Actors who are serious about their craft mainly for the artistic rewards it can bring are a rare breed. If you’re good at what you do and find success, there is always a temptation to let the trappings of fame overshadow what is most important: the quality of work that brought you to this point. Those trappings don’t seem to have lessened Alan Arkin’s respect or enthusiasm for what he does. Acting, (please excuse the hackneyed phrase), is his life. He has played characters as diverse as the maniacal killer in Wait Until Dark to the beleguered dentist in the original and best version of The In-Laws.
In his book, An Improvised Life, Arkin reveals what it was like knowing from the age of five that he wanted to be an actor. He became obsessed with films, with role-playing, with becoming someone else. “Every film I saw, every play, every piece of music fed an unquenchable need to turn myself into something other than what I was”. As he grew older, this became somewhat problematic. “I felt that I had no real identity without putting on the mask of another person. I felt a power in that containment, and pretty lost and rootless in my walking around life”. It was after years of self scrutiny that living an “examined life” became his main goal, and acting became an expression of that pursuit.
An Improvised Life is not a career spanning biography in the strictest sense. Arkin rarely discusses specific films he’s made or roles he’s played. He focuses more on how his experiences in the world of theater and film affected his personal growth. The exception is his work with Chicago’s Second City improvisation group, which he takes time to detail early in the book. This is where the “serious start” of his professional life began.
Arkin’s dedication to his craft seems to be a double edged sword. Although he was growing as an artist, he was forced to make certain sacrifices in his personal life because of it. His first marriage failed. Soon after, he realized he had no life outside the theater. This was the wake up call he needed. He began going for what would be years of therapy, which he discusses with positivity and candor.
In recent years, he has taken on the role of teacher, leading small improvisation workshops all over the country. As proud of his accomplishments in Hollywood as he may be (nowhere in the book does he mention his Academy Award or even Little Miss Sunshine, the film that brought it to him), his workshops are a source of great joy to him. Being able to help students, many of whom are novices to the craft, free themselves enough to improvise an effective, emotional scene is a very special thing. A great reward.
Arkin tells his story simply, easily drawing the reader into his world. At only 191 pages, An Improvised Life is not a long book but there is a wealth of life experience in those pages. If you are at all interested in reading about the craft of acting from the point of view of one who values it above fame, you’ll want to read Alan Arkin’s An Improvised Life.