Actor and Acting Coach Michael D. Cohen on the Challenges of Being the Lead in ‘It Was You Charlie’

michael-d-cohenMichael D. Cohen stars as Abner in the new film, It Was You Charlie. In the dark comedy, Cohen plays Abner, a suicidal graveyard shift doorman who was once an accomplished sculptor. After he meets Zoe, a free-spirited taxi driver, something magical happens and he starts on a path to reconcile his conflicted past.

Michael, who was nominated for an ACTRA Award for the role, has also appeared in guest spots on The Mindy Project, 2 Broke Girls and Modern Family and is auditioning up a storm. On top of that, he’s also an in demand acting coach.

I talked with him recently about how he got the part of Abner, the challenges of being the lead in a film, being an acting teacher and more!

Congratulations on the role! How did you get the part?

Michael D. Cohen: Thanks! I had worked with the writer/director Emmanuel Shirinian on some other projects  when he was at the Canadian Film Centre (that’s Canada’s version of the AFI founded by Norm Jewison).  We immediately hit it off and had a great creative synergy as we worked. We became friends and then several years later, he wrote Charlie  and  had me in mind for the role. I of course still had to audition for the part for producers, etc. and got it. I feel extremely lucky.

What’s the biggest challenge of having a lead role in a film?

Michael D. Cohen: I imagine its different for every film.  In this film, I appear in every scene of the film. It takes place in 24 hours but flashes back over several time periods.  My character is in very different emotional states in each of those time periods and of course we were not shooting the scenes in order.  So the biggest challenge was to hit the right emotional tone in each scene and understand where it fit in the story.

I felt a big responsibility to make sure I understood the arc of the story thoroughly so that I could understand where we were on the shoot day and access the right emotional state – and do it quickly. We didn’t linger long on each scene when we were shooting – 17 day shoot total – so we had to move fast and I had to be prepared.

So I guess you could say that the biggest challenge on this film was having to be uber prepared – mentally and emotionally – and doing my best to understand my character as much as possible.

You also teach acting. How did you get into that?

Michael D. Cohen: Teaching is a family thing – my parents were both teachers and I also love being a student. So I always knew that one day I would teach acting.  I did a Masters of Education degree in Adult Education focusing on transformative education – that’s how to help people transform through workshops/classes. I was interested in how I could create classes and workshop for performers that would be inspiring and motivating and help them grow not only as actors, but as people.

I’m fascinated with the notion of “peak performance” – that state of feeling totally in the zone – and wanted to find ways of helping performers hit that zone intentionally. I suppose you can say I want to demystify the process of getting in the zone.  A lot of it has to do with understanding the difference between “control” vs. “mastery”.  Control is fear based while mastery isn’t. Mastery allows for a performance to emerge and relies much more on our subconscious mind – the whole body, whereas control is just the brain or the ego and comes from a concept. That never feels good. Mastery feels great.  So I guess I needed to feel like I had some mastery before I could start teaching.

I also wanted my teaching to come from a pure place of truly wanting students to excel, so I waited until my confidence as an actor was strong enough so that I could be excited to share what I have learned.  I started teaching for various schools in L.A., then with what was the SAG Conservatory at the AFI.  I taught a lot of workshops for the SAG Foundation and for AFTRA’s Member Education.  Then the union merged and I began to be more active and take on more leadership roles at the Conservatory. I opened my own studio (Michael D. Cohen Studio) and now do workshops in L.A. and other cities in the U.S. and Canada. I also coach actors on auditions around through Skype.

Does teaching acting make you a better actor?

Michael D. Cohen: Absolutely. I have grown so much since I started to teach.  By deconstructing the acting process for others, I get to understand it at a deeper and deeper level over time. I continue to learn all the time and I learn a lot from my students. It’s a totally synergistic relationship.  I’m very grateful to be in this position.

What’s the worst audition you’ve ever had?

Michael D. Cohen: Oh jeez… okay. Well there was this time I had a commercial audition – it was a for a fast food chain that will remain unnamed but it rhymes with Kurger Bing. I had to wear some sort of mask with a crown on it and move around the room quickly doing stuff like serving imaginary patrons. If that wasn’t degrading enough, the mask didn’t have big enough eye holes so I kept running into chairs and walls. It was a disaster.

What’s your advice to actors?

Michael D. Cohen: Do this because you love it and it’s a calling. If it’s not a calling, then when it stops being fun get out. Use acting as a path to your own personal growth; make your own growth top of the list – while being professional and responsible of course.

Allow yourself to love acting so much that you’re willing to be bad at it … that’s commitment and you need commitment in this business – and if you keep at it, you’ll eventually reach your potential more and more often. When you do a scene or audition that you think sucked, stay curious and open about it so that you learn and have compassion for where you’re blocked.

And take class!! Find a teacher you like that is respectful and inspiring and challenges you.  If you don’t feel those things in a class, keep looking until you do and then stay with that teacher for a while – like 1 or 2 years.

Lastly, get to know yourself. You are your instrument so the more you are familiar with how you work, the better you can “play” that instrument and hit all sorts of different notes.  We never get to know ourselves completely, which is part of the fun.  There will always be mystery, and that makes the process so rich.

Check out Michael’s website for his coaching: www.mdcohenstudio.com

And follow him on Facebook and Twitter!

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