“Brain Spotting” With Michael D. Cohen
It Was You Charlie, directed by Emmanuel Shirinian, follows Abner (Michael D. Cohen), a graveyard shift doorman with a lot on his mind: He’s plagued by suicidal thoughts, haunted by the memory of a car accident that claimed the life of a woman, and still mulling over a conflict involving the woman he loved and his own brother.
A dark comedy that blurs genre lines, the film is a showcase for Cohen, who along with his fellow cast and crew was nominated for a Gemini for the Canadian animated series Grossology, has appeared on numerous TV shows including The Mindy Project, Modern Family, and Eagleheart, and will appear alongside Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in the upcoming drummer drama Whiplash. It Was You Charlie is playing in select theaters in Canada. Visit the film’s facebook page for screening info.
We spoke with Cohen about an acting technique called “Brain Spotting”, his attraction to psychologically stimulating roles, Diane Lane, finding our cerebral “Garden of Eden”, the under-appreciated role of a film’s first AD, and more.
You’re an acting coach in Los Angeles, and you teach something called “Brain Spotting”. Tell me about it.
Michael: It’s one aspect of what I do. One of the tools in my tool belt of techniques, I suppose. Brain spotting a technique that was developed by a man named David Grand, who is a trauma therapist based in New York. He specialized in a technique called EMDR, which is used by trauma therapists, and from that he spun out brain spotting. He found he was able to use these techniques with actors to shortcut certain emotional preps that need to happen. The idea is, our brain is so vast and untapped that we can actually create memories and experiences and tap into them completely through the subconscious that is the character’s, and not our own. It sounds very strange, but when you experience it, it feels very natural. It’s a very expansive, powerful tool, but it’s not the only tool. I believe brain-based work like this is the cutting edge, the next frontier for creative people.
Because you’re drawn to these sort of psychological approaches to acting, the role of Abner must have appealed to you quite a bit.
Michael: Yeah, in a lot of different ways. When I did this role, I had just met David. So I didn’t really get to sink my teeth into it to the degree one could, but this character has experienced post-traumatic stress, is suicidal, and has black-outs, so there’s a lot of psychological and emotional background to this guy. Having someone like David on my team to reference was great. I’d ask him, “Is this what someone would do if they had post-traumatic stress?” I wanted to keep it as authentic as possible. I have a background in human physiology and biochemistry, so I’ve always been fascinated with how the mind and body intersect. As a teacher, I watch students process and help them understand their instrument, and as an actor, I study how a character sees their world, how they process trauma…it’s fascinating to me on so many different levels.
What’s a performance by an actor in which you think they exhibited a good psychological understanding of their character?
Michael: What comes to mind right away is Diane Lane in Unfaithful. She’s sitting on the subway coming back from just having been with the artist she’s having an affair with, and she goes through this non-verbal process of guilt, complete post-coital bliss, and shame. Her face gets red. You watch her go through this process, and this is someone who is so connected to the reality of the character that her body is responding.
What a lot of our techniques as actors do is work from the outside in: You create a backstory, and you go in through the cognitive, down into the subconscious. When you really understand your character, it lights a spark in the subconscious and allows information to filter up as opposed to starting from the cognitive and going down into the subconscious. As David would say, there’s the cortical brain, which is our conscious brain, and there’s the neo-cortical, which is the subconscious, the part of our brain that’s older. That’s the part that’s rich with creative information. It’s like a Garden of Eden. Gifted actors like Diane Lane tap into that so much more readily. We’re trying to access our authentic self and get that engine going that motors the acting instrument. Do you remember that scene in Unfaithful?
Sure do. She’s biting her nails, squirming, smiling, crying. Really great.
Michael: Yes! She’s doing exactly what you would do if you’d just done what she’s done. She’s so specific and resonant and relatable.
As an actor, are you on the hunt for material that will allow you to use these sort of cerebral tools?
Michael: I’m on the hunt for any material that resonates. I don’t have a specific agenda. The roles that have come to me has been kind of perfect at the time. I’m not going to be so cocky as to pretend I know what the next step in my career is. It’s going to show up, and I’m going to say, “This feels right.”
I haven’t seen the film yet, but from the trailer I gather I have a few things in common with Abner!
Michael: [laughs] In many ways, the film is a dark comedy. There are comedic moments that you wouldn’t find in a normal drama. Comedy is very near and dear to my heart; I grew up idolizing Carol Burnett. I’ve realized that humor is a really big deal in terms of drama. There’s a difference between comedy and humor. If we omit the humor–even in the darkest moments–we’re not representing humanity accurately. We use humor as a tool to cope, especially in our darkest moments. Otherwise, we’d go nuts. What’s amazing about this film is that Emmanuel managed to straddle genres and create consistency in tone, which I think is an incredible feat. Even though we have moments where there’s physical comedy involved, when we go back into something dark or emotional, people are onboard. It was a really collaborative process between me and Emmanuel.
The film actually takes place over the course of 24 hours. My character’s a doorman at a hotel, so he’s a nightshift worker. Over the course of the day, he has flashbacks–three years back, two years back–but the real time is one day. We were shooting out of sequence, so we had to make sure we were hitting the right emotional points and that my character was at a particular point of paranoia, because he’s getting paranoid at different points. I had a big chart on my wall to tell me where I should be emotionally when we shot out of sequence.
How difficult was it to shift your emotional state so frequently?
Michael: Mark Pancer, who’s a very experienced first AD in Toronto, is an artist when it comes to scheduling scenes. He tried to put all the scenes together that fit, emotionally. Given all the location restraints that he had, given cast and crew availability, he put together a shooting schedule that made it so much easier for me. I only started to realize this about two thirds of the way through. He gave me a great appreciation for the first AD’s job.