Actors must be experts in the art of acting — conveying emotions and information to audiences through their voice, body language and other subtle ways.
But this awards season highlights series that call on the actors to become experts in cooking, baking, sword fighting, archery and other skills in order to sell their characters to the audience.
Chopping, simmering and frying may seem like basic kitchen tasks that most adults can handle, and, peeling back the question of enjoyment, hitting adulthood generally means being able to feed yourself more than a frozen dinner. For the actors on the FX series “The Bear,” Canadian chef Matty Matheson’s training amounted to much more.
Matheson, who is credited as an actor and co-producer on the show, says it boils down to movement. Restaurant chefs are constantly on the go as they check out different stages of the cooking process, all the while understanding that someone could bump into them with a hot pot or sharp knife at any moment.
Chefs have an ability to “float through the kitchen … witnessing everything, tasting everything, touching everything,” says Matheson.
So, a key component to training the cast of “The Bear” was choreographing their movements while walking through the kitchen and planning the particular timing for each action, from touching a specific pan to using a towel to examining the parsley.
“All of a sudden you have six to eight different kinds of pivots and moves and the way you do that and look professional is that you do it quickly,” he says.
In the vein of experts everywhere who don’t appreciate the complexities of their own work, Matheson says it’s “a funny thing to speak about” training actors to walk through a kitchen when it seems so elemental.
At times, Matheson had the actors watch how he would walk through the restaurant kitchen set, and then let them craft their own paths. With everyone moving, the kitchen ballet takes form.
“We can’t bump into each other,” Matheson cautioned the actors, because safety is paramount in a restaurant for fear of cut fingers or stovetop burns, dropped dishes or food, which also create a safety hazard. “Your goal is to move. Not flawlessly, but with purpose and understanding. And the determination that you’re not going to interfere with other people doing their job.”
The actors will, of course, bring their characters’ quirks and backstories to the kitchen choreography as well. They have to perform it “the way [their character] would move,” says Matheson, since the cluster of actions may all be the same for professional chefs, but not the nuances individuals bring.
“You give them the instructions and then they gain their own speed, they gain their own confidence,” he adds.
Matheson worked with multiple departments, including set decoration and props, to ensure the actors would always have ingredients on hand in the kitchen for whatever food prep action they might want to undertake in a scene where it isn’t otherwise scripted. The goal was to give the cast enough faith in their own abilities to reach for something in the moment and work toward a realistic restaurant contribution.
“If a camera happens to go down,” says Matheson, “they’re actually making something that’s on the actual menu at the Beef.”
Working across an array of departments is common enough, especially when it comes to specialty acts like cooking in the kitchen on “The Bear” or the extremely physical enterprises on Amazon Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.”
Action unit director Vic Armstrong, who appears in “The Guinness Book of World Records” as the world’s most prolific stuntman, works with nearly every department on the series to get the action right: production design, construction, special effects and costume design, among others. While it may be intuitive to imagine that the costumes need to be adapted to hide padding, there’s more to it.
“The moment you get into a fighting position with a coat, you bend your knees, so the clothes then become 6 or 8 inches too long and you tread on it,” Armstrong says.
While there are individual fights to plan, episode six’s epic battle involving humans, elves and orcs, who use swords, bows and arrows, torches and all manner of medieval-looking implements, obviously takes a great deal of planning and practice. But, when it comes to picking out a scene that took more effort than audiences may realize, Armstrong takes a beat to contemplate — “Wow, that’s a difficult one,” he says.
He settles on a sequence in the Prologue with Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) climbing a giant wall of ice, which was actually created on the backlot of the studio.
“It’s fiberglass, but it’s all colored so it looks like a blue ice effect through a lot of it,” Armstrong says.
The form is coated with fake snow, while additional fake snow also falls on it. It’s sprayed regularly with water so it looks dynamic and shiny, but the crew must also work to eliminate potential hot spots for lighting. Armstrong had to determine where to place the carved, yet hidden, hand and foot holds, and breakaway pieces of ice that were strategically placed and planned to make it look like Galadriel is actually climbing up a remote ice-clad mountain.
After all that, none of this would work without positioning the camera properly. With the wind and rain effects coming down, they can’t shoot upward from the bottom, and trying to look down from the top doesn’t work because the camera chassis is too heavy. In the end, they used a giant crane to get the camera in place.
For all thee time and planning that went into it, the mere seconds of the sequence on screen feel like a blip in the narrative.
The actors underwent extensive training based on the scripted actions like sword fighting and using a bow and arrow properly, typically in a one-to-one format.
“We tailor it to suit their schedule, which might not the be the same as other people on the show,” says Armstrong. “They might be busy for a week and then they’ve got a week off with time to spare.”
Living together during COVID in what Armstrong calls a commune-like setting provided an additional benefit that “social time was really domineered by the workload. They all knew they were there for a reason and wanted to do it correctly.”
A scene in the second episode challenged Clark — and Armstrong — with a water sequence.
The available tank wasn’t large enough to present as a 60-70-foot depth desired when Galadriel falls into the ocean. Armstrong deduced a way to pull Clark horizontally across a pool by wires while she was underwater for 10-15 minutes at a time in a temperature Armstrong calls, at best, “only slightly warm.” Too warm and it would steam, throwing off the look of the scene.
It’s easy to imagine the actors might become over-confident with their newly minted skills.
“That’s the secret,” says Armstrong. “It’s keeping them encouraged without them getting too carried away thinking they’re Superman.”
It’s a somewhat bizarre challenge: asking actors to to behave as experts in a variety of situations, while understanding there’s no substitute for time and experience when it comes to true expertise. For that, the productions have Armstrong and Matheson to come to their rescue.
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