Žiga Čamernik – Method Acting Consciously to the Unconscious

38 min read

Žiga Čamernik (44) is an actor, pedagogue, film reviewer and journalist. He studied Political Science at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and gained the academic title of Political Scientist with Master’s Degree in Anthropological Sciences. We met about a decade ago in Zagreb, Croatia, at the Method Acting course of the famous Vajevec Brothers, Andrej and Janez, when Žiga was teaching and practising Method Acting with us. Žiga’s mentors: Janez Vajevec studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York from 1970 till 1979 in class with the actors Dominic De Fazio, Geraldine Baron, Ed Mitchel, Ben Piazza and with Lee Strasberg in his Master Class; Andrej Vajevec studied with Dominic De Fazio, Geraldine Baron, Marc Marno, Hedy Sontag and others in 1979. The Brothers Vajevec Actors Studio opened its doors in the fall of 1980 in Ljubljana and has since then been a synonym for outstanding acting methods.

After more than ten years now, more precisely, on the 15th November 2019, I saw Žiga on stage in the theatre play ‘Do you love me?’ (‘Voliš li me?’) with his colleague, the brilliant actress, Vesna Tominac Matačić. The romantic comedy play is a profound drama about love and marriage, written by Žiga, Vesna, Janez and Andrej, directed by Janez Vajevec, with Andrej Vajevec in the role of dramaturge.

It was heart-warming to see my acting colleagues and friends after all these years and it seems to me as if we are just continuing where we have stopped at a point in time …

You have started your acting career at the Brothers Vajevec Actors Studio in 2002. Together with some other film enthusiasts you established a film association the same year and started to shoot a feature film called The Wallet (Tošl) with you as the main male actor in the role of a student who finds a woman’s wallet in a public toilet. This independent anthology film was screened on Slovenian National Television and at the Festival of Slovenian Film in Portorož. How would you describe your path from Method Acting student to Acting Coach and Actor?

– In a way, it was always a path of inertia. I do what comes to me, which doesn’t mean that I take everything that’s offered. You have to be able to recognise a project, which should be a personal challenge, if possible. At least, that’s how it is today, after years of struggling and taking whatever there is on the table just to survive. When I first came to the Vajevec Actors Studio, I didn’t even know that I was interested in acting to the extent that I would deal with it professionally later in life. However, with the structure of the Method – relaxation, awareness, sense and emotional memory – I felt comfortable from the very beginning. It was strictly individualised work, which suited me perfectly at that time. Gradually, I also started to realise that I might have developed an affinity of becoming a pedagogue as well, but it happened not until several years later. I was a student for six, seven years and noticed that Method Acting was helping me to become more aware of my emotions and why they are here, but I still didn’t have any acting ambitions at that time. Many times, I felt significantly better after the workshops. I felt that Method could be constructive, also on a strictly personal level. And then, all of a sudden, the pedagogical path has happened. I started in Rijeka, Croatia, with a recommendation of my friend from that city. I must admit that I was scared at first and that I didn’t know exactly what would happen. I knew how to assist, but how to take responsibility for the whole group alone – that was a big task for me. I said to myself: “Throw yourself into it and you’ll see.” At the beginning, there were some struggles of finding my own pedagogical path, since Janez is such a strong persona and also a father figure, at least, in my case. So, I caught myself frequently thinking what he would have done in some challenging situations. But through the years, I developed what I would call ‘my own style of mentoring’, that’s for sure.

For a person to become fully integrated, Method Acting or anything else in that case, is not enough by itself. Things need to come together, in terms that you have a chance to realise your very intimate inner motives of what pushes you ahead in life. Are the reasons your own, internal reasons, or are they external, forced by your environment, your parents, friends, colleagues, etc.. This distinction is very important.

Method is based on a simultaneously working concept, which means that you work ‘on yourself’ and at the same time you also ‘work on the character’, who is fictional, but based on your personal experience. Relaxation and awareness are about you and your life – being in the here and now and being able to check whether this is really the case or if you are just ‘acting smart’. We all know that in modern society, ‘we live in our heads’ most of the time. The former sounds just easy, but actually, it isn’t. That means that most of the information, which is important to us, is of mental nature, while senses and emotions are suffering. We put it all in our minds, which is why we’re actually stupid. The mind is a very important segment of our being, but it is certainly not the only one, for being in the mind all the time is a way of losing the organic connection with ourselves. Moreover, there is the issue of modern technology, but that would take us too far …

What is Method Acting and what does it mean to you?

Method Acting is already under my skin, it’s my way of life. Nonetheless, at a later stage, I needed to give up on Method in some way, just to find myself. I was too orthodox, almost fanatical in the first few years of practice. Method was everything to me. So, I was convincing myself that I didn’t need anything else in life, since it’s so universal. Method wasn’t just the right path for me, it was the only one. That’s actually dangerous thinking, but it took me some years to acknowledge it. To distance myself from Method was a prerequisite, so that I could value it again.

For that to happen, Method, Žiga – my former self, and also my parents, we all had to die in a symbolic way, in order to succeed in realising my potential as a human being. This realisation was also a source of inspiration – to live a life I could really and sincerely like and be proud of. I think all people are the same in this respect. It is just a matter of time of finding oneself. Everyone has the same chance, but many people don’t dare to walk that path.

I was brutally honest in that quest, no matter how much I may have been on the ‘wrong path’, and it was also necessary in order to make a return possible. Now, I can provide more constructive advice to someone, though, I’m aware that everyone needs his or her own personal experience, everyone needs to make mistakes, to fall, to learn to live … There is also a difference in how children are raised by their mother or father … The mother wants to protect her child, even if it means that the child should not fall, which is certainly not good in the long run, because the child will never know his or her limits, while the father somehow understands, by encouraging his youngster – go, fall and make your own experience, make your amount of mistakes, which is inevitable, I’m here nonetheless. In my case, my father wasn’t around, so it was a little harder and I was looking for a male role model outside my family, which for me was Janez and some other dominant persons. Then, you suddenly realise that you are that father you symbolically had to kill, to resolve the Oedipus complex … I might as well been stuck for that, for some old resentfulness … We cannot solve all that just by practising Method, but even today, my mentor Janez regrets that he sometimes didn’t emphasise enough that you can take something from Method for your life. He was afraid that people might identify him with some kind of guru … Fortunately, there are two brothers, so, the mentoring part is spread over, at least, two people (smile).

How is Method Acting changing your perspective on life?

– Today it is almost imperceptible. Method is so much a part of me that I can do other things now as well, follow up and always come back. While I was only occupied with Method, I was reserved to anything else and didn’t try at all to look for connection points or to find something, which is not similar to Method, at least, not at first glance. I was not interested, because for me, Method was the only right path. Now I can see how limited that thinking was – until some tragedy happens or you lose your health. In my case nothing so terrible, my knee and cartilage were injured while playing basketball. Before that, I got some intestinal parasite infection, which occurred while I was swimming in the Ganges River in India. So, all that was enough to be scared and I seriously wondered – what if I couldn’t act again? I realised that I needed to sort things out in my head first. I decided to work on my parents and ancestors issues by putting myself in proper position within the family matrix, which was crucial for my further development.

When you are ‘truly connected’ to yourself, nothing bad and unnecessary can happen to you, since you are ‘protected’ from the ‘higher source’. Now, we are talking about what could be at the end of that process, that is, the end also always means a new beginning and you have to take your time to explore all that. That’s what death teaches us, but unfortunately, most of the time we are too afraid to take a deeper look. We shouldn’t forget that we live in a society where death and people who are dying is still a taboo, and that is plainly stupid since it awaits all of us. If we don’t accept our own mortality, we do not live life to the fullest. We live a parallel life, not our own, which is always influenced by others – parents, siblings, life partners, children, friends or society in general. We are constantly running away from ourselves.

What are the benefits of practising Method Acting?

– This is the point where we perhaps have to distinguish between personal life and acting Method. Method Acting is actually for everyone. In Ljubljana, for example, it is structured as an acting studio. However, not even half of the attendees are interested in acting. That’s because most of the exercises are certainly in the sphere of personal growth, what can be a little tricky at the same time. For instance, it can be very misleading to say that we are working on ourselves with the aim of personal development or even to walk on the path of spiritual growth. All this is very popular to say in modern society, but if it’s just mental, it also includes an ambition. And ambition is a natural enemy of the creative process. I know that it may sound contradictory, since today you have to have ambition to ‘succeed in life’. In order to be creative, you have to feel ‘organically free’ first, and this is a matter of process, not of result. Therefore, the process is always dictated by our senses, the result by our intellect. That is also a main problem in our school system, among other things, but let’s get back to more practical things.

At the very beginning of the workshop, we handle relaxation in a way, we become aware of different parts of our body and are in touch with our natural voice and diaphragm. The challenge arises when we encounter our own resistance, because we are inert beings by nature. When we have to change something, whatever it may be, we always feel resistance. First, we need to overcome our own ego, by re-learning to accept it first. In other words, we have to meet our ego and this is just the first step. Most of the people are already giving up before they have even started, simply, because it’s not comfortable. Remember, real ‘work on yourself’ should never be comfortable. If it is, it usually means something is wrong or superficial, scratching on the surface, just because it seems easier. Unfortunately, it is not enough. Personal growth means pushing yourself out of the comfort zone almost constantly.

What follows is a rationalisation of what’s happening. I’m aware that it is most practical to say that the whole thing is boring, but it is the brain, which is bored and simply too lazy to give instructions to the body what to do, so, our senses are not in the moment. The mind is telling us ‘every time it’s the same, so boooring’. Yes, every time it’s the same, we need to concentrate and relax as much as possible. Maybe our muscles are stiff, because we may not like some person in the room, so we’re careful and not even aware of it. Method means integral work – physical, mental and emotional. To all that, we include vocals – the ordinary sound ‘aaa’ – with the help of our imagination, which can come from the body, mind or heart, and if you listen to yourself, you feel and hear a different quality of sound, which depends on your sentiment at that moment. In a similar way, we can also work on some acting role. Through exercise, we become softer. After a while, we go into the exercise and deepen it every time. In short, Method Acting is for anyone who genuinely wants a constructive, practical and organic connection with oneself.

I would dare to say that Method Acting is an awareness method and it reminds me a lot of mindfulness. It is clear now that this method is beneficial, not solely to actors. So, who can join your workshops and seminars?

– With mindfulness, I agree essentially. There are thousands of books available on the market with similar content, but as I mentioned before, there are also some traps in this context. First and foremost, there is a big difference between reading and doing something. So, there’s a trend today that you read a ton of books and then you wander from one workshop to another, which is a legitimate way, of course, but at the same time, you forget to notice that by dealing with yourself in that way, you usually just scratch the surface of things. You believe you know everything, but instead, you don’t know anything. Just have a look at our modern society, we are becoming experts on every subject, but sadly, it’s just small talk. Genuine knowledge lies in the depths of our very being and to get there is not as easy as it may sound. For a serious actor this kind of work is simply ‘a must’, for others it’s a choice with great benefits, and also with some obstacles on the way, so, everyone, from age 13 to 100, can attend Method Acting (smile).

Which role or project in your acting career do you remember with a big smile?

– In the years 2007 to 2013, I played a guy named Rok, a photographer in a feature-documentary ecological TV show called Slovenian Water Cycle (Slovenski vodni krog) together with my film partner Ana who played an employee of a Water Institute measuring the quality of water by taking samples. The show was screened on National Television. It was a very interesting project, which lasted for ten years. Each 25 minutes show was filmed next to a Slovenian river from source to mouth while talking to people who live next to the river – locals, experts, fishermen, hunters, etc.. In this project I have also learned a lot about nature and its resources.

'Do You Love Me?'Stage vs. screen?

 – No matter what, the acting approach should be the same. Theatre is a living matter in a sense that the audience is watching you on the spot and you have the opportunity to ‘rock’ the story from the beginning till the end. There’s something magical about it. Film, on the other hand, is ‘schizophrenic’ art, it’s discontinuous. As you shoot a film, you come back several times to the same scene, which makes it tougher in a way. The charm of the film is that it remains forever. Considering the same timeframe, I think filmmaking would have made me more tired for the repetition and the production process itself, which could take up to several hours a day. Theatre can also be tiring, just in a different way. Through rehearsals and performances, the play grows, and the luxury of having enough time is also important to get things in place. According to the very principal of Method Acting, each rehearsal is a play and each play is a rehearsal, which means that a play is always a public rehearsal in a way. On film, you usually start and shoot all the way, with no major breaks. I love both, but maybe I have little more experience in theatre playing. For this year, I was offered three different films, two from Slovenia and one from Croatia.

Starting in 2009, with the sponsorship of the Public Fund for Cultural Activities of the Republic of Slovenia, you have organised the Slovenian Festival of Independent Films for the first time. Since then, the Festival opens its doors each year in Ljubljana at the beginning of December. In this decade you were co-organiser, selector and acting workshops coach; today you are the Creative Director of the Festival. Did you celebrate the 11th anniversary of this Film Festival?

– The participants of the Festival were celebrating excessively, till all hours. After eleven years of this ‘Trash Film Festival’ I would like to slowly transfer the title of Creative Director to another person (smile). We’re actually talking about a national underground film festival, with the emphasis on independent production. Last time, we were screening 29 films in two days. On the last day we had to screen the same programme at two different locations because of great interest of the audience.

You are an independent cultural worker and your list of different workshops is quite long. In 2011 you have actively started to present workshops called Charisma as the Natural Gift, Public Communication, Consciously to the Unconscious, Handling the Stage Fright ... Your source of knowledge is based on the acting system of Konstantin Stanislavski, Method Acting of Lee Strasberg and some kind of acting derivate developed by the Vajevec Brothers. How would you express your workshop experience in one sentence?

– Sometimes it is precious to see the same phenomenon from different perspectives.

In 2013 and 2014 you were also teaching Method Acting for acting students at the Film and Television Institute of India – FTII in Pune, Maharashtra. How did this cooperation happen and how would you describe this memorable experience?

– I was in India in 2012 and contacted the renowned FTII in Pune. They invited me to come over and almost immediately I had a deal for a Method Acting workshop at the Institute, for three weeks two years in a row. It was a great and really special experience for me.

Your vision for the future? What challenges you?

– At the moment, I’m looking forward to volunteering at the Slovenian Hospic Society and to accompanying people who are dying and the ones who are grieving, which also includes children. There are many different levels of helping others, but primarily yourself, especially by facing the inevitable – death. I take this as an ultimate school of life. Besides, shooting a great film and doing socially subversive theatre plays will always present an inspiring challenge for me as long as it makes sense for my personal development and the creative process itself.

Žiga, if you could pick only one word to describe our relation, which word would you choose?

 – Cooperation.

Photo credits: Žiga Čamernik

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