Jeffrey Archer, the former politician turned author once famously wrote that if you have talent and energy, you’re a king. If you have only energy and no talent, you’re still a prince, but if you have talent and no energy, you’re a pauper. Now he’s hardly renowned as a spokesman for media, but he does make a valid point. No matter how naturally talented an actor might be, nothing can ever take the place of hard work and application. It’s this essential message that the former actress, Elizabeth Kemp, tries to get across to her graduate students. Kemp found fame initially in the film ‘The best little whorehouse in Texas’ before going on to appear in the hit series L.A. Law and Thirty-Something. However, after hitting the wall after over 40 years in the business she found herself back in New York’s Midtown at the world-renowned Actor’s Studio, passing on her considerable knowledge and experience to her young mentees as they embark on what she hopes will be equally successful careers.
So how does the former film and TV star see herself and her role? Does she view herself as a teacher or more of a media? Well, the truth is the answer is probably neither and both. Yes she does teach her students and tries to impart knowledge and push students to discover specific lessons on their own, but she also places great focus on mentoring, and working in one-on-one relationships in the hope of providing broader life lessons. She expects total and utter commitment from her students which might make some feel uncomfortable, but she’s equally willing to give the same in return. She learned this approach from her original mentor, director Elia Kazan:
“I had learned a great lesson from my mentor, Elia Kazan: I only want to work with people who give everything they have to give and make their work the most important thing to them in their life. That’s the kind of effort I expect from my students. It may not feel comfortable, and it’s probably not glamorous, but it’s the truth. And truth forces them to go places they didn’t know they could go.”
However, media mentoring for Kemp is a two-way street. She’ll quite happily prod her students and challenge them, but she does this in an environment where they feel protected. It’s only when they feel this sense of protection that she starts to break down their defences. Mentoring for her is instrumental in fostering creativity. It’s her job to ask the probing questions and take the students out of their comfort zones, but she’ll also be there to offer thoughtful guidance and encouragement. She believes that a good media mentor doesn’t have to be a genius or an industry innovator: yes, we may in a sense stand on the shoulders of giants, but it’s often the unheralded mentors who make the greatest difference.
Kemp believes the key to good acting is vulnerability. Often actors are their own worst critics, so her goal is to allow her students to trust themselves – “just enough to take a chance, to be daring, to go into the unknown and discover. It’s a very delicate balance.”
One of her most recent students, Bradley Cooper, can’t praise his mentor highly enough. Cooper spoke on the Bravo documentary about the media mentoring and Kemp’s methodology:
“She made it safe,” he said. “She made us realize that you have to use all of yourself. She just made it OK, OK to be yourself with all your faults and your fears and insecurities — they were all brought out to the light and she insisted that you be vulnerable and put it all out there; there was no sort of faking.”
Kemp believes that it’s only when the mentor-student relationship truly crystallizes, that the potential for development is greatest. By pushing themselves to and beyond their limits, her students are able to tap into unknown resources, and that’s when the real growth occurs. However, unlike her own mentor Kazan, she would much rather protect her student’s vulnerabilities than poke fun at them. She maintains that good mentors always base their work on passion, not anger, rage or venom.
After returning from an unsuccessful acting spell in L.A., Kemp was forced to work in a restaurant. It wasn’t until she visited the Strasberg Institute and tried her hand at mentoring, that she finally found her vocation. Her career at the Actor’s Studio is now hugely successful, but she’s quick to acknowledge others for this success rather than congratulate herself: apart from Kazan she also lists legendary acting coaches Lee Strasberg and Sandra Seacat, director Arthur Penn, and current Actor’s Studio head Ellen Burstyn, claiming that their mentoring made her feel inspired, whole and connected.
So how does this form of media mentoring pay off on stage and elsewhere? Well researchers have found that what motivates employees most isn’t money or recognition, but a sense of progress being made: that they’re learning, growing and moving forward. A mentor can provide the encouragement or experience to foster that. But that doesn’t mean that media mentors have all of the answers as Kemp is keen to point out. However, effective mentoring is all about acknowledging and valuing the student’s investment of time and energy, as well as providing alternatives and constructive feedback:
“I think the most exciting thing is when you truly do help,” she says. “And you see them grow and open. Cause it isn’t about me. It’s about helping them grow. That’s all I care about. I’ll do anything and everything to make that happen.”