“I talk to managers and agents… When they feel passionate about their client, they will call, and call, and call and get their client in the door.” – Michelle Danner
Michelle Danner has her hands full. She’s a director, acting coach and founder of the Michelle Danner Acting School, or simply, the ‘Michelle Danner School’ as I’ve heard it referred to dozens of times. She’s trained with the best (Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, William Esper and more) and has worked with actors like Gabrielle Union, Michael Pena and James Franco to name just a few.
In this interview, she talks about her new film, Bad Impulse, her acting school, and gives advice on finding representation and some of the best things actors can do to advance their career.
You just directed a new film?
Michelle Danner: Yes, I directed a new film, and before that, another one, since 2011. But this one is called Bad Impulse. It’s got a great cast. It’s got Sonya Walger is in it. If you watched Lost, she was Penny, and lots of other things. And Paul Sorvino is in it, and Grant Bowler, who had his own series, Defiance, on FX. James Landry Hébert, an actor who was in the latest Quentin Tarantino movie. I had a great, fun cast, and lots of young up and comers. It’s a suspense, psychological thriller with a little horror and supernatural in it, and people are really responding to it. We’ve won some awards at festivals and it’s doing really well and it’s going to come out next year.
What is it you like about directing? Obviously, besides setting up the shots and all that, but is there a big, huge difference between directing on a scene on set and directing a scene at your acting school?
Michelle Danner: Oh, no, it’s a completely different thing. I love directing, because you get a chance to sign your painting. That’s always the metaphor that comes up for me.
That’s a nice way to put it.
Michelle Danner: It’s a story that you want to tell, and you’re going to figure out how you want to tell it. I love directing, actually. Like right now after our phone conversation, I’m going to go location scouting. Whatever the locations are that we’re going to be using in this new film that I’m about to shoot, The Runner, are characters in the story. Right down to every element of doing a movie is basically a creative choice.
How does this compete with your time with your acting school?
Michelle Danner: I’m still teaching but I can take a little bit of a step back since I have this extraordinary faculty of teachers, very diverse. There’s a lot of different classes. I have a great community of actors that come to study with us and I just finished my signature class, my master class, called The Golden Box, that I teach all over the world, and a breaking into industry class. I’m just taking a few weeks off, and there’s nothing better than taking a few weeks off during this time, because we’re getting close to the holidays, so this is a perfect time to shoot. And then I’ll be back teaching in January.
I want to talk about your acting school. If there’s somebody new in LA, or somebody who’s looking for another class to go to, what kind of puts you guys apart from the rest?
Michelle Danner: I think, first of all, what I’ve been told is that our faculty is outstanding. The classes people love, love, love the classes. At the end of the day, you just have to ask the students, which the managing director does. He is always in there making sure that everybody’s getting challenged, and everybody’s inspired, and everybody’s working hard.
I meet with students one on one, with all of our students several times a year. About three times a year I check in with them because one of the things that I feel really strongly about is, and having studied a lot myself, is once you finish a program at a school, once you’ve spent some time at a school, what do you take away from it? What do you get from it? What do you walk away with? I just want people to walk away with a strong sense of a very good foundation. A sense of what the craft is. Really, really good skills. Confidence on how to execute those skills. Know how read a script. Working on lots of different literature.
I’m always asking my students to work on different styles, different accents. Read all the time. Our students are very, I think, really inspired. When you see it, the proof is in the pudding, which is they get together and they work on shorts all the time. They’re constantly shooting shorts, they’re shooting web series, they’re reading material, they’re mounting plays. So there’s a lot of excitement in terms of not only learning, but also taking those great skills to use.
What do you guys, what methods do you guys teach there? Like a Meisner, Strasberg, or is it kind of your own philosophy?
Michelle Danner: Well, I studied with Stella [Adler]. I studied with Uta Hagen when I was a teenager, and I loved studying with them. But at the same time I studied with Herbert Bergdorf, I studied with Bill Esper, Meisner. I studied the method.
But every time I was in a class, my mind questioned and was a rebel to what was being taught. Because I always felt that it was dogmatic. Every class I ever sat on, the teacher was adamant that ‘this is how you do it.’ And there’s a little voice in me that really at that age, went, “Really? Isn’t there another way, or isn’t there another way? Isn’t there another way?”
Even though we embrace, absolutely, the iconic philosophies of Stella Adler, and Meisner, and Lee Strasberg, and Uta Hagen, and a lot of other teachers… Michael Chekhov. Little by little, I started to formulate throughout the years this idea that we should take elements of each technique that works for us as an actor and put them into our toolbox, our golden box.
And to that, you add what you learn when you’re on set. When you’re in front of a camera. When you’re on stage. You put those learning tools into the toolbox, as well. And then living life. The lessons of life. Those tools also go on the toolbox. I say, “Only you have the key, and it’s called the golden box.”
When you’re coaching, or teaching, or even directing one of your films, what’s the biggest thing that you see that actors, I guess, aren’t doing?
Michelle Danner: Well, I think that there’s a lack of awareness. I think is the responsibility of every acting teacher is… There’s a sense of that things should happen quickly. You know? In art, it doesn’t always happen that way. And if you don’t get successful quickly, and get to walk the red carpet, and get cast in the lead, it’s just not working. I think that actors have to develop patience. They have to develop a sense of time. Everybody wants it quickly. Because we get it quickly on the internet. Technology gives it to us quickly, quicker than ever, anyway.
But there’s no longer that patience of going to an acting bookstore and taking out books, or ordering books and reading and researching, and working on your voice and working on your body, and analyzing movies and analyzing scripts.
But it’s a process, and if you went to the renowned conservatories in this country, you would work four years, 16 hours. Meryl Streep did 40 plays at Yale. And you would have a craft that you would be proud of, that you would own. I think that is one of the biggest misconceptions that actors don’t understand. It’s that there’s a craft to be learned.
Besides going to class, what are some of the best things actors can do to advance their career?
Michelle Danner: Well, read a lot. I’m a great believer in reading. I mean, read a lot. I always tell this story: I had my schooling in France, and I had a teacher that taught us Latin. I took Latin when I was in middle school. But I always remember she had a very strong message for us. She was a beautiful woman, but at the time, she would smoke a pack of Gauloise, or at least what it seemed to be a pack, on the playground. A chain smoker in the playground, not in the class. But at the time, you could smoke in the playground. And then she had this voice with this beautiful, angelic face. And she would say, “Read. Read. Because if you don’t read before you’re 17, you won’t read till after you’re 70, because you’ll be too busy living your life. Read.” And I think she was right. You have to read a lot, because that’s the key to your imagination as an actor. And when you’re in class, it’s going to the acting gym. You get to do.
And then, of course, we’re in a really great time. There’s so many great things to watch. I don’t mean TV. Let’s just say I don’t watch TV. If you’re watching Ozark, or Handmaid’s Tale, or Breaking Bad. That’s not TV. Those are wonderful shows. Or Euphoria or Succession. These are wonderful shows to watch. You should go to movies, of course. You’ve got to constantly be in the zone of being creative, whether you’re doing, you’re reading, you’re watching, you’re creating. Those are the things that I think that you have to wake up and do the same way you drink water.
Do you have any advice for actors who don’t have representation?
Michelle Danner: Yes. Well, first of all, after you feel that you very strong craft, maybe you can shoot some short movies or do some plays, and invite representation. But the best way is to have agents and managers come to see you live in a piece where you really shine, and you will move them, and then they will move heaven and earth for you to get you in the door. I talk to managers and agents because I’m doing this movie. When they feel passionate about their client, they will call, and call, and call and get their client in the door. They will. But you have to excite your representation.
It’s always great if somebody can introduce you to someone, because you could meet an agent that way. I did once. I met an agent from Gersh on a plane coming back from Sundance, and we had a great conversation. There’s so many places where you can meet representation, aside from sending your picture and resume in the mail or calling. You have to think outside the box a little bit.
But I always tell my students, “Don’t relax.” If you get this great agent and this great manager, don’t relax. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to do anything else and sit by the phone. It’s that old cliché. It’s really an old cliché. Do not sit by the phone and wait for anybody to call. You have to make the phone ring. I worked with somebody very famous not too long ago that said to me, “The phone doesn’t ring for me.” I thought, “Really? The phone doesn’t ring for you?” And he said, “Not only for me, but for my friends. The phone doesn’t ring. I make it ring.”