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 classes in Los Angeles and periodic acting workshops in New York.
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 Bobby Colt and I’m going to be one of the best actors of my generation.” And he said, “Okay, 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 I got this incredible love for acting.
Corey: What was Warren Robertson like?
Robert: Warren had a great influence on my life at that time and I had and have a great love for him. It’s interesting, what Warren was doing planted some of the seeds of what happens in my class consistently but only happened there sporadically. And that’s not putting Warren down at all, it’s actually acknowledging him, because I thought he was very innovative and ahead of his times.
He 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. But I think it gave room for a lot of cool things, especially as a young actor. He wasn’t teaching a technique, he was breaking new ground. I got introduced to my instincts there and felt like I was on my way to a great career.
But then I got hit with a real haymaker. And that was cancer. I had signed with a big time manager. When you’re young you get opportunities for sure. And it was because of Viggo, he made the introduction. I thought that was an incredible act of generosity. And then 8 or 9 months later I was diagnosed with cancer- it was a very serious situation.
It took me 3 years to get my physicality back. And it took almost a decade to actually recover. But I never missed an acting class during my chemotherapy or my surgery. I tell that to actors when we talk about commitment. I had every chemo session and my major surgery scheduled so I could still be in my Wednesday night class. And that was because that’s how much I loved it. Those classes were my lifeline, the best night of the week.
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.
The person who’s had the most profound impact on my life and all the work I do today is Stephen Wolinsky, the founder of Quantum Psychology and author of over 18 books. Words will never do justice to the love and gratitude I feel for him. Among many things I've learned from Stephen, he taught me something that I wish I had known when I was training, but it helped me in retrospect. While what he said was in regard to spiritual teachers I knew it could be applied to all teachers. He said 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.
That connection was made for me when I coached with Harold Guskin. While I had gotten valuable contributions from all my previous teachers it wasn’t the right fit that Stephen Wolinsky describes. Harold was that right fit. We were just 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 weren’t 100% honest. 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. Stephen Wolinsky says a brilliant thing, “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, your 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.
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 wisdom and learning from Stephen these past 12 years, 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 love 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. Which actually generates more pain. 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.
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 are 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.
So you’re 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. Then the question becomes…how safe do they feel doing it? Well… how safe did they feel growing up?
Did they 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. Fortunately I know numerous tools and processes to help actors un-freeze from stuck emotional states and limiting belief patterns. For the past 15 years my wife Michelle and I have been teaching a workshop called Inside Game in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, as well as in private sessions, that gets to the very root of unconscious blocks, fears and limitations that people suffer with. I also bring those processes into my work with actors with phenomenal results.
It’s my 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 I see where an actor is blocked and utilize that. 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. He would say the key is taking what your body gives you during asanas (yoga postures) which changes all the time. 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 opening up to you're in Fear Yoga. Both Ego Yoga and Fear Yoga produces pain. I often say my Art of Not Acting approach could also be called the Yoga of 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: I think it’s multi dimensional. Let’s look at the physical. I tell young actors, “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 like professional athletes get to have many years of good times.” I have some actors in there 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 go the way of going out to bars all the time, drinking a lot, doing drugs or getting distracted in dysfunctional relationships, that’s a big one I’ve seen. The drama of the girlfriend or boyfriend. You have to understand the challenge, because the drives of our body is to eat, to sleep, to merge, to learn, to have sex, to get stimulated. These are natural drives. The key is that they don’t go into overdrive. The key is to focus like a great basketball player, a great dancer.
How else do you take care of yourself? What influences do you surround yourself with? Are you in your own way? To what degree are you aware of that? There are techniques you can start doing to get out of your own way. I’m going to bring in the East at this point. For me the single most important thing is to connect to something bigger than the ego, the I, Me and Mine. You could call it the quantum field or quantum consciousness, or Life Energy. In India you often hear the word SELF, usually in caps. I like the term ONE SUBSTANCE. If you were to truly recognize that everything in the universe was made of the same One Substance your life would shift in an instance. You would also realize there's only ONE LOVE and we are THAT ONE SUBSTANCE and ONE LOVE. As The Beatles said, “All you need is love," and Stevie Wonder in the song AS says, "Turn your words into truth and then turn that truth into love."
I don’t think there are many souls, I just think there is one Soul, called the Self or the One Same Soul or One LOVE, and that literally is in everything, it animates everything, it permeates you and I right now, it’s in ants, it’s in bees, it’s in butterflies, it’s in whales, it’s in the good guys and the bad guys, it’s throughout the cosmos. It’s all pervading. And THAT is always there. Animating and emanating everything. So my thing is…we can connect to THAT LOVE because we are THAT LOVE. We get in touch with THAT in my class. My whole class is rooted in LOVE, with an exploration of truth in the given circumstances by starting at zero. Without manipulating it, without questioning it. See what happens. And everything just starts coming together as you trust what’s unfolding in each moment. Have fun and go for the ride. It’s as simple as THAT. It’s as simple as LOVE.