Gary Oldman is one of the best actors around – always full of surprises, always dominating screens and scenes, never dull. So i hugely enjoyed the interview with him in this month’s EMPIRE mag. But one response jumped off the page at me. The interviewer is trying to get to the secrets behind the diversity of characters that he plays (many of whom seem to be decidedly seedy, sinister or generally unhinged).

EMPIRE: In TRUE ROMANCE you were playing a white man trying to be a black man. Was Drexl drawn from people you knew growing up in New Cross?

OLDMAN: There’s an old saying that one of the great acting teachers, Stella Adler, used to say: “Read out, don’t read in!” And a lot of the time, if you’ve got a really good piece of writing, all the beats, the man, it’s there. And if the writing isn’t there, you know because you’re working hard. If you’re sweating as an actor, something’s wrong. A great piece of writing, it’s all there. And working through that, Drexl was mostly on the page.

Our age has lost faith in words, let alone sentences and texts generally. No, I’m not trying to be pseudy about this – because this is really serious. For the disintegration of this faith has come about because of a despair at finding any meaning in them. That obviously impacts the very basis of ‘revealed’ religions – not because the possibility of revelation in the first place is undermined (people find other ways of doing that), but because whatever is revealed can only ever remain as an impenetrable fog of words.

But while that might be OK in theory (if you like that sort of thing – i.e. you’re someone who relishes the joie de vivre and meaningless anarchy of postmodern existence), life just isn’t like that in practice. Because a lot of the time, texts DO function reasonably well in life. More than that, we can communicate through all kinds of means. This does not imply we can always understand everything; it’s that we can nearly always understand something. And that’s where other people fit in. We need one another. Others will have seen things in the text that i missed (through my blind-spots, carelessness, over-familiarity or whatever) – so i need to listen to them. That is what makes reading groups so positive and helpful. But notice – this does not have to be what many these days assume it is, namely a mere pooling of “readings” (the more bizarre and ‘creative’ the better). It is not about reading into the text what we want or feel – that may be an interesting creative exercise in itself – but that is not (as far as i see it) the purpose of such reading groups. The task is about trying to get at what the writer was getting at. Taking any form of literature (whether poetry, plays, novels, Scripture) in this way is surely the key. For the text is a ‘given’ – we might disagree with it, we might feel it could be improved, we might simply love its use of language – but whatever we feel about it, the words are a given and were given for a reason(s) and so our task is to dig away at those words. (Here we go – it’s that critical realism thing again – see post on the Real Enlightenment, 6th July 2007)

And this is where the tasks of the actor and preacher coincide. Both have a script, both have a past (but hopefully still relevant) reality to convey to a present audience; both need not only to take inspiration from the text but constantly to be rooted in that text. As Gary Oldman says: READ OUT, DON’T READ IN! To put that in theological jargon, it is about exegesis (digging up the treasure that is already buried) as opposed to eisegesis (taking treasure from your backpack and bedding it down into the ground). One could take the analogy further – for the preacher must embody the text that is being preached, just like an actor. An actor’s performance is fatally weakened when he or she is simply not credible in the role; far too many preachers do not seem to have have learned the same lesson.

Of course, there are differences too – an actor has to come out of character; a preacher shouldn’t have any disconnect between life and pulpit. But it is this matter of doing justice to texts that is so important and not to be overlooked. If actors are encouraged to do this to get “the best performances”, then surely so should preachers?

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