them. So you have to find the point at which you can understand their point of view from an emotional place. And human connection is what life is all about.
“The truth is what moves us. We recognize it in such an intuitive way. If an actor is separated from their truth, there’s no way they can connect to a character…”
I know spirituality is a big part of your school. How does it intertwine with acting?
ZAK: Spirituality is one of those words that can be really frightening and everyone has different definitions of it so I’m glad you asked. There’s something magical that happens in acting and that’s why people keep coming back to it. There is a moment as an actor where you think, ‘How am I so invested in this person’s circumstances that aren’t my own that I’m crying or laughing or fighting for something like my life depended on it? How is that possible that I’m both someone else and myself at the same time?’ And I don’t know what to call that. But there’s a reason why there are 5,000 shows on TV. You have all these people through the TV set looking for themselves. They experience something through the character that wakes them up. So there’s a deep communication that’s happening on a spiritual level.
John was talking about this book that he was reading (Acting, Archetype, and Neuroscience) on the neurosciences of the actor and there was an example of someone swinging a baseball bat and an audience member looking at the person swinging the baseball bat. They were doing brain scans on both and the audience member had the same neurons firing as the baseball player. That’s incredible.
There’s also self-study. Spirituality, to me, doesn’t only mean the connection to some higher-self but it is also the courage to really look at yourself and to be open to what you don’t understand about yourself because that’s how we keep growing.
JOHN: I think your acting problems are your living problems. I see it all the time where an actor is unable to really open up to a particular experience or emotion that the character is having. Why is that? Well, on some level, they’re uncomfortable with that emotional experience and they’re uncomfortable with that part of themselves. And the key question that I keep coming back to as a teacher and an actor, which maybe sounds a little weird, is, ‘How am I not myself?’ And by that I mean, ‘How are you betraying yourself in your life? What is it that you want and you desire and you feel that you’re unable to admit to yourself?’ And I don’t mean to say that you should act on all of your impulses, far from it, but you should at least be aware of what you’re feeling. And I think many, many actors are unable to do that for whatever reasons. Maybe it’s just hard to be that present but I think that being present in your experience is a fundamentally spiritual activity. And that isn’t spiritual in terms of religion or some deep cosmic message. It’s just about being who you are and being honest with yourself.
ZAK: Honesty is almost a better word than spirituality because the truth is what’s effected. The truth is what moves us. We recognize it in such an intuitive way. If an actor is separated from their truth, there’s no way they can connect to a character, no way they can be convincing in a class or audition or performance.
ACTORS & AUDITIONS
Speaking of auditioning, is acting in an audition different than acting on set?
ZAK: I don’t think it’s as different as some people make it out to be. I think that in an audition you really have to create the world for yourself and on set, the world is created around you which helps support your imagination. There are technical adjustments. I’m obviously not climbing a mountain in the audition room. If I go against the wall and start going like this *climbing movements* it’s not going to work out. So you have to figure out how to help create the experience for yourself because it’s not about representing the experience to casting. It’s not what it looks like but what it feels like trying to get into that person’s world. Our bodies respond in a very particular way to our environments. If we’re sitting in my studio right now, I’m going to sit differently on the couch than I do sitting on the couch in this restaurant.
JOHN: You’re living this character’s life and it needs to be honest and real—it needs to be connected and grounded. But it also should be unpredictable and exciting and full of discovery. Discovery happens when you’ve done the work—the inner life is flourishing, but you’ve let it go and you are honestly reacting to what’s happening in the room with the reader, without you trying to manipulate it. Now, flash forward. You’ve booked the job. You’re on set. Is it going to be different? Sure. Is it going to be subtly different? Probably. Is it going to grow over time if you’re a series regular? It better because I’m not going to tune in in year 3 if it isn’t different or deeper.
“I know there are a lot of actors that feel, ‘Oh, this is broadcast TV. It’s not that sophisticated.’ But you have to have humility in the script analysis.”
Breakdown how an actor should get ready for an audition.
JOHN: Well, they should come see us, hahaha.
ZAK: I want to answer this simply. The process of becoming a character happens in a series of stages. Hopefully this won’t be too abstract.
- First, I’m unconscious and incompetent. So I’m unaware that I’m doing something badly.
- Then, I’m conscious and incompetent. I’m aware I’m doing something badly.
- Then, I’m conscious and competent. I’m aware I’m doing something correctly.
- And finally, I’m unconscious and competent. I don’t have to think about it and I’m doing it correctly.
It’s important to know what stage you’re in.
When you get the script, you’re not supposed to be ready to perform. You’re supposed to be getting into the world that this character lives inside, looking for the clues in all the relationships and how you can personalize and make it specific to you. I always say, ‘Circle all the people, places, events and objects from the script and tell a story about that,’ because this script is a blueprint to a life that already exists within you. If you start getting specific, and what I mean by getting specific is, when your emotional life reacts to your imagination, the experience becomes embedded in your brain in a way that feels like it’s true because our unconscious doesn’t know the difference between fantasy and reality.
Once they have people, places, events and objects, I’ll ask actors to go through and write the subtext for every line because people don’t say what they mean. That’s one of the biggest actor mistakes. They think people say what they mean but you have to look at the relationships, what’s at stake, what the people need from one another, and then you can really get an idea of the subtext. These steps are bridging analysis and feeling. And as you move further within the stages of becoming a character, you have to get to that place of forgetting.
It’s counter-intuitive but if, before you go into an audition, you are sitting there reading your script over and over and you’re asking yourself questions like, ‘How can I do this right?’ it will make you NOT become the character and it will make you do it wrong. You need to put the script down and start internalizing all the information from the character’s perspective and translating it.
Oops! Not a short answer, hahaha.
JOHN: I put it into 3 steps. Step 1 is the intellectual exercise of understanding the world that the writer has given you. That’s script analysis. That shouldn’t be diminished or under-estimated. I know there are a lot of actors that feel, ‘Oh, this is broadcast TV. It’s not that sophisticated.’ But you have to have humility in the script analysis. You have to approach the text thinking that the writer has created a really detailed world and they know more about it than you do.
Step 2 is the internalization of the world. This is not a mental exercise. If you’re thinking about it, you’re screwed. Acting is an athletic exercise but the athleticism is through flexing an emotional muscle. So the script analysis is there in order to help you construct the memories and imagination that will inherently tie you to the character’s life. It requires courage, great imagination, knowing who you are and bringing yourself to the party.
After all of that is done, and you’ve been affected and you feel like you’re living this character, Step 3 is, you have to let it all go. You have to forget it, and live honestly moment to moment with the reader. That’s how the magic happens.
ZAK: You have to give yourself a concrete action to let it go because otherwise you’re going to be like, ‘Okay, I need to let it go, I need to let it go,’ and you have no idea what that really means.
So what does ‘letting go’ really mean?
ZAK: Whatever’s happening is the only thing that’s happening. If you’re nervous and you try to push down your nerves, you’re not going to be present. You’re going to be guarded. But if you actually allow your nerves to be part of it and allow yourself to be the way you are and you bring that into the character, it will transform through the material. Once you’re in an emotionally connected space, you can move anywhere but you have to honor where you are. There is this expression: Whatever you resist, persists.
We did this scene in class recently from Big Little Lies. It was a therapist scene and the actor was playing it like a therapist. I gave him some exercises. I said, ‘What’s your body doing right now? What are you thinking?’ I kept stopping him and he was getting so frustrated with me. And after a while he said, ‘I’m pissed.’ So I said, ‘GO!’ And then the scene lit up. If you read it, it doesn’t seem appropriate for the therapist to be pissed at the person who’s being abused but it made the scene palpable and utterly true and perfect. Then we did another version where he was laughing and it made perfect sense. You have to honor where you are otherwise we’re not watching anything.
JOHN: That’s kind of our secret sauce. We’re pretty good at letting actors figure out where they are and hopefully accepting it so that they can make fluid adjustments. What separates good actors from the rest is integrity. They are who they are and they’re not making any apologies for it. That’s what an artist’s voice is. That’s what we teach.
“Actors are in service. We’re telling stories that hopefully make people remember what it’s like to love or to hate or to feel connected or to be a member of a certain group or to go on a certain emotional ride. We’re in service of the writer’s vision and the director’s vision and we’re in service to our own integrity.”
Speaking of good actors, what kind of traits do you see in your more successful actors? Did you know which actors would ‘pop?’
ZAK: Yes! There are very specific things in my experience. Humility and consistency. The people that come each week with a sense of curiosity about their development and the supportiveness of everyone else’s. I have students in my class that have been with me for 8 years. They work on a series during the week and come to class on the weekends. I always ask my students when they watch themselves, to comment on what they saw, what they liked and what they learned, to really train the perspective towards growth because it’s not about good or bad.
‘What did I see?’ That’s gathering awareness. ‘What did I like?’ That’s reinforcing the foundation. And, ‘What did I learn?’ That’s what’s my next step. But so many actors will tear themselves apart and re-create what is already working because they can’t acknowledge what they did right. If an actor gets 97% of the scene right they think they got an ‘F’ because they missed that 3%. So they can’t ever get past 97% if they can’t acknowledge that they did beautifully for that 97%.
JOHN: It’s like an Oscar nominee feeling like they’ve failed because they didn’t win the Academy award and you see it all the time. What I see, are 2 things: humility and curiosity. I think it’s so easy to always have your eye on what’s next instead of saying, ‘What am I doing well right now?’ and really embracing that and that’s where the humility comes in. It doesn’t matter if you’re a series regular or a movie star. Actors are in service. We’re telling stories that hopefully make people remember what it’s like to love or to hate or to feel connected or to be a member of a certain group or to go on a certain emotional ride. We’re in service of the writer’s vision and the director’s vision and we’re in service to our own integrity.
There are 2 kinds of actors. The ones that experience emotional depth and go, ‘I can’t take that. I don’t want that because it’s too scary.’ Then there are the actors that go, ‘Holy Crap! That’s all I want. Give me more of that. How do I get more?’ That’s the humility. That’s the curiosity. And that’s what makes great artists.
ZAK: One of our students has recently broken out pretty big, Danielle MacDonald from Patti Cake$. So we’re having lunch with a casting director, Gary Zuckerbrod, a couple weeks ago and Danielle’s name came up and he asks, ‘Do you know who discovered her? I did.’ He said, ‘I was in Australia when she was 15 and I saw her in an acting school.’ He said, ‘There were only 2 times in my life I have met someone and knew without a doubt in my mind that they were going to be a superstar and Danielle was one of them.’ I asked, ‘How did you know?’ And the answer was the same way that I know that a great actor is in front of me, which is, through the power of their listening they draw you into their world. It’s not what they say, but how listened to you feel that makes you forget you’re the casting director or the acting coach and, all of a sudden, you’re in the middle of a scene with them. There’s a magnetism that pulls you towards them. So, if actors are asking, ‘Where should I focus?’ Start really thinking about what listening is. It’s not just waiting for the other person to talk.
CASTING DIRECTORS, AGENTS, & MANAGERS
Okay, I need to know. What are some of your pet-peeves with agents and managers?
ZAK: Oh man, put us in the hot seat!
JOHN: Okay, I have one. But know that I love all agents and managers and this is very rare. I think agents and managers are outcome-oriented which is totally understandable. We’re acting coaches. We’re process-oriented and, sometimes, agents and managers will give a outcome note to an actor that really throws them off. The actor will come to me while we’re coaching and say, ‘My manager said when I’m doing this, the camera needs to be right at my eye-level and I have to be really mad and really looking through the lens.’ I’ll say, ‘Okay, well, why don’t we read it? Let’s start from there.’ I understand where [agents and managers] are coming from because they read the script and think the audition needs to be a certain tone, but sometimes that can really throw an actor off.
ZAK: My first response is: I don’t have any issues, I swear! But, we are partnering on developing this talent and agents and managers don’t like acting coaches telling their actors certain things. ‘Your manager should be sending you out more.’ That’s a disaster and we never say those things and never would. It’s not our job. But the other side of it is, if the agent or manager is giving too many process notes, it can get the actor in their head.
There’s a very prominent casting director that we work with a lot and comes to do workshops and we co-teach. We watch these scenes and she’ll say, ‘I know if it’s working. I know if it’s not. I maybe know what’s wrong with it but I have no idea how to tell them how to make it right.’ So she whispers in my ear, I give the actor the note and she’s like, ‘YES.’ Because it’s a different language. We speak actor. She speaks producer. And agents and managers are the same way, so it’s probably that we should all try to stay in our lanes. Sometimes agents and managers tell me the note and I know how to translate that, as long as they don’t tell the actor.
JOHN: Yes, we have different processes.
ZAK: There’s an expression: Actors are the only people that try to feel, everyone else tries not to. So when someone gives someone a note like, ‘You need to be crying. You need to be angry,’ it’s counter-intuitive. So what we have to do as acting coaches, is create the circumstances in such a way that will create the outcome rather than asking the actor to do it directly because then they will resist.
I’ve definitely done this once or twice so I’m glad I asked! Now onto casting directors. What is your opinion about casting directors being charged with criminal offenses for casting director workshops?
JOHN: I think LA County is doing what they think they need to from a legal perspective. The casting directors that I know, I respect all of them, and I think they’re amazing. They need to meet a lot of actors and that’s a really hard thing for them to do.
ZAK: I stand with the casting directors. I know in Los Angeles, if you’re not repped, it’s almost impossible. So casting director workshops provide a possibility. You go in knowing what you’re signing up for. A casting director’s job is to remember people. Their job is to be moved by what they see. And if you move them, of course they’re going to remember you. Personally, as an actor, I’ve had relationships develop through casting director workshops.
JOHN: I also think the industry has really changed. Online casting was a tectonic shift. A buddy of mine is a showrunner and, for a co-star, they get about 3,000 submissions. In that world, it gets really, really difficult for an actor to get seen because only 30 actors are going in for the audition. And I can understand actors wanting access to casting directors. In that world, a casting director doesn’t have time for generals anymore. How in the world can you when you have to sort through 3,000 people for a co-star and you have to hire 5 co-stars this week?
FUN WITH ZAK & JOHN
I completely agree. But let’s lighten things up. What are your favorite TV shows?
JOHN: OH! Game of Thrones.
ZAK: I’m loving Atypical right now.
JOHN: I love Narcos, too. Narcos is exceptional on so many levels, not the least of which is the acting. I think Mindhunter is the subtlest, well-drawn 10-arc series that I’ve seen recently. Cameron Britton should be nominated for an Emmy. For a throwback- I’ve been watching Hill Street Blues. It’s one of the first police dramas that really went into the lives of the characters. It’s also so interesting to see what was going on in the early 80s and how things have changed both in terms of acting style and storytelling. And my secret sin? Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
ZAK: Okay, my favorite of all time? The X-Files.
JOHN: YES! Really? My man, I love it. (They high-five.)
ZAK: I think it probably freaks people out to know that for many years it was my bedtime story. There’s something about it that makes me feel relaxed. Do you know what you call someone who loves The X-Files?
ZAK: An x-phile. (Laughter all around.)
JOHN: I’m still catching up on Peaky Blinders. I’m catching up on Season 3.
I love Peaky Blinders! Season 4, November 15th. How about favorite actors?
ZAK: Oh, jeez. I was going to say John but I’ll say Charlize Theron. And Paul Bettany. I love Robert Downey Jr., Viola Davis. I think she’s my Meryl Streep more than Meryl Streep. She out-Meryl’s it for me. Sterling K. Brown, too. There’s someone who knows what he’s doing. There are so many fantastic actors!
JOHN: My list is slightly less-known actors. I think Andre Royo is one of the best actors of his generation. He played Bubbles in Wire and the fact that he was never nominated for an Emmy is an unforgivable sin. Tracy Letts is one of the most soulful, subtle, deeply-connected, interesting actors working today. Amy Morton and Laurie Metcalf are absolutely in the stratosphere. If I had to pick a movie star, Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling. Gosling has a way of holding emotion and being in the center of narrative as it swirls around him… that gentleman is an exceptional actor.
Last question. I need to give my readers some juice. What is something that most people don’t know about you?
ZAK: Oh jeez, Anna! This is totally embarrassing and I don’t know if this is interesting at all but, it’s like nails on a chalkboard when people crunch loudly around me. I just can’t do it. Sometimes in the movie theatre, if there’s someone eating popcorn around me, I think, ‘I don’t know if I can get through this.’
I feel like you endure this pain often.
ZAK: I do. I mean, it’s my problem so I just usually have to suck it up.
JOHN: Well, I’m kind of obsessed with barbecue. And when I say obsessed, I’m a deep-dive kind of guy. I make my own sauces. I make my own rubs. I smoke my own BBQ. I’ve read about these famous BBQ places, and I made a point of visiting them. I know the difference between Lexington County BBQ versus the rest of South Carolina and the differences in regional BBQ in parts of Tennessee versus Memphis. I’m just really fascinated by the cuisine and it’s fun to eat.
And how does that tie into acting?
WHAT’S FOR LUNCH
LOCATION: 801 N Fairfax Ave #101, Los Angeles, CA 90046
DISH: Seeded Granola with Berries (with almond milk)
NOTES: Newly-opened loft-like restaurant with counter service lunch and a more high-end dinner. No reservations for lunch although that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Self-serve water, fully-stocked bar and some great artwork on the walls.
ZAK BARNETT STUDIOS
ABOUT THE STUDIO: ZBS offers not only unique classes for Youth and Adults by Master Teachers in Audition Technique, Scene Study, Dramatic Improv, Activist Oriented Production, Singing and Songwriting and Spiritual Centering for the Actor, but a compass to navigate an often difficult industry, as well membership to a thriving artistic community. A community that values Artistic Excellence, Industry Success, Personal Integrity and Social Responsibility. Taking classes at ZBS includes admission to the Institute’s community sponsored workshops and panel discussions that seek to evolve the Craft of Acting, as well as heighten the dialogue between Spiritual and Entertainment Leaders and Activists.
Check out ZBS’s upcoming 1-week Pilot Season Intensive: zakbarnett.com/intensives