Apart from being incredibly famous, charismatic, and really, really good looking; what do Leonardo DiCaprio, Helen Hunt, David Duchovny, Hilary Swank and Tobey Maguire have in common? They’ve all been coached by Larry Moss. Why is this relevant to you? Because if you’re a budding actor, you could be, too.
Moss is an American coach of stage-and-screen actors who’s more colloquially known as ‘the coach to the stars’. He helped Hunt with her Oscar-winning performance in As Good As It Gets; Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby (both of which earned her Academy Awards) and DiCaprio in no less than eight films including Oscar-nominated roles in Blood Diamond and The Wolf of Wall Street. In a 43-year career spent helping actors and musical-theatre performers at the famed Juilliard School, Circle in the Square in New York and his own Larry Moss Studio, there have been countless others, and he's on his way to Melbourne to deliver a four-day masterclass.
Moss began life as an actor, studying in New York before landing various roles on Broadway including the first revival of West Side Story, working with the great choreographer Jerome Robbins. He also performed for two years alongside Lily Tomlin at the famed cabaret Upstairs at the Downstairs.
But it wasn’t until Moss’s own acting teacher detected his gift for teaching and articulating the acting craft that he made the career change that would define him. “He gave me some students to see if I could do it and I sat down in my chair and said, ‘My god, I’m a teacher’,” Moss recalls.
Moss continued performing until some tough hurdles in his personal life – his divorce, the death of this mother and a troubled relationship with his father among them – led to a break from acting and more focus on teaching. “I didn’t walk away from acting because I couldn’t get work, I worked all the time,” he says. “I felt my ego was distorted and I was trying to make up in my acting for what I didn’t get as a child. And I realised that wasn’t a way to live my life.”
Speaking to us down the line from Los Angeles, where he’s rehearsing a group of Australian actors in Australian Tommy Murphy’s adaptation of Tim Conigrave’s book Holding the Man, Moss says it was the greats who drove his practice. Falling in love with playwrites such as Shakespeare, Moliere, Pinter and Strindberg, he realised teaching was what drove him.
In terms of his process, Moss encourages his actors to return to the basics on a script: who, what, when, where, why? “My particular job is breaking down the script scene by scene, talking about the history of the character, the physicality, how they walk, the clothing they wear, their view of the world and how that changes,” Moss explains.
He won’t deny he has a stellar roll call of actors to his name but it’s interesting to note that what impresses him most about an actor is humility; particularly given he has such a healthy dose himself.
“They work so bloody hard, you just can’t imagine,” he says. “When Hilary did Boys Don’t Cry she lived as a boy for a month. She was newly married to Chad Lowe and she dressed as a boy and he’d introduce her as his younger brother. And she said, ‘If I can’t get people to believe me, how will I ever get the audience to believe me?’” Moss recalls. “Leo and Hilary both have that humility. Both of them get great scripts [but] they’ve never lost their sense of wonder about the craft, their decency and their kindness. I genuinely like them as people.” When accepting their Oscars, both Swank and Hunt credited Moss with inspiring their extraordinary performances.
Moss is preparing to return to Australia for the third time to run the series of four-day master classes for which he is internationally sought after. He’s working in collaboration with Melbourne’s 16th Street Actors Studio, which was founded by artistic director Kim Krejus, in a bid to provide actors with ongoing training with top-notch directors and coaches through master classes and workshops. Previous actors who have worked with Moss at 16th Street include Kat Stewart, Sigrid Thornton, Jane Turner and Shane Bourne.
Moss is particularly enamoured of the Australian acting style and cites Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis as possessing the all-important humility and hunger for learning that he detects in so many Australians.
“There’s an excellence to them, a fearlessness,” he says. “I find sometimes in the show business of American acting it’s [about] power, looking for fame. And it always breaks my heart because I’ve been around a long time and worked with a lot of famous actors and I’ve seen young people who were very gifted buy the hype and become self-destructive. Show business doesn’t do anything for you really, fame and power are pretty empty.”
Larry Moss’s four-day masterclasses are being held in Sydney on April 14–17. Further information at 16thstreet.com.au.
Holding the Man opens at The Matrix Theatre, Los Angeles, on May 10.