By Emily Gold Boutilier
On a Thursday morning in late September, a student arrived for class in Stirn Auditorium and posed a question to the instructor. “Are we going to see you,” she asked, “in People magazine?”
The student was speaking to actor Ken Howard ’66, president of the Screen Actors Guild, current guest star on NBC’s 30 Rock and, this semester, the Croxton Lecturer at Amherst. In the latter capacity, he is teaching Film and Media Studies 242: “The Role and the Self” (cross-listed as Theater and Dance 155), which meets twice weekly in Stirn.
But on Tuesdays and Thursdays, his job is to teach at Amherst.
On this particular Thursday, Howard was fresh from two trips. The first was to Los Angeles to attend the Emmy Awards and be inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The second was to New York City to film a guest role in an episode of CBS’s Blue Bloods.
While the People question was rhetorical, other Emmy-related queries that morning were not. “How was it?” a student asked. Howard replied that Los Angeles is so hot in September that actors are dripping sweat on the red carpet. All that sweating is followed by three hours of sitting and clapping, which is followed by the glamorous Emmy Governors Ball.
This impromptu Q&A fit neatly into a main objective of the course—to demystify acting. “The Role and the Self” is not an acting course, Howard says, but rather a course in what it’s like to be an actor. To that end, assignments include everything from delivering a sonnet to reading Chekhov: Four Plays. The course covers the history of acting while also giving, he says, a “visceral sense” of what acting actually is.
“Learning lines is part of it,” he told the 24 students in the room that Thursday. “It’s not the hardest part.”
To illustrate, he asked students to tense the muscles in one leg and then to walk a few steps. Don’t try to walk with a limp, he insisted; that’s not real. Rather, try to walk as normally as possible while keeping one leg stiff. The students understood the distinction, and after a few steps, they’d learned that the way to realistically fake a limp is to try not to have one.
“The actors you really love, the reason you’re so drawn to them is because they’re so real,” explained Howard, whose most recent film role was as Harlan Fiske Stone, Class of 1894, in the 2011 J. Edgar. “Robert Duvall is seldom other than brilliant, because he’s trying to not act but to have an action and comment on it.”
Photos by Rob Mattson