How Actors Go from Zero to Music Virtuoso for Film Roles

By Wise, Brian | The Christian Science Monitor, November 23, 2007 | Go to article overview

How Actors Go from Zero to Music Virtuoso for Film Roles


Wise, Brian, The Christian Science Monitor


Hollywood is littered with tales of actors who go to painstaking lengths to learn a role, from Robert De Niro driving a cab as research for "Taxi Driver" to any number of svelte stars who gain huge amounts of weight to look like their characters.

But few feats of research seem to generate more fascination - and are so consistently rewarded come awards season - as learning a musical instrument. Whether it's Katherine Hepburn's portrayal of the pianist Clara Schumann in "Song of Love," Tom Hulce in the title role of "Amadeus," Geoffrey Rush as David Helfgott in "Shine," or Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny and June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line," audiences expect on-screen musicians to look, if not sound, realistic.

At the same time, musician roles raise questions over what's real and what's fake, when and where hand doubles are used, and whether prior musical training was needed. And if Tom Cruise can learn Haydn in five weeks, we wonder, why can't I?

Such questions resurface with the release of "August Rush," a new film about an orphaned 11-year-old musical prodigy who uses his gifts as a clue to finding his birth parents. Cast members spent over three months learning to play instruments, including Keri Russell, who portrays a concert cellist, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays a rock singer-songwriter, and Freddie Highmore, who, in the title role, plays both guitar and organ and conducts a symphony orchestra.

While Rhys Meyers had some prior guitar experience, Russell and Highmore had to start from scratch learning their instruments and playing along to the professional recording that audiences hear in the theater. Director Kirsten Sheridan believes learning the instruments gave the actors a deeper connection to their roles and mostly eliminated the need for hand doubles. "We wanted them to feel the emotion of the music they were playing," she says.

Working with two teachers, Russell started with simple scales and worked her way up to the film's climactic piece, the Elgar Cello Concerto.

"Faking a cello is not like faking a guitar," Russell explains. "First of all, there are two very different hands. One is the fingering hand that's all up and down, and over and across. It would look really silly when your fingering hand is way up high when it should be down low. The bowing is also very specific."

Highmore's challenges were different. Although he didn't have to master any intricate fingerpicking or fast chord changes, the pieces were very loose rhythmically and difficult to sync with the recorded track on set. …

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