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INTERVIEW: Acting Teacher Gary Swanson On All Things Acting

T.J. Clemente

Gary Swanson. (Photo: Steve Thornton)

Actor and acting teacher Gary Swanson was kind enough to share with Hamptons.com his thoughts on acting and actors in this day and age. He is planning an Exclusive Acting Program in the Hamptons this summer.

Swanson's career includes Vice Squad (1982), Making Love (1982), the television miniseries Loose Change (1977-78). He also appeared in the NBC-TV movie A Family Upside Down (1977-78).

Swanson actually began in television around the start of his acting career with a role on the NBC-TV soap opera series Somerset in 1974, where he appeared as Dr. Greg Mercer for three seasons. Importantly, Gary studied under renowned acting coaches Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg at The Actors' Studio in New York City, where he is presently a lifetime member.

In your opinion, what is the biggest change in the art of being an actor since you began?

GS: Before 1980 all actors were, by law, given an opportunity to audition and compete. After that, a former actor/President of The Screen Actors Guild eradicated anti-trust laws. Unions were "busted" and talent agencies were then allowed to merge - CAA and others. The major studios were permitted to own theaters, cherry-pick the directors and actors without any lawful obligation of legitimate auditions or fair competition. A new club consisting of the same old, reusable regulars and box-office actors were recycled to numb the masses with cliche and for the most part conventional acting. (I cannot complain because I was part of that retread club.)

Films and TV lost creative authority to access their power, minimizing real acting opportunity later morphing into mostly car crashing and futuristic spectacles. Network and The Godfather were examples of the last of classic films where actors could live, speak and die within the scope of the dramatic art.

I was fortunate to be in a low budget film called Vice Squad (made in 1980) that was one of the last few films to be unencumbered by "suits" on the set dictating the outcome of the deliverable. Vice Squad was made for $3 million and to date made over $100 million.

The political change, in turn, left a dearth of upcoming actors who weren't properly trained. It also put pall on the drive of the actor to find personal truth in their work but instead spend more time and money courting agents, casting agents and producers who double dipped to talk to hundreds of actors and their future new dreams - that they will be one of the chicks plucked from the pen and mounted on a turning spit of obscurity.

Where as today's Jane Fonda, Steve McQueen, Anna Magnani, Marlon Brando, Bradley Cooper were trained at The Actors Studio MFA program. Watch his work in A Star is Born and you will see the past as present. The Art of Acting is protean but has been stifled for - what appears to be - a long time into the future.

Who was most influential in forming your career and guiding you in the best direction?

GS: In 1974 I sought out Lee Strasberg when I was on an NBC Soap called Somerset. I was untrained but strangely successful as a "fake" actor. I studied with Lee for seven years after and he changed my life, setting me on a path that saved me from myself, teaching me a way - "A Method" - to employ my pain, humor, and pleasure as an offering to the masses. Lee taught me that the audience needed me and I had to give myself to that calling. Once I understood that, I had a real purpose and life has been good to me.

What was your greatest break as an actor and why?

GS: In 1974, as an arrogant, completely untrained actor I got an audition for an NBC Soap opera (Somerset) and to my astonishment - was offered a two-year contract. Later, facing my first day as an actor on a TV show, seen by millions across the country, was a horror known only by those staring at ones' own hangman's noose. It was then I had to get help and study acting. The rest of my great fortune has been a mystery.

What is the key value you bring to your students?

GS: I tell them: "Okay - you're all beautiful, smart and charming. The hard workers will wipe you off the stage!"

Who are a few of the people you have worked with who you admire the most?

GS: Peter Masterson, Robert Duvall, Elia Kazan, and my late father, Robert Swanson - "King Of The Jingles".

Which actor do you think was the most natural talent that you have ever observed?

GS: I'm teaching Natali Yuri Stepanchenko and Dante Spinelli. Both are early 20's who seem to have an inherent understanding. There are no "natural born" actors any more than E = MC2 was discovered by an uneducated guy in a garage. Every great success story needs training to release their powers.

Favorite thing about the East End of Long Island?

GS: The same reason I left LA 20 years ago - the light. In Montauk, the sun hits the ocean and the Long Island sound bounces back up and creates a soft beauty on the land that calms my spirit.

The Montauk Summer Program will offer an 4 or 8-week workshops (July 1st - September 1st) based on Lee Strasberg's "Method Acting" and The Konstantin Stanislavski "System".

For more information, visit garyswanson.org.

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