The Unconscious Actor: Out of Control, In Full Command
The Art of Performance in Acting and in Life
by Darryl Hickman
Small Mountain Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780977680924
Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Powells
At the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to actor Darryl Hickman on the red carpet. You can watch our discussion on my red carpet YouTube video. I asked Hickman about any interesting memories he had from being a child actor. He told me I should read his book. And so I did.
But let's be clear, this book is not Darryl Hickman’s memoir. First and foremost, and as the title and subtitle strongly conveys, Hickman’s book is a guide on becoming an “unconscious actor”. That is to say, how to tap into that reserve of instinct and emotion that will allow you to become an effective performer. How do you do this? By being simultaneously out of control and in full command. Those might sound like contradictory terms but with well plotted out instructions, explanations and insights Hickman makes the connection between the two clear.
“Acting in its purest form is an urge from deep in the human psyche to celebrate our aliveness, to act our dreams and fantasies in a public display of our most private selves.” – Darryl Hickman
Hickman tapped into the concept of unconscious acting as a child actor. The decision to pursue the craft came from Hickman’s mother who had aspirations of stardom but was too shy to pursue them. As Hickman reflects in the book, “my career would be her career; it was as simple as that.” At the tender age of 3, Hickman didn’t know what he was doing. Any parts he played he did unconsciously and not with the control that comes from methodical training. This made him an effective and sought after child star. Bing Crosby gave Hickman’s career a boost while they were making the film The Star Maker. Crosby guided the young boy, encouraged him and set him up with an agent. Soon after, Hickman became a regular at MGM thanks to a long-term contract.
He worked with top directors such as Ford, McLeod, Ratoff, C. Brown, Thorpe, Minnelli and Cukor as well as experienced actors and actresses too. The child actor learned by working with them and listening to their guidance and advice. Hickman details the strengths and differences between each of the major directors and shares some background of working on films such as The Grapes of Wrath, Men of Boys Town, Keeper of the Flame, Song of Russia and others. Several of his most well-known films, including Leave Her to Heaven, are left out.
“Acting is reacting.” – Spencer Tracy
What drew directors to Hickman was his unconscious acting. He wasn’t trying to prove something or to be something. He was just a normal kid. This would prove vital in the second phase of his acting career. Hickman was out of work for several reasons: he was an awkward teen, briefly flirted with the idea of being a Passionist monk and was drafted into the army. Unsure if would ever be a Hollywood actor again, to his surprise he was offered a part in Tea and Sympathy. Robert Anderson, the playwright, wanted Hickman in the role because he was the only actor “who didn’t look or act like an actor.” Unconscious acting was on Hickman’s side again.
Influenced by these early years but also by studying the masters Stanislavsky and Strasberg, the Method and reading extensively from many sources, Hickman developed his own methodology. He put it into practice first when he had the opportunity to be a substitute teacher in an acting class. From there he developed the ideas and practices that are clearly outlined in this book. It’s the heart of the text and Hickman’s passion for teaching acting shines.
By reading The Unconscious Actor, budding performers will learn Hickman’s 7 Principles of Acting and will be offered plenty of examples of how to be out of control yet in full command. Hickman’s book is a valuable resource and I would be doing him a disservice by giving away too much of the methodology in this review. Instead I thought I’d share a handful of my favorite quotes and reflections from Darryl Hickman:
“Go with the flow always. Don’t push the river.”
“In any field, it’s the relaxed interviewee who gets the job.”
“Visual information trumps the dialogue every time.”
“A cast of professional actors is, from star to bit player, a true democracy, each individual equal to his or her fellow players, interdependent, open-hearted, a member of a team.”
“Too much conscious mind mucks up the artist’s natural creativity.”
“Intellect and intuition must accommodate each others differing functions, embracing a partnership in which they work together as a creative team.”
“Dramatic art is about nervous, frightened, anxious, on-edge people. Good characters are forever in trouble.”
– Darryl Hickman
Darryl Hickman told me to read his book and so I did. I was looking for some of those childhood stories but instead read a magnificent guide to unlocking creativity and imagination. Hickman's writing is superb and I could tell this book was written by a well-read and wise man. Even though I don’t have any aspirations to become an actress, if I ever change my mind I’ll have Hickman's guidance to kickstart my career.
Note that “The Unconscious Actor” and “ Out of Control, In Full Command” are trademark terms by Darryl Hickman.
This is my sixth and final review for the 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge.