- Acting coach Howard Fine has taught Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Gal Gadot, Salma Hayek, and others.
- He tutored Will Smith before the rapper debuted on the hit sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
- Smith is banned from attending the Oscars for 10 years after beating Chris Rock at the 2022 ceremony in March.
This essay is based on an interview with Howard Fine, owner of Howard Fine Acting Studio and Fine Online. Insider spoke to Fine in December, three months before Will Smith shocked the entertainment industry – and the world – by slapping host Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards on March 27. On April 8, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences banned Smith from attending the Oscars or any other Academy event for 10 years. Smith retains the best actor statuette he received earlier this year for King Richard and remains eligible for Oscar nominations and awards.
When I first met Diana Ross in 1994, she was about to begin work on the TV movie Out of Darkness, a dark drama about a medical student suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. Ross was looking for an acting coach to help her prepare, but she wanted to meet first before signing up for private classes.
One of the first things I asked her was, “How do people react to you?”
“They’re either cruel because they want to prove they can control or handle me, or they’re overly polite because they’re afraid to speak up,” Ross said.
I told her my goal was to have absolute balance and she loved that.
Ross had an incredible work ethic, recording our sessions and responding to every note I gave her. She even spent several days in a mental institution. And when she rehearsed, she did it without makeup, her hair down: she wanted it be this role, a character who sometimes lived on the street. (She received a Golden Globe nomination for her work.)
After each session, Ross asked to go to the bathroom.
“I need to be Diana Ross again,” she said.
Thirty minutes later she showed up with big hair, full makeup and a gorgeous outfit. In came the paranoid schizophrenic homeless man, out came the glamorous Diana Ross the public knew.
For the past 38 years I have coached Brad Pitt on the making of Interview with a Vampire and Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Concussion. I helped Gal Gadot audition for “Wonder Woman” and I worked with Chris Pine on his audition for “Fat Pig,” the Neil LaBute play he performed while playing the lead role of Captain Kirk in JJ Abrams’ “Star.” ” got Trek.”
All of these stars shared the qualities I’ve learned are the hallmarks of good actors: avid readers, emotional sophistication and availability, physical and mental focus.
How Will Smith went from rap star to TV and film icon
When I first met Will in the early 1990s, he wasn’t a famous actor. He was performing as the Fresh Prince with DJ Jazzy Jeff when one of my students, Jeff Pollack, approached me.
“You know, Howard, I have this idea for a series and I’m proposing it to the network,” Pollack said. “There’s this rap guy, and we want to make him an actor. Would you start working with him?”
So I did. Will visited me regularly for private lessons and attended my classes several times a week for over a year. He was a deep thinker from the start and a serious fan of films, actors and the craft.
The series Jeff created became The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which ran for six seasons and launched Will’s acting career.
I currently teach around 300 students online and in my studio with two other teachers in Los Angeles – a small miracle given the challenges of the pandemic.
Our six-week technique course, which takes place twice a week, gives me the opportunity to identify talents that need to be developed or to identify problems. We go through eight steps of script analysis and role preparation before moving on to an exercise called “neutral scene,” which is just a page of words I wrote.
Students need to create a time, place, circumstance, relationship, and conflict for the scene so they can understand that it’s not just the words they say, but what affects those words.
We also conduct emotional memory exercises, where students take stock of their entire lives, from their earliest memories to the present day, for the ups and downs. They learn to retrieve experiences and use them as sources for their work. Every character that they will play is somehow already found in them, because in all of us there is a smart person and a stupid person, an outgoing person and a shy person.
Being a great actor means really knowing who you are
In the same production of Fat Pig, Scott Wolf played a man who dates an overweight woman but ends up breaking off the relationship because he is aware of her weight and people make fun of him for it.
The Party of Five actor, who I also coached, had trouble seeing himself in the character and the character’s need to fit into society, so I started asking him questions. “Where do you shop?” “What car do you drive?” “Describe your wife to me.” He answered.
After a while he said, “Okay, I’m just like that character.”
We don’t want to see ourselves that often. But being a great actor means really knowing who you are, from light to dark.
One of my current students, Austin Butler, came to me eight years ago because he really wanted to do a play. He was very young and had just completed some work with Nickelodeon, but finally the opportunity came – an audition for Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, starring Denzel Washington. We’ve been working on it, callback after callback after callback, and he booked it.
Austin received rave reviews, garnered Quentin Tarantino’s attention and a chance to audition for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This led to an audition for Baz Luhrmann for a film he was developing about Elvis Presley. Austin ended up in the lead.