When Don Richardson passed away, Brad felt compelled to carry out Don’s legacy. He began teaching as well as producing films while continuing to have a successful acting career. Brad enjoys teaching the lessons that he uses in his own professional acting career and has a strong passion to pass these tools on to help actors perfect their craft. Today, Brad has students who have been studying with him for nearly fifteen years. From Judge Reinholdand Mary Gilbert, to David White and Masi Oka, Brad’s students have successfully created acting careers, and constantly keep their acting tools sharp with The Heller Approach.
His students have booked series regular, recurring roles, guest starring roles, and co-staring roles on hit shows like “Greys Anatomy”, “Extant”, “Heroes”, “Anger Management”, “Two And A Half Men”, “Mike And Molly”, etc…, starring roles in major Studio Films and Broadway theatre productions, and hundreds of commercials. He has also taught many professional comedians how to take their comedy and put it into a believable character which helps them book sit-com work.
Emily: I am here with Brad Heller, Hollywood’s premiere acting coach! I’m very excited to have him here. Yes, I would like to share that he actually graduated from Boston University School of Theater Arts. And that’s awesome because I’m actually a Boston girl.
Brad Heller: Very cool.
Emily: Yes, that’s pretty cool. He’s also studied with the famed Don Richardson. He’s been working with students for 22 years. The goal of the interview is just to share the realities of the acting industry, and what it takes to really make it. My first question for you is tell me your journey. How did you get into this crazy world that is acting?
Brad: Believe it or not, before I was an actor, I was pre-med at UC San Diego. I came from a family where my father is a retired surgeon. And I thought that was going to be my journey. And studying at UC San Diego, I also sang and played the guitar. I happened upon a talent show at the university, and auditioned for the talent show. It was a musical. And at the time, I didn’t even know what a musical was. But I just found it fun. I auditioned. I ended getting a very good part in the thing with no training, and I thought, “Hmmm… this might be cool. If I have no training, I wonder what I could do with training.” And I also really enjoyed the process and the whole theater thing and the musical thing. And that’s what drove me to go to Boston University School of Theater Arts.
Upon graduating from there, I actually found that acting had lost its fun. It wasn’t fun. It was too complex and confusing. I found myself as being an over-thinker. And so I overthought it into the ground. I gave up acting. I thought I was going to be a director and a writer. So, I moved to Los Angeles. I was in production, and I snuck onto a lot to get a job in production as a P.A. And somebody who happened to be in an office I think we started talking to, and he told me about this great book called Acting without Agony: an Alternative to the Method.
And I was like, “Acting without agony? Is that even possible?” I got the book, I read it, I loved it. It changed my life. He was studying with Don Richardson of the Sky at UCLA. And I have found myself so intrigued with it that I hunted it down. And I actually started studying with him in that class as well. And then loved it so much that I was put into Don Richardson’s master class and found that acting, suddenly, was so much more fun, and it was very effective, and I was like, “Wow, I can actually do this.” It was not something that I felt like I needed to delve into all of those things in the back of my brain that happened to me when I was a kid, good and bad, and relying on those memories in order to act. It was a different way of approaching the craft which was a lot more tangible and structured, and not, sort of, I felt like my acting was at the mercy of the wind. So I studied with him for a number of years, and I was so intrigued with his technique that I actually became friends with him.
I used to drive him to class and pick his brain when we would be on those drives and actually tape-recorded his classes because I didn’t know how long he was going to be alive because he was very old when I started studying with him. And I started booking jobs from there, with an agent, and entering that road of being an actor. From there, after Don Richardson passed away, I had discovered that I had really debilitating stage fright, which was another fun thing to add on top of it. So those anxieties and fears of performing, it didn’t matter what technique I had, my brain was so frozen, it wasn’t able to process any technique. It was number before I would go on. And I found, what started to happen, was I was leaving auditions filled with regret, feeling like I could have done a better job.
So then I started hunting and learning more about anxiety and fear. And through a series of events, discovered that there is this moment, her name is Dr. Eda Gorbis, who was an expert on these kinds of anxieties and fears, in addition to other things that she teaches. But I went through a program with her that taught me all about anxiety, and how to cope with it, how to deal with it, how to embrace. The way I was approaching my performing could not have been more wrong. For example, what I was doing before is before I would go on stage or an audition, in my brain, I found myself trying to continually convince myself that the performance was going to be fine, that I was going to be okay, and everything was going to be good. And of course, I soon as I would stop my performance, there would be a random thought or a random distraction, and it would throw me off.
What this woman taught me to do was a completely different approach. It was a matter of embracing the fact that it may be horrible, and learning how to deal with that kind of anxiety, and embracing it. And rather than going for a feeling of clarity, and wanting things to be perfect, learning how to perform in an imperfect way whether it would be practicing my auditions at home with the television on, so that it bothered me, or having people being able to hear me, enough to distress me, so that when I was practicing, I was habituating this discomfort, so that when I actually went to an audition, I had already been exposed to these things, so it didn’t throw me anymore when I was hit with something that bothered me.
That was really what completely revamped me.
Emily: A light bulb moment.
Brad: That was a major light bulb moment. As much as Don Richardson was an amazing acting teacher, it didn’t matter how great he was, I until I solved this issue, it wasn’t going to happen.
Emily: So tell me about your approach because it’s so different from what’s out there. Meisner, the Method and all of that. Tell me about your approach, and how that helps artists really act for real.
Brad:Well, the approach is built on the people who mentored me from Don Richardson to Eda Gorbis to different directors who I’ve worked with, different other coaches, and just discoveries on my own. But the nuts and the bolts come from, first of all, one needs to understand what great acting is. A lot of people, you’ll ask them, “Who’s your favorite actor?” Somebody will say Anthony Hopkins, for example. And then you say to them, “Well, why?” And then usually, people will say something like, “Well, he’s cool,” or, “I just like him. I don’t know why. I just like watching him.”
So if we go deeper into what’s really appealing about those actors that we really like, frequently, there are a number of reasons that that happens. One of the reasons is because every actor that you watch when they are performing in a scene, they are filled with a tremendous amount of emotion. That is the electricity in their eyes. Electricity is emanating from every pore in their body. For example, when Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs is saying, “Hello, Clarise,” you can feel the heat from his eyes. So if we agree that that’s one of the things that makes an actor fascinating to watch, then at that point, we’ve got to figure out, “Well, how do we get that?”
One of the ways we get it is through learning how to evoke emotion without having to become one who’s delving into our personal past. For example, if I’m playing a character who’s very angry, and I am a method actor, I would find something in my own life that makes me angry. So I would think about that thing, and use it as a trigger to launch me into the scene.
There are problems with this. One, when you’re on a set, if you’re using a personal experience for me, Brad, I’m not playing Brad. I’m playing a different character. So sometimes, it can almost feel like you’re schizophrenic when you’re acting. Who am I? Am I the character? Am I Brad? I’m bouncing back and forth. Number two, the events that I’m actually using to launch into the pool of the scene, the actual event doesn’t always fit the scene, like the amount of anger, for example, I have in my own life, from my own personal history, may not work for the scene. So it’s almost like taking a piece of a puzzle and putting it into a different puzzle.
We are so familiar with emotion that we don’t have to delve into a personal experience to get there. We can actually feel something. For example, if I just say the word joy, I smile. I can feel a little tingle in my face. If I say the word anxiety, I can feel a little tingle in my stomach or in my chest. It’s not enough to carry me through a scene, but it’s enough to have a nice, little kernel to build off of. What we do is we take that feeling, and we combine it the physiological thing that happens in us when we have a tremendous amount of emotion. What is that? That’s for example, when you’re very emotional, whether it’s anger or anxiety or boredom. There are things that happen in our body. One, we get a little bit lightheaded.
Two, our heart rate goes up. Three, sometimes we will sweat a little bit. If you think about the times you were the most happy, angry, or even the most bored, you will find that this is what happens in your body. So what we do is we get ourselves to that state through breathing heavy and saying the name of the emotion, to get ourselves charged into the scene. And we do that before we’ve actually exercised the scene on set. We do that at home to teach our body to have those physiological things happen, so that when we just execute the scene, it’s built on the same principles of muscle memory, we’ll call it lightheadedness memory.
Emily: I love that.
Brad: It’s built on the same principles that we will find in sports. There’s a preparation phase, then there’s the executing phase. Very different tools. The preparation is when we do the breathing, saying the name of an emotion. The executing is a very different thing when we trust all of the work, and we just play.
Emily: That’s fantastic because I have three degrees related to psychology, so it sounds like, definitely, an understanding of how the mind works, how your body works, and how emotions work. And that’s all really important stuff to just like live as the character, not rely on all of these archaic exercises that sometimes work before. There are different styles of acting nowadays.
Brad: Especially in working on film and television, if I prepare using an emotion of anger and I’m on set, and a director says to me, “I don’t want him angry. I want him nervous.” I cannot say, “Excuse me, I’ve got to go check out my diary and figure out something that makes me nervous when I was 10.” We can actually build our brain and our body an emotional keyboard that we can tap into at any time by simply saying the name of the emotion.
Emily: And that’s great. And just be repetition and just really figuring yourself out and lots of practice?
Brad: Well, it’s tough for me to summarize the entire technique that I teach in on interview because it’s been developed for almost four decades. So that is a foundation, the nuts and the bolts of the actual acting technique. We add additional principles that I learned about anxiety and fear, and embracing discomfort, performance, anxiety, all of those things factor in too But that is the foundation of the technique.
Emily: There is a lot to it! Wow! So tell me how are the actors in LA? When they’re coming in to your classes and stuff like that, what does the talent pool looks like? What is the life of an actor in LA?
Brad: Well, here’s my experience. I don’t know what it’s like elsewhere, but frequently, in Los Angeles, the whole city is comprised of actors, directors, producers, creative environment for people making film and television. So everybody around is in the industry. So when people arrive in Los Angeles, frequently, when they come to study with me, the first question they ask me is, “How do I get an agent?” And my next question is, “Do you know how to act?”
And they usually say, “Not yet.” So we are in the most competitive place for acting in the known universe. And acting is an art, the same way violin is an art. We need to respect it that way because it’s too competitive. So when I hear somebody say, “I want an agent, but I’ve been acting for two months,” what I hear actually is, “I’ve been playing the violin for two months, and I want to audition for the LA Symphony Orchestra.” So that’s what I hear with—well, that’s not all actors in Los Angeles. But there are too many to tell you that have approached me with that very request.
And some actors, I speak to them, and I say this, and they understand it, and they get it. Actually, some don’t. Some don’t want to hear it. They just want to get an agent, and they want to go out there, and start doing it. The problem with that is you may be an unbelievable marketing genius, you may be an amazing networker, whether you can get in the door, seize that opportunity and start auditioning for Spielberg. And guess what?
You go in there and you blow it, now, you’ve told all of Hollywood that you suck. So everybody knows that you’re bad. That’s why we have to train. That’s why when they come to my program, I always suggest, let’s start with some mock audition, then let’s do some student films, then some low budget independent film, and then launch into commercials, and eventually in front of an agent and then director. At the end of the tunnel, then I’ll say, “Time for you to go meet the head of Warner Bros. casting.”
Emily: Totally right. That’s such great advice. My next question for you is, you work with so many different actors, can you share with me your favorite success story?
Brad: There’s a fair number of them, but one of my favorites was when I first met Masi Oka. Masi Oka was on Heroes. He was on Get Smart the Movie.
Emily: Yes, he stood out to me on Heroes. He’s great.
Brad: Yes, he’s a great actor. When I taught him, he had just come out of college. I think he went to Cornell. I knew the guy was bright. But there were something about him and his face and his energy. I already had that vibe that this guy is going to be something special. So he’s one of my favorite success stories. Understanding our casting type is a huge thing with being an actor. Masi knows what his character is. He’s a nerd. But he knows how to play a nerd in a very likable, warm way, so when he plays these roles, he’s already practiced playing those kinds of characters when the auditions come up.
Knowing not only what your casting is, but being able to actually play your casting is another big issue. I’ve had actors come in, they look like the Marlboro man. But as soon as they open that mouth, they sound extremely feminine like a string bean and blow over like the wind, and it doesn’t fit. It’s confusing for an audience member. Number one, knowing what your casting type is, number two, being able to play it. That’s something that I think I picked up on in Masi when I first worked with him.
Emily: Thank you for that. My last question would be, based on your body work, for your legacy, what do you want your students and all your fans of your work to remember about you and your work? What do you want to leave as a legacy at the end of the day?
Brad: Are you talking about as an actor or as a teacher?
Emily: You can answer definitely in both directions if you like.
Brad: As an actor, I want, obviously, to be respected as a performer. But I think one of my favorite things as an actor is being able to be the character with complete and total honesty and connection, so that the audience, when they watch me, they can completely engage and relate to the character that I’m playing, so being able to immerse myself.
And I feel like I’ve done that in a number of films that I’m really, really proud of. When I see it, I’m like, “Okay, I like what I did in that.” Now, there are some projects that I go, “I want to run out of the movie theater because I’m ashamed.” Being honest and fascinating that would be an amazing legacy to be able to have as an actor.
As far as the teaching part, being able to understand that acting should be a fun thing for you, number two, acting requires a tremendous amount of hard work and persistence to understand that acting is not just about, “Hey, I just have to be a person, so I can just be me, and I can go up and act.”