"____________ Without a Cause"
There's a story that Dennis Hopper tells about when he was 18 or 19 years old and starting his career in Hollywood. He thought that he had some unique talent, that he was on a fast path to becoming the best young actor in America, and then he met James Dean. He first saw Dean act on the set of Rebel Without a Cause and what he saw made his stomach flip. Dean was an actor. Hopper was just pretending to be. Hopper saw Jimmy doing things so far over his head as an actor, that at the time he couldn’t even comprehend what those things were. He felt humbled. It was obvious that Dean knew something that Hopper didn't, that Dean had something that he didn’t, and it made him special. It had never been more apparent that Hopper wasn't special.
Hopper was so mesmerized, so enthralled, that on the set of Rebel, he grabbed Dean by the arm and threw him into one of the cars being used for the scene. He begged him to let him in on the secret, “You gotta tell me what you’re doin’, because I don’t understand. Tell me what to do. Should I go to New York? Should I study at the Actor’s Studio? Man, you gotta tell me what I should do.” Dean told him very simply, “Don’t go to New York and study. Don't do that." Hopper was confused. "Just don’t act, OK? Just, you know - do it. You don’t have to act. Don't try to act, don’t show it – just, you know, do it.”
Hopper goes on to talk about how Dean told him that when he was in a scene where they wanted him to smoke a cigarette, to avoid acting like you were smoking a cigarette, "just smoke the cigarette," he said, "That's all. You can't be more real than actually smoking the cigarette, so just smoke it."
I love that story, and Hopper tells it with such obvious reverence. You can hear it in his voice. The lesson was profound. Dean himself was most likely the most profound actor he had ever met, you can see it in his eyes. More in-depth interviews have Hopper going on to dispell the myth that Dean may have been a creative genius by saying that Dean wasn't trying to be creative at all. He was trying to be in the moment, to avoid creating anything except reality. It was equally as difficult as it was easy and he's chased that notion his entire life.
I'm pretty attached to that story. In fact, I love it. I think there's a lesson in it that we could all pinch and apply to ourselves -- how we live, move and breathe should be natural, not necessarily effortless, but natural. We’re focused on efficiency, convenience, routine, how the world sees us. What should I say? What should I wear? What should I do? What will people think of me? Before you know it life becomes stale and predictable. It can become this sad, uninspiring thing that ultimately is the end to all our means. We stop anticipating or welcoming anything unplanned, different, or unexpected because we wouldn’t know what to do with it. We wouldn't be able to accept it naturally, instead we're working hard in a fairly fruitless effort to act our way through life. Instead of just living we find ourselves acting out roles rather than inhabiting moments.
I wonder sometimes what I’m missing out on in life because I don’t want to be inconvenienced, or maybe because I'm trying too hard to be this person that you believe me to be, or to be that person that someone else might think I am. Sometimes I wonder if I've never quite been as self-aware as I thought I was, or if perhaps I've been playing a role for a long, long time? Wife and daughter, age and the inevitability of change has led me to believe that the person who I really am may be something infinitely different than what you thought I was, infinitely better perhaps, and maybe even far more capable of things than either you or I had believed...although I suppose I never really knew just what others might believe. I think growing up can steer you far from the path that you should be on.
So what made me think about all this nonsense? I spent the day (not unlike any other day)with people who have been either defined wrong their entire lives, or defining themselves wrong. It struck me that it just might be the one thing that no one ever points out to us, and hey, we can't all be James Dean...well, no one can really, except Jimmy. Stop trying to be something people, and just be.
If you want to be a writer...write.
If you want to be an artist...create.
If you want to be a musician...play music.
It's really that simple, isn't it? Thanks Jimmy.