Renowned Hollywood acting coach Michelle Danner, who has worked with the likes of Gerard Butler, Chris Rock, Penelope Cruz and James Franco, recently presented master classes in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In an exclusive interview with Joanna Sterkowicz, Danner spoke about ‘The Golden Box’ acting technique, as well as her second directorial feature film, Hello Herman.
When Johannesburg-based character casting agent Addi Lang, owner of Caitlin’s Castings, first began communicating with Michelle Danner 18 months ago, she knew she had to bring Danner out to South Africa to see South African talent and conduct master classes.
“As the founder and artistic director of The Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica, California, Michelle is a hugely sought after acting coach,” said Lang. “She has trained A-list actors such as Christian Slater, Salma Hayek, Zooey Deschanel, Kellan Lutz and Michelle Rodriguez, among many others.
“The level of competition in Los Angeles is so high that most South African actors who move there in the hopes of finding fame and fortune never get anywhere.
Michelle’s school offers a stepping stone – not only does it provide top level training, it also helps students to get visas and offers amazing networking opportunities. Patrons of Michelle’s school include Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.”
One of Lang’s protégés, Tukise Mogoje, a 25-year-old South African actor, is currently studying with Danner in Hollywood.
Danner told Screen Africa that she’d always wanted to come to South Africa. “It’s my passion to go to countries where there are powerful stories and I know there are many in your country. To work with South African actors is to expand my personal horizons.”
The Michelle Danner Acting Studio at Edgemar encompasses a variety of acting techniques, including Meisner, Strasberg, Adler, Hagen, Chekhov and the Stanislavsky technique.
“I’ve studied each of these methodologies and found that they can all work together,” explained Danner. “You shouldn’t blinker creativity which is why it’s good to utilise different ideologies. A lot of acting teachers can be dogmatic and teach only a single method whereas I think it’s limiting to believe there is only one acting technique.”
Danner often receives requests from A-list actors seeking help with particular roles.
“In such instances I would either go onto set or the actor comes to Edgemar and we work on character analysis together,” she commented. “I’ve trained so many people that these days I can hardly go into a restaurant in Los Angeles without running into someone I’ve worked with. I have the same situation in New York.
“Many people have told me that I’ve changed their lives so it makes me think that the role of an acting teacher is very important.”
‘The Golden Box’
Danner’s five-hour master class, ‘The Golden Box’, introduced South Africans to an unusual philosophy of how to create vivid, fleshed out and interesting characters.
The audience included casting directors, TV producers, well known and aspiring actors and actresses. As this was Danner’s first visit to South Africa, she was introduced to local talent through performances by 16-year old actor, singer and world champion dancer Kalon Badenhorst. Another performance was from song and dance ensemble, Amakhono We Sintu.
Danner continued: “In the Johannesburg and Cape Town workshops I did an exercise on biography because ‘The Golden Box’ is all about self-discovery – the key is to find the back story of the character in order to lose yourself in the character. This is vital as audiences want to lose themselves in the characters.
“When I teach I start with a checklist of words and elaborate within each of these words because it’s important for actors to have a technical road map. My technique, which is effective for actors of all different levels, teaches you how to apply the craft of acting.”
Danner stressed that ‘The Golden Box’ shows students how to get out of their own heads so as to live completely in the moment. “By finding your own unique emotional triggers, you learn to access your full range of feelings and emotions at a moment’s notice. I take the emphasis off of the ‘method’ and help actors rediscover their own creativity.”
In addition to her acting school, Danner has built two theatres at Edgemar, as well as an art gallery.
“People don’t think of Los Angeles as a place with theatre as there is so much focus on the film industry. So I wanted to build theatres to provide a physical environment that nurtures the creative process and encourages collaboration between writers, directors, actors, musicians, dancers and visual artists. We do lots of plays, musicals and kids shows,” said Danner.
Last year Danner directed the feature film Hello Herman, produced by her company All in Films, starring Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead). (Danner’s directorial debut was the 2006 release, How To Go Out on a Date in Queens.)
She describes Hello Herman as a Columbine-esque drama about a school shooting which shows how the desensitisation of youth leads to increased violence.
“I’m a concerned mom myself and it’s disturbing to continually wonder if your child will come to grief at school. In the US there is a big dialogue around bullying and it’s escalated because of cyber bullying on the internet. Once you’ve become the victim of cyber bullying you’re stained for life. I believe that technology has made the world more desensitised – Facebook is meant to connect people but it’s the most disconnected thing ever.
An educational cut of Hello Herman has been distributed to schools in the US and is available across the USA on DVD. Danner is also in discussions to release the film in South Africa.