Howard Schatz: Master Of The Act

Elisabeth Moss. Of working with Moss, whose photos in the book are some of the few full-body photos and she appears in different wardrobe, Schatz says, “She was playing on Broadway at the time in a David Mamet play. She’s one of two or three people I decided I’d like to try styling. That was really hard because I had to prepare the parts ahead of time, I had to tell the stylist, and in between the parts they had to do the changes.”

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.”

Allison Janney. “Take a look at her interview,” Schatz says. “It’s fantastic. She’s a genius. She made something up. I had her play the part of a woman who’s sleeping with a married man. And she’s hysterical and crazy and confronts him as a mad crazy woman. She made it all up. She was really interesting. She’s a fascinating, smart, capable, wonderful actress.”

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.

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