Meisner technique - Toni Vitale

‘It’s changed my life!’ Meisner technique explained by actor Toni Vitale

I’ve interviewed a lot of filmmakers since the inception of Film Forums but none have appeared more driven, focused and self-assured as Toni Vitale.

In the first of a three part series, Italian American actor and director Toni Vitale talks to us about why she decided to create her own production company, how the Meisner technique has helped not just her acting but her life in general, and the role acting classes have played in her development. 

A multi-talented member of the independent film industry and entrepreneur, Toni Vitale is one to watch.

FF: Why did you decide to create your own film production company?

TV: I’ve been in the acting business for a very long time and I’ve always been putting it aside and then coming back to it. I always knew there was a reason why I came back to it. Every time I’m without it, it’s like I feel empty, I feel like there’s something missing. I think about my life, and doing jobs that are not that and it’s like death, I can’t even move on. So I did this thing where I thought, let’s just figure out why we’re not really booking work right now. What is it that we can do to change that for ourselves? Because I think that’s really ultimately what it is as actors. We always think that we’re gonna make money and we’re gonna book work and it’s really so much more involved than that. 

So I went back to training, I studied Meisner technique. But, I thought, let’s go back to Meisner, and let’s do another audition technique class and I really just pushed the training for two years straight. I had an agent and I was going out on stuff, but it still just wasn’t happening… I think because of the stereotype… I thought to myself, ‘Well, let me look at myself in the casting side of it, and what is it that you see?’

Actress Toni Vitale

So I started to see myself in a way that they were seeing me. I did this thing where I was thinking ‘Let’s recreate ourselves.’ And then, at that point, I really discovered that the acting part of it is so competitive. You have to meet with the casting directors and they have to know you and then they have to call you in. It’s a lot and it’s worth the work. However, it’s not enough to keep somebody going, especially somebody who loves the business. 

So I decided to just get into directing and then, of course, I learned how to produce.

I write my own stuff, but I really do admire others’ writing. I don’t consider myself really a writer; I’m a fan of writing, really beautiful writing. Then I just came up to this place where I was like, ‘Why don’t we just start our own production company, create our own work and then with that maybe help others create their own work?’ So I had been playing around with ideas as to what I wanted to do with this production company. 

Right before all this happened (COVID), I had this great idea of what I wanted to do. So now it’s just a slow process to launch it. I think it’s a great time for me to really be able to build it right now; businesses don’t ever take off right away but slowly you get to learn and that’s what I’m doing right now is working on other people’s stuff to see how they work.

It’s changed my life. It’s not even about the acting, it’s helped me do some deep internal work. Because that’s really what the work is: to dig underneath all the layers.

FF: You mentioned the Meisner technique, which is something I’ve not actually come across before. Can you explain what that is?

TV: I started studying Meisner technique years ago and it’s the same kind of thing with the universe. Someone gave me the name of William Esper Studios, and they wrote it down on a piece of paper and, for some reason, that piece of paper was in almost every pocket I was wearing. I’d find it in my skirt and found it in my jeans, and then I was like, ‘Oh, I really need to learn what this is!’

So it’s a two year program and the William Esper Studios work with behaviour. It’s this program where you have to get to this ‘place’ before you can do scenes. It’s repetitive activities; I’m supposed to study your behaviour and your mannerisms and whether I believe you or not; the way your behaviour works off of…will bounce off of me and in the way I respond to it. So if you’re nasty I will respond back in that way or I can remain calm, but basically it’s living in the moment under imaginary circumstances. 

So that’s the main logo that they have, their way of saying you just have to be in the moment. If you’re crying and then something makes you laugh, you go with the laugh because the moment changes. So, it’s not really anything which is set… So it’s not like you’re in the scene and you cry throughout the entire scene, because things change. I mean, there was this one time, where I remember it really working for me, because I was in a scene and I was crying, and then I snotted on myself! 

Then it made me laugh and I just went with a laugh. Then it was like this hug…because we were fighting and we were crying and then we were snotting! And then I was hugging this person and we were loving each other again and it was just like this beautiful ride throughout in the moment. That’s what I love so much, it’s like doing your takes where you don’t do the same take over and over again, you don’t recreate the moment because the moment is different now. 

Actors are always watching themselves.

A lot of people say that might be hard for editing but that’s the beauty of editing: you’ve got so much to work with, you’re not doing the same thing over and over again. So I can do the same scene over and over again, but the moments are going to be different. I might try something different, I might see something different, but I’m not always in my head. It’s really about getting out of your head and throwing your focus on the other actor. And that’s really what helps you get out of your lines and saying them so stale. 

It’s changed my life. It’s not even about the acting, it’s helped me do some deep internal work. Because that’s really what the work is: to dig underneath all the layers.

We ask these questions where it might trigger you somehow, and it just gets you to cry or get you mad, and it’s these different types of exercises that come together in the scene. Then you’re doing your lines, and they focus a lot on theater, which is difficult to do in television. That’s what I found in those audition technique classes… To do Meisner technique in television, because in television scripting is like…everything is beats, points, things like that. You have to find the two of them together and then, once you know the two of them, it works well.

FF: You’ve enlisted the expertise of a few acting coaches in your career to date. Looking back how important have those experiences been to your development as an actor?

TV: Well, the first coaches…I had David…I first studied with and I was in my early 20s, so it was years and years ago. He really helped me. Actually, I can’t say that he really helped me because I was not in that place where I was ready to go where he wanted me to go, but I worked well with him and he used a lot in his showcases.

Then when I went to William Esper Studios that was really what it was for me, because Suzanne is my mentor, and she really believed in me. She was just someone who is like, ‘You can do comedy, you can do drama, and we’re gonna get you out of your stereotype’. I used to always think that being sexy was the stereotype that I had and I never really wanted to do anything other than that, but then studying the Meisner acting technique has really enabled me to do something different. 

I think about my life, and doing jobs that are not that and it’s like death, I can’t even move on.

And then I started with Isaac, who was with Matthew Korzy in studios, and that was the most recent. I studied with Matthew as well. So all the Meisner acting coaches that I’ve had have been my mentors and have helped me get to where I am today. But I have to say, the one person that has enabled me to take me to this particular place is myself actually. Because I really had to listen to a lot of my weaknesses and my strengths and accept a lot of the things about myself that I wanted to change, and I think that’s the hardest part.

Actors are always watching themselves. They’re always in this way of living. And I think that when you get yourself out of that, and you put yourself into the work, and not really care what you look like it’s more or less what you’re feeling more than what you look like.

Toni Vitale Italian American Actress

FF: You teach acting classes now I believe? Can you talk a bit about that?

TV: I don’t teach yet, but I am putting a class together now.

I was a fitness instructor and I really loved fitness, but I love fitness for myself, more than I do teaching others. I was having a conversation with a friend and this came up but he said,  ‘Maybe you’re a coach but maybe there’s something else that you can do with that. So I said, ‘You know what, I really love acting. I love coaching actors.’ I love being a director. Being a director to me is the same as being an acting coach.

So I did this movement class (I used to be a dancer and I loved that). That really opened me up. So I’m looking and then, of course, the audition technique. Just all of it really, are the things that I love the most. So I said why not create something for myself, that I could help other people with, maybe actors who are just starting in the business need to be shaken up. I’ve been doing some different small projects and I do photo shoots for headshots and I try to get the actors to loosen up and they love it. 

It’s like they become completely somebody else. And so I said, well, now I’ve created my self tape studio and I figured why not use my apartment for my workspace so that I can start coaching and teaching actors because that’s something that I love.