Alec Guinness: A Frugal And Grateful Actor

Photograph by Arnold Newman


It has been my experience that those actors who are perpetually engaged in the study of acting are never the wiser and never the better.


Absolutely. I have friends who have been in the process of converting to Catholicism for decades, and they tend, now that Graham Greene has died, to come to me for advice on the embracing of  faith. I always remind them that they haven't embraced the faith at all: They have merely passed it on the ecclesiastical street many, many times and nodded toward it. Well, they say, I'm still studying: I'm a perpetual student. Well, be a perpetual student, but don't be a Catholic--or any other faith; I'm not going to use this call to proselytize for the Catholic Church. These are day rates, after all.

My poor analogy was offered to emphasize what so many actors do--They keep refreshing their art or their instrument, which sounds both terribly personal and terribly private. I do not want to know about it. The greatest actors with whom I have worked and with whom I have had close friendships have never, at all, talked to me of their parts or how they mastered them, and you will hear no complaint from me. If you ask a master craftsman how he built a cabinet, he will tend to look bewildered. He simply completed the task. An architect does not return to school each time he receives a commission. What I should have said, and I apologize, is that I don't understand or respect the need many actors have to re-invent themselves or adopt a new faith in the art of acting with each new part or each new decade. It smacks of desperation. It is an attempt to receive some attention. If I may bore you with another analogy, it is like the corpulent woman who always, without fail, greets you with the news that she has just begun a diet. Overcompensation. Guilt. Diversion. Just act. If you can.

Did your studies help you?

Of course they did. I am not about to suggest that actors don't need training. Notice I referred to the perpetual study of acting. Oh, God, if I had not received that early training, I would never have known how to properly walk across a stage, much less project beyond it. The study--the true study of acting--is more along the lines of the study of philosophy or spirituality--your own soul. It is private. It involves a great deal of reading and thought and, then, ultimately, practice. By which I mean working. Of course there is rarely  any work, so I think it is wise to use one's acting class to get up and tackle some parts. But your basic equipment and your essential talents and technique, for lack of a better word, should already be developed. I would never let someone else--anyone else--tell me how to develop a character or approach a play. That is absolute folly. That is your task, and if you cannot do this for yourself--if you cannot believe in your gifts and your ability to find, develop, and maintain a character or many characters over a period of time--then I do not think you can be an actor. That's very firm, but that is what I believe.

Do you believe acting can be taught?

Only in installments. You can tell a child on the street to say cheese and get a delightful photograph. That's acting--on the installment plan. Many directors get entire performances from shock or other responses. That is not acting. That's an odd sort of performance. No. Acting as an art form cannot be taught. You either have the talent or you don't. It can be deepened and developed, but not taught. An actor should study himself, not texts or so-called gurus. Only you know or should know how to approach a part or build a character. What worked for another actor is his private affair. Do your own work.

Do you believe that you have talent?

I have a little. And I have taken very good care of it. I'm a frugal and grateful actor. Very Catholic of me, don't you think?

©2013 by James Grissom
From the forthcoming book Artistic Suicide


  1. There is a sequence in 'Murder by Death' in which Alec Guinness flawlessly transforms himself into a series of distinct characters each uncovering another one beneath, with extraordinary economy. It is acting, comedic to be sure, of the highest order.


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