Why Great Performance is Off the Cliff

I’ve started running again and I look forward to long periods of just being by myself on the road and a podcast playing in my head. I was listening to Terry Gross interview Jeff Daniels and his comments about acting made me stop running and replay them. He was talking about the style of great actors: Clint Eastwood, James Cagney, Meryl Streep:

“I think it’s a style of acting that you TRUST. You trust the instincts.

Meryl Streep is brilliant at it, just brilliant. I’ve been fortunate to do two movies with Meryl. And for an actor to go moment to moment like she does, there’s no one better… she dances between moments. Each take is different because she’s riding instincts and she’s riding impulses. And she trusts that; she doesn’t try to plan everything out ahead of time or she doesn’t do a take and hold herself back. She risks failure. And she allows herself to be open to wherever it goes.

And that’s what I saw these guys do; just relax and kind of become that and ride it…it’s a different style of acting…why don’t you just risk failure and jump off the cliff and start flapping your arms and hope you fly.”

I think great, sublime, jaw dropping performance, whether it’s in front of the camera or on the pitch arrives when the thinking part of your brain steps down. “Trust” is such an ambiguous word and I hate that I can’t think of a better one right now. But there is a threshold that you have to cross to reach an awesome performance. Cross that threshold and the chance for failure goes way up. The great ones are more comfortable hanging out over there, risking failure and all that goes with it: ridicule, making career limiting mistakes, complete annihilation…

Scary. But cool.

2 comments On Why Great Performance is Off the Cliff

  • Musical improvisation works in much the same way. When you read about the great improvisers they all talk about letting go, jumping off the cliff. While I’m far from even a good improviser I do find that if I let go and stop thinking, surprising and interesting stuff happens. Fear holds me back, though and when that happens it falls apart.

    • Same here. I think ego plays a major part in it. The urge to control the outcome is so strong (because if we didn’t have control, everything would fall apart!) that we believe that we can think our way to success if we just concentrate hard enough. Unfortunately, that neo-cortical part is relatively slow compared to the “non-thinking” part and our actions lack flow and the performance is kind of wooden. I’ve had a few experiences on court where I was in flow and everything just worked. But it didn’t last for very long.

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