Acting is Not Lying

Paul Kiernan


“Acting is not about being famous, it’s about exploring the human soul.” – Annette Bening


I’ve been on Quora lately, answering questions, reading articles, getting some answers to questions I’ve had and it’s been interesting. One of the things I find … let’s say, puzzling, is the number of people who confidently answer questions on subjects they know nothing about. I’ve seen non-actors, people who are not in the business or even close to the business really, answer questions about acting. That’s fine. It’s kind of an odd occupation, there’s a lot of subjectivity in it and people equate being famous with being good and so forth. Sometimes I answer questions about acting or theater but, mostly I read and ponder. I don’t want to get into an argument, which seems to be one of the chief purposes of social media. Even if I disagree with someone’s take on acting or theater or what actors do or don’t do in movies, I usually stay out of the conversation. Recently, I’ve seen several people comment about acting, people who are bankers, or lawyers or, whatever, not actors and they seem to say this quite a bit: “acting is just lying, if you lie really well then, yes, you can be an actor.”


I’ve heard this before, from many different kinds of people; acting is lying. Sometimes this statement is presented as a question: “are you telling me the truth or are you “acting” right now?” I’ve had this question asked of me by women I dated. Woman have told me that their friends don’t know how they can date an actor because actors lie for a living. People who have never been on stage, in a film, taken a class, who know nothing of the art confidently exclaim: acting is lying.


Acting is Truth


I’ve been a professional actor for roughly 30 years and when I see this statement written, hear people in conversation casually call actors liars, it always gives me a little sting, a little pang. I wince for myself and for my fellow actors knowing that a liar is a bad thing, no one wants to spend time with a lair and most relationships break up due to the phrase: “he’s a liar and a cheat.” Imagine if your entire life was judged this way by someone who knows nothing about what you really do. It kinda sucks, frankly and I’m writing today in an effort to make it stop.


Let me state clearly and unequivocally: acting is not lying. The definition of lying, according to our good friends at Merriam-Webster, is; marked by or containing untrue statements. Right off the bat, for anyone who is familiar with acting, you can see the definition of lying does not relate to acting. For those who have no connection or are completely unfamiliar with what goes into acting, let me explain. No matter what technique you follow, Meisner, Strasberg, Adler, Kazanoff, Clurman, Stanislavski, the bottom line is all these techniques are working toward one thing; truth. An actor seeks and works and rehearse and builds a character in the pursuit of truth in imaginary circumstances. Actors are seeking to find truth.


“But,” you may say, “they are pretending to be someone else, that’s lying.” No, no it’s not, it’s pretending. Yes, I said it, it’s pretending. Acting is high level pretending. It is based in seeking truth and using techniques to portray that truth as deeply and faithfully as possible but, yup, bottom line is, actors pretend really, really well.


Let’s Pretend


We pretend as kids, we pretend we’re kings and princes, firemen, cops. We pretend the backyard is Dodge City and the bent stick in our hand is a six gun. We pretend the bag of green army men is a real army and we pretend battles with full sound effects and action. We pretended as kids and then, somewhere, somehow, we were told to act our age, grow up and pretending went out the window. So, actors, when we first start out, need to learn how to pretend and how to play as we did as kids again. When a kid sets up his army men in the back yard or his bedroom and spends hours moving each guy, giving them names, making the sound of explosions and helicopters and what not, is he trying to deceive anyone? Does he want you to walk into the room or into the yard and think, holy mother of God, there’s a war going on here. Albeit one waged by tiny, sickly looking, nearly immobile men, but still, it’s a war. No, he’s just pretending, exercising his imagination. He is not lying.


I have a friend who makes a really really good living taking the games and exercises he learned in his beginning acting classes and bringing them to giant corporations and doing weekend retreats, helping corporate execs learn how to pretend and play and open up their imaginations. They want to learn how to play and pretend. No one is calling them liars.


The Opposite of Lies


Someone usually lies to protect themselves, to avoid being punished, to avoid being disliked, shunned by the group or hide the reality of who they are. Actors, when plying their craft,  do not do that. In fact, actors do just the opposite. Actors, when doing what they do and doing it well, are actually exposing themselves, emotionally. They’re laying bare for the audience and showing parts of their inner selves that most people would happily go a lifetime without anyone knowing those parts of them existed. What they are doing is really the polar opposite of lying.


Actors, when they are creating a character, understand that a character isn’t something that is pulled on like a v-neck sweater. A character is developed by finding the connection to the character inside the actor. To personalize and specify who this person is, we have to look inside and find that person in us. What this means is, an actor has to look inside and admit, to himself and then to an audience of strangers that, yes, I have a serial killer in me, I have a cheating husband in me, I have an egomaniac, holocaust causing dictator in me. An actor is fearless, they don’t lie because they don’t hide, they admit to themselves and then share their darkness, their sorrow, their hate, their love, they find that in themselves. Hell, lying would be easy and would take much less of an emotional toll.


It’s Work


In response to those who wonder about actors, dating actors and are actors just spending their entire lives lying to you, let me offer this, it’s work. Acting is work. Just because it seems fun to you, and remember, you’re not seeing the rehearsal or the shooting schedule and days onset, you’re just seeing the fun and funny and exciting outcome, I assure you it is work. It’s 12 hours a day, six days a week at the very least. It’s work, it’s difficult, it’s draining and the last thing you want when you get home is to have to keep working. So, the idea that actors work all day and then want to continue working when they’re done is kind of ridiculous. When we’re done with the work, we want normality, conversation, love, a good meal, time with friends, we don’t want to have to be “on” and performing all the time because then, we’d never stop working. So, no, when we’re with you outside of work we are not acting. When you ask me, how do I know you’re not acting right now, my answer would be; ‘Because you’re not paying me right now and I don’t do that for free.” There is a huge difference between being quick witted, naturally funny and gregarious and acting. Because actors train to be present and in the moment, because we observe and listen really well, because we work hard to get rid of our internal editor, we often can throw ina joke, make a witty observation and people can perceive that as being on or performing. But, Jake from the office is funny at a party and in the office and no one accuses him of being on or acting. Our training and our work tends to make us very present and that can be misinterpreted as being on. Believe me, the best actors I know don’t want the spotlight, don’t want to be the center of attention, they just want to buy their Cheerios, a dozen eggs and go home. It’s ork and there is a time to do the work and there has to be a time when you’re not doing work or you have nothing to bring to the world. So, if you date an actor you’re going to have to put up with some odd things,weird schedules, emotional highs and lows, artistic self doubt and the like but, you don’t have to worry about them “acting” all the time. Actors long for someone who knows them truly, deeply and unconditionally. Someone they aren’t worried is reviewing them or saying behind their back how they could do it better. Remember, actors have very visible, very public jobs and there are people who get paid to write about how they do those jobs. Sure, you may have a boss at your job and you may get called into the office to be reprimanded but, as an actor, some guy in Louisville who writes the obituaries and is also the theater critic, gets to put in print that your Malvolio wasn’t up to par and he would have done it differently. Everyone gets to have an opinion about you when you’re an actor and they get to express that opinion in news papers online, in tweets, instagram or whatever other venue they decide to take to spit their bike on you. It’s hard enough to deal with that when you’re working, why would we want to continue that on our day off?


Not for Everyone


The simple fact is everybody lies. The level of lie changes, innocent white lies, lies we tell our kids, lies to get out of work so you can go to the beach … we all have, or will lie in our lives, lie. Everyone does because everyone can. Not everyone can act. Acting involves skill driven training and a bit of talent. Lying is just a reflex.


So, why is this a bee in my bonnet? When you say acting is lying you’re reducing the art to what a child does when he doesn’t want to be grounded. You’re ignoring the years of training, the experience, the work and you’re making it some off handed thing that anyone can do with little to no thought or care. You’re also creating an image that actors cannot be trusted. Believe me, trying to have a relationship and being an actor is tough enough, the last thing we need is people saying we are liars, cannot be trusted and you’ll never know what we’re really thinking and feeling. That’s not helpful to any of us. Any person with any vocation can lie. A doctor can lie, an engineer can lie, any human being can lie but saying that actors do it regularly, that they are inherent liars, shows a lack of understanding of the art. When an actor is doing his job he is storytelling at a level that heightens the story to a work of art. He is not lying to you because he gains nothing by lying and everything by being truthful. We all know what’s happening when we walk into a theater or a movie, we are going to see actors portraying people and telling us an interesting heartwarming, funny, dramatic or ridiculous story. No one thinks, unless they are going into a documentary, that the filmmakers are trying to make you believe what you’re about to see is reality. No one is lying to you.


So, I hope this clear things up a little bit and do hope that, in the future, when someone asks a question about acting, you’ll think on this and refrain from casually saying it’s just lying.