Interview: Acting Coach Terry Knickerbocker on Teaching Online, Preparing Actors and Why You Should “Invest” in Your Talent

Terry Knickerbocker, director of the Terry Knickerbocker Studio in Brooklyn, New York, made a huge pivot when COVID-19 hit. He shifted his entire studio online. “Look, if this works, great. And if it doesn’t, we’ll pull the plug, but let’s give it a week,” he said. Well, it worked and

Terry Knickerbocker, director of the Terry Knickerbocker Studio in Brooklyn, New York, made a huge pivot when COVID-19 hit. He shifted his entire studio online. “Look, if this works, great. And if it doesn’t, we’ll pull the plug, but let’s give it a week,” he said. Well, it worked and it worked pretty darn well.

Knickerbocker, who teaches the Meisner Technique, has coached actors Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Natasha Lyonne, Josh Charles and many, many more. In this interview, he talks about bringing the studio online and why he might keep them going in the future, what he does when coaching and how actors can keep themselves in top form in between job and auditions.

When did you decide to bring your classes online?

Terry Knickerbocker: Well, we didn’t have much choice. March 12th, 2020 was the day that Broadway closed. That’s also when a lot of sporting events stopped. The following week was when New York City public schools closed and restaurants closed. And the following week happened to be our spring break. So my last class in-person was a Friday, the 13th, 2020. And then normally, we would have come back a week later, after spring break, but there was no way to do that. And so, we used that week to really assess whether we had any options.

And I was at first, very pessimistic about that and frankly, pissed off. Because how do you teach acting, this embodied art form, or movement, or voice, things that involve the body and involve groups, involve touch, involve a classroom of people, involve physicality, how do you teach that on Zoom?

And I was very pessimistic and frightened, because this a bootstrapped business. I dropped everything to start this studio six years ago. And if it closes its doors, I was thinking, “I have to sell my house.” I have a seven-year-old. And so, everything was riding on me. I taught at NYU for a long time, in the experimental theater wing, which is where I graduated from. And so, the Thursday, the 12th, I walked over there, in this state of fear and irritation, and went to see if my old boss was there, a wonderful teacher named Rosemary Quinn. And it was empty. NYU was empty, but she was there. And she was very jolly and she said to me, “Well, who better than us to figure this out?” Improvisation is at the heart of everything we do. And she was very upbeat. So, I was like, “Oh, maybe this could be possible.”

I mean, I also coach a lot of actors, not so much on auditions, but when they get jobs, like real A-list actors, like Sam Rockwell, Emmy Rossum, Daniel Craig and Sasha Baron Cohen and folks like that. And I always do that online. I’ve never met Zach Efron. I’ve never met Sasha Baron Cohen. I’ve never met Daniel Craig. It’s all online. Sam, I’ve known for a long time. And when he’s in town, we do it in-person. But when he’s not, he’s on his iPad, and all our work has shown up in the movie, or in the TV show. So it is quite possible to do really good work, but I wasn’t quite sure how to teach it.

So, I started to think about how to do that. And we started that March, whenever it was 27th, when we came back. And the students were really pissed off and scared and doubtful, and many of them had to leave town, because their jobs… They worked as servers or babysitters and there was no work, or maybe their parents were nervous for them. One guy who is from Minneapolis, his dad said, “Please, come home.” Because New York, at the time, was the epicenter.

And we just started to figure it out. And what became clear to me was this had a chance of working, because everyone was very isolated, and they were going to want to be in community. And when you’re in a Zoom room with 20 people, that feels like a community. And it was also going to be meaningful for them to do what they cared about. I mean, how much Netflix can you watch?

And so, all my students are there voluntarily, and it’s a real Navy Seals committed program. It’s hardcore, and our tagline is “Training the passionate actor committed to excellence.” So if you’re not all in, you’re not my people. And so, I had a community of students who were very frightened, but who came to study with me and with each other and the rest of my faculty, who are amazing, because they care and because they really want to be good. They love acting, and they want to be really good.

So they came scared, they came reluctant. And I said, “Look, if this works, great. And if it doesn’t, we’ll pull the plug, but let’s give it a week. Let’s try it for a week. Are you willing to try?”

And I only lost one student. And that student was a mom, who had three school-aged kids, one of whom had special needs. And she used to go to class in the afternoon, when her kids were at school. With their kids at home, there was no way she could take class. She couldn’t even go to the bathroom by herself. And so, she had to drop out very understandingly, but everyone else stuck it out. Every single one stuck it out. And we had a virtual graduation last June, and I thought, “Well, that’s the only time we’ll do that.” But in a couple of weeks, we’re going to have another one, hopefully the last one.

Everyone who finished last year started in-person. And all my second year students this year, it’s a two-year program, started in-person, and then in March, converted to online. So there’s a sense of a little bit of heartbreak for them. They didn’t want to finish their training online. They didn’t want to train online. But given the choice between not training and training online, they chose to train online, which I think is smart. Because it’s not like Hollywood’s going to give them a break and go, “Oh, you trained online. Well, that’s okay. We’ll give you some slack.”

I mean, you just have to go in the room and be the best you can be, and there’s no extra credit for being online. Plus, it’s a perfect time to train, because there’s no work. I mean, I even had working actors training with me, in my masterclass, because there were no jobs. But I got these first year students now, who’ve been online since we began. And they’re more gung-ho than my second year students, because they don’t know any different. They’re like, “Okay, let’s train online.” And they’re so dialed in. It’s really inspiring.

Can you imagine that you would still, once everything finally opens up and things get rolling again, keep the online classes going? People out of the area, I’m sure, would love and benefit from it.

Terry Knickerbocker: I do. I mean, that’s the weird thing. I think everyone who does stuff that’s in-person, like yoga studios, they’re like, “Oh, this has opened up another opportunity for certain people, because it’s really dissolve the borders for students.” And yes, I’ve got students. I got these guys in Israel right now, taking class at 2:00 in the morning. I had a woman in Japan, taking class at 2:00 the morning. I had a woman in New Zealand, taking class at 4:00 in the morning.

So, I do think that I’m hoping that we’ll be back in-person, because we have a nice studio here in Brooklyn that we haven’t used since March of 20, although we’ve paid rent on it, that we’ll be back in-person in September. And I imagine that after this, what we’ve discovered, exactly like a lot of other people, is that, oh, some people want to train online, and there’s a lot of value to it. So we’ll probably have some sort of online division. I don’t know quite what it’ll look like yet, and I’m not putting pressure on myself to figure that out. I think we’ll have to see.

But yeah, I think, because if you’re in a foreign country, like I have a lot of Canadians now and especially like Vancouver. Vancouver’s a market like Atlanta, where a lot of shows go to shoot, because they have really good tax advantages, like Tyler Perry studios, or whatever they have in Vancouver. There are a lot of Lifetime shows that shoot in Vancouver, and they do local hires. So they’re never going to hire the lead in a Clint Eastwood movie, but they’re going to hire some good strong day players, or someone who had a couple scenes. And so, those people want training too, but they’re not necessarily ready to leave Vancouver, or Atlanta, or wherever.

We really qualify potential students a lot. We have a lot of conversations. This is not a school where you can just sign up on the website and give us your MasterCard. We make you read a book, we make you read Meisner’s book. We have long conversations with you, to really find out what you’re looking for and see whether we might be a good fit for what you’re looking for. And if we’re not, we’ll send you someplace that we think would be a better fit.

And as a result, the people who sign up to study with us tend to stay with us. We don’t get people dropping out, for the most part, because we’ve already really done a good job at making sure that they’re the right fit for us and we’re the right fit for them. So even if we’re online, we’ve been teaching online. We had a summer session last year that had 80 students in it from all over the world.

But they all have to work really hard. It’s a lot of work.

Are people doing scenes together online, or is it mostly monologues, or a combination?

 Terry Knickerbocker: Yeah. I mean, I’m not sure, Lance, how familiar you are with the Meisner approach. That work starts with exercises. I mean, all techniques have the goal of an actor being able to say, “You give me a script, and I know how to turn that script into behavior that’s interesting and authentic and tells the story and is believable and is got my creativity in it and is a strong, solid acting performance.”

And all the techniques lead to that same place. Most techniques start with scene study, which to me is weird, because it would be like starting violin lessons with a concerto. And Meisner starts with these exercises called the repetition exercise. So we start with that, with duets. And then eventually we start to get into text, but in a very different way. So yeah, they’re doing scenes, but they’re also doing exercises.

We sort of create this imagined consensus reality, that even though your Zoom might be in Canada and my Zoom might be in Fredericksburg, Virginia, we’re pretending that the two Zooms together equal one room, and we’re in the same space. Because that’s what it would be if we were in the acting studio,

Weird question, are people standing up, or are they sitting down?

Terry Knickerbocker: Both. It’s actually not a weird question. It’s a great question. Because I think most people think when they do Zoom that they’re sitting down. That’s the comfortable thing. That’s where most people would do their Zoom classes, but you can’t do a movement class or a yoga class sitting down. So you have to position the camera. Often they’re sitting, because they’re usually doing this thing called the independent activity that requires a table often, to achieve.

You’ve coached a ton of actors. Just to single a couple out, because I love them, Chris Messina, Michelle Williams, Sam Rockwell. When you work with them and obviously others, of course, but how much do they come in already prepared? Already knowing what they want the character to be, who the character is? And what do you help them with?

Terry Knickerbocker: First of all, I’d say everyone’s different. And part of my job is to really adapt myself to what works best for them. My simple job is to take whatever they’re doing and make it better, make it clearer, because there’s no rehearsal time, as you know, for the most part. Very rare in film and television, you get any rehearsal time. Maybe there’s a table read, maybe there’s camera blocking. But most of the time, you show up, and it’s like hair, makeup and then shoot. And maybe we just block out the movements of it, so that the DP can know where it’s going. But we’re not going to get into like acting choices. So you got to show up on set loaded, and you’ve got to have the whole thing mapped out, because they’re going to shoot out of sequence. And you often don’t know what they’re going to shoot. And maybe until the first day.

And they’re never thinking about what’s good for the actor to shoot first. They always just think in terms of what makes sense, in terms of when locations are available or whatever. For instance, on Fosse/Verdon, with Sam and Michelle, they shot a scene that supposedly took place in Mallorca, on the beach, between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, after they’d broken up. I think it was in episode two episode or episode three. Why? Because they were going to be shooting into the winter, and we were losing the warmth of Montauk, which is a beach here in New York. So that wasn’t the best scene for them to shoot in terms of the acting. But they had to do it in terms of just location and stuff like that. So everyone’s different.

Daniel Craig, I’m working with him for the first time on Knives Out Two. And I love that movie, Knives Out. And when we spoke, he reached out to me. I don’t try to get any coaching. It’s all word of mouth and referral. And people just get my name from somebody and reach out. And I basically tried to talk him out of the job, because I say like, “You did such an amazing job on that part. Why would you need me? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But he said he didn’t want to recreate something. He wanted to create something, and he could use all the help he could get. And so, what we usually do is just go through the script, page by page, with me acting out all the other parts. And while I’m doing that, they’re acting with me, maybe not always full out, but sometimes full out. And I’m taking notes and just trying to make it clearer and more precise, so that every scene has a beginning, middle and end, and every overall part has a beginning, middle and end.

And so, it’s often just putting details in, or questioning some of their choices, or offering. So often function more as a director, but directing the part as they want it to be done. And sometimes I have different ideas, and we have conversations, and it’s collaborative.

I mean, Sam, I’ve worked with him for 25 years, and he was the best man at my wedding. And we’ve done over 100 projects together. The way we start is … His references are often other performances, especially movies from the ’70s. So we’ll just start. Maybe we’ll just watch movies together, to start with, or watch scenes, different clips, say, “Okay, look, here’s Christopher Walken in Deer Hunter, and here’s Gene Hackman in Superman.” And we just start to build a collage of who this character could be.

And then we just go through it and try and make it clear. And we’re basically talking about like, what is he doing in every moment, which we could call actions, which is a different idea than objectives, which is how a lot of actors think. And that’s not actable. I can’t act an objective. I can’t act to prove. “How am I going to do that?” Well, I could poke holes in your testimony, I could take the jury through what a great character you are, but I can’t actually prove something. I can offer an alibi. So we go through actions, and we go through meanings, like what is what the other character said mean? So I can have a response to it. And what does the circumstance mean? And then we also talk about who the character is.

Besides going to acting classes, are there things actors can do to keep themselves in shape?

 Terry Knickerbocker: The idea of training is very out of fashion right now. So that’s why they have these pay to play places, which in LA are, I guess, illegal. But in New York, they can still do it, where you go to a place, like One-On-One, or Actors Connection, and you pay a for an evening, where a casting director, or an agent’s going to come in. And you do some sides for them, with the hope that they go, “Oh, I like this guy,” and get some feedback from them.

And so, most actors pushback at what we’re offering, because they go, “Two years, that’s a long time.” And they’re frightened that they’re going to miss opportunities. And so, they are very shortsighted about … Like, “It’s pilot season. I got to get out there. I got to go meet people.” And they think more about the business than about the art form and the craft. And that’s really sad to me and shortsighted, because hopefully you’re going to have a body of work at the end of your life that you’re really proud of, and that you contributed something to the art form.

So to me, the most important thing someone who is talented and loves acting can do is invest in their talent and get good training somewhere, and not just try and do it with a workshop approach. Because it’s insane. If you wanted to be a ballet dancer, if you wanted to be a pianist, you’d never say, “Is there a month-long workshop I can do to learn ballet, or I learn how to play the piano?”

Everybody knows that those art forms, those performing arts, opera, take a long time to train. It’s amazing to me that you can actually train how to be an actor, soup to nuts, in two years. You can actually learn how to do it. It takes 20 years to master it through practice. But the first thing I’d say is if you don’t know how to act, or if you’re acting as hit or miss, like sometimes it feels like, you know what you’re doing and sometimes you don’t, I would really investigate conservatory training wherever you can.

Now, if you’re a trained actor, you’ve got to … It’s use it, or lose it. It’s like, if you play the piano, you got to play every day, and you can’t just wait till you have concerts. So for the actor that doesn’t have jobs, that’s not going to work, find someone to do a scene with. You don’t have to be in a class. A good class would be cool, like a scene study class, if you already know how to act. But if you know how to act and you don’t want to take a class, call up one of your buddies and say, “Hey, man, let’s do a scene from Tennessee Williams, or Sam Shepard, or August Wilson.”

I definitely train my voice every day. If you haven’t worked on your voice … American actors are very lazy when it comes to their voices and speech. And that’s why the Brits and the Aussies are taking our jobs from us, a lot of the time. Get into a good voice class, and do your voice warm ups every day.

I’d say watch material. I’d say people watch. Go to a Starbucks. And in and hour, just watching people, you’ll have a million character ideas. Go to museums, go to therapy. The most important thing you can do is really live the life of an artist. And I do think of actors as artists. We’re not just hacks.

And know that there’s only one you. If you love acting and you’re all in on it, and you have a sense for how to do the business, part of it, which means you have to have a thick skin and not take rejection personally, you’re going to be successful. Because there’s no one else like you. So you have something unique to offer. You don’t want to be like Edward Norton. You want to be like you.

I mean, the odds are, you’re not going to get the job. If there are 200 people auditioning for the job, you have a one in 200 chance. So don’t go in expecting the job, just going to say, “Here’s what I’m doing. Here’s my performance.” And then you left an impression, and the impression is this guy knows how to operate, which is great. Because if you keep being the best in the room, at some point, you’re going to get the job, and you’re going to be successful.

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