Acting, as an old saying goes, is the art of living truthfully in imaginary circumstances. For TV actors like Ken Baumann — the prodigious 21-year-old actor/writer who plays the gangly, heartbreakingly earnest teen heartthrob Ben Boykewich on the ABC Family channel hit series The Secret Life of the American Teenager — the ability to simulate emotional truth on camera requires just a few focused reads of a script a day or two before filming, a brief refresher in the trailer alone, and one dress rehearsal on set.
The production of the show, as he puts it, is “a highly efficient machine,” and the smooth operation of that machine requires Baumann and his fellow actors to commit long passages of dialogue and monologue to memory in a very short time, while relying on their ability to synthesize authentic presence onscreen to bring the show’s huge youthful audience to tears or revelation on a regular basis. (Secret Life’s season-one finale drew 4.5 million viewers.)
How do actors do it? How are they able to absorb a TV or film script, hundreds of verses of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, or the bitchy, street-smart, exquisitely calibrated machine-gun dialogue of a contemporary playwright like David Mamet without blowing it when the eyes of an audience are upon them?
For more than two decades, a pair of husband-and-wife researchers in Indiana — psychologist Helga Noice and actor/director/cognitive-researcher Tony Noice — tried to answer that question. They studied text comprehension, the role of physical movement, and various techniques to enhance retention. They quizzed actors about their memorization strategies and then tried to teach those strategies to non-actors. (This didn’t work out very well; seasoned actors appeared to be employing internal processes that were not easily explained.)
The Noices, of course, weren’t the first scientists to study actors as a way of learning about memory. In the ’70s, two psychologists in Scotland, D.R. Godden and A.D. Baddeley, asked 18 members of the University of Stirling diving club to memorize lists of words underwater and on dry land; they they asked the divers to recall the lists of words under both conditions. Not surprisingly, words learned underwater were more easily recalled at depth, while words learned on dry land came to mind more readily there [PDF link]. Memory, Godden and Baddeley concluded, is partly dependent on context.
England’s Royal Shakespeare Company offered a vivid demonstration of the context effect a few years ago when the company tried to stage all of Shakespeare’s history plays over a three-year period. The audacious project was a Herculean task for 30 actors, each of whom were cast in multiple roles, requiring them to memorize thousands of lines and cues. Putting even more pressure on the actors, halfway through the run, the company’s artistic director, Michael Boyd, revived four of the plays they had put on a year earlier. The revival threw the actors into a crisis. They clustered in a rehearsal room frantically trying to remember their lines, flubbing cue after cue. Boyd started to wonder if his bold plan was doomed.
Then, however, the actors staged the scenes for each other with no props, sets, or costumes. The elusive lines started flowing back; the bodily act of hitting their marks helped jump-start the process of recall. Finally, during a dress rehearsal before an audience, everything came together. John of Gaunt, Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York, Dick the Butcher, Prince Hal, and Falstaff all knew what to say and how to move, re-weaving an Elizabethan universe together in a symphony of pentameter. The individual notes were there all along, scattered throughout the actors’ gray matter. But the music of performance gave those “broken bits of memory,” as Boyd called them, purpose and momentum.
In a fascinating conversation with Boyd at Columbia University [PDF link], neurologist Oliver Sacks observed in 2008 that embodying a character — inhabiting a persona in a web of relations — also aids the recall process, even after the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or damage to the hippocampus, the pair of seahorse-shaped structures in the brain involved in both memory and spatial navigation.
“Lines would have no coherence, would make no sense, would not hold together without a role, and especially a role in relation to other roles,” said the neurologist/author. “The ability to enter a role can again outlast the hippocampi. It can outlast all sorts of mental abilities. I see quite a lot of people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. I had a cousin, an actress and especially a Shakespearean actress, who became quite demented, but one could give her a line from almost any speech or sonnet from Shakespeare and she would continue it, and not in a mechanical way, but apparently with all her own feeling… This business of a role, I think, is essential to the sort of memory you’re describing.”
That’s one of the things that the Noices, in their decades-long research project, eventually figured out too. There are always multiple strategies at work in an actor’s memory. In addition to relying on context, movement, and role immersion, actors divide the interactions in a scene into “beats” of meaning and intent. For example, one actor studied by the Noices broke down half a page of dialogue into three successive beats: “to flatter him,” “to draw him out,” and “to allay his fears.” As the actor moved through this sequence of beats, the words and emotions in the script arose in his mind quite spontaneously.
For an insider’s perspective on this process, I asked Ken Baumann to share with me his own story as a young actor, and the methods he uses to memorize his lines under the pressure of starring in a successful network series. To be frank, I’m not generally a fan of TV series (with a few predictable exceptions like The Sopranos, Dexter, and The Wire), and I’ve never watched an entire episode of Secret Life — though if you’re anywhere near my age, there’s a good chance that your daughter or niece (or nephew, for that matter) has already wished that the boy she’s dating was as caring and smart as “Ben” is. Based on YouTube clips, however, I’m impressed by Baumann’s ability to seem like a mensch (Yiddish for a soulful human being) in the unlikely setting of a steamy drama aimed at the high-school demographic. He now also has a recurring role on another ABC series called Castle.
And as he makes clear on his website, Baumann is more than just a cute young actor who gets to make out with hot young actresses on ABC while addressing socially relevant themes like abortion and teen bullying. He’s also a gifted writer who is keenly interested in avant-garde fiction and poetry, and the founder of a small press in Los Angeles called Sator, dedicated to producing intellectually challenging, elegantly designed books like The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, a novel by Christopher Higgs. (The secret life of The Secret Life of the American Teenager is strolling around Paris discussing the future of literature with the brilliant, brutally provocative novelist and short-story writer Dennis Cooper.) Baumann’s unusual status in Hollywood — “both in and out of the game” as poet Walt Whitman put it — makes him an astute observer of a hothouse world that few people get to see from the inside.
After getting to know @kenbaumann on Twitter, I spoke with him following a recent visit to our home in San Francisco.
Steve Silberman: How did you become an actor?
Ken Baumann: I was a very performative and energetic kid and my mom recognized that. So I did all the school plays I could. I started doing community theater when I was about 10, and I felt like I had an infinite capacity for that kind of work.
Silberman: What was the first play you did outside of school?
Baumann: A Thousand Clowns. That play is pretty much just two guys and a girl, so I had a lot of dialogue. The audition was a cold read, and the kids and adults who went before me were all sucked into the page — they’d be standing up there, looking down, reading the words off the paper. As soon as I got the script, I read all the scenes a couple of times and started saying them quietly to myself. I went over it, and over it, and stopped when I felt like I should — when I felt comfortable.
Then I got up and did the first two scenes entirely from memory. For the third scene, I had to look down at the paper, and I remember chastising myself for that. But I had no idea how sharp my photographic memory was. I still remember seeing the page in my head — where the words were, the marks and weird anomalies on the printout, and everything.
Of course, in theater, you have to learn an entire set of physical places and spaces and movements as well. So that helped. I felt like that process cemented the words in my mind even more: hitting my marks, taking my cues, and putting the tray down at just the right time. The words became second nature.
Silberman: What was the next step in your career?
Baumann: One of those small-town actor/model searches in Abilene. My mom paid whatever egregious sum it was — probably $600 or something — and then we went to a larger convention in Dallas.
Silberman: Were you comfortable with being evaluated that way at such a young age?
Baumann: I was, but I also remember thinking that it was absurd. You walk into this huge room, and there’s basically a runway with about 80 agents sitting parallel to it. The kids would just hop on the runway and walk the entire thing, and then they would go from table to table, stopping for the agents who signaled them to stop. I watched a lot of kids walk the runway, turn around, and then walk the entire row of 80 agents, with maybe just one agent stopping them out of politeness. I saw a lot of upset parents and got a taste that this was certainly a business — a very adult business.
Silberman: But you were willing to go along with it?
Baumann: Yes. I felt confident. I remember thinking, “I’m going to find somebody here who will want to represent me.” I’m sure that’s three-quarters of the battle: fooling yourself into being arrogant enough to believe it.
Silberman: Were you already used to engaging adults that way?
Baumann: Oh yes. When I did A Thousand Clowns, the director used to call me “the 40-Year Old Midget” (laughing). I was very unconcerned with kids my age — I liked talking to adults about movies, art, and theater. Then when I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I remember not even trying to suss out the iambic pentameter, just performing the dialogue in the audition so that it sounded natural. The director was like, “My God, that’s one of the prettiest performances of Shakespeare I’ve ever heard. But the fact that it’s coming from a 12-year-old makes me want to jump off a bridge.”
Silberman: So you didn’t pound on the pentameter to help you memorize it, which can end up making Shakespeare’s language sound like a boot falling down the stairs?
Baumann: Not at all. Not clunky. It just felt musical — fun to say and fun to perform.
Silberman: One of the most amazing readings I’ve ever heard was by a professor of mine at Berkeley, Robert Pinsky, who went on to became the Poet Laureate of the United States. He read a poem by Robert Frost from memory in class. What was so impressive was that Pinsky had chosen a rhyming poem with a strict metrical scheme, but he read it so naturally and conversationally that you weren’t even aware of the rhyme and meter. It just sounded like a man talking, telling a story. I was blown away that Pinsky was able to inhabit the language so thoroughly that the form became invisible.
Baumann: That’s beautiful. There a video on YouTube of John Berryman reading one of the Dream Songs — the one that begins, “Life, friends, is boring, but we must not say so…”
Silberman: Great poem.
Baumann: He had that conversational delivery, but with an added intensity that’s really fascinating. That’s what every actor tries to do when they read a script — find that conversational intensity, just casual enough to fool yourself that you’re not working hard.
Silberman: To get back to the convention in Dallas for a moment, obviously one of the agents waved you over?
Baumann: Yes. I spoke to a few agents, and then I remember being waved over by one woman who had an odd accent. I guessed that she was from New York. And sure enough…
Silberman [imitating a schmoozing yenta]: “Oh Kenny, you’re a-dor-able! I could really do things with you!”
Baumann: Exactly, pretty much verbatim. But she was great, so inquisitive, and she kept asking me questions about Pokémon, which I was obsessed with at the time.
Baumann: I went on and on and on — so enthusiastically that she must have been like, “My God, this kid could sell anything! Just put a GM truck behind him and he’ll be fine!” She spoke to my mom, my mom spoke to my dad, and we were set. The agent said, “We would love to have him in New York for a couple months if you guys are comfortable with that.” She was very cool and relaxed. And off we went.
Silberman: What was your first professional acting job?
Baumann: I did a short film in Dallas called Consideration, in which I had to be so neurotic and scared of my father that I wet my bed every night. I was totally sleep-deprived because he rigged up this machine to shock me awake every time it sensed moisture. Eventually, of course, the machine malfunctions, so I’m getting shocked awake every 15 minutes or so. And my father ends up raping my neighbor and best friend — this girl I’m in love with — or that’s what I assume. So I end up taking my father’s prized baseball bat and hitting him in the face with it while he’s drunk in front of the TV.
Silberman: How old were you?
Silberman: Wow. So that was the first job where you really had to synthesize intense emotions?
Baumann: That was the one. I had gotten a taste of it by doing commercials and stuff, but that was just acting like a hopped-up, manically happy kid playing with toys, so it wasn’t as difficult. The short film was the first role in which I really had to search for the correct emotion for the situations and then synthesize them, as you said.
Silberman: What techniques do you use in order to elicit the emotions in a performance?
Baumann: Admittedly, I’m not a studied actor. I haven’t read Stanislavsky, I haven’t read the Method stuff, I haven’t read any of the foundational texts for performance, really. It’s a tricky question. When a lot of actors go through a script for the first time, they assign the characters to be represented in their mind by friends and family, so they can draw the emotion from the scene that way. I don’t go there. I try not to pull emotion from memory if I can get away with it. I just try to embody whatever fictional set of parameters is in front of me.
When I go through a script for the first time, I’ll just read it. Then the next time I start at the top, I’ll start performing my lines and reading the other lines, and put myself there — start physically embodying the character. I don’t piece together emotional puzzles like, “My dog died when I was five, so I can use that here, and my father was sick, so I can use that there.” I try not to do that at all. The fun of acting, of any narrative endeavor, is placing your head on another’s body to become another head.
Silberman: How does the feeling of being present when you’re in character differ from the feeling of being present when you’re just Ken Baumann?
Baumann: That’s a really good question. When you’re in a trance of performance, not a single part of your brain is occupied by some behind-the-curtain process of wondering how you look on camera or what the next line is. But your brain still knows that there’s an end date to that experience. Everything is at higher stakes because it’s going to end. So there’s a temporal aspect to it that I don’t feel in real life, thank God.
Silberman: There’s an end date in life too, but we’re usually not aware of it.
Baumann: True. Which I think is why Method acting became popular; embodying one state of being for months on end helps fool the brain that that temporal dimensions of the performance don’t exist.
Silberman: Have you ever found that playing a character ends up seeping into your offstage life?
Baumann: Certainly. It happens mostly with language, particularly the show I’ve been on for the past three years, Secret Life. A lot of speech patterns from the show have tried to invade the way I talk in real life. Phrases like, “If I was to be so lucky as to…” I don’t really talk like that, but I find myself if, and, but, and so-ing a lot more. So I try not to let it become too prevalent.
Silberman: How much is the character of Ben Boykewich based on you?
Baumann: There are a lot of similarities. It’s a chicken and egg thing; I don’t know which came first. But both Ben and I have a deep sense of responsibility to one person at a time. I find it hard to focus on just one artistic endeavor, but boy oh boy, can I focus on one person! I can be incredibly monogamous in my attention. Those small, loving, daily actions that express devotion are what make me feel most alive. They’re the most beautiful things in life if you pay attention to them. Ben and I are similar in that way.
Silberman: You mentioned having a photographic memory. When you’re acting, are you looking at an image of the script in your mind’s eye, or do the words just rise to your tongue naturally?
Baumann: If I’m kind of half-assing it, I’ll be looking at the words in my mind, basically. But at my best, I’m listening closely to the other person and trusting the material. When I’ve done my job and have the words memorized, they just rise. The page disappears.
Silberman: Do you ever suddenly sense that you’re not going to remember what comes next? The other actor is in the middle of your cue and you’re still fishing around?
Silberman: What do you do then?
Baumann: Acting for television is forgiving enough that if you go up on a line and you’ve forgotten what to say, you can just shout out “Line!” and the script supervisor will feed it to you. Then, depending on where that line comes, you take the paragraph back to the top. Luckily, I don’t have to do that very often. I’ve worked on sets where I saw actors say “Line!” for every line — to the point where they’d say “line,” then for the next line they’d say “line” again, and then again, because they had already forgotten the first part of the paragraph. They get stuck in this incredibly scary recursive loop. Once the anxiety of failure starts infecting them, they become more and more and more concerned with knowing the words, and stop being able to trust their own process. Then it all disappears and they just have to struggle through it alone.
Silberman: When you’re working on a popular show like Secret Life, how many lines do you have to memorize in the average week? How many days do you get to memorize a script?
Baumann: We’re generally given the script about two days before the episode starts. In my next script, I have about eight scenes, including four monologues that are at least half a page each. There’s about one scene per episode that’s five or six pages with a lot of dialogue. The first time I get the script, I read it multiple times…
Silberman: How do you get the scripts, by email or something?
Baumann: No, we get them dropped off at the house.
Silberman: Someone’s driving around Studio City dropping off scripts at actors’ houses?
Baumann: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s a guy who works in the production office named Michael. He just loads up his car and drops the scripts off unless you pick them up on set.
Silberman: So what do you do the moment that you get a new script?
Baumann: I open it up and read it. Then I go back to all my scenes, dog-ear them, and read through each scene a couple of extra times. Then I put the script away. Then generally if you’re not on set right before the next episode, you get a text saying, “We’re doing scene 6 and scene 22 tomorrow, 6:30 AM, thanks.”
So by the night before, I’m already familiar enough with the sense of the scene to remember a lot of the key phrases. But right before I go to bed, I sit down for about 30 minutes or an hour and go through the words. Then I wake up and I look at the script on set after rehearsals a couple more times just to make sure I’ve really got it. I allow enough space to not get totally set, so my performance can change in rehearsal if I notice anything about the other actors’ performances that changes what I’m supposed to do. Then I just apply what I’ve noticed to the new readings I do in my trailer before we start filming.
Silberman: There’s only one rehearsal?
Baumann: Yes, generally. We get there early, do hair and make up, and do one rehearsal. During that rehearsal, maybe we’ll do it a couple of times if the blocking is difficult, and then go back to our trailers. When we show up, we’re expected to do it exactly as we did it in rehearsal and to nail it.
Silberman: What’s going on around you while you do the scene? How many cameras are there?
Baumann: We almost always have two cameras going at once. The show I’m on is simple in form — a lot of conversation but not a lot of action. So it’s talking heads, and your goal is to emote. They’ll generally do a very simple coverage process, get a master or wide shot of the scene, and then they’ll get progressively closer and closer to the single or close up. Once you’re done with that, they turn around, get the other side, and you’re done. The crew is great — nobody messes around while you’re rolling, nobody’s screwing with lights, the sound guys aren’t moving around. It’s a highly efficient machine.
Silberman: Are certain kinds of scripts easier to remember than others?
Baumann: Yes. I find back-and-forth scenes — long scenes that aren’t punctuated by big paragraphs — generally harder to remember than monologues. For some of the other performers, it’s the other way around. But for me, I find monologues easier. The ping-pong ball is not bouncing back and forth — you’re just holding it, ready to serve, so there’s less chance of failure, and the sense of responsibility is greater.
Silberman: Do your personal feelings about the actor who’s playing a role opposite you affect your ability to remember dialogue?
Baumann: I would say yes, whether I like it or not. The more you admire the person you’re working with, the more you want to impress them or come up to their level. So yes. Peer pressure is definitely not abandoned on set.
Silberman: Can you remember any particular scene from Secret Life where you felt like you were really in the zone?
Baumann: I don’t enjoy watching myself. I’m too critical. I used to be even more critical of my own performances, but now I’m just kind of ambivalent and try to avoid watching myself. But I know that this one scene, when it aired, got the most feedback from my friends and family about it. So I guess it was effective. I also remember distinctly that I got a really helpful note that day from someone on set, and it changed my physicality slightly. It’s a scene where I’m speaking to Amy, played by Shailene Woodley, and I’m telling her something like, “We don’t have to worry about the petty grievances of this third guy in the equation, I love you, I want to be devoted to you, and I’m sorry we’ve been fighting.” Obviously not verbatim, but that’s the idea. It’s apologetic but forceful, very forceful.
I remember that the note prompted me to look more directly at Shai and not break my focus on her. It totally changed my performance. It was a big scene, and I remember that I didn’t have the words memorized as well as I would like. I wasn’t totally able to go into trance mode. But the direct eye contact played such an amazing trick on screen that I don’t think anybody who watches that scene would guess that I wasn’t in that mode.
Silberman: Who gave you the note?
Baumann: That has to remain anonymous. [The scene is in the following clip at the 39:02 mark.]
Silberman: Is it unusual for someone to be passing you notes on set?
Baumann: It depends on the workplace. Generally, I enjoy getting directorial notes or feedback from writers. I don’t think that there’s any harm in that. It varies from set to set. Some sets are very respectful of the actors and just let them do what they want, period. And some sets are incredibly hands on. This set is pretty hands off. We’ve been doing the show so regularly, for so long, that the writers, producers, and directors trust us enough to just be these characters we’re so familiar with.
Silberman: This is a really non-actorly question. Because of your age, looks, and the kind of shows you’re in, you end up doing a lot of romantic scenes. Do you try to talk yourself into having a crush on the person you’re working with?
Baumann: I like these “non-actorly” questions. They’re very pragmatic — the kind of questions I never get asked. I would say yes, I do. And because I work with actors with such beautiful bodies and personalities, it’s easy to get there. I find that I do the most emotional recall — drawing from past relationships or my current one — for the romantic scenes in the show.
Silberman: Is it hard to synthesize emotions that are contrary to the mood you’re in, like feeling depressed but having to act happy?
Baumann: That can be really difficult, and it happens all the time. I’m generally a happy-go-lucky guy, but I can go into day-long to week-long depressions that spring up out of nowhere. If I’m feeling really ebullient or energetic, and I have to jump from there to acting really apathetic or distraught, it can block some of the emotions that I need. It can certainly stop me from crying, for example.
I’m not a great crier in general. Lots of actors talk among themselves about who can bring on the tears just like that. A lot of the girls on the show are amazing at crying; even in a happy scene, they work in some tears. But I’m not like that. It’s not that I have a hard time feeling emotions, because I’m certainly very emotional, and I’ve grown more emotional in my current relationship. But I’m like any young guy. You’re not supposed to cry. You’re supposed to cowboy up and deal with tragedy in a practical, logical, utilitarian way. Go into problem-solving mode, rather than grieving mode. But sometimes that stops me from being able to weep openly on camera.
Silberman: When you’ve conjured up a romantic attachment for a character on set, do you find that it affects your feelings about the real actor afterwards?
Baumann: It certainly can, especially the intimate stuff. If you’re playing intimate with someone, it makes you feel closer — not necessarily romantically, just sort of physically. You feel more comfortable around each other. That’s a beautiful part of the job, really. You just feel more comfortable in your own skin, and more comfortable with the friends you get to perform with. It’s nice. I don’t find, however, that the same thing applies when you’re playing confrontational with someone. If you’re incredibly angry, or about to get into a physical altercation with someone, when they say “cut,” you don’t want to storm off the set. I just go back to being a goofball and hanging out. So really only the emotional benefits apply.
Silberman: One aspect of acting that psychologists have studied in depth is how much being able to recall lines is dependent on context — being in a certain physical setting associated with the script, for example. Do you ever try to use elements of your visual environment as mnemonic triggers?
Baumann: Yes. We call them “anchors” — memories or emotions embedded in visual or tactile cues. There’s a famous story about Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire that’s become an in-joke among actors. For a lot of his performance, he’s looking all over the place, and you think “My God, Brando is so embedded in his environment. He’s drawing out all this emotion by looking at a lamp!” But actually, he just had a terrible memory, so his lines were written everywhere on the set.