Mary McCusker is one of the most respected acting teachers for children, young adults and adults in the Los Angeles area. Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Mary studied acting, dance and musical theatre at the Boston Conservatory of Music. She lived in New York and studied method acting with the renowned teacher, Sanford Meisner in his two-year program at the Neighborhood Playhouse. After graduating she moved to San Francisco and joined the improvisation company, The Pitschel Players. The company moved to Los Angeles and she continued with the show for 2 years.
Her acting career includes Films: Insurgent, Incredible Shrinking Woman, Circle of Power, Blood Barrier, The Client, Turner and Hooch. TV: Ordeal of Patty Hearst, Choices of the Heart, Amateur Night, Missing Children and Memorial Day.
Theatre: Miss Firecracker Contest, Al Franken & Tom Davis Show, Art of Self Defense and Twenty- Four Hours.
In the 1990′s she switched careers with a film called THE CLIENT. Hired by Joel Schumacher, she coached the two young boys who had the lead roles in the film, focusing on Brad Renfro. She coached Brad on his next 3 films: THE CURE, TOM & HUCK and SLEEPERS.
A series of coaching jobs followed, OPERATION DUMBO DROP, FIRST DO NO HARM, and MAFIA. On the 1997 film, FOXFIRE, she was hired for the rehearsal period to work with the lead actresses. One of the actresses was Angelina Jolie, 19 years old, starring in her second film.
REEP MAGAZINE ARTICLE BY Bridget Brady
What makes you successful?
I think if you love what you do, that can be infectious. I have been in this business for a long time. I started as an actress and have been a coach for 20 years. People are puzzles to me. I am fascinated by what makes us different and what makes us the same. When I coach actors I feel like I am the objective party whose job is to service the story and to honor the human condition presented in the story. I try to help actors find where they connect and don’t connect with the story.
When I was an actress studying at the Boston Conservatory of Music and then at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I was taught to tell the truth. Meisner used to say “you act what you are…go out and live your life and bring that to the work”. I have tried to do that when I work with actors. You can feel immediately when someone is acting and when he or she is being truthful. There is no mistaking it.
How did your career start?
I started acting in my junior high school. I played Laura in the Glass Menagerie. My mother had just died suddenly and I was lost. I was so grateful that Mt. St. Joseph’s Academy had a theatre program (I am a big proponent of the Arts in Schools). The play and theatre program gave me a focus for my grief. After the Boston Conservatory, I moved to NY and studied with Sandy Meisner. I always loved do improvisational comedy and when my future husband was offered a job in SF, we decided to move there. I joined an improv. group called The Pitschel Players. We brought the show down to LA and that was it. I was very ambitious and worked a lot in TV and film. I love Martin Sheen’s quote “Where else could I get paid to explore different sides of my personality”.
How did you switch to coaching?
A friend of mine, Belita Moreno, recommended me to take her place on a movie called The Client starring Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones. She had coached a young boy, Brad Renfro for the lead in the film with these stars. The director, Joel Schumacher, who I had worked with several times as an actress, then hired me to coach Brad on location. It just felt like a natural transition. I loved sitting behind the monitor with him and helping to craft the roles with the actors. It was exhilarating.
The film was a huge success and I was Brad’s coach on his next 3 films. The last film was Sleepers with Robert de Niro and Brad Pitt. Brad played a young Brad Pitt in the film. The transition was so easy, as casting directors started calling me and I spent the next 10 years primarily doing feature films. I was working on a film with Todd Holland when he was offered Malcolm in the Middle and he asked me to do the pilot. The show ran for 7 years and that’s how I started working in TV. In TV, I did Nip Tuck and Parenthood. In between, I would work on a feature and then go wherever the work was. I worked on a film called Foxfire with Angelina Joie. I was hired to work with another actress, Jennie Shimitzu but ended up working with all of women. Angelina only briefly. She was 19 years old. Very strong and incredibly focused.
How do you get a majority of your coaching jobs?
Through casting directors, directors who know me and from word of mouth.
There are my favorite directors and producers, of course. Joel Schumacher, Barry Levinson, Todd Holland and Ken Kwapis. This last year, I have been working on a TV series called Instant Mom and the producer/writer Howard Gould is an incredible joy to work with. My job is to hear any concerns production may have with any given actor and to give the actor extra support. To work one on one with them in developing their character. Ultimately that saves time on set. Sometimes the directors are pulled to the overall production or to the stars on a set, and I help in giving the directors the vocabulary to use in directing the actor.
You studied directly with one of the iconic“founders” of acting technique, Sanford Meisner?
I studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse when I was very young. It was a two-year program and after the first year, half the class was cut. So, there were 150 students the first year and 75 for the second year program. It was almost a preparation for the real world. Meisner was exact and demanding. The doors to the classroom was locked exactly at noon, if you were late, you missed the class. That sort of discipline was prevalent throughout the school and set an atmosphere of focus and concentration. The first year, Meisner taught an exercise he created called the “repetition game”. It teaches you to go moment to moment, to focus your attention on the other person and to stay present. It changed my life and was a foundation for life as well as for acting. Picking up behavior from another person while in a scene colors how you say the lines and keeps you present and alive.
How did you transition from acting to coaching? Did you have any regrets about leaving acting?
As I said, my first job coaching was The Client with Joel Schumacher directing. After that film, casting directors would call me and I made the transition very smoothly. I have no regrets. I worked a lot in my 20’s and 30’s as an actress doing TV and Film. I love doing readings of new plays and screenplays with friends but I don’t really miss acting. Since I work so closely with directors and producers, I feel very creative. I look at a bigger picture as a coach. It is really about: why is this scene in the movie/show and how does the actor help tell the story.
Don’t you think that possibly, the older you get, a lot of people give up? They feel like they’re too old or they get married and have kids or just move on to other things. Is it possible that the older actors or actresses get, there’s maybe more opportunity for them because there’s much less competition? Or is that just wishful thinking?
If an actor gives up, then it got too hard, it wasn’t meant to be or they have other interests. I think that is a good thing or certainly can be. You have to have enormous drive to make a career work. So, how do you create work? Put play readings together, make your own web-isodes, stay creative. It’s all about stories and the people who create the stories create the roles for women or men. I feel that women should fight to stay in the business because so many of the stories we see are a reflection of what are going on in society. So, if the women drop out, then we’re losing their stories. We baby boomers are tilting the demographic now and I would love to see women working so these stories could be told about aging and what it is to go through different life transitions. Reese Witherspoon’s film Wild is that kind of film-making.
Can you speak more to your coaching work?
People are puzzles to me and I get to, in a sense, be the psychiatrist for the character and with the actor we explore the life of the character’s point of view. When I talk with the directors and they tell me what they need, I can go to the actor and help them find that. The Meisner work taught me how important it is to be real, honest and to stay in the present moment.
Do you work primarily with children or adults?
I work with all ages. At LMU, I am working with college students, on set; I work with whomever production asks me to help with. From children to seniors.
You worked on one of my all-time favorite shows, Parenthood. Who did you coach on that show?
Primarily the kids, Tyree Brown. Larry Trilling, one of the producers, allows the actors to improvise into the scene and then improvise out of the scene. It allows such a natural delivery. I really loved it. Teaching improvisation is a great love of mine, so I loved seeing that on the set and sometimes do improvisations when I am coaching to find the life of the character.
So what do you do when you work with an actor who is stuck?
I remember on the first season of Instant Mom, there was an actress – 20’s, who was very nervous. . She kept freezing up and couldn’t remember her lines, Actors are very sensitive. So, it was a process of talking her down, going paragraph by paragraph. What did she want in the scene and reminding her that it is okay to make mistakes. All we need is one take and we move on. It all worked out and when the show aired her work was good. When we finished shooting, she said that she hadn’t worked in a while and she just got scared. I know that feeling where the lines become more important because the fear has taken over. You know the lines, but suddenly you don’t know the lines because that’s where you placed your fear. So, it’s being gentle and kind with our selves and going back to really listening and talking to the other person. This woman was hired for a reason. She was a good actress, very pretty and then her nerves got the better of her.
Nerves can kill you.
It happens to everybody. I was on Malcolm in the Middle for 7 years and I will never forget the day that Bryan Cranston couldn’t remember his lines. It only happened once; it was just a bad day for him. Bryan, more than any other person on the set, always came 100% prepared with multiple ideas for delivery. I remember, Robert de Niro on Sleepers having a hard day with lines.
We are human, it just happens. I read an article in Rolling Stone about Bryan and he said that he worked with a coach. And it made so much sense to me. He has someone to brainstorm with oncharacter choices.
As an acting coach, what would your number one or two pieces of advice be for actors walking into an audition?
Know your lines cold, but hold the script in an audition setting. If you don’t have enough time to memorize it, make sure you are close to memorized. Be present. Go somewhat in character. Now, if you’re going in on Orange is the New Black, you don’t have to go in crazy, but you have to maintain a certain mystery and LESS is more. One of my coaches said, “It’s your audition, your time, take charge of the room.”
There is a way of doing that where you’re in character for the role but you’re present and not apologizing for being there.
Once you get a call back, if you are right for the role and give a good read. Enjoy that. You are being recognized. You are talented. Call back land requires that you keep exploring with the casting director and the director on how to make this character come alive. It’s not about pleasing them: it’s about being present, taking some risks. On Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I was fortunate to be a part of the final screen tests. Ken Kwapis, the director created a very relaxed atmosphere for the actors andall good directors will do that in screen tests. But all the producers are hovering anxious about your look, hair, etc. The other actors and the directors are your anchor.
Who are some of your favorite people to work with?
One of my favorite directors is Ken Kwapis. The last project I did with him was called Big Miracle. It was shot in Alaska 3 years ago. I coached all of these native Alaskan men who had never acted before. I focused particularly on a young boy, Ahmao and John who was an elder in the community. It was a life changing experience. Meeting all these people who are so connected to the land and the project itself in the environment of Alaska was thrilling. I loved it and go up there every year to teach.
Working on Next Best Thing with Madonna was an experience I won’t forget. She played a yoga instructor. She would get up at 4 every day and do two hours of yoga before coming to the set. Incredibly disciplined. Unfortunately, she wouldperiodically speak in a British accent. She was in a relationship with Richie and Rupert Everett is British but her character wasn’t. We did this long master shot at the climax of the film where her character breaks down crying. She cried all through the master and then when they came in for the close-ups she had dried up. An unfortunate mistake that all actors should understand. Save it for the close up…or at the very least, pace yourself. I remember working with Mary Louise Parker and she had to cry for 5 days on the climax the film Red Dragon and she was really angry about it. But she knew where the camera was and she knew how to pace herself. I worked on a TV movie called First Do No Harm, with Meryl Streep. I had worked with the director, Jim Abrams several times and this project was based on a true story. His son had had seizures and Meryl and he were friends for many years. She wanted to support him in this project about children with this condition. So, I coached the boy who had to have 17 tonic-clonic seizures in the film. I worked with doctors and studied tapes. It was a very intense experience. At one point the director got very emotional in a scene where Meryl has to watch her son have a seizure and then leave. He called me over and said “I need you to take over if needed. I am afraid I will start crying.” So there I was with Meryl and the boy making the scene work. That was exhilarating.
What are you working on now?
This last summer I worked on the sequel to Divergent. It is called Insurgent will be out in the summer of 2015.
How do our readers get in touch with you, to work with you?
I teach intensives once a month and do private coaching for actors whenever necessary for auditions or to work privately on camera. They can call my office directly to schedule at (818) 448-4860
To learn more about the author, Bridget Brady visit: www.BridgetBrady.com