Juilliard's secret weapon keeps actors on their toes

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Juilliard's secret weapon keeps actors on their toes
The movement specialist Moni Yakim, who began teaching movement for actors at the Juilliard School in 1968, in Central Park in New York on June 15, 2020. “You have to have a body that is totally free, that is totally capable,” says Yakim, the subject of a new documentary. Celeste Sloman/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Before actor Michael Urie studied with Moni Yakim, he would watch other Juilliard students emerging from his class “in real pain, like in actual true crippling pain,” he said.

Yakim, who doesn’t like to give his age, began teaching movement for actors at the Juilliard School in 1968, the year its Drama Division was founded. He still teaches there. In 52 years, he has trained nearly 1,000 graduates, including several constellations’ worth of stars.

“Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy,” a new documentary available for streaming, goes inside his classroom as students run, leap, stretch and scream. It interviews some of Juilliard’s more famous graduates and uses archival footage to describe Yakim’s childhood in Jerusalem; his years studying mime with Étienne Decroux and Marcel Marceau; his time running the New York Pantomime Theater with his wife, Mina Yakin. (Yakin is his given surname. Yakim is a copy editing error that stuck.)

His classes — part yoga, part boot camp, part mime, all acting — push students past inhibition. They might spend an hour on their toes or in a pose known as “The Spanish Inquisition.”

“He demands 100% of you,” Jessica Chastain, a former student, said in a telephone interview. “He’s not really a hand holder. He’s not a coddler.” Kevin Kline, who studied with Yakim in Juilliard’s first year, called the classes “very freeing, just bodybuilding for the actor’s emotional, and psychic and physical apparatus.”

Yakim has never had the name recognition of Lee Strasberg or Stella Adler or Uta Hagen, but he has profoundly influenced two generations of American actors and is now keeping a third on its toes. Urie described Yakim as Juilliard’s “secret weapon,” able to give any actor the tools to take and hold the stage. The pain? “It was worth it,” Urie said.

Many former students return to consult with Yakim — he never charges. Others quietly apply his principles to new roles. Anthony Mackie began every day of work on every Marvel movie with the physical warm-up Yakim taught him, “just to get my body ready for the rigors.”

Last week, a few days before the film’s release, Yakim spoke on the phone about his career and his methods. Zoom had been suggested, then scrapped. “I am just simply techno-moronic,” he said, in his resonant, Israeli-accented voice. His conversational style is persuasive, dynamic, definite. No wonder scores of actors have made him their guru.

What has he learned in 52 years of teaching? “That without exception, I truly adore all my students.” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What is movement for actors?

A: It means that we find the type of movement that is a consequence of what goes on within us. We translate meaning — inner meaning — in an external way. We never work in front of the mirror because it’s not what we see outwardly that is important to us. We don’t work with music in order not to impose a specific rhythm. Of course, you have to have a body that is totally free, that is totally capable. So we hone the body with different type of exercises.

Q: Do students really fear you?

A: It’s part of the mythology. When they get into the class, they immediately understand that they have nothing to be scared about. I believe that the more fun you have, the harder you work. So we have a lot of laughter in the class. And it leads us to work far more intensely. After an hour and a half of class, you drop to the floor because you felt that you have given all.

Q: Do you ever push too hard?

A: No. And I’ll tell you why. We have different bodies. Some people have greater flexibility than the others. Some people have greater stamina than the others. Some people have greater strength than the others. Everybody goes to the extent that they can go.

Q: In the film, Anthony Mackie said your classes help actors strip away inhibitions. How?

A: You are exposed completely; you do not think about what to do or what not to do. You just live within the moment. Basically, you have no time, the exercises go from one to another with such speed. So you just do it, you experience it, and you keep going.

Q: What makes a great actor?

A: Hard work, dedication, developing your curiosity and your interest. We — I’m talking about the entire faculty — we don’t really think overly about the talent. Of course, we know when someone shines because they have an exceptional talent. That’s not our task. Our task is to endow them with the craft of acting. If you don’t have the craft and you have a bad night, you will fall on your face. If you have a good craft, you’ll never fall on your face.

Q: You have taught nearly a thousand students. Do you have favorites?

A: I don’t think you can avoid it. With [an annual] group of 18 people, you immediately take to liking some of them. But when we work, it is different. It’s about the work. It’s not how I feel personally toward this person or the other.

Q: Do you stay friendly with former students?

A: With some of them I happen to be very close friends. With Kevin Kline, with Oscar Isaac, with Danielle Brooks. When I see them, there is just an elation, an inexplicable elation. I do work with graduates. And I coach them. I help as much as I can.

Q: For 26 years you ran your own theater. Was it hard to give it up?

A: It hurt more than a little bit. It hurt for over a year. Because the change was so drastic and so shocking to my system. I used to wake up every morning at 4:30 a.m., dream of a scene, rehearse the scene in the afternoon, perform it in the evening. That was my life for 26 years. Suddenly, I would wake up in the morning after we closed, dream of a scene and have nowhere to do it.

Q: But you kept teaching.

A: I always thought I would end my days on the stage. But when I closed the theater, I did not act anymore because I hated auditioning. I was not good at auditioning. So I dedicated myself more and more to teaching and all my needs as an actor and my needs as a director, all of that was channeled into teaching.

Q: Do you have plans to retire?

A: I’m not thinking about that. I’m going, as we say, with the flow.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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