Actors speak about him with reverence and his student list reads like a who’s who of the top billing names in Hollywood. Howard Fine has also been voted LA’s top acting coach by Back Stage magazine.
So I was delighted when I was given the go-ahead to conduct an interview with the man himself when he was in Melbourne recently. And Howard wasn’t here for a holiday. No, he’s working on a new project which means Australian actors will also benefit from his talents with the Howard Fine Acting Studio opening in North Melbourne.
The man I meet in the sparsely furnished foyer gives a broad smile and warm handshake – dressed impeccably in understated jeans, sharp navy blazer and crisp white shirt. His conversation is light and easy, his manner comfortable. Not the intimidating acting guru I imagined at all. And no entourage. Not even a personal assistant in sight.
As we walk to a room for the interview, I casually remark I’m surprised by how much free advice he gives away on his website, given he’s written a book, and ask if he’s worried about losing sales as a result.
Howard smiles, unconcerned. ‘No, I don’t think that way at all. I mean, no one owns the truth anyway. I would hope it intrigues people and if they learn something, then that’s good too. But I try not to come from fear.’
Another surprise. Money is not his motivator. Does he really live in LA?
We sit in a bare room on two metal chairs at a small table, hastily put in place by the studio’s co-founder Patrick Constantinou. The décor is in keeping with the school’s philosophy — that it’s all about the acting, not spending money on fancy interiors. And it’s the work that Howard is so passionate about and has been from an early age. He performed as an actor in high school productions and was just 16 when he directed his first play.
‘I had to train as an actor in order to be able to teach it. But I liken it to the best coaches and their star players in athletics. The star player can never get past their own ego to help someone else, so you have to technically know how to play the sport, but the best coaches are generally the ones who were average, but have another skill. I recognized early on that I was better as a director and as a coach than as an actor.’
When I suggest he showed enormous maturity to know what he wanted to do at such a young age, as well as being willing to bow out of the spotlight, he credits family support for helping him to find his own path.
‘I don’t know about that,’ he says laughing. ‘It’s hard to evaluate yourself that way. My Dad was a mechanic and I inherited zero of his skill, so in my household I grew up not being able to do some of the things that were valued. And I thought, good lord, where do I fit? I think I must have been a very different kind of son for my Dad. I was the youngest of five and my older brothers were into sports and here I come along – President of the Chess Club, in the music program and drama program. I realize my Dad came to everything. To all the plays. He was always really supportive and very proud and never saying, “No, you should be doing this instead.” He was just proud of whatever I did. I realized that later in life how lucky I was to have him as a father.’
He says his initial introduction to the world of theatre came about quite by accident.
‘I walked in to a theatre class, really because there was a schedule conflict between German and French, and I opted for German. What was on the schedule was an introduction to theatre, which I thought was going to be theatre history. But I walked in and everyone was doing exercises on the stage. My high school drama director knew Uta Hagen’s work and we were so fortunate to have him because I had three years of that before I went to college.’
Perhaps a bit of a Dead Poet’s Society scenario, I ask?
‘Oh, one of my favorite movies. Yes, it was like Dead Poets Society because if I hadn’t had a few key mentors, where would I be? I was so lucky to walk into that class and suddenly discover something that I was good at. So it wasn’t for me about what is it I can be good at — I was just fortunate that I felt I could be good at anything.’
Howard downplays his ability to act, but was clearly a talented teenager as he had a scholarship through college in Boston. He describes his ability as just ‘okay’ and says he can’t do what he asks most of his students to do.
‘What I ask my students to do is profound and I was nowhere near that, but my great thrill is helping someone else fly. It’s so much fun to be a part of a career at the very beginning of that.’
Some of the more famous names Howard has worked with include Bradley Cooper, JaredLeto, Salma Hayek and Jennifer Connelly. Howard says he worked with Cooper for nine years before the actor had a major breakthrough in the industry.
But Howard isn’t a name-dropper. He’d rather talk about who he’s had the most rewarding journey with, than chat about his famous clients.
‘There’s an actress called Carla Gugino. We’ve worked together for quite a long time. Carla was initially in The Spy Kids movies and then she did a TV series called Karin Sisco. Then she had an opportunity to audition for Broadway, for Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. And coming from Hollywood, the New Yorkers were very skeptical. But we worked on that and she got it. Then they were afraid to put her name above the title because they thought the critics would take a shot at her. Anyway, she was quite stunning in After the Fall and that got New York to sit up and take notice. And then she did Suddenly Last Summer opposite Blythe Danner at the Roundabout and then she did Desire Under the Elms and now she is a full-on celebrated New York actress. Last year she was third billing to Robert de Niro and Al Pacino in The Righteous Kill. So I watched her be a part of the whole transformation from Hollywood castable to serious actress. And I continue to work with her.’
Not all actors blossom so quickly. Howard tells the story of actor John Corbett, from Sex and the City, who suffered from severe shyness.
‘When he came to me, he was a hairdresser who was so self-conscious that he wouldn’t even cut hair — he would only wash. He was very shy. One day in class he said, “I have become so self-conscious, I can’t function.” I said, “You just sit and watch until you feel ready to jump in again.” And he sat in on my master class for one year. And then he said, ‘I think I can do it now.’ And he was suddenly able to get up again and do it. And he said to me recently, if I had been mean to him at that moment, he would have quit. And now he’s humming along.’
So how does he know when to be patient or when to tell someone acting isn’t for them?
‘As long as they’re making some kind of progress, we’re good. If nothing is happening for a long point of time, it might get to the point where I might say try training somewhere else.’
Surely giving John Corbett a year of sitting on the sidelines is taking patient a bit too far?
‘No, I’d already had him through the foundation course and he’d gotten through my Master Class. I knew he was talented and so sensitive. I’ve seen people who get immobilized by stage fright and they’re usually the talented ones. I get asked all the time, what do talented people have in common? And I would say insecurity. I was validated by a study by psychologists Dunning and Kruger called ‘Clueless People have No Clue.’ They found people who scored poorly on the tests thought they had done amazingly well and the people who had done well, under-rated themselves. That’s a sign of talent — you work harder, you don’t take anything for granted and you’re open to feedback. When you think you know everything, you’re not teachable. The truly talented never think they’re good enough and the ungifted think they’re terrific.’
What, even Meryl Streep after all her accolades and success? Meryl must know she’s good.
‘No. Meryl Streep calls her husband the first day of every shoot and says, ‘This is the one I can’t do. She says she was shaking having to do a British accent for the British people when she played Margaret Thatcher. On her first day she had to do one of the addresses and all the extras were British and she was petrified. That is the sign of talent. And it never goes away. If you don’t think that, you have no gift.’
Howard’s gift as an acting coach was recognized by his peers at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York when he was made head of the Acting Department at just 24 years old ‑ the youngest chair in the studio’s history. This happened after he was assigned the worst class the school had ever had; a class so badly behaved they’d driven the previous head of the acting department into an early retirement.
‘They were spoilt kids who had no particular love for acting but wanted to avoid college,’ says Howard. ‘Their parents were paying for their tuition. On the first day, I carried a briefcase and wore a jacket with patches on the elbow to try and look professorial but I was terrified. I walked into the acting classroom and heard them all give monologues and took copious notes. Then I told them, “That was a disgrace. You are a disgrace to this program.” It took a while to win over the ringleader of the class but by the end of the year, I had them all lining up on stage in black, in perfect order and presented them on stage and one at a time they did their work, and they were great. The artistic director of the school did a double take. I’d turned them around and it was quite dramatic. And that night I was made head of the acting department.’
After three years as department head, Howard and his best friend David Coury (now Voice Director at the Howard Fine Studio in LA) decided to move to Los Angeles.
‘It was something I always wanted to do. I had achieved some things very quickly and I wanted to challenge myself. My introduction to LA was Thanks Giving. We didn’t know anybody but we’d met a couple of people and they accepted an invitation to our place. So we got cookbooks and we made an entire Thanksgiving meal — the turkey, the pumpkin pie, everything — and no one showed up. At least in New York, if people are rude to you, you know. Although I’ve learned to really love LA and I have a really wonderful circle around me. But it was an introduction to hyperbole that is part of the LA world.’
The man who helped Howard with an entrée into the celebrity world was Paul Stanley from rock group Kiss. Jean Simmons had already done some acting work, so Paul decided to follow suit.
‘I was teaching at another acting studio in Los Angeles and an agent came to watch an actor in class. She didn’t like the actor but she liked me. She was representing Paul Stanley so she gave him the name of the top three acting coaches in Los Angeles and me. I was the ‘newbie’. So I was in my little living room in my apartment when he pulled up in his convertible Porsche and he had a film he was auditioning for. He brought the same script to each of the coaches to see how they would do, which was actually smart. He was very bright. So I worked with him and he said, ‘You’re my guy.’ The next week he had a bowling birthday party and he invited me. And there I am, bowling with Robert Downey Junior, Sarah Jessica Parker all the members of the Brat Pack and suddenly I’m in the inner circle. And Paul was my first close celebrity friend. And he helped me learn how to dress, where to go, what to do – he was my buddy.’
So did Howard miss New York?
‘I did. I still love the theatre and I did get to go back and direct on Broadway called ‘Defending the Caveman’ with one of my students, Michael Chicklis. But I think there’s more work in LA overall and I also have felt that I’m bringing a breathe of New York to Los Angeles that has a certain meaning. To establish a discipline from a New York acting school in LA has been a really good thing and I attract a certain type of disciplined, serious actor.’
There are occasionally students who enroll in Howard’s courses though, who are more interested in chasing fame than refining their craft. He says they’re easy to pick.
‘They don’t do their homework. It’s a long haul and it’s not glamorous. There’s a lot of work you have to do and you’re truly challenged. And if you’re not ready to do that, then they’re not allowed to continue.’
Howard has been saddened when the careers of some of his very talented and famous students, go off the rails. Such as Lindsay Lohan.
‘I met Lindsay when she was a very talented young lady. Yes, that saddens me. No one prepares people for what fame can be like.’
But dealing with the pressures of life in the spotlight isn’t something Howard addresses in his courses.
‘No, it’s the acting. I stay out of people’s personal lives. I don’t try to be anybody’s therapist.’
I ask whether some of his students might expect that of him, given they work on an emotional level?
‘Yes, you have to be very, very careful with it. It has to be taught for the purposes of technique. But I don’t do the actor-teacher blackmail stuff – the yelling and screaming at people, agitating them and getting them to reveal personal things about themselves in public. All of that is highly unethical.’
Given his level of success, you have to wonder how Howard stays so grounded, living in a land reeking with superficiality.
‘No one’s ever asked me that! I have to give you an honest answer. When I first got to LA and I started to succeed, it did go to my head. I had a moment. I was hanging out with a successful manager of an actress in LA and she’s the type of person who is all about “How much money do you make, who do you know?” Everything is based on that. And I was so impressed she wanted to be friends with me. We were hanging out together and I started to turn that way. My friend David sat me down and said, “You have become her and it’s not attractive.” He was right. It was like a jolt of cold water to the face. It woke me up. Because it was true. It wasn’t the real me. I had wanted to become a Rabbi before an acting coach. So I made my way to the Synagogue for Performing Arts and went on to become a member of the Board of Directors and eventually the President. I’m still on the Board of Directors. And I found it brought spirituality to my life and it gave me perspective.’
Howard describes himself as spiritual rather than religious. He says he does practice the Jewish faith but being with the Synagogue for the Performing Arts means his ways are a little different to mainstream.
Now he’s taking a new direction by opening up an acting studio in Australia. It wasn’t something he was planning and describes it coming about almost by accident.
‘A little more than a year ago Patrick Constantinou called me. He’d read my book and he wanted me to come teach a Master Class in Melbourne. I said ‘no’. And then he kept at it. I like to teach people to take risks, but taking one myself frightens me. But he kept at it until eventually I said yes.’
So persistence paid off?
‘Purely. And the fact that he was well spoken and he seemed to really care that it was a good workshop. He wasn’t concerned as much about the finances as about the quality, which I liked. Then he called me back and said, ‘We’ve got so much interest, would you do one in Sydney as well?’ I said okay.’
Howard says he was amazed to find such a high level of talent in Australia.
‘In the Melbourne class, there was a very powerful response — it was incredible. And we became bonded so quickly because the actors saw that I would give them useful tools. That I’m not cruel and I don’t humiliate people. They’d met some coaches from the States who do that. And they saw people were actually improving, with notes. That this is about giving the actors a craft, not breaking them down and building them up in my image.’
Shortly afterwards, Patrick suggested they bring out other teachers from Howard’s school in LA and form a new studio in Melbourne. Howard didn’t think it would work, explaining his staff was well grounded in LA with careers and relationships. Again, Patrick insisted he come over and talk to them.
‘So he came and we arranged a dinner at my house and he charmed everybody. I also came back from Australia speaking so highly about the program. As one of my faculty members said, “It’s not as though you come in every week with a new scheme.” I’m pretty stable that way. So when I said, “We’ve really got to consider this”, they took it pretty seriously. Then each one, coming over, has had a remarkable experience here, so the studio just ‘happened’. I can’t say any of this was part of a grand plan.’
Howard hasn’t locked in exactly how much time he’ll be spending in Australia, but will be back in November for a Master Class. The other teachers will also take part in the program, passing the baton on to cover classes. Those considering enrolling must take their craft seriously.
‘If acting were easy, everybody would be good at it. The reason everybody thinks they can do it is because great acting looks effortless but isn’t. Watching the Olympics. I don’t watch the gymnasts on the balance beam and think, “Oh I could do that.” Acting is the lifelong pursuit of deeper and greater work. One thing I say to actors is that acting is like a fine wine. You don’t get too old to do this. You have the ability to improve with age. I would say that’s the most beautiful thing about acting because life experience deepens you. It also deepens your work.’
The city of Melbourne has also scored highly in Howard’s book. Especially the theatre and restaurant culture.
‘I have to say — I have celiac disease, so I’m allergic to gluten and to wheat — Australia is way ahead of the States. I can go to Grilled and get a gluten free burger. It’s just extraordinary. The coffee shops are great. And the people on the whole are honest, humble and welcoming. It has a lot to recommend it.’
Just as well, given Howard has a vision for his new acting studio that means he’s committed for the long haul.
‘I want to develop a community here like we have in Los Angeles. Where we can establish on-going scene study classes for professionals. So that professionals have a place to come to ‘work out’. I have two Master Classes in Los Angeles, and a lot of folk who are in TV series come to class because they get to work on roles that challenge them. They’re going to get honest feedback but in a constructive way. They want to keep growing, so I want that to be established here. That it’s not just a place to go to drama school, but an on-going relationship with a professional community that becomes a resource.’
The man is committed and charismatic. Now I’m even toying with the idea of taking up classes. But is there a course for beginners?
‘Absolutely. We have a full-time program. And it’s great for younger actors to see experienced actors come to class and want to keep learning. It’s inspiring.’
One of Howard’s greatest inspirations was famed acting coach Uta Hagen. After learning her acting method at school, Howard then met her when he was working in LA and they became great friends.
‘A friend introduced us on the phone. Uta was in New York teaching. When she found out that we had sixty students at our program who were on some kind of scholarship, she said, “I like you already.” You see, Uta’s students had bought their building for them. And they charged almost nothing for class. Uta was adamant that actors not be ripped off. I said “I want you to come teach at my studio because I want my students to know who you are.” She had never been to LA. And she said yes and she came. When we met, she said, “Well, you’re the famous Howard Fine.” And I said “And you’re the even more famous Uta Hagen.” And we embraced. Then she started telling me dirty jokes and that’s how the relationship started and we became great friends.’
Howard describes Uta Hagen as one of the few people who was able to wear either an acting or teaching hat equally successfully.
‘So many who teach are failed actors and are angry or jealous. She was generous of spirit. If she walked into a room and people applauded, she would say, “Please, I’m no Stella Adler.” She’d get right down to work, as a colleague and not as a prima donna. She was an extraordinary being. And I’m happy that I feel like I’ve taken my leg of the relay race from her and am running my own.’
Now Howard’s bringing his own style of teaching to Melbourne where he says the nature of the students will be a welcome change to working in LA.
‘I find a societal difference. I think you have any expression about tall poppies – the tallest gets chopped? I find there is a cultural humility here that I don’t tend to find as much in LA. That makes the actors here more open and willing to look at themselves. All the teachers have been impressed by it, because they feel there is a hunger and a desire to learn and that means the teacher wants to give.’
That’s the overall impression I’m left with. This is a man who truly loves to ‘give’ with his talent for teaching. He’s genuine, passionate and down-to-earth about what he does and what he has achieved already. And Australian actors can now look forward to reaping the benefits of his work without having to buy a plane ticket.
(To find out more about classes at Melbourne’s Howard Fine Acting Studio, go to http://howardfinestudio.com.au )