From coaching Award-winning actors like Michelle Williams and Kerry Washington to Hollywood heavyweights like Brad Pitt and Bradley Cooper, acting coach Howard Fine has been guiding actors to their full potential for decades. In that time, he’s developed an understanding of what separates the dreamers from the doers in the world of acting.
Fine’s philosophy is rooted in the belief that insecurity, often perceived as a weakness, is actually the driving force behind success in acting. He explains that this insecurity, when balanced with a sense of self-belief, fuels the relentless pursuit of improvement that marks truly great actors. This insecurity is what pushes actors to examine their work critically, seek feedback, and constantly strive to refine their craft.
In this interview, Fine talks about coaching actors (including Austin Butler), teaching classes online, why actor shouldnt judge their characters, self-tapes and so much more. I could have honestly talked with him for hours. This interview is edited for length and clarity. For the full interview, check out the video above or on our YouTube channel.
Howard Fine: These are journeyman actors, which is not an easy thing to do, as you know, because to sustain a career, you have to be more than a flash in the pan. You have to have craft.
Did you work with them before they became well known?
Howard Fine: A lot of a lot of people have gone on the entire journey. For a lot of people, they were with me for a long period of time or keep coming back for refreshers periodically. Austin Butler, who played Elvis, is one of those who started in technique. And then he would be in scene study class constantly in between acting gigs. Then he wanted to do a play and he pushed his agents, and they got an audition for The Iceman Cometh opposite Denzel Washington. He got that and then that put him in a different league because only a real actor can do theater and The Iceman Cometh, no less.
Out of all the well-known people you’ve coached and trained. Is there one trait in all of them that you’ve noticed that helped them get to where they are today?
Howard Fine: Yes. Insecurity.
I would not have guessed that answer.
Howard Fine: Yeah. I was traveling once and I heard a child psychologist interviewed, I didn’t get her name, but she was asked, “What do children need in order to succeed later in life?” And she said, “Insecurity. It makes them work harder, balanced by a feeling of being special. You need both. But if you don’t have insecurity, you already think you’ve won the race.”
And so most people think insecurity is the disqualifying trait. It’s not. It’s the enabling trait. You must have it. It must be balanced by a feeling of being special because too much insecurity and you can’t get out of bed and too much feeling special, you don’t do your work. So, there’s balance. But insecurity is the most common trait.
I’ll give you an example. Without saying who this is, an award winning actor, we were coaching recently, and when I coach, I read the dialog opposite the actor… the line that my character said was, “I don’t believe a word you’re saying.” I read the scene and the actor stops, and says, “You don’t? It wasn’t good?” That’s how vulnerable everybody is.
You know, when you watch the singing shows and they interview people in advance, someone says, “I’m the next Whitney, I’m the next Mariah,” you already know they can’t sing, right? Someone else is humble and you know they can sing.
Cornell psychologists named Dunning and Kruger did a study. The people who had done the best on the tests underrated themselves and the people who had done poorly thought they had done great. And so now it’s called the Dunning Kruger Effect. Clueless people have no clue. They think they’re great.
Can you tell me about working with Austin Butler on Elvis?
Howard Fine: The audition for Elvis was Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending. And why did Baz Luhrmann ask for that? Because a non-actor can’t do it. You have to have craft to do that.
After studying Elvis, he went to Graceland. He did a lot of homework. And the two of us had a timeline of Elvis’s life. So even scenes that were not in the movie, we knew what had happened in his life in between. And then we worked scene by scene.
When you and Austin started working together, what are you guys focusing on? Do you have a set of guidelines to get from Point A to Point Z?
Howard Fine: Well, you have to deal with the unique demands of the material. But I have what’s called my eight steps, which is the whole process from A to Z. But the biggest trap with Elvis, which I was painfully aware of at every moment, if he had done an imitation of Elvis, it would have been career ending rather than award winning. Might as well sign up for a job in Vegas. So, the entire process was finding where Elvis connects and lives inside Austin. And that’s almost my entire training. What in the human condition is this about? Where does it live? Inside me, the artist.
Talking about your school, what do you think of Zoom classes?
Howard Fine: I didn’t even know what Zoom was prior to the pandemic. Scene study cannot be taught online. There are people who try to do that but that has to be taught in person. However, technique and certainly self-tape audition technique is the best on Zoom. I would never want to teach an audition class in person where people are looking at a little monitor.
We can play the tape for everybody in class easily to see and analyze it, and it’s powerful. So, it has adapted very well and there are people all over the country and all over the world who are now in class at the same time, and they get to know each other and bond, all the same things happen that happen in an in-person class.
Why can’t scene study be taught online?
Howard Fine: Because you need the physical life of a scene and you’d have to have a camera following people entering the room, exiting… physical behavior. In in-person classes, I emphasize the importance of physical reality. We don’t just learn how to say a line intelligently. So much is communicated through behavior and through behavior that can only happen with the props, all of which you can’t do online.
Let’s talk about your book, Fine on Acting. Why did you decide to do a big revision to it?
Howard Fine: One reason is that self-tapes didn’t even exist as an audition form when I wrote the book 15 years ago. So, there’s a whole thing on self-tapes from the technical aspects to the interpretive aspects.
But since I’ve been teaching online, I’ve come to realize how much garbage back story there is that actors are doing because actors are forever being taught, “You’ve got to stand out. You’ve got to make strong choices.” And the actor thinks they have to think of something clever to stand out and it leads to bad acting.
So let me give you an example. In the online technique class, I give a self-tape first scene, it’s a reporter reporting on the details of a murder. I thought this is very straightforward and would be a good place to start and teach people, okay, what station do you work for? What courthouse are you at? Do you think the kids who are being charged did it? So, we watch one tape and this guy’s crying his eyes out giving the report. When it was over, I asked, “What are you doing?” “It was my sister who was murdered.” “No, it wasn’t your sister who was murdered. You’re the reporter.”
Another one is the anchor asks a follow up question, “What exactly does the magistrate have to hold these two men overnight?” And the reporter answers, “That’s a good question, Larry.” One person says, “That’s a good question, Larry!!” I asked, “What were you doing?” “Larry tried to assault me.” “No, Larry did not try to assault you.”
But this is the type of thing that actors start to insert trying to stand out. So I clarified back story and how to do it correctly so that you don’t get off track and add things that the writer did not intend. But we’re seeing that all the time. There’s so much crazy thinking out there.
And crazy teaching. I have heard, again since I’ve been teaching online, the craziest notes that actors have gotten. One is they’ve been told, ‘you blink too much.’ Blinking is involuntary. If someone starts thinking about not blinking so much, they’re going to blink a ton more. That’s a crazy note to give.
What do you think about the move to self-tapes? Do you think it benefits the actor?
Howard Fine: I think it benefits the actor a ton because you can control it. What were the mistakes that used to happen? You’d be kept waiting in an audition room and get anxious. The casting director sometimes did not read well and really pulled the performance down or someone was in a bad mood. And you could feel that when you walk in. Well, now no traffic, no anxiety. You can select the best tape.
You don’t have to spend a fortune for a set-up, but there’s got to be backdrop lighting, good sound and you have to have a good reader. The reader must be live, they can’t be you or someone on tape. They can be online as long as we hear them well, but they have to be live with you.
By the way, you produce a self-tape and casting offices get so many submissions, they look for reasons not to have to watch. You don’t want to give them a reason not to have to watch. And the first reason is tech production. So, if you can send your best tape where you didn’t blow the line, where you didn’t blank, where you didn’t fall out, send that. If you send a bad version, the way you do one thing is the way you do everything, who’s going to want to hire you?
When I first started doing self-tapes, it would take me, I feel like almost hours to do. I would like do it again and again. And now, if I don’t get it in three takes, then something’s wrong.
Howard Fine: Totally, totally agree. I would rather have people who care too much than people who care too little. People who care too much can learn to lighten up. People who care too little, that’s a character flaw. And they should go away and not do this because that’s where the insecurity comes in. See, that’s what drives you. Now you’ve learned to balance it. Without the insecurity, you don’t examine your work.
What’s some of the things you’ve noticed over the years that you see actors do where, if they just stopped or did some did something a bit differently, it would make a huge difference in their work.
Howard Fine: The biggest acting mistake is judging the character. They’re playing an idea, seeing the character as someone other than you. An actor has to first own themselves from light too dark, to know that every character you’re going to play is already inside you. It’s not about playing your idea of the character. So, when you read the character breakdown and it says arrogant or narcissist, the actor tries to play that. No one sees themselves as the villain, everyone sees themselves as the hero of their own story.
So, when I say to my students, if I describe the character you’re going to play as a drug dealer, a murderer who dissolves people in vats of acid, most would judge that character. Bryan Cranston didn’t in Breaking Bad. That’s what makes it genius acting.
Anyone can judge your character. Your job is to justify the actions of the character and see where they live inside you. So that’s one of the most common mistakes.
The other is what I would call, why versus how. If you supply the why, the how takes care of itself. But so much training, and a lot of bad training, is all about how. These are the greatest hits of general acting notes: levels, colors, transitions, arc, pace, strong choices. Anybody can say them. You have to connect yourself and make the character, make the words come from you, so we don’t see the acting. If you diagram the scene in advance and write out all your actions in advance and plan it all out, that’s akin to paint by numbers. And no one ever created a masterpiece working paint by numbers. The goal of technique is spontaneous life. The goal of technique is not technique.
I was talking to a casting director awhile back and they said, if you don’t do something to catch her attention in the first 15-20 seconds, then they’re on to another one.
Howard Fine: That’s called be good. That’s what will catch her. But see, that thinking leads the actor to go, “okay, I’ve got to do something unusual.” One poor girl with the reporter scene, she had a stain on her sweatshirt, and it kept growing and growing. And it was the oddest thing I’ve ever seen. She had rigged water to strike her because she had decided that the character was sweating.
But that’s that thinking leads to how do I stand out? You know how you stand out. Be good. We spend entirely too much time trying to figure out how to sell and market ourselves. And when you do that, you destroy your talent.
One student of mine got the guest lead on the NCIS and it said in the description that the character was crying, sobbing uncontrollably. And he said to me, “I’m not going to do that.” I said, “You sure are not.” Because it made no sense. He booked it and on set, the producer said, “God, your tape was the only one not pushing for emotion.” And he said, “You wrote that into the stage direction.” “Did we? Is that why everybody was doing that?”
When an actor first gets a script, what is the first thing that they should or shouldn’t do?
Howard Fine: They shouldn’t plan a performance. First, read it for information and read it carefully. Anything you miss in that reading, you’re going to miss something tactical. And too often they’re getting ready to perform before they’ve even seen what’s there. So, you have to know how to read a script and you have to know what a writer gave you.
One of the best things I recommend, everybody write a 2-to-3-page scene. Don’t submitted anywhere. Don’t film it. Don’t have to show it to anyone but write a 2-to-3-page scene. You will agonize over time, place, relationship, circumstance only for an actor to come along and figure out why none of that matters. So, you want to get better at script analysis? Write a 2-to-3-page scene and you’re going to see that there’s nothing in that scene by accident.
What is the one of the craziest or strangest things that’s happened to you when you’ve been coaching or in one of your classes?
Howard Fine: You know, it’s an ongoing story. I’m thinking of something that happened years ago. This person had moved across the country. Sold everything and moved his wife and children to be an actor. And he did his first scene and was really very weak.
And I’m not cruel, but I’m honest. I think that acting teachers tend to come in extremes, those who are trying to kill you and those that are the cheerleader. And I try to be right in the middle of that. Fair, honest, but accurate.
And I gave him the notes that he needed to hear. And he said, “but I’m counting on this. I moved across the country. I sold everything.” And I didn’t say this because it would have been mean, but what I wanted to say is, “based on what? Have you ever auditioned for strangers who do not know you? I don’t care if that’s community theater. A student film.”
I don’t understand why some people base a career decision on thin air. Yes, you can improve. Yes, you can train. But have you gotten any feedback that’s told you that you might be on the right path, that this might be right for you? So that continues to be the strangest thing.
I feel like I’ve come across people like that quite a bit. They’ve just watched so much television and think they can do it.
Howard Fine: It’s because great acting looks effortless. We don’t watch the Olympics thinking we can do any of those events. They look hard. But you can’t see the technique when an actor is working well, and so everyone thinks they can do it until they try. And then they realize it’s not so easy.
For more information on Howard Fine and his classes, both in-person and Zoom, check out howardfine.com