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David Downs: Short Films, David Mamet and Katharine Hepburn

Written by: David Downs

David Downs is a professor-emeritus of acting at Northwestern University, where he’s taught for more than 30 years. Over the course of his distinguished career, he’s instructed some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He currently writes about the theater at his blog, David Going On, and we’re proud to feature his content here at CC2K. Today, Downs answers a letter from a recent theater grad.


I am a recently graduated actor, and I’m excited to get experience acting in film by acting in student shorts. I have just been cast in two, both as the female lead, and I would like to make sure I do everything within my power as an actor to aid the quality and success of these two projects.

I once heard a writer say “Good actors can make miracles out of bad writing.”

On the other hand, in this brilliant letter from David Mamet to the writers of the The Unit, Mamet says:

If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted. There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene dramatic after it leaves your typewriter. You the writers, are in charge of making sure every scene is dramatic. … if the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we’re all going to be back in the breadline.  Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actor’s job (the actors job is to be truthful).  It is not the director’s job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.

So if Mamet is right, and if at first read I find the scripts of these short films untruthful, then this is not a sign of poor writing, it is only the sign of my work as an actor before it’s begun?

It is my job as an actor to make these stories believable, no matter what the circumstances, correct?

Let’s speak in extremes for the sake of example and say these stories could never ever ever happen. Does an actor have the power to still make them believable?

I might have more than one ultimate question hidden in all of this. I do not at all mean to say that these scripts are poorly written. I just want to better understand how I can best contribute as an actor to the story telling of these short films. I want to make sure my outlook is most helpful. Is the answer something like ‘As long as you have a goal and a means to pursue that goal, you can do good work as an actor, in any production setting and with any script’ ?



You have a lot of stuff roiling around in here, haven’t you?

Let me start by saying first–

The following two statements are not mutually exclusive:

  1. Good actors can make bad writing interesting.
  2. It is the writer’s not the actor’s job to make scenes dramatic.


A good actor can be interesting without being able to make an undramatic scene dramatic.
A bad actor can make a dramatic scene uninteresting.

Also note:
Mamet doesn’t mean that it isn’t the writer’s job to be truthful or the actor’s to embody drama.
What he means is that the writer’s essential job is to write dramatically and the actor’s essential job is to act truthfully and the director’s is to film it all straightforwardly.

And probably it would be wise to investigate what each of those adverbs implies.

When Christopher Reeve was a young actor on stage in a show that starred Katharine Hepburn, he asked her for advice about acting.  She said, “Be fascinating.”

Hepburn always did her damnedest to be fascinating, but some of the stuff that she was being fascinating in was still pretty boring, undramatic, redundant and useless.

For a season on Dawson’s Creek I played the high school English teacher.  During a break in the shooting of one episode, the writer came over to me. “You’ve made the teacher a real character,” he said. “I wasn’t even thinking of a character for him. I just gave him stuff to say.”

I learned something that day.

He made the scenes dramatic; I brought character to the drama.

Actors who have learned to act in the theatre by working with the world’s greatest plays–which I believe is a most magnificent way to learn to act–must know what they are responsible for when they act in film or television and what they not only have no responsibility for but no ability to affect/effect anyway.

You were cast in these films because of qualities the directors see in you. Your job is to respond with those qualities to the given circumstances of the scene; to be truthful, as Mamet understands it. If the writer has written drama, as Mamet understands it, you too will create drama. If the writer hasn’t, you won’t either.
And in that event, all you can do is be fascinating as Hepburn understood it.

And there will always be Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow.