When we look at today’s biggest actors on the screen, we don’t question how they do what they do, since all of it feels so natural. Is it though?
Acting coaching, something that can have a great impact on an actor’s performance in a role, is a term that is somewhat unknown in European filmmaking. Adam Davenport, master acting coach, founder of The International Acting Studio (TIAS), is putting tremendous effort into changing that.
BPR: How does an American acting coach find his way to Central Europe?
A. Davenport: It all started 2 years ago. During the COVID pandemic, it was nearly impossible for me to work in New York. Broadway shut down, there were no ongoing productions, and I didn’t want to wait for that to stabilize, so I asked myself: where can I continue working? I always wanted to work in Europe and open my own studio there. There were lot of projects going on in Serbia, and after spending 6 weeks in Belgrade, I moved there and started TIAS with five actors. Now, we have a hundred actors. After 2 years in Serbia, expanding to Budapest seemed like a natural step. Right now, I’m traveling back and forth every week between Belgrade and Budapest.
We’ve set up our studio in Budapest back in September, where we started organizing classes for actors all around Europe. Our goal is that actors in the area could have access to the same resources that the actors in the West have, like L.A., New York or London. We are providing high level training and ways to develop their voices, opening many doors for them in the future. Being able to speak with an American/British or neutral accent is a must if one’s looking for a way into the international scene, unless one wants to be typecast only playing characters from Eastern Europe.
BPR: What methods are you using at TIAS?
A. Davenport: When I first started teaching, I was using Uta Hagen. But I now primarily teach the Chubbuck technique. Ivana Chubbuck, author of “The Power of the Actor”, coached many Oscar winners in the past few years, and she certified me as the first person to bring her technique to Serbia and Hungary. What I love about this technique is that it empowers actors and teaches them how to win in their work and in their own lives by using their own pain and traumas as fuel to overcome the obstacles that the character faces. It is a way to create the character from the actor’s own personal needs and life experiences so that the character becomes you and you become the character. When an actor has the courage to transform their pain into their art, it not only is cathartic, but it also allows the audience to start their own healing and to become a fan of an actor’s work because they can identify with the character’s struggle onscreen.
As part of our voice training, my colleagues Joe Alberti and Genoa Davidson teach IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) classes. Generally speaking, an actor’s job is to transform into a role, which not only requires a change of appearance, but also a vocal transformation. Legends like Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis can sound different vocally from role to role, and they are able to pick up accents with great skill. There is no reason why non-English speaking actors couldn’t do the same thing – they just need access to the same resources in their training.
BPR: By your standards, what is the purpose of an acting coach?
A. Davenport: I aim to help my actors reach deeper into themselves, therefore their roles. Sometimes, an actor needs to be given permission from a coach, so to speak, to take risks and access a part of themselves that they are afraid to go to. Being an acting coach is like being a therapist in some ways, and the more you know about your actors, the easier you can help them access their triggers. When you get to the core of someone else, you can create a safe space where the actors can truly open up and shine. For instance, an actor might have difficulty crying on cue or doing intense emotional scenes, but there are exercises I use from Ivana Chubbuck’s technique to help them get unblocked and out of self-protection mode.
BPR: How did you decide to become an acting coach?
A. Davenport: I was a film studies major at Yale, and I was always interested in the craft of acting in film. I wanted to be someone who can understand the performance of actors on a high level. I realized that to be truly competent at directing actors, I would need to spend time being in the trenches and doing it myself. When I was 26, I became accepted into the Actors Studio as a director in their Playwright/Directors Unit and I worked on developing new plays and directing play readings with a lot of great actors, from Alfre Woodard to Ed Harris. When I began acting full time in New York, I was helping my friends with their auditions, and they were booking the parts they wanted, so it kind of happened organically too. It seemed like a natural progression, since I had more joy working with actors than being an actor on-set myself. I later joined the National Alliance of Acting Teachers.
BPR: From a technical point of view, Hungary is considered to be the leading country of international filmmaking in Central Europe. Do you think it can reach the same level in an artistic aspect?
A. Davenport: I certainly think so. Hungarian filmmakers have won so many Oscars, but not one for acting. We can totally change that. There is no reason why Hungary can’t have international superstars. If you look at Oscar winning actors, a lot of them have private coaches. Some of them are more vocal about it, and some of them prefer to work privately. It’s just like nearly all professional athletes work with a coach. Acting is a muscle so it should be no different. You always have to find ways to keep your craft improving, and it’s difficult to be responsible for that all by yourself.
BPR: What is it that you do here at ORIGO Studios? You coach talents for specific projects?
A. Davenport: I’m holding workshops once a month here at ORIGO, and weekly classes in the city. Actors from all over Europe are coming here, not just Hungarians. Sometimes I’m coaching someone on auditions for certain films, for example “Alien: Romulus”, which is set to be filmed here in Hungary, but I mostly train actors to improve their overall skill.
When English is not someone’s native language, they often need an ear to correct their pronunciation and their rhythm of speech. I also read with my actors during private coaching sessions, since most auditions are now done by self- tape, and a reader with a strong accent can have a negative impact on those tapes. Using the Chubbuck technique, I’m not just helping the actor shape a performance that gets them the job from their audition tape, but I also want to show the filmmaker that this actor is a force to be reckoned with, whose talent cannot be denied. The audition tape should give a sense that the actor is an artist who will come to set with his/her own creativity and can make bold choices that will elevate the writing. The writing can only give you so much: good filmmakers want to hire actors who are easy to collaborate with and make their jobs easier.
I often give actors scenes from films and TV show, many of which were shot here in Budapest like “Dune” or “Blade Runner”, but we are not trying to imitate the original performance. Using the Chubbuck techniques, actors apply their own life experience to the circumstances of the character when they do their breakdown of the script. The result is a powerful, completely different performance.
BPR: Who are some famous Hungarian actors that you are working with right now?
A. Davenport: I started working with Andrea Osvárt, and Kata Dobó just joined the studio. Barnabás Réti is in my class too. There is also Máté Haumann, I got him an audition and would love to work with him further.
BPR: Hungarian actors who appear in films usually have some theatrical experience. Are there any bad habits that come up during coaching?
A. Davenport: Yes, it is a big pattern that I’m seeing in class, but I’m working on breaking these habits. Lot of actors tend to overcompensate and indicate emotion. Also the voice they use on stage is not the same voice they have to use on-camera. We are trying to work on their “on-camera” voice, looking for more intimate vocal placements. I also urge them to not talk with their hands on every line. When the camera is watching you, you just need to have the thought, a specific inner monologue, and the nuance of the emotion will be picked up by the camera. You don’t have to show it.
BPR: Based on the past three months you have spent here, can you see Hungarian actors start gaining international fame?
A. Davenport: Absolutely, I think we can make a movie star here. When I was living in the States, I worked with Melissa Leo, my mentor, for 10 years. I played an important role in her Oscar campaign, when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “The Fighter”. She is a character actress, who was 50 years old when she did that movie. When she won, she gave me the envelope of the Academy Award. I keep it at my studio, so I can show it to my actors. I want to remind them that success in this industry is not a short distance sprint – it’s a marathon. When I tell them that this took her 30 years to earn, I try to inspire them to be patient. As I’ve said before, there is absolutely no reason why they couldn’t have that kind of success. They just have to do the work.