Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac's Juilliard Drama Teacher Moni Yakim Reveals His Unique Acting Technique

Creating A Character Movie Moni Yakim

If you want to become an actor, The Juilliard School in NYC is the go-to place to study drama. The school's prestigious art program graduated some of the best actors of this generation including Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Patti LuPone, Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney just to name a few. Many of these actors credit one the founders of the school's legendary Drama Division, Moni Yakim as an inspiration with his unusual teaching technique. A new documentary, CREATING A CHARACTER: THE MONI YAKIM LEGACY takes audiences into his class and how his roots as a mime helped develop his technique. CineMovie talked to the legendary teacher about his distinctive teaching methods.

CREATING A CHARACTER: THE MONI YAKIM LEGACY from producers Boaz Yakim, Kali Wilder and Alma Har'el, the director behind HONEYBOY, and executive producers Jessica Chastain and Anthony Mackie, features interviews with Yakim's former students Oscar Isaac, Kevin Kline, Laura Linney, Chastain and Mackie explaining how his unusual methods helped them as actors. Along with his wife Mina, the two prepare the next generation of actors.

Yakim started out as a performer studying under famous mime, Marcel Marceau. The Israeli-born drama teacher took the concept behind that theatrical technique and applied it to his drama courses. In the documentary, you won't see his students recite "to be or not to be" or any dialogue. Instead he instructs his students to convey emotions through body movement, expression and gestures.

CineMovie chatted with the master teacher about his successful acting method.

Rent the film at https://watch.firstrunfeatures.com/products/creating-a-character-at-first-run-features


CineMovie:
How did your background as a mime help form this alternative acting method?


Moni:
When you do mime, since there is nothing physical that you deal with, you create a world from nothingness. So to create it, you create different tensions in the body. And I learned to take the best out of it without creating these tensions and adapted to acting.


CineMovie:
Students have to be comfortable in their own skin to be able to be confident in their movements, right?


Moni:
That's absolutely correct. And they are not always comfortable with their bodies to start with. And the whole idea about it is that as we go along, as we progress with the classes, that they become more and more comfortable with their bodies, because they get more assurance that they are capable of doing what they are asked to do. Even if it is extremely demanding.


CineMovie:
When you first meet your students, can you tell who's got talent or who doesn't?

 

Moni:
You know, as a teacher you learn over the years that when you get the new 18 people, and you don't want to assume things. You don't want to judge things and you look at them, not as a unit, but you look at them as individuals, but each individuals along the time as you work, you learn what this individual needs to do in order to grow. And so I try to withhold judgment when they come first to my class and then I try to understand where is it that they are at and what each individual needs to work on in order to grow.


CineMovie:
When you first met students like Jessica Chastain or Oscar Isaac, did you know know right away they would be successful actors?


Moni:
I stopped thinking that. I thought like that at the very beginning of my career, as a teacher, because I started as a performer, as an actor performer, and then I moved more and more into teaching. And when I discovered a person that I thought she was going to be really big because I directed her and I taught her and when she became really big, I thought that I just can immediately say, who's going to make it and who is not. And time has proved to me to be wrong in that way, because a lot of people that I knew were extremely talented, extremely capable, and extremely attractive if you want. And I thought that they were going to make it, and they are working in different professions today. So I learned that it's not only how talented you are, but how capable you are.

 


CineMovie:
In all your years teaching, has the school and your class become more diverse?

 

Moni:
Definitely. So in the past, I would say 15, 20 years, it has been revolutionized in that sense, because at the beginning we used to take very few women, even people of color. In the past years, definitely it has changed completely.

 


CineMovie:
I love that you put masks on your students so they're forced to emote with their eyes. Are students ever surprised how they're bodies react to these exercises? They're literally drenched in sweat when they're done.


Moni:
Well, you know, by the time they come to me for what ever reason, they have already heard a lot about my class. So they come with great anticipation and great dread. I don't know why the dread is there because people say it's going to be hard. It's going to be hard. And then they come to the class and we all start laughing and enjoying ourselves because part of my system is that if you can laugh through an exercise, you can do it better, no matter how hard it is. The harder it is, the more you bring joy to it and fun to it. So you don't think of it as being hard. You think of it as science, something that you do, which is quite enjoyable.

 


CineMovie:
It seems your technique also helps with mastering improvisation.


Moni:
Definitely without question, because you have to live every moment as it occurs. You cannot, even when we work on exercises where we repeat exactly the same exercise, the inner life, the way we feel at the moment that we do is different at every moment and every day. So even if I do the same exercise that I did yesterday, the way I deal with it today will be different. The way I feel with it today will be different. So it's a constant challenge to the imagination.

 


CineMovie:
What can actors starting out learn from this documentary?

 


Moni:
It would inspire people to understand the dedication and hard work and altering their state of mind from wanting to be a celebrity, to becoming a real artist of the theater. I hope that this movie we'll be able to move these people in this direction.

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