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The Monstrosity of (Some) Acting Teachers in Barry and Unscripted is True to Life

Those who can't do...

By Steffany RitchiePublished 11 months ago Updated 10 months ago 7 min read
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Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/group-of-people-sitting-on-chair-on-stage-6896181/

In episode three of the current and final season of Barry (HBO), in amongst all of the other cumulative shocks as the series heads towards its home strait, we witness something that is every actor’s worst nightmare.

In this episode, Sally becomes the master of a cruel style of acting teaching that she has learned from her own teacher for years.

The lights are dark, and Sally’s face appears in a harshly unflattering, up lit closeup like something out of Sunset Boulevard. (Bill Hader’s flair for paying homage to the cinematography of the old Hollywood films he is a fan of is worth noting, and is even more evident in the dramatic tone of the current season)

Sally (played by the excellent Sarah Goldberg) is at her lowest ebb. Her once promising career has gone from writing, directing and starring in her own tv show to having her name become mud in the industry. This is thanks to cursing out her assistant in a viral video, and her boyfriend Barry being in prison accused of murder.

Sally is a great actress; this has always been her dream. She has displayed enough self absorption, ambition and ruthlessness along the way to indicate she might have made it had things gone her way. It’s a dog eat dog business and she has had to eat her fair share of humble pie with industry abuses.

She has tasted success, only to have it slip away, much like her mentor and former acting teacher Gene Cousineau (played by Henry Winkler in a career best performance).

She barks at her new class authoritatively to “take a quick five” like we have seen Mr. Cousineau do every time he has had enough. The ease with which she settles into this role, while humorous, has a dark edge to it (like much of the humor in Barry).

Throughout the series, we have witnessed Mr. Cousineau’s cruel yet effective method of teaching his students. He has been relegated to bit parts after a previously successful career which has been tanked by his own bad behavior.

Despite this, his students love him and see him as a sort of guru. He sees them as a pay check (buying his autobiography is mandatory — Winkler admits in this interview he once had an acting teacher who tried to sell students his art) and his disdain for them is often barely disguised.

With the students who do have talent, he breaks them down antagonistically to get the most authentic performances out of them.

(Language warning for this clip!)

Clip from season one of Barry c/o Youtube

When Barry (Bill Hader) has the sort of dumb luck booking parts that only someone who cares nothing about making it happen bumbles into, Cousineau cannot contain his jealousy.

A call-back to this is seen in the episode “You’re Charming”. Sally is confronted with a young actress, who has no obvious acting ability but has been cast in a big film for her looks.

She lays into the actress with zero restraint: “You’re charming” is flung as an insult, along with a monologue tirade of condescension at this young upstart’s ignorance and lack of seriousness. Sally is practically reading from Mr. Cousineau’s playbook.

To be young, beautiful and charming might get you in the door, but it can also get you chewed up and spit out, something Sally knows all too well.

The actress breaks down in tears, and Sally forces her to say her line from that place of raw vulnerability, just as Cousineau has done to her many times. Of course it works, and the actress hires Sally as a set coach.

Between this show and a recent first time watch of an obscure one-off HBO series Unscripted, I have been having flashbacks to a few acting teachers I once had.

Unscripted, which originally aired in 2005, is an unusual combination of mockumentary and drama, about a group of young actors in L.A. Their acting class is led by a veteran teacher called Goddard Fulton (played by Frank Langella).

Produced by Steven Soderburgh and George Clooney, it boasts some impressively starry behind the scenes cameos and sets. The cast of unknowns are followed as they work as stand ins and bit part day players.

Much of the lead actor Bryan Greenburg’s real life experience on shows and films he worked on is incorporated into the show. The cinematography is sun bleached, the interiors low-lit (it’s directed by Clooney, but anyone familiar with Soderbergh’s early work will see similarities), which adds to the authentic feeling.

Much like Henry Winker’s Gene Cousineau in Barry, Frank Langella’s Goddard is a figure of worship to many of his students. His style is also similarly abrasive and abusive.

Unscripted takes this abuse of power to the next level of creepiness, with Goddard treating the young women in his class as an easily manipulated dating pool.

His ability to mold his students’ self worth and affections with his invasive teaching style is something he uses to take advantage of the vulnerable young women in the class.

The smooth confidence of Goddard is skin-crawling; Langella plays him with sleazy confidence and a complete lack of accountability.

He has several short lived but identical relationships with young students. Eventually, the women wake up to the inherent emptiness of their adored mentor. They learn a harsh lesson and move on, while he stays the same.

It’s powerfully done, although with a modern lens (this show is almost twenty years old) to some it might seem frustrating he has no real comeuppance.

Goddard’s inevitable loneliness is his only punishment. There is also a storyline with a woman closer to his age who he once had a dalliance with who takes a painful amount of time to figure out why she is now invisible to him.

As a former actor, it’s fascinating to watch, because it is so close to what passes for teaching in (some) acting classes. I had one well-liked acting teacher at my NYC acting school who particularly fit the bill.

He was fond of breaking down students passive-aggressively, and seldom used positive reinforcement or constructive criticism.

He often told long-winded stories that were self-glorifying and took up valuable class time. (I had other acting teachers tell industry stories that were fun, although not always strictly useful. It’s a trade-off with acting schools that employ semi-known actors: some are great teachers, others are there largely to fluff their own feathers.)

This one teacher also played favorites with a chosen few young women. While I had no knowledge of him crossing a line, there was casual outside class socializing that I found inappropriate.

Admittedly for a while, I did feel like I was failing because I rarely achieved his approval. I could not bring myself to kiss up to the guy, and maybe he resented it. Luckily I had enough positive reinforcement elsewhere from teachers who didn’t require hero worship that I didn’t take it too much to heart.

I would like to think things have changed, but that dude for one is still teaching.

Unscripted only has one season but like Barry it captures a less glamorous side of the industry, especially for women, that isn’t often seen. The fickle cruelty of the casting process on women especially is also portrayed accurately.

Obviously, not all acting teachers are like this, and hopefully, they are a dying breed with younger generations being more alert to systemic abuses of power. But if you have ever been in the wrong teacher’s class you will recognize the portrayals in these shows as unfortunately real.

They may be entertaining to wince and laugh at on screen, but in real life these methods don’t help young actors learn or grow in a meaningful way.

Unfortunately acting teaches people to bend and twist themselves into whatever it is they need to be to get cast. This often creates vulnerable, insecure people who are far too willing to suffer abuse in the name of art.

Someone has uploaded the entirety of Unscripted onto YouTube if anyone is interested in watching.

This article was originally published by the author on Medium.

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About the Creator

Steffany Ritchie

Hi, I mostly write memoir, essays and pop culture things. I am a long-time American expat in Scotland.

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