You’re an icy interrogator," Howard Schatz explains, "telling a captive that in exactly 60 seconds, if you don’t get the information you need, you’re to start removing body parts, starting with his ears." With that, Schatz picks up his camera. He’s seated at a small table, and the person across from him—mere inches away—is John Malkovich. The actor pauses for a moment, processes the suggestion, then begins. He’s improvising a character in the blink of an eye, saying everything while saying nothing. He’s performing for an audience of one, alone with Schatz and his camera. Soon enough, the photographer presents another prompt, and the actor dons a new mask.
And so it goes. Sometimes the session lasts an hour, sometimes it takes all day. Schatz worked like this with the 85 actors who appear in his new book, Caught in the Act: Actors Acting. It’s the product of a long-term effort—as most of his projects are—and although he has been photographing actors for 15 years, the experience never gets old.
"First of all," Schatz says, "they’re able to do this because they train and learn to let go of being embarrassed. They don’t mind being metaphorically naked in order to become a different human being. They also have a gift: Their emotions are right under the surface. That’s what my interviews are all about. My interviews with these 85 actors answer that question: What is acting about? How do they do it? How do they create it? How do they become it?
"Number two," he continues, "I’m interested in the creative process, what we, as human beings, can do—what a sculptor can do with a hammer and a chisel and stone, what an actor can do with ink on paper, what a photographer can do with a camera. It interests me that we, as human beings, are able to conjure up worlds out of these materials. So when I did the interviews with these actors, I told them it wasn’t about gossip; it was about work, about creativity, about developing human beings. They enjoyed talking about that."
In the book, Schatz’s modus operandi is clear. He presents each actor in a series of in-character pictures, metaphorically bare, a famous face and nothing more. They’re portraits, but not in the traditional sense. They aren’t designed to reveal any particular truth about the person behind the mask, but rather to illuminate the art of acting in its simplest form. We’re given a front-row seat to watch expert craftsmen ply their trade.
"I told the women," Schatz says, "I prefer no makeup or hardly any makeup because I may ask you to play a three-year-old kid who’s a brat. I may ask you to play a grandma, a seductress, a drunken homeless woman—all kinds of people. And makeup will detract from what you can do with that. To the men, I said just wash your face with soap and water twice to get the oils out.
"I remember Jane Krakowski," he says, "when I told her, ‘You’re a comedian bombing in front of an audience.’ She left the studio and went to the bathroom to splash water on her face and came back. She was really sweating it out. A few actors messed their hair up to be whatever they were going to be. They know how to get into character."
Schatz worked with writer Owen Edwards (who’s co-credited as the author of the book, along with Schatz’s wife, Beverly Ornstein) to develop hundreds of evocative prompts for the actors. He’d prepare 20 parts for a given session, and edit down to a handful for inclusion in the book. This allowed the photographer to witness different actors interpreting the same roles in unique ways.
"Every time was an entertainment and a surprise," he says. "There were a number of parts I used many times, and every actor did it differently. Even though I used the same words and read it the same way, every actor made their own interpretation. No actor wants to be told do it this way or that way, so I learned to say, ‘I’m going to say it sort of flat. I’m going to give you the information you need to create a character. Make of it what you best can. Here are the paints: red, blue, green, yellow, purple. Make me a painting.’
"They liked the fact that they could do that," he adds, "and, of course, some actors were better than others in terms of possibilities. I would say, ‘Let’s try it again with a little bit more sweetness, or let’s try it again with a little bit more anger, a little more hysterical, a little more subtle.’ There were actors who ran out of ideas; they had one or two or three ways of doing things. And there were a few actors who’d say wait, I’ve got more. We would do five or six shoots and I’d say, ‘Okay, let’s move on,’ and they’d say, ‘No, no, I’ve got a few other ways.’"
Ian McShane, who’s best known in the U.S. for his role in the HBO series Deadwood, impressed Schatz by turning his expectations for a character on their head.
"He’s a serious, studied, intellectual actor from England," Schatz says of McShane. "He has gone through the English training in the methods of acting. He gave me a surprise. One of the characters I gave him, I had also given that character to two or three other people: ‘You’re walking home at night and two muggers come at you with knives and guns.’ Most people cowered. But he took his fist out and said, ‘Come on, you, ____! Let’s go!’ He surprised me. I gave him a part and he surprised me. He was really creative."
In 2006, Schatz published the book In Character, which led to an ongoing assignment for Vanity Fair and, in turn, afforded the opportunity to sit with some of the greatest performers in the world and direct them in an impromptu performance.
Along with the character studies—which are photographed with a fairly plain photographic technique—he also wanted to create portraits of the actors themselves. These images anchor the book, and elevate it to a celebration of both the art of actors acting and the art of fine photographic portraiture.
"I’m really interested in portraiture," Schatz says. "Tens of thousands of people can make a portrait, but what makes a great portrait, what are the ingredients, what’s the magic that makes it? I told the actors that when we were done with the interview and then the characters and the parts, that I
‘d like to do a portrait that wasn’t a vanity portrait, but had more to do with veracity and truth, and that if we could make something good, I told them that I would send them a copy. Given that I said it that way, they were all in and they gave me the time that I needed.
"In my experience," he continues, "most actors tried to do something in front of the camera when I wanted to make a portrait when, in fact, I didn’t want them to. So, I had a number of choices. One, I’d explain that I didn’t want them to do anything; I wanted them to just be. That worked only rarely. Then I said, ‘What I’d like you to do is imagine you’re listening, you’re speaking with a friend, and you’re having a conversation, and the conversation isn’t emotionally wrought, so there’s no need to have any emotional response. Number two, the conversation isn’t intellectually difficult or challenging, so you don’t have to look like you’re listening really hard and trying to figure out. You’re just listening. Your friend says, ‘Joe, listen to what happened to me yesterday, as I was getting into this taxi…’ And then you don’t know whether this story is going up or down, you don’t know where this story is going. You love this friend, you care about them, and you’re looking at them and you’re just listening.’ So that helped me make the portrait. They were still, in a way, acting, but when one listens without emotion on their face, one sort of lets the face go. And that helped make these portraits."
Says Schatz, "A smile is a suit and tie, a smile is a bank vault cover. How do you get through that? What’s behind there? A smile is not to let you in. It’s a barrier. To try to get somebody to be enigmatic, a puzzle, so I can’t read you, I can’t tell happy, sad, good, bad, mad or glad, I just can’t tell, give me nothing. Sometimes that was enough, that worked. Other times, the actor wanted to do something—look intelligent, look inquisitive, look in wonder. I said let it go, let it go.
"Everybody has a certain barrier to the world to protect themselves," he continues. "It’s normal. It’s normal not to be totally vulnerable to everything out there. The world is tough, dangerous, critical, so it’s normal to have a certain façade, a certain thing on your face, a certain level of protection and defense. That’s normal. And to let that go for me, a stranger and my camera, that’s not easy. But that’s what I like to try to do. So, to the actors, I could say let that go, and I would try to say it in a nice way. I’d say, ‘You have this natural twinkle in your eye, a sweet twinkle.’ Or, ‘You have a natural sort of intellectual intensity.’ I’d make something positive. And they understood. There were a few times I would go to the mirror and show them, ‘Look, do you see that?’ and I’d point something out. You know, we have a part in our brain that recognizes faces, and it’s a very large area in the brain that does that. And, we, as human beings, see these tiny little subtle microscopic variations in a face that help us read a person. So, to try to get that all to go away, it’s hard. You have to see it, admit it, know it and then work to get rid of it. But I’m able to most of the time. I tell stories, and then as I’m telling stories, I say, ‘You’re listening to me without anything on your face.’ Then they understand. Sometimes it takes longer than others, but most of the time I can get there.
"When they try," Schatz says, "when they do something, they’re trying to affect the picture, they’re trying to tell the observer what they’re supposed to feel. I say, ‘I’d like the observer to make up their own mind.’ I want them to look and wonder: Where is he going? Where has he been? What are his dreams? That’s my way of making a portrait."
In 2014, Howard Schatz will publish a retrospective of his 25-year career. He’ll also hold a workshop where he’ll instruct students on his approach to studio photography and postproduction. Contact him at email@example.com.