Abigail Smith Is Studying You
I got to know Abigail on the set of The Campground, a student film in which we would share the screen. Though she was fairly new to this whole acting business, for me it felt like I was partnered with a true professional. Abigail is a force who can't be stopped. No one would accuse her of not taking the craft seriously. Therefore, I was honored when she agreed to be my first interview for Parts & Labor, and ecstatic for the chance to dig deeper into her mind.
So where do you think - what do creators owe the fans?
[Content-wise] I don’t think they owe them anything. It’s their job. And someone is paying them to do it.
We could have a whole conversation about fan service -
I view myself as a servant - as an actor - which a lot of actors don’t - but I’ve always felt that way. I’m here to service the director’s vision. I’ll be here when you need me. I’ll show up. I’ll do what you need me to do. That’s my job. Yes - I have my own perspective. Yes - I have all of these things that you’ve hired me to do - ideas, creativity, talent - whatever it may be. But at the end of the day I’m here to do what \[The Director] wants me to do. So I view a lot of filmmaking as service work. But I don’t think it’s a service to the fans. I think it’s a service to the creators.
So I think there’s a fine line between being a servant and being a slave.
Exactly. And I’m totally being happy being a servant as long as there’s mutual respect. I actually have a lot to bring in my opinion. I feel weird saying that. But I am mildly talented and I do have a creative vision and these things I can bring to a project. If they’re not gonna give me something in return then screw off dude. Took me a while to get there.
So there’s a difference with males and females. Obviously. We have the wage gap and the inequality with nudity on screen. Etc. What’s your struggle with that?
I haven’t really seen it as a struggle. Because I’ve been asked to take my clothes off [for a film]. A friend was the producer and he asked me to audition and I got the part and he said there is gonna be nudity. And I said I’m comfortable with that, just explain to me why. I don’t think it’s a struggle if you’re firm about it. There are a lot of people who are willing to compromise. It comes to a point where I said “I’m comfortable with that, but let’s talk about it.” I just wanna bring it up and have that conversation because - if at all possible, avoiding actual nudity - I would like to do that. You have to make it more of a conversation instead of a fight. Because it can be a fight. I dunno I haven’t seen it as a struggle.
Do you think it’s important for females to continue challenging that?
Yeah. Absolutely. AbsoLUTely. Every single time I think it should be challenged. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t realize that it’s insulting in a way. It’s invasive. It makes me very vulnerable. You’re invading my space. Not only that, but you’re asking everyone else that sees this to invade my space. This is *my* space. There has to be a really fucking good reason for you to ask me to do that. If you’re not comfortable with it. Say no. You taking your shirt off in this film is not gonna make your career. Challenge it every single time.
How do you know, besides monetary compensation, what’s worth it?
You have to be a good business person to be a good actor - I feel like. You can have all the talent in the world and totally fuck yourself by picking the wrong projects that aren’t gonna give you what you need to give you. A lot of it is gut feeling. If I feel like the director has their shit together. If they have a plan for things. If they have a funding model. If they have a marketing model. That is so important. Honestly I’ve gotten to the point in [independent film] auditions where it’s kind of like an interview. It’s more about me interviewing them than it is about them interviewing me. I have a certain amount that I can bring to this project and I have a view on the character. I have these things that I can bring, but at the same time I’m not gonna give that to you if [the project is] not worth my time. It’s kind of a gut feeling. After I’ve asked all these questions, after I’ve done my research - do your research, that’s the main thing - After I’ve done all that do I feel icky about it? Or do I feel like it’s gonna be a cool thing?
There is a lot of discouragement and disappointment out there for actors. Especially in the final product sometimes - if we even see the final product.
Actors have the least control.
How do you know you’re on the right path? Is there a “making it” point?
I know I’m on the right path still because I am staying true to what I want to do with my acting. It’s all because it’s fun. So the day that it stops being fun. I’m no longer on the right path. I have all of these grandiose ideas about why I act, what it means to me and stuff like that, and as long as I remember that - that is why I do this - and also it’s fun. Then I feel like I’m good. And the “making it” point is not ever having to worry about paying my bills. And I can just act. It doesn’t matter if I reach fame and fortune. It doesn’t matter if everyone in the world knows my name. If I can pay my bills on a regular basis and not have to worry about money from my acting and creative endeavors, writing, whatever it may be. Then I’ve made it.
How important is having that trajectory in mind?
Always. I think about it every single morning. That’s how I choose projects. Does this kind of help me in any way get to a point where I don’t have to wait tables? Being in class is always a part of that too. You have to constantly be trying to get better. Work on your craft. At least for me. I have to constantly be in class or I feel like I’m falling backwards. Paying the bills would be nice.
Well not only are you an actress, but you’re a dancer as well. And a general creative. You’ve only been doing this for so long. So how do you choose what is the next thing as far as creative outlets?
I don’t really choose. I just do. And whatever comes to fruition first I focus on that. Because none of them are more or less important to me. I guess dance has sort of fallen by the wayside. I still do it and I still love it. Whereas like - my writing - I write every single day. So it just sort of comes in waves. There’s here and there’s there. I don’t really choose. But I’ve known since I was a toddler that I was going to be an actress. I’ve just always known.
Acting is the hardest, of those three, to be active every day. How do you do that?
For me - “doing” acting every day is not necessarily acting every day. Every single day I wake up and I do something to make me able to call myself an actress. Whether it’s checking my email for castings. Whether it’s updating my resume. Whether it’s updating my casting websites. Whether it’s reading a play. Whether it’s doing character development. Doing repetition, because I’m a Meisner student. Whatever it is - every single day - I do something to further my acting career. On the days when it is actually acting - that’s lovely! And it makes me feel great and wonderful and warm and fuzzy inside. But it doesn’t have to be [acting]. Just reading a play - giving yourself some sort of different perspective. Thinking about the play as an actor. Instead of just reading it for fun - is what makes it active. So that’s how I stay active. BUT I also grind a little bit harder.
Auditions are the worst without preparation.
Oh yeah, they're miserable. Crap preparation gives a crap performance. You can go in pretending like you don’t care but as soon as you get into that room - you HAVE to care. Because you’re asking for a job. And if you don’t want to let your agent down. If you don’t want to let yourself down. I go to every audition. Just because auditioning is a skill. And I wanna constantly be honing that skill. Because what is the point in wasting an audition?
What does prep look like for an audition for you?
Well that depends. If it’s a commercial there’s not a whole lot you can do. Because it’s literally just, “Do you like me? I want you to like me. And also I look pretty so…pick me.” Commercials are sort of weird. For film and television, generally I read the script a million times.
If they give you a script -
Well the sides or whatever it is. I read it over and over again. And I try to ask myself why I’m saying certain things. First of all, what do I want from whoever it is that I’m talking to? And go from there. A recent one that I did was for a heroine addict. How long it has been since her last fix? What kind of situation is she in right now? What does she want when she’s sober? What does she want when she’s not? Things like that. Exploring every aspect of this person’s psyche that I can possibly think of. Because that’s how you make decisions - is knowing someone’s brain. I just kind of overanalyze everything. Cause actors do that. As a general rule we overanalyze things. It’s a tool you can use. That’s what my prep looks like. Analyzing this thing to it’s bare bones. And then going in and forgetting all of that. Letting go of all of that and letting it ride. Because if you overanalyze it while you’re doing it then it’s gonna suck. So lot’s of thinking is what prep looks like for me.
So let’s say you get a role. You show up on set. What does a typical day look like for Abigail?
On set I actually feel kind of bad. Because I’m really good at angry, brooding, bitchy characters. And so half the time when I’m on set that’s my character. And I don’t step out of character well. It makes me tired. So when I’m on set I’m in my character even when I’m eating lunch or in between takes or something I don’t step out of that. Because the more I step out of it the more I have to get back into it. And every single time it’s a deeper hole for me. It feels like a bigger job to get back in it. Even if it’s the most emotional rollercoaster, it’s less tiring for me to stay in it. So a typical day on set, I kind of always feel like I have to apologize for. I had this character that was sort of aloof and she didn’t really care about other people. And so I didn’t really talk to anyone on set except the director because [my character] "didn’t care". And so at the end I was like, “Hi! What’s your name? What’s your name? Thank you for being here I had a really good time today!” So that’s part of my process is not coming out of it. So I guess I’m somewhere between Meisner and Method.
At least emotionally.
Right. Emotionally more method than a lot of my meisner friends. But I always stop before it gets dangerous. There’s that line and I will not cross it. Let’s be honest I’m plenty dangerous when I go into my own mind. So yeah, that’s what that looks like for me.
Anything that you do that helps you stay in?
Yeah. I look like a fucking crazy person on set at times. Physicality is important for me as a character so half the time, if I need to be anxious, I’m walking around purposefully twitching or pulling my hair. I listen to music a lot too - so either I’m singing to myself or I am walking around clapping my hands or I’m hitting myself in the leg. Whatever it is. That repetitive motion keeps me in it. I look insane. But it helps. It keeps my energy up. It keeps the energy inside of my body and it keeps it cycling instead as opposed to releasing it. Because for me stillness releases energy. Cause I’m kind of twitchy myself. So if I want to be calm and relaxed and happy. I am still. And I take deep breaths and that sort of thing. But if I want to be anxious and upset and angry, I’m constantly cycling my energy and constantly keeping it in and bringing it up and up and up. So I have a lot of impediments that sort of keep me - but it’s all about keeping my energy up and inside of my body instead of releasing it.
Right. And as far as working with other people, have you had any particular bad experiences? And how were they bad?
The bad experiences are with people who are faking it. When I’m opposite someone who is completely not in the moment.
How do you know?
I study behavior reading. I can just tell when you’re lying. I can tell when you’re not interested and when you’re not here with me. You can feel when you’re connected with someone even if you don’t study reading behavior. You can feel if they’re there with you, even if you don’t know what that means. The most frustrating experiences have been - they’re not there. That’s sort of what I love about meisner. You read their behavior and you tell that they’re missing and you let that happen to you. You can kind of work with anyone; which is nice. But when I do work with people who understand, even if they’ve never studied meisner, they understand emotional human connection and being there with someone. And being in the moment and not worrying about how to say their lines. When I get to work with someone like that it’s a really fantastic-magical thing, because I don’t have to work at all. It’s not work. It’s just having a conversation that happens to be scripted. My experience is all over the map, and every single one I’ve learned something. Even if it was the worst experience in the world.
When it comes to filmmakers working with actors or actresses, what do you think is the biggest piece of advice -
I think every director should take an acting class. Because it’s such a different animal. Being an actress is kind of like being a child*. You show up to set, bring only yourself, and someone feeds you and clothes you and puts makeup on you and tells you where to be and tells you what to do, and all you have to do is have this free - wandering - slightly strange “view of things” mind. You’re there for your mind. And being a director is very much like being an adult. You have all these decisions laid out in front of you. You have all of these things that you have to fin-angle and make work together. They’re very opposite jobs. And being able to understand each other is the basis of a good experience. Just learning to communicate with each other I think is the best advice I can give. Both actors and directors - You have to figure out how to speak their language. Otherwise it’s gonna be a disaster. I think every director should take an acting class. And I think every actor should care about what goes on behind the scenes. And should care about which one’s a gaffer and which ones a grip and all of those jobs you should care about ALL those people and what they do. It's like this massive collaborative thing and actors are very much treated separate from that. There’s a way that crew people talk to each other and there’s a way that crew people talk to actors - cast members - and it’s a very different animal. But realizing you’re a part of that and you’re not separate from that is very important. And yeah every director should take an acting class.
What is something a director should never say to an actor?
There’s a couple of things that come to mind immediately. One of them is: Don’t dictate my lines to me. Don’t tell me how to say anything, ever. Because I can tell you right now that I’m gonna say that line based on the way that I’m feeling. And if I’m not feeling that way then I’m not gonna say it that way because then it’s not gonna be truthful. And what you want is a truthful performance. Figure out how to get me to that feeling. Instead of “say it this way” tell me what I want. Tell me why I’m sad. Tell me why I’m angry. If you want me to be angry, make me angry.
Not to say that everything is in the director’s hands. That’s part of my job too. If he wants me to be angry then I gotta make myself angry. But both of us being able to communicate on that is gonna make it so much faster.
And that goes for other actors to. That’s something that an actor should never say to another actor. Don’t tell me how to do my job. I was working with this guy. He said something along the lines of like, “If you do it THIS way that would really help me.” No. If you’re struggling and you need the other person to do this, then - I mean - there are ways to say that. There are ways to bring an idea to the table where it’s about - “What can I change?” - It’s about being an effective communicator.
That particular actor is probably coming from a selfish point of view. I think going back to that servant mentality, I’m pretty sure at one point on The Campground I did ask you, “is there anything I can do to get you there?”
Exactly and that was not a problem. It was “Can I help in any way?” And not “You should do this.” It’s all about the way that you say things. If someone asked me to stand here instead of here, but they’re coming from a place of genuine need - then I’m gonna have a lot more patience. It’s all about being an effective communicator.
And whenever the camera is not on you, that’s also very important to me. In any of those situations, I can stand wherever, but I will choose to stand right here because you’re still on camera and you are still getting an emotional response from me.
Exactly. I don’t remember who said it. It was someone equivalent to Meryl Streep’s fame. She said on her take she give 100%, and on the other person’s take she gives 110%. And I just thought that was so exactly what it needs to be. You have to work just as hard if not harder for the other person than you do for yourself. And to be a selfish actor is to be a bad actor.
You have to work just as hard, if not harder, for the other person than you do for yourself.
So what are you working on next?
So I just booked this project that I’m actually really stoked about. Because it’s not like anything that I’ve ever done and it’s not like anything I’ve ever heard of. It’s essentially filming a meisner exercise. There’s twelve scenes and five of them actually have a script. The others have characters and a want and a situation. It’s character based improv which is essentially what we do in repetition. And I’m terrified. Because it’s one of those things that’s like, If you don’t develop this character properly and wholly then it’s going to suck. You can’t just get by on the lines. You can’t get by on quasi - because you have to react in that moment as that character. And it’s not written for you so you have to have full confidence in the fact that you’re making decisions as another person and you’re saying things that another person would say. So that’s terrifying. But that’s also what I do in class, right? So it’s really exciting.
That sounds amazing.
I’m really stoked about it. Because never in a film have I been allowed to follow my gut as this person. Go here. Do this. Say this. Because I FEEL that it’s right. So yeah it’s gonna be really fun. So terrified, but I’m ready for it.
Not only that but it pays really well. Which is awesome.
*Abigail would like to give credit for this line, "Being an actress is kind of like being a child." Was first described to her during a talk by Joel Edgerton at SXSW.
Recorded on July.07.2016 at a local coffee shop. To listen to the full interview consider becoming a patron.