One of the greatest screen actors of the day tells you some of the secrets of his art.
Paul Muni doesn’t like to look at his own pictures. And it’s not modesty, he declares, but caution. It is his method for protecting his next role before the camera.
Moreover, he never wants to know what picture he’s going to do next and always tries desperately to forget the film he did last. This, he says, is the actor’s first line of defence.
He knows dimly as he works on a picture that another story awaits him when he finishes. But he tries not to think of it. “It would only interfere with my concentration on my present role.”
In the case of The Good Earth he did not see any of the “rushes” of the picture. He looked at nothing but make-up tests. When the picture was finished he saw it once, in a studio projection room.
“As soon as I start preparations for a role, I try to forget everything I did in my preceding picture, because I’ll be playing another character,” he states. “Now if I were to look at the picture a number of times, if I were to think of it in another role, it might get me into the habit of doing certain things over again. This is an actor’s greatest danger.”
Before he started in The Good Earth, he played the part of Louis Pasteur and is very proud of the picture. It was hailed as a great biographical film. His performance was acclaimed. Asked to-day how he got this or that reaction or how he played any particular scene in it, he declares, “I don’t know, for I erased the details form my mind when I assumed the role of Wang Lung.”
“To remember things like that might lead to a sameness in my work. That’s one of the pitfalls all actors have to guard against. It gets them typed.
“That is why I don’t even like to see my pictures after they’ve finished. I just like to work hard on the part I happen to be playing, and regard it as though it were the first part I ever played.
“I suppose, if I had to do the play on the stage,” he adds, “i could go back, pick up the character, try to remember all the details, and work out the role again. But I would not like to try it. Once a part is finished, the actor should bury it in forgetfulness, so that his mind be absolutely fresh for the next.
“In other words, the actor should approach each new role as if it were the first he had ever done, and as if the events in the story were happening to him for the first time. He can’t do this while remembering a past role, or thinking about a future one.”
Muni concentrates with intensity before the camera. Between scenes he usually rehearses his lines mentally, walking back and forth behind the camera. This does not mean that he is moody.
Satisfied with his mental rehearsals, he would emerge from his shell to exchange badinage with Director Sidney Franklin and Miss Rainer.
Franklin and Muni were evenly matched as to whimsical wit, and their sallies often kept the whole company in laughter.
Muni sometimes gravely insisted that cameraman Karl Freund had forgotten to make a test at the end of a scene, and the lenser’s serious and vigorous denials were always certain to get a laugh form the company.
Muni, slim, wiry, gives the impression of boundless energy and tenacious strength. His physical condition does not belie this.
He keeps himself “hard as nails” with his farm work at his San Fernando Valley ranch. “And tilling the soil on location in The Good Earth in itself was a good daily work-out,” he adds.
He reads omnivorously, mostly biographies, and relaxes by playing his violin. He works with the precision and systematic planning ahead that suggest the business man rather than the actor.
He takes his work – quite apart from himself – more seriously than most.
“Acting a fine part means nothing to me as such, but if the story has a beneficial influence on the outside world I am always proud to have had a part in its making,” he says – and means it.
Applause means little to him. But if he has evidence that a play in which he has appeared has stirred up constructive thought in his audiences, it means everything.