Conversation with author James Grissom via telephone in August 1990.
You're asking me now to look deeply into a mirror, because that is what takes place when an actor speaks of acting: I cannot help but reveal a great deal of myself in taking on my peers, in talking about what others did, or try to do, or are still trying to do.
It's dangerous territory.
One of the awful traps in the world of the actor is the tendency to remain an acting student to such a degree that your work remains a laboratory of your intentions and the ministrations of your particular teacher. When you study the piano or the guitar, there comes a day when you cannot believe that you are changing chords or sight-reading or composing your own music: It seems only seconds ago that you were the plodding student, searching for keys or strings, and now you are somewhat in control of this instrument and the history that resides around and within it. This is what must happen with acting as well. It happens with dance--dancers make the moves, invest them, own them, interpret them: until they no longer can. You find it impossible to believe that once those were painfully studied steps, drawn on paper. The great dancer makes it seem a wholly unique expression of his or her soul. This is what acting should be. Must be.
Beware of the actor who speaks persistently of his or her process. This is all they have. Remember when you stood before your teacher and tried to explain why the algebra homework was not forthcoming? You mentioned a sick mother; a busted refrigerator; a high fever; power outages. The fact remained that the homework was not done; you had failed. I feel this is the same process at work when actors tell you about their journals; their biographies; their sense-memory exercises that prevented sleep; their investigations of neighbors and scholars to fully understand the character they were playing. Inevitably, the most studious of these actors will provide the heaviest lifting, the most dutiful study, and the worst performances.
This was true of Shelley Winters, whom I adore, but who is always, persistently, consistently, and proudly Shelley. She does so much work, she says, wears herself out, writes biographies, and it's all the same. Her labor is her defense for not being a better actress.
James Dean was one of the most fascinating young men I ever met. He was so uncommonly beautiful. A mess, a cat's cradle of contradictions, if that is not in itself a contradiction. James--and I always called him James, because I wanted him to grow up--craved internship: He wanted to remain a student--of anything; of everything. Whatever subject came up--gardening, the occult, cooking, oral sex, Hinduism, Christian Science, German art, Art Deco--he rushed off to learn the most and embrace it. This is not a bad way to be, but there needs to be discipline of the mind and the body. I fail at this all the time, myself, so I'm not criticizing James lightly.
James wanted to love and to be loved, and this shows in his acting. You see the ministrations, the effort: He is never any character but James trying to get your attention and your affection. He was so insanely young when he died--you grieve for the actor he might have become; you can see the seed of greatness in what he did.
You want to love him and hold him in a way you don't with Marilyn, for instance, because Marilyn's needs came with a freight no human could maintain, but James only wanted the love, the touch, the challenge to build himself up. There was a reward in whatever you gave to James.
He had an intellectual inferiority that was like Marilyn's--he read all the time, wanted to know everything. This was sweet in him--it was a good quality.
Monty [Clift] seemed almost absent of any curiosity of anything unless it was a cock or a drug or a part he might be up for. I loved Monty, even if I found myself so depressed after any time I spent with him.