Actors must be experts in the art of acting—conveying emotions and information to an audience through voice, body language, and other subtle means.
But this awards season offers drama series that require the actors to become experts in cooking, baking, sword fighting, archery and other skills to sell their characters to the audience.
Chopping, grilling, and frying may seem like kitchen chores that most adults can handle, and, flipping back on the question of enjoyment, hitting adulthood generally means being able to feed yourself more than just a frozen dinner. For the cast of the FX series “The Bear,” Canadian chef Matty Matheson’s training was extensive.
Matheson, who is credited as an actor and co-producer on the show, says he gets down to acting. Restaurant chefs are constantly on the go as they look at the different stages of the cooking process, knowing that someone could hit them with a hot pan or a sharp knife at any moment.
Chefs have the ability to “float through the kitchen … witness everything, taste everything, touch everything,” says Matheson.
So the main part of training the “Bear” actors was walking around the kitchen and singing their movements, timing each action, from touching a certain pan to examining parsley.
“Suddenly you have six to eight different poles and movements, and the way to do that and look professional is to do it quickly,” he says.
To professionals everywhere who don’t appreciate the complexity of their own work, Matheson says it’s “a funny thing to talk about,” training actors to walk in the kitchen when it seems elementary.
At times, Matheson lets the actors watch him walk through the restaurant kitchen and then make their own way. When everyone moves, the kitchen ballet takes place.
Matheson warned the actors that safety is very important in the restaurant because of the fear of cut fingers or stove burns, dropped dishes or food safety. “Your purpose is to act. Not flawlessly, but with purpose and reason. And a determination not to interfere with other people doing their jobs.”
The actors bring their characters’ humor and backstories to the kitchen choreography as well. They have to perform “on the way”. [their character] It was moving,” Matheson says, because the set of steps may all be the same for professional chefs, but the differences that individuals bring are not.
“You give them the direction and then they find their own pace, they gain confidence,” he added.
Matheson worked with multiple departments, including set and props, and the actors always had ingredients on hand in the kitchen for any culinary action they wanted to do in any other unscripted scene. The aim was to make the actors confident enough in their own abilities to achieve something in the moment and contribute to a realistic restaurant.
“If a camera goes down, you’re doing something in the menu in the bullpen,” says Matheson.
It’s common to work in different departments, especially toward specialties like cooking in the “bear” kitchen or the more physical enterprises on Amazon Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.”
Action Unit Director Vic Armstrong, listed in the “Guinness Book of Records” as the world’s most accomplished man, works with almost all departments to get the action right: production design, construction, special effects and costume design, among others. It may be easy to imagine that the clothes need to be adapted to hide, but there is more to it.
“When you go into combat with a coat on, you bend your knees, so the clothes are 6 or 8 inches long and you kick them,” Armstrong says.
While there are individual battles to plan for, it’s clear that episode six’s spectacular battle, involving humans, elves and orcs, swords, bows and arrows, torches and all manner of medieval-looking weapons, requires a great deal of planning and practice. But, when it comes to choosing a scene that takes more effort than viewers might realize, Armstrong takes a moment to reflect — “Wow, that’s hard,” he says.
He sits in a sequence with Galadriel (Morphyd Clarke) in preproduction where he climbs a giant wall of ice, which was actually created in the back of the studio.
“It’s fiberglass, but it’s all tinted so it looks like a lot of blue snow effect,” Armstrong said.
The form is covered with fake snow and more fake snow falls on top of it. Because it looks flexible and shiny, it is regularly sprayed with water, but crews must work to avoid potential hot spots for ignition. Armstrong had to decide where to place the strategically placed and sculpted, but hidden, arm and leg grips and broken pieces of ice to make Galadriel appear to be climbing a snow-capped mountain.
After all, if you don’t place the camera correctly, this will not work. Reducing the effects of wind and rain, you can’t shoot from the bottom up, and trying to look down from the top doesn’t work because the camera chassis is too heavy. Finally, they used a giant crane to get the camera into place.
For all the time and planning you put into it, the mere seconds on the screen feel like a blip in the narrative.
The actors have undergone extensive training based on actions written in a one-on-one format, such as sword fighting and the proper use of bows and arrows.
“We tailor it to their schedule, which may not be the same as the people on the schedule,” Armstrong said. “They might be busy for a week and then have a weekend off to save.”
During Covid, living together in what Armstrong calls a communal-like setting had the added benefit of “social time was really bought up by work pressure. They knew they were all there for a reason and wanted to do it right.
A scene in the second episode challenges Clarke – and Armstrong – with the water sequence.
When Galadriel fell into the ocean, the required 60-70 feet of depth was not enough to provide a tank. Armstrong decided to pull Clark horizontally with a wire while she was underwater for 10-15 minutes in a temperature that Armstrong called, at best, “a little warm.” It is very hot and steamy, it throws the surface of the place.
It’s easy to imagine that the actors might be overconfident in their newly developed skills.
“That’s the secret,” Armstrong said. It keeps them motivated without getting carried away thinking they are superman.
It’s a somewhat unusual challenge: asking actors to act like professionals in a variety of situations, understanding that time and experience are no substitute when it comes to real expertise. For that, the products Armstrong and Matheson come to the rescue.