You might not have heard of her, but you’ll definitely know of the legacy of Stella Adler.
She was one of the most influential and seminal acting teachers in the history of, well, acting. Taking her cue from Stanislavski’s ‘method’, she taught among others Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Harvey Keitel, and Warren Beatty.
So she was, y’know, pretty good.
I’m not going to go into too much detail about her approach – although her life and work were fascinating – what I do want to do is highlight one of her most famous quotes.
“In your choices lies your talent.”
For me, this is a quote that becomes more insightful every time I think about it.
Our talents – and by extension our lives – really are about our choices. It’s not enough to just have an ability or qualification or talent, it’s about utilising those things in the best possible way.
And yes, there are other factors that shape and inform our lives – I’m not pretending for a second that we all live in a static, safe environment which is just waiting to accommodate our next choice. But the power of our own choices on our own lives shouldn’t be underestimated.
For example, following the acting ‘theme’, a lot of people will look at a character in a film and think ‘I could do that.’ And a number of people probably could. They could learn the dialogue off by heart, and then deliver it in the same way, with the same intonation, and the same body language. They might even be able to do a passable impression (everyone can do Marlon Brando in The Godfather, can’t they..?) But the point is, that performance didn’t start off as that performance. It started off as typed words on sheets of paper. The actor’s talent was in the choices they made in terms of how to bring the character to life. (As was the writer’s talent when they chose who to write the character, and the director in his/her role, and everybody else involved in the process).
There’s a great audition tape of Robert De Niro as Sonny Corelone in The Godfather, a role which was eventually played by James Caan. In it, you can see that De Niro’s Sonny would’ve been quite different to James Caan’s. I’m deliberately not using the words ‘better’ or ‘worse’ here – the audition tape simply illustrates how the same source material can result in very different performances.
The reason? The choice to go one way with the character rather than another.
Looking at another example, this time closer to home, my first novel The Artist was about a serial killer who kidnaps and then films the last fifteen minutes of actresses’ lives. The story follows not only the killer, but also a young girl who becomes increasingly scared for her actress mother, and the story follows the way all of their lives are affected.
But, and here’s the ‘choices’ part, this story could have been completely different. And I don’t mean the names of the characters could’ve been different, I mean everything could have been. The story came out of:
- My own experiences as an actor
- My disillusionment with peoples’ obsessive pursuit of fame for its own sake
- My interest in and experience of forensic psychology
Looking at that list, the story could’ve gone anywhere and its inception still been attributed to that specific list. The ideas would still be there, but the execution of those ideas would’ve given a completely different result. The story could’ve been about a group of actors who are fed up with being rejected and take violent revenge on a top casting director. The twist could be that the crime then makes the group (in)famous, resulting in TV appearances and eventually ‘real’ acting jobs. One of them could even win an Oscar for playing themselves in the biopic.
Or, from the other side of the process, the story could’ve been about a casting director who becomes disillusioned with the industry and seeks to ‘save’ a young actress who auditions for a specific role. He could become obsessed and begin stalking her, ostensibly to protect her from the dangerous people within the industry (which, of course, he has now become).
Again, all the boxes above would be ticked, but the story itself would be completely different. I had to choose, not only at the start of the story but at each step of it.
And, not to be dramatic, I think that’s analogous to life as a whole.
We don’t just choose one path and keep going, we continually decide where to go next – as well as where not to. Ok, so you chose the job you’re in, but you also choose not to resign each day. You also choose whether to do a good/bad job at any given moment, whether to look for other work, and so on.
As I said above, I’m not proposing that we can choose every aspect of our lives – we definitely can’t – but that the vast majority of us do have choices, however small they may appear. And the way we choose to utilise the talents and abilities that we do have can make all the difference in our lives.
For instance, you might be an incredibly sensitive and perceptive person who is great at caring for people, or have a sharp eye for detail and an aptitude for design, or be talented creatively in some exceptional way. But merely having that ability or talent isn’t enough. You have to do something with it.
That, after all, is where real talent lies.