Movement is a vital part of creating a character. As longtime movement coach Julia Crockett said recently, the way a person walks or stands, their mannerisms, “that’s the accumulation of a lifetime of information and psychology and experience.” Crockett helps actors like Sarah Paulson find those traits, helping her create just some of her more memorable characters.
Along with private coaching, she’s currently teaching at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio in New York City where she teaches students from all walks of life the value of movement in acting.
In this interview, she talks about the role of a movement coach, how she helps actors with their characters, what you can expect from one of her classes and her advice to actors. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or on YouTube.
What exactly is a movement coach? Because I would bet that some actors, especially newer ones, have no idea what that is.
Julia Crockett: It really depends. It depends on the actor, and it depends on the project. I always think of my job as having kind of two separate tracks. One of them is release work and embodiment work. So, kind of dealing with how the actor’s body responds to, or doesn’t respond to, impulses, stimuli, circumstances. How their body processes or doesn’t process what’s going on inside of them. So, in that track, there’s a lot of work in releasing kind of liberating the actor’s instrument.
And then the other track is character development, physical character development. So that can be pretty radical and transformative depending on who the character is. It could be a really dramatic transformation from whatever the actor’s body is at rest. Or it could be more nuanced, kind of looking at the way a character’s body might transform or shift over the course of a season or series or a play or a film. Where is their body at the beginning? And where is their body at the end?
On some projects, one of them is more dynamic or involved than the other. And some actors they’ll come to me and say, “I’m really needing to get comfortable in my body” or “I’m feeling so stuck.” For some people it’s, “I’m having a hard time letting go of the performance I just did. It’s living on in my body.” Or for some actors, they come to me and they’re like, “I really am curious about creating a physical character.” So, it’s a lot. It’s a lot of things. To me it is at least.
I took movement classes in college. I can see what you’re saying. I loved doing it. I loved creating something, starting from movement first and then building outwardly, you know?
Julia Crockett: It’s so interesting how the slightest shift in one’s physicality can really inform our inner life a great deal, but you have to be receptive to it. To channel it, your body has to be clear enough that you can receive whatever shifts are happening.
You started out as an actor?
Julia Crockett: I did. I trained as an actor. I grew up acting. I grew up dancing. It didn’t really lead anywhere for me. I kind of always knew I wanted to be an actor. So, I trained as an actor and in my acting training, this man Nate Flower who also teaches at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio said, “Hey, you’re kind of gifted at this. I think I want to train you to teach it.” And for years I was like, “Okay, but I’m gonna be a famous actor.” [laughs] “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s fine. But you know, I’ve got bigger plans.” And then over the years I realized that that actually was my calling. That was really where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.
How did you realize that? At what point was there that “Aha!” moment?
Julia Crockett: I don’t know if it was an “Aha!” moment, but there was this time of my life where I was working so much as a movement teacher and a choreographer, and a director and I was struggling so much as an actor. And not just in the way that all actors struggle to get work, it was kind of… I really mean this, it felt like spiritually challenging for me to put myself out into the world as an actor.
And that kind of came to a head where I realized I was so frustrated with not having agency as an actor and so at odds with the business of it. I had this moment of, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.” And then realized what my life really was. And I was like, “Oh gosh, this is what I’ve been doing the whole time? I’ve been doing this movement stuff. “ So, I just kind of shifted the lens and saw what my life was.
When you are teaching at Terry’s school, is there a typical class? What does a class entail?
Julia Crockett: The foundation of what we teach at Terry Knickerbocker is a work that’s called the Williamson Technique. There’s a really full and rich movement department there, each one of us has our own kind of lens through which we teach the Williamson work. They are group classes that are at first, really designed to free up your acting instrument or clear out the channel of the body, to really look at how each student is taking in and responding and how their body is getting in the way from that process. Acting at its best is a real kind of impulsive taking in, responding, taking in, responding. But there are all these things that happen in the actor’s body that interfere with that process, you know, tension habits, postural habits.
And so, what a typical movement class would look like is maybe an hour and a half of really expansive improvisational movement to music, circular movement to music, and sometimes without music. And then a special emphasis on contact with other actors. So, you’re freeing up your body, and then you’re looking at how that feels to be in contact with another actor.
It’s a two-year program, and so later on in the program, we start to train actors to see their body as a performative tool. So, then they’ll start to think about their body as a compositional tool and it culminates in a final project that’s a devised movement piece.
So, a regular movement class really changes depending on where you are in the two-year progression. But I think it’s always a really dynamic group experience.
You’ve worked with a bunch of name actors. When they get in touch with you, how do you guys go about getting started? Because I assume they would come in with their own ideas of what the character is.
Julia Crockett: It really is different for everybody. There’s that story about how Michelangelo would create a sculpture as if it was something that was emerging from a bath, that he would start at the front with the tip of the nose and then sculpt that way. That’s what it feels like all the time with the character. It’s like something that already exists, we just have to let it emerge.
Typically, I start with movement, just getting them released, getting them in their bodies like I would with any student at Terry’s studio. So, we’ll move. We talk a lot about the script and what ideas they already have about the character, who the character is. I’ll give them a lot of different tools. It’s usually a couple of weeks of just giving them the information that I have, right? Different approaches, different methods to access a physical character. And we try things out.
When an actor is in training, we are bringing into a classroom a finished product of a person that’s accumulated over however many years we’re alive, right? So, Julia Crockett has this special freak package… I call it a freak package… that is our special collection of habits. The way we walk, the way we stand, the way we move, the way we hold ourselves, our carriage, our mannerisms, and that’s the accumulation of a lifetime of information and psychology and experience.
And so, when we start to do training, we have to do some clearing out of that. Not to neutralize but to make space for experience, right? So when we get a play and we get a character, we’re given the psychology and we have to create the body, does that make sense?
And so, with an actor, the first thing that we do besides getting them to move and getting them to kind of clear out their own stuff, is talk about where they see the psychology of the character and where I see it. What significant things about this person would inform their physicality.
And then there are sort of three categories that I make sure every actor tries to flush out. Which would be what is this person’s structure? So, if we were to see a silhouette of them or shine a light from behind, what would actually the shape of them be? And included in that is their gait, how they walk or their carriage. The second thing is what is their internal essence? And then the third is what are their mannerisms? And we start to kind of try different things on. Like, try leading with this part of your body, or try this kind of drive internalized, or let’s work with a metaphor of something. And sometimes it feels like swinging spaghetti at the wall at first until you’re like, “Ah, oh my gosh, that was him. That was him.” And we both will feel like, “That was it. That was it!” And then it kind of flushes out from there.
You’ve taught actors for a while now and you’ve been around them for most of your life. Do you have any advice that you can give out that might help someone who is struggling with it?
Julia Crockett: I have been talking about this with a client who’s a very successful working actor right now. She and I have been talking about this idea of the work… the work on yourself that an actor has to do. The daydreaming, the physical conditioning and training, the kind of the work on yourself as really being the project.
The work on yourself is this ocean, right? The training, the self-training is this ocean. And the jobs are just little boats that are floating on this ocean that will come and will go. And sometimes it’s really crowded, there’s a lot of boats to deal with. And sometimes it’s just the ocean.
But if you reframe that… the job itself is not the thing that I’m after, it’s the process. The perpetual process of investigation, letting go, activating my creativity. If that process becomes the point, you’re really liberated from the highs and the lows of what it is to be an actor and the peaks and the valleys.
And that’s within your control. That’s something that you have agency over. As an actor I really struggled with not having agency. A painter can go into a room and just paint. And I kept feeling like, “Why can’t I just go into a studio and act? I need all these things. I need people. I need permission to do it. I need a space to do it in. I need somebody behind a camera. I need a camera. Or I need a theater with lights.”
But if the project is actually the work on yourself, then you are in charge of that. And that’s where I think real longevity in a career comes from.