“A good actor is a man who represents the sediment…”

The early twentieth-century actor Ellen Terry said that the best actors have “that little something extra.”  As simple as that statement is, it does a spot-on job of describing what it’s like to watch a truly wonderful actor perform.  There’s a little something that sets them apart, and everyone seems to notice it.

Ellen Terry at age sixteen. (Public Domain)

Ellen Terry at age sixteen. (Public Domain)

Perhaps as part of my mental strategy for combatting Texas summer heat, I’ve been revisiting Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, which tells the story of a Turkish poet named Ka who visits the troubled city of Kars after his exile.  Ka finds himself in the company of a professional actor, Sunay, during a peak moment in the city’s political turmoil, and as they walk together in the snow, Sunay offers his own theory on what makes someone a good actor:

A good actor,” said Sunay in a light theatrical tone, “is a man who represents the sediment, the unexplored and unexplained powers that have drifted down through the centuries; he takes the lessons he has gleaned and hides them deep inside him; his self-mastery is awesome; never does he bare his heart; no one may know how powerful he is until he strides onto the stage.  All his life, he travels down unfamiliar roads to perform at the most out-of-the-way theaters in the most godforsaken towns, and everywhere he goes he searches for a voice that will grant him genuine freedom.  If he is so fortunate as to find that voice, he must embrace it fearlessly and follow the path to the end.” (Pamuk 202)

Admittedly, this is a rather romantic (and even a little ascetic) musing on the work of the actor.  I think most actors would agree that there must be some awareness of the business of making art, and that the times where acting truly is romantic are scattered amidst the work of making a living.  But what I like about Pamuk’s meditation here is that it casts the actor as a seeker: “everywhere he goes he searches for a voice will grant him genuine freedom.”  The posture of seeking seems to redeem some of the everyday trials of the acting life.  Yet the meaning of that “genuine freedom” is a little ambiguous—does he mean a final sense of authenticity?  or identification?  or is it as simple as a sense of being unleashed? I’m not sure I have an answer to that, but I know this passage stands out to me by virtue of how seriously it takes the actor’s work.  I thought I’d share it here.