Plotting the actor’s technical road map


Renowned Hollywood acting coach Michelle Danner, who has worked with the likes of
Gerard Butler, Chris Rock, Penelope Cruz and James Franco, recently presented
master classes in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In an exclusive interview with
Joanna Sterkowicz, Danner spoke about “The Golden Box’ acting technique, as well as
her second directorial feature film, Hello Herman.

When Johannesburg-based character casting agent Addi Lang, owner of Caitlin’s
Castings, first began communicating with Michelle Danner 18 months ago, she knew
she had to bring Danner out to South Africa to see South African talent and conduct
master classes.

“As the founder and artistic director of The Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa
Monica, California, Michelle is a hugely sought after acting coach,’ said Lang. “She
has trained A-list actors such as Christian Slater, Salma Hayek, Zooey Deschanel,
Kellan Lutz and Michelle Rodriguez, among many others.

“The level of competition in Los Angeles is so high that most South African actors
who move there in the hopes of finding fame and fortune never get anywhere.

Michelle’s school offers a stepping stone – not only does it provide top level training,
it also helps students to get visas and offers amazing networking opportunities.
Patrons of Michelle’s school include Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.’

One of Lang’s proteges, Tukise Mogoje, a 25-year-old South African actor, is
currently studying with Danner in Hollywood.

Danner told Screen Africa that she’d always wanted to come to South Africa. “It’s
my passion to go to countries where there are powerful stories and I know there are
many in your country. To work with South African actors is to expand my personal

The Michelle Danner Acting Studio at Edgemar encompasses a variety of acting
techniques, including Meisner, Strasberg, Adler, Hagen, Chekhov and the
Stanislavsky technique.

“I’ve studied each of these methodologies and found that they can all work
together,’ explained Danner. “You shouldn’t blinker creativity which is why it’s good
to utilise different ideologies. A lot of acting teachers can be dogmatic and teach
only a single method whereas I think it’s limiting to believe there is only one acting

Danner often receives requests from A-list actors seeking help with particular roles.

“In such instances I would either go onto set or the actor comes to Edgemar and we
work on character analysis together,’ she commented. “I’ve trained so many people
that these days I can hardly go into a restaurant in Los Angeles without running into
someone I’ve worked with. I have the same situation in New York.

“Many people have told me that I’ve changed their lives so it makes me think that
the role of an acting teacher is very important.’

“The Golden Box’

Danner’s five-hour master class, “The Golden Box’, introduced South Africans to an
unusual philosophy of how to create vivid, fleshed out and interesting characters.

The audience included casting directors, TV producers, well known and aspiring
actors and actresses. As this was Danner’s first visit to South Africa, she was
introduced to local talent through performances by 16-year old actor, singer and
world champion dancer Kalon Badenhorst. Another performance was from song and
dance ensemble, Amakhono We Sintu.

Danner continued: “In the Johannesburg and Cape Town workshops I did an exercise
on biography because “The Golden Box’ is all about self-discovery – the key is to find
the back story of the character in order to lose yourself in the character. This is
vital as audiences want to lose themselves in the characters.

“When I teach I start with a checklist of words and elaborate within each of these
words because it’s important for actors to have a technical road map. My technique,
which is effective for actors of all different levels, teaches you how to apply the
craft of acting.’

Danner stressed that “The Golden Box’ shows students how to get out of their own
heads so as to live completely in the moment. “By finding your own unique emotional
triggers, you learn to access your full range of feelings and emotions at a moment’s
notice. I take the emphasis off of the “method’ and help actors rediscover their own

Cultural centre

In addition to her acting school, Danner has built two theatres at Edgemar, as well
as an art gallery.

“People don’t think of Los Angeles as a place with theatre as there is so much focus
on the film industry. So I wanted to build theatres to provide a physical environment
that nurtures the creative process and encourages collaboration between writers,
directors, actors, musicians, dancers and visual artists. We do lots of plays, musicals
and kids shows,’ said Danner.

Columbine-esque drama

Last year Danner directed the feature film Hello Herman, produced by her company
All in Films, starring Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead). (Danner’s directorial debut
was the 2006 release, How To Go Out on a Date in Queens.)

She describes Hello Herman as a Columbine-esque drama about a school shooting
which shows how the desensitisation of youth leads to increased violence.

“I’m a concerned mom myself and it’s disturbing to continually wonder if your child
will come to grief at school. In the US there is a big dialogue around bullying and it’s
escalated because of cyber bullying on the internet. Once you’ve become the victim
of cyber bullying you’re stained for life. I believe that technology has made the world
more desensitised – Facebook is meant to connect people but it’s the most
disconnected thing ever.

An educational cut of Hello Herman has been distributed to schools in the US and is
available across the USA on DVD. Danner is also in discussions to release the film in
South Africa.


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