Michelle is an actress, director and renowned acting coach for Penelope Cruz, Michael Pena, Isla Fisher and James Franco to name a few. In 2000, she and Larry Moss founded the Center which houses two huge theatres, an art gallery and is home great workshops taught by Brad Garrett and incredible casting directors like Sarah Finn, Lisa Beach and Sarah Katzman.
Michelle is currently finishing up directing duties on her 2nd film, Hello Herman.
I talked to Michelle about the film, Edgemar and what it’s like to coach some of the biggest stars around.
When did you start to realize that you liked coaching actors?
Michelle Danner: I was an actress, and I realized, well, you know, I was coaching actors in New York, then when I came here people kept asking me to work with them ‘cause I had good insight. And, you know, my phone started ringing at some point, off the hook in the 90’s, then I realized I probably, you know, needed to, you know just to take it and do it, so I focused on that for a while.
And then I started to direct, and I started to direct theater and now I’m directing film, and so it was a good, you know, it was a great segue but I continued to teach because my classes are the center of all of a lot of what I do.
What is it about coaching actors that you like?
Michelle Danner: I’ve always been fascinated by what makes a great moment in acting, and of course if you’re able to join the many great moments together then you do come up with a great performance. So I have a fascination with that. And then individually, I like to work with people trying to get them to give the best of themselves, and I’m also fascinated with process. And good acting has to do with process, and what kind of process one chooses to give themselves depending on what kind of material their working on, whether it’s a movie or a television show or a play.
You’ve worked with Chris Rock, Penelope Cruz, Michael Pena and James Franco. When you’re working with people like that, what exactly is your role? Do you go on the set and when you work with them? Do you work with them prior to filming?
Michelle Danner: It depends who I work with, some of these people I’ve worked with a long time ago. Some people more recently. You know, it depends. I go on set. I love to go on set and learn but mostly people come to me. And I help them to build a character. I’ve helped them to analyze the script. I helped them to come up with something that, you know, is unique and exciting to play.
Are you also on standby for these guys? If they have some sort of question, they can call you at like 2 in the morning when they’re filming?
Michelle Danner: You know, it’s funny you should say that but sometimes, yes.
Really? You like dead asleep and then somebody calls you and says, “Help me!”
Michelle Danner: I was teaching in Dubai and couple people called me and I coached them, you know, via Skype from Dubai.
I’ve been known to do that. Yes, I’ve woken up at 5 o’clock in the morning. I work with several people that are different television shows, their make-up and they call me and ask me things.
When you’re coaching these big name actors, are the usual things you work on with them or that they have a hard time with, the same things that I would have problems with?
Michelle Danner: You know what, it depends. Sometimes I’ll work with an actor that’s working on a character that’s very difficult for them. Sometimes it could be a period piece. Sometimes it’s a historical figure, sometimes it’s something’s that very demanding, someone that has an addiction. Sometimes, people have a hard time or are afraid of the big emotional scenes, and sometimes actors wanna particularize more all the scenes that are on their way to the big emotional scenes. All the scenes that defend the climax.
I think that what everybody shares, and I’ll always say this, the common denominator amongst actors is that everybody wants to do the best that they can do, and it’s vulnerable to act. It’s big it’s stuff to act. It’s difficult to expose something if you act well. And so it’s not an easy craft and by the same token I also say it’s a brain surgery either. But it’s something that is delicate and you have to think about it and think about choices that would help the material ‘cause you’re always there to serve the story as an actor. And you have to find out what’s the best way that you can serve the story.
So let’s talk about Edgemar Center. How did that start?
Michelle Danner: Well, I found the theater in the year 2000 and I walked in there and I had a premonition that we should build something there. I tried to figure how much it was gonna cost, and it was a big shock to find out it was gonna cost a lot of money. Cause I had this little fantasy of putting up curtains, you know? In fact there were permits and you had to put drywall and electricity and plumbing, and it’s big, it’s pretty big. We did 2 theaters and an art gallery. So, I raised a 1.3 million in the year 2000.
Michelle Danner: Yup, it was big thing. And we house the acting studio at Edgemar, which is a lot of foundation of so many things that happened which are all the acting classes, and we have Brad Garrett right now teaching a comedy class, with casting directors coming. There’s a lot going on, Lisa Beach is one of the casting directors that’s teaching right now. We have a faculty of teachers. We have theater productions. The last two years we had a little boutique-y short film festival. We do outreach programs with seniors and with at risk youth.
It’s really a true art center. And there’s always something going on.
You’re currently directing a film?
Michelle Danner: This movie, that I just finished shooting, that I’m in the editing room, is very provocative drama called Hello Herman, written by the son of Norman Mailer, John Buffalo Mailer. And it’s about a reporter that goes to interview a kid that snapped and massacred his school, and now they wanna televise his execution live. And so the journalist that goes into the maximum security prison to interview Herman is Norman Reedus and he’s absolutely amazing, he did a great performance, very riveting. And the kid that played Herman is Garrett Backstrom, who’s a young actor who show’s so much promise and he also give’s quite an extraordinary performance and the two of them have great chemistry. And the leading lady of the movie is Martha Higareda, who was in Street Kings with Keanu Reeves, very well known in Latin America and Mexico.
And then I have a great supporting cast Andy Smit-McPhee, I don’t know if you know who he is, he plays the Osama Bin Laden of the white supremacists in the movie. And then there’s Rob Estes also, who I love who’s a good friend of mine. I have a group of actors, community of actors that I love to cast and I’ve cast a lot of my students in the movie.
Where you actively looking for another film to direct?
Michelle Danner: I have a folder of many movies that I’d like to direct. But this, you know, I always read a lot and this spoke to me. I’m a mom and probably that’s the reason why I wanted to make this movie. It’s about connection and about what’s gonna happen with our youth if we don’t have these conversations. I’m really hoping that the scenes that run to the movie will spoke a lot of debate amongst youth and parents. So, yeah I really, I was really driven to do this because of what subject matter was.
And what was the casting process like for you? You probably know a million and one actors, did you hire a casting director?
Michelle Danner: No, neither one of my movies, I mean my first movie I basically picked up the phone and cast it myself, although I did have a casting director. In this second movie, I didn’t use a casting director because I really basically cast it out of my relationships. People that I knew or people that were submitted to me through people that I knew.
When directing was there anything you had to put aside acting wise or maybe a scene could have been tweaked a little better in order to get the shot done to make the day and move on to a different setup?
Michelle Danner: Well, yeah, this is the indie movie world. You have to make your days. In the beginning, we weren’t making ideas ‘cause you know, you have to find that rhythm with everyone, with the crew and everything. So of course it’s all stressful. I mean I analyzed it and I thought to myself, sometimes when you have a lot of money, you don’t have that urgency that you have when you have no money and you try to make it happen and there’s something about, you know, you start to get it done. You use a certain energy that you can’t be duplicate when you have a lot of it.
Did you have a rehearsal process for the film?
Michelle Danner: Yeah, I did. I probably make my actors rehearse more. I mean, you know, I like to rehearse there’s no question about that. I like to rehearse. I didn’t rehearse as much as I wanted to rehearse but I rehearse for some days, and yeah you like a week.
What is your advice to actors?
Michelle Danner: Well, my advice to actors is certainly to keep working on owning an excellent craft. So that you’re so excellent, that people can’t say no to you. People can’t pass you up ‘cause you’re so good.
Because every time you walk in to a room and you threw your hat on the ring for a project and you pick up sides, you bring something to it that’s completely unique, it’s completely of you, it’s completely authentic. And it takes practice. You have to go to the emotional gym, you have to go to the gym of writing, of good writing, and you have to find really good writers to work hard because that’s what’s gonna take your game to the next level. That’s how you’ll raise the bar for yourself by working on great material all the time. Because, it’s tiring when you take a step forward and then you watch yourself take a step back and another step forward and just trying not to take steps back, try to constantly take steps that are forward and work really hard. Keep working really hard.
And forge relationships. Make friends that are writers and directors, cultivate, develop relationships so you can work with a community of people that you respect and wanna work with.
And thirdly, make your own. Either option a story or script that you think has a lot of merit to it or create something of your own. Write something. Make something happen. Don’t sit and wait for it.