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.”