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Every Great Actor Should Have A Great Coach

Without Ted Danson and Woody Harrelson behind the bar, the fans wouldn’t have flocked to “Cheers.”   Those turning to ‘Friends’ would have tuned out if any of the six leads left the show.  And “The Sopranos” without James Gandolfini and Edie Falco?   Forget about it.    Acting coach Peter Kelley explains what made the attraction to these series’ leads so strong.

“There’s no doubt that in television, the human being and the character merge,” said Kelley.  “People talked about how much money the cast of “Friends” was paid, but the network wisely understood that they had lightening in a bottle.  That had to do with the specific qualities and chemistries of those individuals.”

As an acting coach, this point is crucial to Kelley’s work with clients.

“You have to remind the actor that, in a given emotional moment, the right answer, the right way to play it, has to already be inside them, because it IS them.  I feel like once you create that environment for the actor, that’s when their work really takes off.”

An accomplished director of both theater and films, Peter Kelley was literally called upon to develop a career as an acting coach over twenty years ago.  To this day he splits his time between east and west coast clients.

“I never pursued it, it kind of came to me,” said Kelley.  “I basically enjoyed teaching acting, and people told me that I had a talent for it.  At some point, I got a phone call saying ‘You’re an acting teacher and I’ve got an actor who needs work.’  One thing led to another and now, here I am.”

Kelley has taught workshops at CP Casting in Boston, held a faculty position at Boston University, and maintains an acting center, Peter Kelley Acting, in New York City.  Although he still teaches, he has a unique passion for coaching, and expresses a distinct difference between the two disciplines.

“When somebody says ‘Coaching, teaching, it’s all kind of the same thing, right?’ Not quite,” said Kelley.  “When somebody hires a coach, first and foremost, it should be project-focused.  It might be an audition, it might be prepping for a role, there’s an end zone.  My primary goal as an acting coach is to have that performer walk onto the set or into the casting office performance ready.  I want us both to feel confident that they can walk on that set ready to go.”

Whether hired by an actor or a studio, Kelley’s priority remains performance driven.   “I believe that all boats rise with the tide, so obviously you have this larger kind of end zone of making the film, the TV show, or whatever the project may be as good as possible,” said Kelley.  “Your immediate goal is to just prioritize the performance of the client.”

In order to maximize the potential of the actors he works with, Kelley likes to get to know them on a personal level first.

“If I know the person as an individual as well as an actor, I can watch that monitor and I can know how far they’re going,” said Kelley.  “Are they really bringing it, are they really giving it what they can give it?”

From that point, Kelley will customize the coaching to the needs of the project.  Each scenario: preparing for an audition, preparing for film and television projects, the nature of the material, dialogues, all require a different, specialized focus.   Regardless of the unique needs, there are certain universal elements Kelley works on with his clients.

“I need to remind the actor of their ability to immerse into the role,” said Kelley.  “In a strong script, the writer has labored over every single moment; has ensured that every moment feels right.  So, it’s my job to work with the actor to make sure they see and feel and understand all those moments.”

Those familiar with Kelley would define this as finding the “Oh yeah!” moment.

“You have a lot of moments in a script and you realize that frequently the actor needs to dig deeper,” said Kelley in regards to helping actors determine how those moments define their choices.  “How come the person says ‘stop’ three times instead of once?  ‘Oh yeah!’  How come the person says ‘I’ve got to go’ and they don’t leave?  ‘Oh yeah!’”

When working on a movie or television production, Kelley feels it’s important for a coach to be available for on-set work but must understand the production boundaries.

“First and foremost, I’m respectful of the fact that I’m not the director,” said Kelley.  “If I go on set, one of the first things I do is sit with the director, and say ‘Look, I’m basically here to serve your vision of what’s going on here.’  Sometimes, especially when dealing with network shows, the director is happy to have somebody who’s really not paying attention to much except performance.  Other times, the director might say ‘I want to develop the relationship with the actor, I want to make the performance work.’  That is their job.  In that case, my job is to just send the actor to the set, ready to rock.”

“If I am on set, I will very often ask the director ‘I’m thinking this moment is x, do you agree?’ and make sure I’m on the same page with the director,” said Kelley.  “If something’s not working, I might lean in to the director and say ‘What do you think about x, y, or z?’  If it seems like everything’s just humming along fine, I think the best thing an acting coach can do is just kind of fade into the shadows.  You don’t want to be slowing things down.”

To understand the importance of the role an acting coach plays, Kelley referenced professional athletes.  Although it is their talent that catapults them to fame, a trainer keeps them focused, sharp, physically conditioned and performance ready.

“In theater, rehearsal is a significant part of the overall process of making a play,” said Kelley.  “Every day it’s growing for weeks before the official opening night.  The actor, the director and the stage manager are every day working on it, every day talking about it.  That process doesn’t exist in the movies.  You may have a table-read or a run-through.  Even with directors who say they like to rehearse, compared to the preparation that goes into theater, it’s nothing.  That doesn’t mean you don’t need that process.  It is vital.  I do think it’s important that actors understand that there are times when you do need to get this service that you should schedule, set and pay for.”

This year, long-term Kelley clients Eliza Dushku saw her starring vehicle “Dollhouse” renewed for a second season by Fox, and Chris O’Donnell has been cast to star in “NCIS: Los Angeles,” a spin off of  “NCIS.”   Seeing these actors and their projects develop a level of success is gratifying for Kelley.

“You’re looking at projects, you’re looking at material, and because you know the individual, you determine; is this material going to push the person?  Is this material going to cause the person to grow?” said Kelley.  “I feel like it’s great when we can just start from zero with something, go after it, get it, develop it, and realize it.  You’re kind of involved with it from A to Z.  That’s probably THE most rewarding part of my job.  It’s the best part of what I do.”

Recently, two short films that Kelley both wrote and directed, “Sporting Dog” and “The Path of Most Resistance,” became festival favorites and award winners nationwide.  Although he continues to develop projects on the side, Kelley has no intention of stepping away from his role of acting coach.

“I’m always interested in meeting new clients,” said Kelley.  “I find the work rewarding, and I see myself doing it for the rest of my life.”

For more information on Peter Kelley, please visit: