Robert Colt's Interview
with Corey Parker of THE ACTORS WORK
BY Corey Parker
of The Actors Work blog
Robert Colt is an acting coach.
He offers in person classes in Los Angeles as
well as private coaching for auditions.
Corey: When did you first realize that you had this connection to acting?
Robert: I grew up in show business. My mother was a famous Burlesque dancer. In 1963 when I was 3 years old I was taken on stage in the finale of Ann Corio’s show “This Was Burlesque” at the Gaiety theatre on 12th street and 2nd avenue in NYC.
My mother was the feature dancer in the show and told me years later, when I was studying acting, that Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio actors would sit in the balcony. Lee sent them to study the great burlesque comics and their impeccable timing. So I grew up in Burlesque. I was in the wings catching wardrobe from strippers when I was seven and working the spotlight when I was 12. I hung around the comics as much as I could. They were the best. On weekends the shows would end at 11pm or midnight and then the cast would go out for “night lunch” and I’d eat silver dollar pancakes and laugh the whole time with the comics. It was a special time. I just loved to be around them, any chance I could. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how much I had absorbed by watching and being around those great comics.
But the acting bug laid dormant until I went to College. I had been very athletic in high school, but I had some knee issues, so I couldn’t pursue sports…it kind of ended at 15 or 16. Then I wanted to be a sports writer. I went to college in Florida, and while I was there, there was a class called ‘Welcome to the Theater.’ So I took the class and they said “If you have any kind of talent, we’re going to do a talent night.”
I was pretty good at doing a few impressions. I did Muhammed Ali, Jimmy Cagney, and I did a professional wrestler - Dusty Rhodes. I did it and it was a packed house. I got a standing ovation. It felt great, I was 18. I never expected that.
Then I got cast in Zoo Story there. I didn’t know what I was doing but I had the right quality and energy for Jerry. I was so green that the director gave me numerous line readings. I had to do it exactly how she wanted me to but during Jerry’s long monologue something would take over and I’d fly with it. The bazaar part was that I got a standing ovation at every show. That didn’t make any sense to me. I really didn’t know anything about acting.
The big turning point was when I went to see the movie “The Deer Hunter” in 1978. I hadn’t ever had that kind of experience in my life. Where I was so unbelievably blown away. For me, it was Robert DeNiro. Walken and Savage were amazing, John Cazale, George Dzundza, Meryl Streep were off the charts. But for me, it was DeNiro. I turned to my room mate, Klaus, from Germany and his girlfriend, who was from Laos, and she’s crying, and I said, “That’s it. I quit. I’m leaving college. I can do that. I just know I can do that.” That was it for me. I finished out the second semester and went to New York.
I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I applied to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I got in and three months later I was kicked out. I was not a good student at all.
Corey: Why? What happened?
Robert: It wasn’t for me. It wasn’t a good fit for me. It didn’t energize me, it didn’t get me excited. I started working in gyms while looking for another acting class. I went to a class with a teacher named Richard Benner. He had written and directed a movie called “Outrageous.” He said to me, “You could have an incredible career in Hollywood. I could show you a few things right now and you’d be ready.” It made no sense to me at the time, not at all. So I took the class, it was a 6 week class. Richard was an interesting guy, incredibly perceptive. I was working at a gym in Chelsea at that time and there was a guy I was helping on a curl machine and he said “What’s your story?”
I was cocky and I said, “Well, my name’s Robert Colt and I’m going to be one of the best actors of my generation.” And he said, “You need Warren Robertson.” So I said, “Who are you?” And he said, “My name is Michael Gore and I wrote the music for the movie Fame.”
So I went to Warren Robertson's Theatre Workshop and found an acting home. I was so dedicated. I lived it, I breathed it. All I could do was think about it. To be in New York, and to be this young actor of 22…Viggo Mortensen was in class and we were very close at that time. And Warren’s was a hot spot. And that’s where my love for acting skyrocketed.
Corey: What was Warren Robertson like?
Robert: Warren had a great influence on my life at that time. I am indebted to Warren for both his influence on my acting, teaching and most importantly igniting my inner journey. Warren was ahead of his times for sure. He had the courage to move away from the current approaches of his time and blaze a new trail in acting.
Warren looked at life as a living process and nurtured and encouraged that in the work. And he was masterful at helping you break through emotionally. It was very much an experimental approach highlighted by sporadic, brilliant work and Warren’s great sense of humor. I think it gave room for a lot of cool things, especially as a young actor. He wasn’t teaching a technique per se but there was a subtle "heady" aspect still there he was working through. He was definitely breaking new ground. I got introduced to my instincts with Warren. He also planted seeds that would become evident in my approach years later as an acting teacher.
After studying with Warren for several years I moved on and connected with a method acting teacher. I went to that class for a little over a year. In that class I met Vincent D’Onofrio, Ben Stiller was there, and a wonderful actor Harry O’Reilly. Vincent was the most extraordinary actor I had seen at that point. He was inspiring to watch. That was an interesting class. I was the new young buck in that class and I had to work hard to get their respect. It had a kind of territorialism to it. And at the same time a real artistic vibe that I really appreciated. So that was my foray into trying method.
Then I went to Geraldine Barron briefly. I think I lasted a month, because at this point I had a lot of fear going on, afraid of really going for it. Before the cancer I felt fearless, but after the cancer I became filled with fear, you know just of my own mortality. It honestly shook me to my roots. Geraldine Barron was cool. I went into her class and she had only one picture of an actor on the wall and it was Marlon Brando, my favorite actor. I thought, ‘Brando? He was so against the method.’ For me he was like the Buddha of acting. After my first class with Geraldine she told me to walk along 8th street with her. As we walked she shared an inspiring story from her time with Lee Strasberg as it directly related to me as an actor. She got my talent and potential in that first class and me as an actor. Three weeks later I left out of fear. It would take years to understand why, as in those days I didn’t understand the functioning of the brain and nervous system’s survival mechanism.
So I went to Columbia University, I went back to college. I went for a year and started studying other stuff- psychology and philosophy, but I missed acting. I left Columbia University and would try method acting again and then Meisner for some time. First I started studying with Marilyn Freed, a Method teacher, who was very generous and supportive of me. We’d go to Knick games, Mets games and she took me to Cindy Lauper’s apartment for Thanksgiving once. Marilyn pulled me aside after class one evening and said intensely, “You’re an actor for life. An actor for life.” A couple of years later I went the Meisner route and studied with Bill Esper for two years and did his third year master class.
Then I went on to study with Wynn Handman for two years. Wynn had an uncanny ability to give me roles that pushed me past my fears and limitations of what I thought I could do. I also worked with Rob McCaskill, a very generous and kind teacher. Rob has a gift of creating improvisations on the spot which bring a sense of play to the work. So I was studying for about 12 years in total.
An influence outside of acting was Stephen Wolinsky, the founder of Quantum Psychology and author of over 18 books. One of the key things I learned from him was that there's two key things that a teacher has to have. One is, ‘can they teach?’ Not all teachers can teach. The second most important thing is, 'can they teach me?’ They have to be able to teach and they have to be the right fit for you.
That connection of teacher and fit, for me as an actor, was made for me when I coached with Harold Guskin. Warren Robertson and Harold Guskin were wonderful bookends for me. While I had gotten valuable contributions from all my previous teachers it peaked with Harold. We were so in sync with one another. When I went to Harold Guskin it was the first time in my life that I felt respected and empowered at the deepest level as an actor. He did it immediately. You could feel Harold’s love for actors. After my first session with him he looked at me and said, “You should be working all the time.” The confidence that instilled in me I could feel in my bones. He planted a seed that day in his apartment on Jane street and the game changed for me. In working with Harold I realized the power of what I call “the genuine response” which would eventually go on to be a cornerstone of my classes amongst other things I later developed.
With some of the teachers I had before Harold, I felt there was a push for results. They'd say ‘this is not about results,’ but that wasn’t true. Underneath, and not that far underneath, it was conscious: “you gotta get those results.” That never worked for me. I was ready to unlearn all that I had learned and Harold was the right fit for me in empowering that.
Harold wrote a brilliant book called “How To Stop Acting” which I highly recommend. Harold recently passed and his impact on actors will continue to go on. He was a special man and I value not only the time I had coaching with him but also our talks and rich connection. His huge hearted wife, Sandra, shared with me that on Harold’s desk is a small piece of paper in his handwriting with his favorite quote: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” by Henry Brooks Adam. Harold definitely accomplished that.
Corey: When you spend years training, you see on occasion that some teachers are verbally and emotionally abusive. Why do you think some teachers become abusive to actors?
Robert: For the ones that are truly abusive they have no clue how lucky and privileged they are to have the trust of talented men and women that have the courage to express what most people suppress. These teachers are also in counter-transference. Instead of appreciating how lucky they are these teachers project their own deep-seated resentments, insecurities, disappointments and frustrations on their students, often with damaging results to the artist. As the saying goes, “Do onto others what was done onto you.” If you’re a teacher of acting, and were yourself abused by a teacher when you studied acting, there’s a higher likelihood that you’ll be an abusive teacher. Once it gets abusive, you’re no longer helping an actor to become professional, you're their enemy. Then there are teachers that may be accused of being abusive when they may not be. They just may be very strict and tough with strong boundaries. Some of these teachers back in the day wouldn’t consider some of the stuff they did abusive, or, what was done to them when they were studying as being abusive. With these particular teachers I can only guess that they knew or know how difficult the business is, they knew that it was going to be one hell of a ride for most everybody - except for the lucky few- so they had to give you a really tough hide and at the same time teach you how to be vulnerable. These teachers could have learned a lot from Harold Guskin who would never B.S. you but was kind in his honesty and empowerment.
Corey: I have watched your class and you are a truly unique teacher.
Robert: I don’t feel like a teacher. I feel like I’m collaborating into truth. Facilitating. Plus I do have a deep understanding of the brain and the nervous system. From 36 years of studying eastern approaches as well as neuroscience and quantum physics, I know on a very deep level what’s getting in people’s way on various levels. This understanding took a quantum leap recently, which I mentioned earlier. Combining this new understanding with prior knowledge and techniques I have are the master keys in helping people to get out of their own way and live a full, creative life with greater success and well being.
Corey: What are the common blocks that you see when actors come to you as students?
Robert: The common factor is always fear. I think some very gifted, sensitive people are afraid, some of them are really afraid to give it all, to show it and to shine. Others are afraid if they play what society would consider a horrific person they’ll be perceived that way too. On another level, I think some of them are afraid of their emotions. Let me say it this way: it’s a very fascinating profession. I know that the brain and nervous system is designed to move away from pain and move towards pleasure. This can be a double edged sword. If you resist pain, you’re still in pain, if you try to switch to pleasure without dealing with the pain, you’re still in pain. Amongst the greatest misunderstanding is the fact that everything is temporary, everything. Pleasure is temporary and yet we do our best to prolong it at the cost of experiencing its opposite. Pain would be temporary too if we weren't implanted by culture with the unlivable ideal that we have to obtain the ultimate happiness without a moment of pain, which is actually the very source of our greatest individual and collective pain. Unliveable ideals cause an artificial division between our animal nature and idealized human nature. Our animal nature, which is the source of our instincts and creativity, is denigrated and domesticated. This cuts us off from both life and our natural aliveness. Our culturally idealized human nature actually cuts us off from the natural expression of empathy and care for others because it's made into a "should" that you have to be incessantly expressing which is a human impossibility. This artificial cultural conditioning also makes us feel bad about being self centered and selfish. We are all self centered and selfish as without it you wouldn't be able to survive.
The key is to use our self centeredness and selfishness with awareness. It's very difficult to have an acting career without being self centered. It's using our self-centeredness with awareness in combination with care and empathy for others that makes us both the wonderful human animals we are and the wonderful actors we can become.
Regarding acting, you and I know that writer’s have conflict in every scene. Whether it’s drama or comedy, there are places that you have to go to that can feel painful. Whether it’s hatred, the fear of dying, whether it’s tremendous love, which brings fear because if we love someone totally we’re consciously or unconsciously afraid that we’ll lose them someday. So we hold back our love as a self-protective act which actually gives us and the other more pain.
Your brain/nervous system cares about two things; survival and reproduction of the species. That's it. It doesn't care about your talent, success or happiness. That doesn't exist for the survival mechanism. So you’re literally going against the mechanism of the nervous system as an actor. You just are. There’s no way around that. So every actor in order to go to those places has to override the mechanism of the nervous system. This is where it's a "luck out" to not only deeply understand this but to have tools that give you the ways to do this. Fortunately, I have those tools to impart to actors with great success.
Regarding emotional fear, did the actor feel safe with their emotions growing up? Did they get messages like: “Don’t cry,” “Don’t be angry,” “Don’t be afraid”? Because if I get those messages early on…With me, for example, growing up, anger was okay but I was taught not to show fear. So what happened when fear came up? I went to a default emotion. I went to anger. If I felt fear, I showed anger. So one of the things I see in actors is their default emotion. So there’s another key piece there. You’re up against the nervous system, and what was the level of acceptance you had growing up with your feelings? I see so many talented, gifted people…there’s this actress I’m working with now and it’s taken her a couple of years with rage. She would act it rather than live through it. She was given an early message: No rage for you. She goes to crying, to fear.
What is emotion? It is E=Motion: Energy in outward motion. That’s really what it is. What happens if that outgoing energy gets blocked, it’s going to retroflect or return and get stuck and frozen in your body. So I find what I’m dealing with sometimes is very talented people in frozen states of emotion. Again, fortunately I know numerous tools and processes to help actors un-freeze from stuck emotional states and limiting belief patterns. For 17 years my wife Michelle and I taught a workshop called Inside Game in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco that got to the very root of unconscious blocks, fears and limitations that people suffer with. Michelle still coaches people privately with this as well as doing her own unique workshops that address this on the deepest levels. I also bring those processes from our workshop, that we taught together for 17 years, into my work with actors with phenomenal results.
It’s my deepest perspective that acting is ultimately about having fun. If you’re on Broadway people don’t say ‘I’m going to see a seriousness tonight.’ They say I’m going to see a play. Film is not called the “heavy” industry. It’s called the entertainment industry.
As an actress you get to dress up in different clothes, you get to speak in different accents, have a limp or an eye patch, and you get to express the full range of human emotions. It’s a pretty cool thing. With comedy, the key is about having fun. The more fun you have the more fun we’ll have. The more fun you’re having as an actor the higher the probability of your success. With drama the key is going deeper into those places within that most people avoid. And of course comedy and drama overlap. But the deeper you’re willing to go, the more fulfilling it is. And always tell your truth within the given circumstances of both comedies and dramas. Honesty and vulnerability bring great power to performances. That’s my experience. Even going to those painful places, I’ve never seen an actor who doesn’t go there, no matter how difficult it is, once they get through it, they are beaming after.
As I mentioned, I’m lucky that I have so many tools and techniques so that when I see where an actor is blocked I utilize them. I too was in great pain and suffering for many, many years and it’s because of these tools that I was able to get unstuck and out of that pain myself. There’s also another beautiful factor. I was talking to Warren Robertson recently, we’re back in touch after 34 years, and he said, “You know when I look back, the greatest thing I ever did was teaching because I had these beautiful talents that trusted, they were entrusting me in those moments.”
It is a privilege. It’s a privilege to me, because when I’m facilitating, it’s no different than when I’m acting. I don’t know what to do until the moment comes up. I don’t sit there with a pre-planned idea, “Okay, here’s how I’m going to help so and so today.” I’m in the moment with you, and it shows itself in the moment. Instead of the push for results, what if you really start at nothing? You do anyway, whether you're aware of it or not. It takes courage to do it consciously. When you make the quantum leap of starting at nothing things really start to happen. Then it becomes about trust. Trust is the golden key.
Writers take care of actors. Really good writers do. The question for me is ‘can you get on that river and let it take you for a ride and let it play your instrument?’ Sandy Meisner said, “Great actors don’t do great acting, great actors allow acting to do them.” So…to what degree can you let yourself be played? Or as Charlie Parker said, “Don’t play the saxophone, let the saxophone play you.” Art is art whether it’s acting, painting, dancing, physics, yoga, meditation or basketball. It plays you.
Another thing I love to say is, “A true nothing is far more powerful than a false something.” For Robert Duvall he says, “Start from zero.” How do you start from zero? Be open to the unfolding of what IS and go with it. I think the most powerful thing to experience is getting to zero. And then go for the ride. Because your talent, intuition and instincts are operating at full force then. But it doesn’t leave out the given circumstances. It actually honors them deeply. One of my favorite quotes from Stanislavski is “Truth in art is truth in circumstances.” I find that to be dead on.
About 15 years ago I was really into Hatha Yoga. I’d do it 2-3 hours a day. I was fortunate to learn from a master of his craft, Joel Kramer. He would say the key is taking what your body gives you during asanas (yoga postures) which changes all the time. This puts your focus on the process of Yoga and the natural opening of the body rather than focusing on results and struggling to force yourself into positions. I came to realize when you go against what the body gives you, by pushing, you’re in Ego Yoga and when you’re not willing to go to new places the body is naturally opening up to you're in Fear Yoga. Both Ego Yoga and Fear Yoga produces pain. In the Art of Not Acting, when an actor doesn’t trust what’s unfolding spontaneously in the moment and tries to make something happen, they’re in Ego Acting. When they hold back and play it safe with what’s unfolding in the moment they’re in Fear Acting. This results in being untruthful in both instances which is painful for real actors. Artists thrive in truth and suffer in falsehood. Robert DeNiro says, “All you can do is be in the moment. When you try to make something big happen it never works. It never works. All you can do is be in the moment. If something’s going to happen it’s going to happen. If it’s not, it’s not.” As an aside Hatha means persistence. When it comes to the Art of Not Acting it’s about the persistence of truth.
Corey: Will you talk about how an actor can take care of themselves while they pursue a career in this business?
Robert: Always surround yourself with excellence and invest yourself in excellence. Go to plays, watch great movies, silent ones too, and listen to great artists in all fields of life. Honor your passion and inspiration as an artist and dedicate yourself to your craft first and foremost. Get in nature as often as possible as we come from nature and are nature. There's nothing more honest than nature. Choose your friends wisely and learn how to be discerning when it comes to teachers, agents, managers and the business in general. When it comes to their physicality I tell actors, particularly the younger ones, “It’s great that you’re having good times on the weekend. But the actors who are willing to sacrifice some of those good times right now and take care of their bodies- eat well, sleep, exercise and treat themselves with the focus and discipline of top professional athletes get to have many years of good times." I have some actors in their 40’s and 50’s who just shake their heads knowingly because they wasted those years and are finally back on track. I’m not here to judge what somebody does as far as how they have a good time. I like to have a good time. I’ve seen many, many actors lose their way by going out to bars all the time, drinking a lot, doing drugs or getting distracted in dysfunctional relationships. That’s a big one. The drama of the girlfriend or boyfriend. You have to understand the challenge because the main drives and urges of our bodies are the pleasure of eating, sleeping and having sex. These are natural drives and crucial for our survival and the survival of our species. The key is that they don’t go into overdrive.