How to Act Human: Advice for Mitt Romney From Inside the Actors Studio

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A special imaginary edition of <em>Inside the Actors Studio</em>.
Photo: Photos: Chris Haston/Bravo, Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

A few months ago, Brian McFadden’s weekly comic strip in the Sunday Times offered ways for Mitt Romney to improve his image. One panel showed him with me on the set of Inside the Actors Studio, under the heading “Take Acting Lessons to Appear More Relatable.”

Initially amused by this unsolicited enlistment, I’ve found myself returning spontaneously and with increasing frequency to the task, sometimes starting awake in the middle of the night with acting advice for the candidate. Convinced that the only way to exorcise this possession is to confront it, I offer the following counsel.

In this media-saturated era, the line between politics and performance has virtually vanished, and the public is having a hard time believing Mr. Romney’s persona (as in dramatis personae) — a potentially fatal flaw for any actor, but especially for a presidential candidate. Why doesn’t Mr. Romney’s audience believe him?

Perhaps it starts with his laugh, a device he employs at odd moments and in a most peculiar way. (The public thinks that crying is the acid test of the actor, but in fact “laughing” is much harder — and Mr. Romney hasn’t mastered it.)

Listen to his laugh.  It resembles the flat “Ha! Ha! Ha!” that appears in comic-strip dialogue balloons. But worse – far worse – it is mirthless. Mr. Romney expects us to be amused, although he himself is not amused. Freeze the frame, cover the bottom of his face with your hand, and study his eyes. There’s no pleasure there, no amusement. Genuine laughter is triggered only by, and is completely dependent on, shared perception. That’s why we say we “get” a joke.

But Mr. Romney is too busy working to share anything – like the vaudevillian tapping so desperately that he’s covered with what performers call “flop sweat.” In rehearsal, I once heard a director say to an overeager actor, “Relax, you’ve got the job.” Now that Mr. Romney seems to have wrapped up the nomination, that counsel may apply here.

Constantin Stanislavski, the patron saint of the Actors Studio, who preached that relaxation was the sine qua non of acting, would have thrown up his hands in despair at the sight of Governor Romney stalking stiffly onto the public stage.  Mr. Romney’s not alone in this robot world. Two generations of politicians, political commentators, and TV personalities seem to have been instructed that no one will listen to them unless they accompany their remarks by locking their elbows to their sides and waving their rigid forearms about like marionettes being wielded by invisible strings.

For a positive example of port de bras (the ballet term for use of the arms), I recommend the political Pavlova, Sarah Palin, who, on the speakers’ podium, with a script in hand and no obligation to answer troublesome questions, is so relaxed in what Stanislavski called “the given circumstance” that her arms, moving gracefully and freely, are a constant pleasure to watch (with the sound turned on or off, depending on your persuasion).

Another of Mr. Romney’s acting sins is sartorial. Calling Wardrobe! The combination of neatly creased blue jeans below and crisp white dress shirt or bespoke jacket above is a failed mash-up of bowling alley and country club. Inauthenticity is, after all, today’s topic, and I suspect that if Mr. Romney weren’t running for president, he wouldn’t be caught dead in that mismatch.

When challenged on the illegal immigrants caring for his lawn, Mr. Romney responded: “We went to the company and we said, look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake.” While a few illegal immigrants on the lawn might not faze private citizen Romney, “running for office” requires a separate set of rules and, more important, a separate persona.

It’s that “other” Romney that seems to be confusing the public, and that launched my assignment in the Times. As worthy as the real Romney may be, he is not, has never been, and never will be the common man, and when he assumes the role in a crowd, his evident discomfort tells us that this guy doesn’t fly coach, much less go Greyhound, and, without the demands of “running for office,” wouldn’t be spending much time with these people who do.

Of course he’s within his rights. As he’s taken to pointing out, there’s nothing wrong with being rich. But one wouldn’t cast Henry Fonda in Bringing Up Baby or Cary Grant in The Grapes of Wrath. Miscasting matters – in drama and politics – and absent a miraculous Brando-level acting performance, Mr. Romney’s going to continue to fall victim to self-consciousness, the actor’s worst enemy.

Ronald Reagan wasn’t an authentic common man either, but he was an authentic SAG-card-carrying actor. For one unforgettable afternoon, I directed him and Bob Hope in the Lincoln bedroom, and he acquitted himself with patently genuine warmth and skill – to the point of exchanging jokes so blue, during a break to relight for his exit, that none of them can be recorded here. He and Bob roared with laughter, and the laughs were real, unaffected, and authentic enough to merit the complimentary label “Reaganesque.”

The lesson of Reagan is that, whatever his politics and legacy, there was always only one of him. Even with all his theatrical experience, he never essayed a dual role. So, for what it’s worth, my advice to Mr. Romney is this: Since the evidence indicates that you lack the skills to simulate what you're not, you should stick to typecasting and go with what you’ve got and who you are. It’s not just your best option, sir, it’s your only one.

It goes without saying that all of this advice conveniently ignores my own onstage sins, which resemble, I fear, Will Ferrell’s too-accurate portrayal of me as an especially gloomy funeral director on a particularly slow day.  But that’s a subject for another, even sterner lesson.

James Lipton is the creator and host of Inside the Actors Studio on Bravo, the founding dean of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University, and produced cultural events in the Carter White House.