Randall Whittinghill | Interview
by Lisa Johns
A dedicated acting coach, teacher and versatile artist, Randall Whittinghill has been the developing force behind a roster of successful clients who continually reach new heights in their acting careers. He is one of those rare teachers who is able to explore the full scope of a character, and then return only their quintessence—a gift he then offers through his coaching and script analysis. Whittinghill has several acting workshops scheduled to begin in early 2011, a series of new sculptural works underway and recently returned from participating in several theatre and dance productions in New York and Los Angeles.
Lisa Johns: Hi Randall. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.
RW: Of course!
LJ: Can we start off by talking a little bit about where you come from?
RW: Well, I was born Randall Gregory Whittinghill in Albuquerque, NM. My father is English/Irish and my mother is part English and part Native American. My grandfather on my mom’s side is full Native American.
LJ: Have you done much traveling outside of the U.S.?
RW: A little bit, yeah. I’ve been to Scotland, England, Montreal and all over Mexico. You know, growing up in California, I had a lot of friends of Mexican decent so I ended up spending a lot of time there, living for almost six months with friends in Guadalajara. I also spent some time in Mazatlán, Juárez and Tiajuana.
LJ: Did traveling to any of those places leave a lasting impression?
RW: Yes, Scotland. For sure! I actually went to Scotland because I wanted to immerse myself outside of my native dialect and develop a new ear. That was quite an experience.
LJ: Can you talk a little bit about how personal tragedy has marked your journey in life?
RW: Well, there were a few things that happened when I was younger, when I was fifteen. My parents got divorced, my grandfather died and a girlfriend was involved in a car accident, and passed away. In that same accident, another friend was paralyzed from the waist down. And this all happened over a period of about one month’s time.
Up until that point, I had been very active in sports. I played football, baseball - - you name it. But after all this went down, I stopped playing sports because I realized that I was doing it for other people and not really for myself. I basically just withdrew from society and struggled for many years after that. I was really out of control as a kid. I got suspended and expelled. I got detentions. My parents wanted to send me to military school! I was out of control.
But one of the reasons I leaned so far in that direction was that I was really just trying to hide a huge learning disability—I have dyslexia. I was in the lowest percentile of my class for writing. I couldn’t stay focused during class. I was bouncing off the walls and acting out because in school, the way the system was set up, I just always felt stupid. In the end though, those experiences humbled me and helped me learn how to have empathy for others who are struggling.
LJ: How were you able to turn your learning disability into a creative strength?
RW: Well, for starters, I was introduced to Shakespeare and fell in love with language! ...the different meanings of words, the way language can be used to convey emotion and feeling. I really developed my edge through studying and performing Shakespeare. It made me into such a willing and curious actor having to do that kind of work. That’s also where I gained my strength in script analysis.
LJ: After high school, you went to CalArts where you obtained your BA in Theatre Acting. Who had the biggest impact on you there?
RW: At CalArts it was definitely Travis Preston. He made me want to work for him; he made me want to do the work. He empowers actors. He is very much a task master too. He demands that you show up and have passion for what you are working on. If you’re not passionate about it, you’re done. You get off the stage! He demands that an actor bring stakes to the work, which many teachers are afraid to do, out of fear of offending students. Working with him helped me see that I had great potential and that I was a talented, strong actor.
LJ: How do you demand that an actor bring stakes to the work? How do you open the door for someone like that?
RW: When I’m working with other actors, that’s my opportunity to call upon myself and demand of myself to get rigorously honest with what’s going on with the stakes of the script and with a scene. Actors usually run into a wall when they are not empathizing with the character, when they are just kind of ‘playing at them,’ or ‘playing ideas.’ They’ll be more on the surface of it rather than ‘on the inside’ of it. So if I can get them to connect with something they understand, through working around their own life scenarios, once they connect, once they empathize with what the character is going through, then the stakes are there and the scene becomes clear and much easier for the actor to play.
LJ: How do you arrive at that point? Do you have some kind of an ah-ha! moment?
RW: In every single scene I work on, an ah-ha moment always comes. Things may seem to start out a bit confusing when I first approach the analysis of a script, but until things become really simple, until I can whittle things down to simple obstacles, objectives, actions, clear points of view--the basic structure of the script, I don’t stop working on it. Because it’s the structure that gives an actor clarity and helps them find their artistic voice, their ah-ha moment. At the very core of acting is simplicity. Acting should be as simple as breathing. So until my analysis can be defined it in the most simple, straightforward terms, I don’t stop digging. And then once I arrive at that point, when that ah-ha moment happens, that’s when I know I’m prepared to coach.
LJ: What do you look for in working with an actor?
RW: I think it is important to work with actors who are curious, who show up prepared and want to experiment. Not necessarily because they want to get results, but because they are coming to me out of a need to be free in their performance, out of a need to bounce a different approaches off of someone in a safe and constructive environment. Actors come to me when they need to speak about the character through a point of view of ‘understanding’ rather than worrying about whether their take is ‘right’ or not.
LJ: What has it been like for you, to become an acting coach?
RW: It’s such a process itself. Everyone who walks through my door shows me how to be a better coach. My process becomes so much stronger because of my students. They are teaching me as much as I’m teaching them. And the ah-ha moment that I have with myself is also the moment that I love to see in an actor.
Coaching is one of the few things that I’ve never questioned in my life. But the reward is really more in the “becoming.” I am here to remind actors to stay curious and live fuller lives. Part of why actors get cast is because of “who” they are.” It might sound lofty, but I want to be of service and make the world a better place to live. Actors are teachers, they help shape the world. You know, kids at home are watching TV and it happens all the time - - you watch a character on screen and you empathize and connect with them, and as a result, you learn more about yourself. That kind of stuff has the potential to change a person’s life. The job of an actor, at its core, is one of the most selfless jobs that exist because of all that you have to give of yourself. I think it’s a very powerful thing. And it’s exciting. I’m not just helping people be better actors but I’m also helping them to be better people. To help actors realize that they are being of service is truly a rewarding profession.
LJ: What do you think is important for actors to do as they attain new levels of success in their careers?
RW: When I was at CalArts, an agent came up to me after a showcase and asked me what some of my hobbies were. At that time, I didn’t have any hobbies. Acting was my hobby, acting was my life! But I realized much later that it is very important to fill your life with things you love to do, outside of your main profession. It’s important to read, to be engaged--to do things like take a French class, learn how to country dance or ride a motorcycle. Whatever you do, be curious about life. Actors who fill themselves with life are able to have their job be an ‘extension’ of their full life. You actually have to be ‘living’ life in order to act. What’s the saying? “If the mind is shapely, the art will also be shapely?”
LJ: What helps provide you with longevity in terms being a coach?
RW: My life is very full. I make art. I’m married. I hike, I dance. In fact, I just recently danced in a production at the RedCat with Hana van der Kolk and during the preparation and performance, I learned so much about myself as a person that will directly relate to my coaching.
LJ: Like what?
RW: Well, like the fact that our bodies are made up of 100 trillion cells. And so really, we’re not just “ourselves” but rather, we are this container for all these living cells. We have to remind ourselves to let go of all judgment, to be free and know that there is no wrong way to move those cells. Our bodies are not actually identifying with ‘self’ but rather with ‘energy’ and ‘form.’ There is no right, different or bad. This directly relates to an actor, you know, our bodies are in constant motion. Sometimes we caught up in thinking that we are in control, but it’s not true. Life is fluid. We cannot hold on so tight. Rather than cling to identity, we can identify ourselves as a life force. We can be free and enjoy ourselves.
LJ: What are you reading right now?
RW: I have my nose in a few different books right now. I’m reading “Story” by Robert McKee and “Start Where You Are” by Pema Chödron.
LJ: What do you do to take care of your spirit?
RW: I practice meditation. I practice non-judgment and a lot of self care.
LJ: What do you think about the rain?
RW: I really enjoy the rain. I believe the rain sets you free.