Synopsis by Tracy Weisert
For our Inside the Industry Seminar on May 30, we had the pleasure of having onset acting coach, Leigh Kilton-Smith, as our guest speaker. Here is Ms. Kilton-Smith’s bio-
Leigh Kilton-Smith has been training actors for over twenty five years, in class and on film and in television. Known primarily as an onset coach, she has had the pleasure of working with some of Hollywood ‘s top actors on various projects. Some clients include Jennifer Aniston, Danny Huston, Cam Gigandet, Angie Harmon, Felicity Huffman, Sean Faris, Courteney Cox-Arquette, and Leslie Bibb.
Projects include: The Good Girl, TransAmerica, Management, Never Back Down, Talladega Nights, The Proposition, Traveling and many television shows as well.
Leigh has the unique position of being a favorite hire for directors, new and established.
She values her time onset, saying, “It is onset that I make sure what I am teaching in the classroom is relevant and that I am training actors to take their place as professional, creative artists.”
Leigh began by telling us when she studied acting privately in New York City with her mentor William Esper, who was also head of the theatre department at Rutgers University at the time, Leigh said, “He was a crotchety, disagreeable old fart, but man, he knew his stuff! I had also been in New York long enough to be taking classes with some other people and it occurred to me that there was a chasm between what the teachers were asking of actors in classes and what they were being asked to do on sets. I found that out because I was hired onto one of the few shows that was shooting in New York at the time which was The Cosby Show. I sat on the set kind of amazed that nobody ever asking what kind of tree they were supposed to be or following the red balloon through the park or all the stuff that I was exposed to in acting class. [laughter] I thought that I would never be an acting teacher that would actually teach a class. I thought that I would be an acting coach and spend my life going set to set to set. I really didn’t have a desire to be an acting teacher in a classroom setting because I thought I wasn’t smart enough and I think I was right. So I came out to LA simply because there were more sets. I had ‘the plan’ that I would do this and that and the other and it would all fall into place. What happened is that I was hired onto a set right away and then I went from that set to another, to another, to another. Indeed, by the time I sat down to do a class, which sort of came about because I had worked on sets enough and people sort of knew who I was a little tiny bit, I had made a deal with myself. I sat down and wrote down all the crap that I hate about acting classes and my deal with myself was that if I could make a counter list and say that I could counter that list point by point, then I could teach an acting class. And I did. I was able to counter every point and that was twenty……(big sigh) five years ago! And those points that I countered with my fears back in the day, are still my driving force. What I do primarily is I work on sets. I kind of have a reputation for being a part of the process and I do believe in my place on a set as a coach. I find it very ironic and (I said this recently to a producer that) I find it very, very strange that you pay somebody a lot of money to make sure that this hair does not wind up over here in between takes. But you have nobody on set, whose job it is, whose sole job is to watch acting…..who knows what an organic, authentic moment looks like. There’s no acting department. You have the hair department and make-up department and before you tell me that’s the Directors’ job, the Director is the busiest human being on the set! As in the hair and make-up departments, of course the Director has the final say. The director should always have final say but there is nobody talking to the actor in “actors’ language.”
Leigh continued, “With that information, I have managed to, knock on wood, sculpt out a career and have a good time. I just finished a project in New York and just found out that I am going back to New York to begin another project, so it’s very exciting. I love my position in your life and your creativity (as actors). I love nothing more than stirring the bowl of creation that exists within all of you. I love watching you pushed out on the sound stage. I love standing behind the monitor watching you and your Director confer. And I love watching the Director say, ‘No, I hate that idea’ and I love watching the Director go like, ‘Yeah, that’s a pretty good idea!’ Of all the places in my life, and my husband always gives me grief about this, that I have ego, on the set is the one place that I absolutely have no ego because I realize that it is just an accumulation of ideas at the end of the day. How precious can we get about our ideas when we’re talking about collaborating and not isolating? What I’ve encountered….and I don’t mean to lambast anybody….I’m sure everybody means well but I have crossed paths with coaches who sometimes perceive their job to be to isolate the actor. To pull them over to the side and that’s always a little screwy to me. By the time we get onto the soundstage, if we don’t have a captain in place….if the Director is not the captain at that point in time, I’m really going to make that person the captain. I’m still going to put all my faith and all of my stock in that person. Have I been on set with Directors that I don’t trust? Yes! Did I say anything to the actors? Absolutely not because it’s not my position, it’s not my place and it’s also not the actors’ place. By the time you’ve signed on the dotted line, people, we’re in their boat. If it’s got holes, it’s got holes. It’s too late. You can’t jump ship now. We’re out in the water! I am a firm believer of the hierarchy of a film or television set. My favorite medium is film, clearly, because, we get more time and we can get more creation. I work on big, fancy ass projects and I work on little, tiny, tiny, tiny projects.”
Leigh also told us the story about a young actor who couldn’t get his lines as written or as she put, “stumbled”, and was beating himself up over it. She told of how she snapped him out of it. Leigh added, “It’s just about pulling ourselves up out of that swirling abyss when it opens up. One of the things I like to glean from that story is the awareness that we can’t walk in to fail. We can’t be walking around making it okay to fail. So when I hear actors say things like, ‘Listen, if I get it, great, but if I don’t…’ I like a part of that philosophy, but another part of that philosophy makes me worry because a lot of times, I encounter actors who are officially acting from the deficit. They are officially in the deficit. They are sort of apologizing for their work. They are kind of walking in (to auditions) going, ‘I know I am not a blond-haired/ blue-eyed guy and I saw the Breakdown and it said a blond-haired/blue-eyed guy…’ They go ahead and do their work but by the time they do their work, there is so much apology in the room which is such awful pressure to put on the casting director to make it okay to live their dream, so it becomes very, very convoluted.”
I asked Leigh, besides the established actors on her resume, whom she coaches, if she coached the caliber of fine actors in attendance. Leigh, then, told a story about when nineteen year old actor, Cam Gigandet, tried to fit into a mold of his managers’ idea of how he should look and be. Leigh said, “There was that moment where I could look at him and see that he was trying to be something that he simply wasn’t. He was just following advice and the more he followed whoever’s advice that was on how to be successful or how to dress like a successful person, they were just getting him further and further away from his artistry. I will work with anybody. And what’s the most exciting in my career is when I spot someone who is just a little left of center, I can say to them, ‘Don’t ever let anyone change you.’ I get in their brain cells and just moosh out all their desire to fit in and to be something other than who they are. I remind them that the life of a person in show business is an enormously bizarre dinner table at the end of the day. At the table, you’ve got Barbra Streisand, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman and you’ve got the most gorgeous beauties of the world and the most gorgeous non-beauties of the world, but because we are dealing ultimately with replicating all stratus of humanity, we need every human being who is at that table to help us tell the stories of every strata of humanity. There’s no way that Kate Moss is going to tell the story of a housewife in a trailer park in Texas. It’s just not going to happen. We can mess her up, we get her a dialect coach, we give her a couple of zits…It’s not going to happen! [laughter] We need you. We need people that can understand the levels of humanity that we’re asking them to portray.”
With preparing a scene and going in on auditions, Leigh said-
- “Your job is to collaborate in somebody else’s vision.”
- “Your biggest challenge is to let go of the things you love, so you can be free in the moment. Let all that work give you a level of trust, so if those moments show up, it’ll be awesome but chances are, you’re going to find something better if you’re alert and if you’re looking for it.”
- “Actors try to do too much. The camera is the purveyor of your eyes. It is an intimacy between you and the camera. Listen with your eyes. They need to see a human being, being human.”
- “There are no rights or wrongs in acting…just truths or lies.”
With how we actors treat ourselves-
- “You guys have got to start being more forgiving to yourselves.”
- “You and only you will hold yourself hostage.”
Leigh also had some terrific guidelines for the actors that we worked on towards the end of the seminar.
Stage 1: The “Work” prior to the Audition™
“What are you doing with your life? Are you having a full life and loving your life? ‘Waiting’ is the opposite than ‘living’ for an artist. You are not living your life. So whatever that means….taking care of people or taking care of yourself. If you like your weight, don’t lose an ounce but don’t bitch and moan when they can only see you as the chubby best friend. I’m not going to be mad if they don’t want to cast me as Jennifer Aniston’s twin sister. They are not going to hire me and I can’t bitch about it because oh yeah, I’m 53. If you like your hair color, great, but if you’ve had this look for a while, don’t bitch to your agents and managers, ‘I keep getting sent out for the same thing.’ Give them some different equipment. Lose a lot of weight or gain a lot of weight. Do something different. Keep moving. Go Billy Idol blond or go red or whatever, but have some fun with yourself. Be out there hiking, out there enjoying your life, taking care of things, doing your charity work, doing what you can to make the world a better place. Not to get too preachy on you, but waiting is the opposite of living. That’s the work you are doing prior to the audition, so when the Casting Director says to you, ‘You beautiful soul, what have you been up to lately?’ you can actually have something to tell them as opposed to reciting your resume. A human being, being human. It’s a simple solution. They want to see what you are excited about. If you’re excited about the thing you did on COLD CASE two weeks ago, that’s great! They want to see yourthing. I once had this meeting with….okay, I’m going to drop a name and it’s a biggie…with Donald Trump. ‘The Donald’ said the greatest thing in the world. He said that people came to him all the time to help out with their projects ‘…and they sit in that chair telling me how much money they are going to make me. I’ve got money. I don’t have to make another dime for the rest of my life or for the next 6 generations. I’ve got money. What I need from you is your passion. It’s your excitement.’ That’s what they (Casting Directors) are asking for.”
2: The “Work” with the Material™
“You’re rushing to your material as a source of definition, instead of something to say. Our job (as actors) is emotional punctuation.”
3: The “Work” the day of the Audition™
“Be good to yourself on the day. Do something for yourself that makes you feel good.”
4: The “Work” in the Hallway™
Leigh told a nice story of when actor, Jeff Bridges, went over to his co-star whom he hadn’t met when they were both in make-up to get to know her. By the time they went on set, they “were in such a nice state of relationship” that their scene went very well.
5: The “Work” in the Room™
With Casting Directors, “Don’t try to control my imagination, engage my imagination. Feed my imagination, don’t fill it.”
“Go into ‘see’, not to ‘be seen.’
“You’ve got to go in, sit down and tell a story. We are not waiting to get intothe circle. We are the circle.”
“You’re in a place of freedom if you don’t worry about the stumble.”
6: The Ride Home™
“Be preparing for the next one rather than beating yourself up.”
“And start all over again….”
One of my favorite things Leigh said was, “You guys have to get really good at singing your song and letting Casting Directors and cameras come to you.”
Additionally, Leigh and her husband started taking care of an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico nine years ago called El Faro. Casting Networks does an annual drive for the orphanage for donated goods and necessities for the children.http://www.friendsofelfaro.com/ Be on the lookout for LA Casting’s Necessity Drive at the end of the year where you can get a percentage off of your photos and video when you participate.
Thank you Leigh for a very enlightening and entertaining seminar!
Addendum from Leigh:
Hello Everyone, just a quick personal note to tell you how much I enjoyed our time together at the Seminar few weeks ago. I enjoyed everyone’s questions and your kind words afterwards really made my day.
I am in Atlantic City, at the moment, on a film that I feel very fortunate to be a part of. It’s called “The Bounty” and will be out some time next year.
If you’ll recall, our Seminar ran a little long because someone, namely ME, can’t stop once you get me started so I wanted to add one final word or two to our experience.
I know you all get told a lot, “Be yourself, just be yourself!” And I think the reason that request can be confusing is because, ultimately, this is a very confusing direction and we are, all of us, made up of SO many different parts. Usually, the silent question we want to ask is, “Which part?” And I just wanted to say that I believe what they are ultimately saying is, “Be honest.” And that, of course, goes back to my mantra that afternoon we all shared. They want to see: Human beings, being human. So often, we confuse “Entertaining Behavior” with the Actor’s Job. It’s an easy mistake to make. But the informed actors knows the old adage, Less IS More, along with my basic belief for ALL actors everywhere which is, Listening is Everything, Simple is Best. These are tenets to live by…
Keep telling stories and I will see you on set!
Questions for Leigh? Contact her.