Les Chantery - Life in a Mid-Shot

3 November 2022

IMAGE: NIDA 2022, Life in a Mid-Shot Book Launch

At 5 years old Les Chantery knew he wanted to be an actor. “As a child I would play act and fake my own death daily; spider bites, snake bites, death by apocalyptic heat on a hot Summer’s day, there was always some dramatic obstacle that lent itself to a performance.”

Then at 9 years old he told his mother. “At the time Mel Gibson was Australia’s biggest export actor and while she knew nothing about the film & tv industry she somehow she knew that Mel Gibson went to NIDA, and told me that was where I had to go if I wanted to be an actor.”

In that moment a mission began. Les was determined to go to NIDA. “The first time I auditioned I was just out of high school, I’d never taken an acting class before. I did my monologues and was then asked to meet with one of the panellists in a breakout room. It was there they told me I had “raw talent”, but I needed to get some foundational training and come back and try again. Which I did and 6 attempts later I was finally accepted into NIDA”.

Growing up in the outer suburbs of Sydney and attending what was considered “most dangerous high school in NSW” with no drama program, Les felt an initial culture shock of being surrounded by creatives and artists at NIDA. “I would get up at 5am every morning to travel to NIDA and often get home after 10pm. I lived in two very different worlds back then, but it was challenging in the best way.”

“I met my best mate, actress Kate Box (Wentworth, Fires, Stateless) on day one of the course. She sat next to me in the foyer as we were going through the orientation. I thought she was annoying, cut to 22 years later…” he says laughing.

Les had not performed in a play until NIDA, “It was the end of my first year of BFA Acting and my character had to open with a monologue. I got my 5-minute call to the stage and as I made my way to my beginning mark I tripped over and broke my big toe! Before I knew it the lights went down and I did the two-hour show without shoes on and with a broken toe. It was my first “the show must go on” moment’.

Before NIDA, Les booked his first feature film, ‘Pitch Black’, a sci-fi thriller with Vin Diesel. “I had no training, I didn’t know how to hit marks or what the different lens sizes meant. Vin Diesel was my mentor and showed me the ropes. We were filming a sequence where my character gets attacked by an alien. We had shot a lot of coverage and then the director said over a megaphone, “Okay Les, this is your money shot”. Vin looked at me and said “this is your close-up, this one’s for your mum in the audience”. When the director called action, I started screaming as the alien clawed at me, the tears came and it was the first time I cried on screen. I think actors always remember that first time when something feels “real”.

Then in 2007, Les was cast the film ‘Righteous Kill’, shooting in upstate New York, playing a lawyer to Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. “I still remember when I stepped onto set and met them both for the first time. The two Godfathers. My conversation with Al between takes changed my life”.

It was after this life-changing conversation with Al Pacino, in which he said: “Sometimes it’s not the best actor who gets the job, but the actor who gives the best audition.” I decided to investigate auditioning from a scientific and academic perspective. Hollywood is a unique place, you meet a lot of interesting people and you realise “the movies” is like any other business. I spent a lot of time networking with “the suits” in L.A, I understood their business, thanks to the Sydney University Economics Degree I got prior to being accepted into NIDA”. Les was able to work his way into casting rooms in L.A where I listened intently to how Casting Directors spoke about actors, and observed actors in-the-room auditions and self-tapes. I started to find patterns that were” teachable”. I crafted an audition process for actors and they started booking work almost immediately”.

His book Life In A Mid-Shot combines the latest discoveries in human behaviour and blends them with traditional acting concepts, it’s the old with the new, two very different words, brought together to create something new.  For example Les credits Konstantin Stanislavsky’s insights into the human psyche, which were influenced by psychoanalysis and the work of psychologists at the time, like Ribot and Freud.  “100 years later we have MRI machines and Neuroscientists from world-leading universities breaking new ground, we can literally see inside the human brain and derive meaning from our chemistry. I am sure that if Stanislavsky had access to this information, he would have used it, this has been my motivation in writing this book. A shared curiosity for the inside state of the human being”.

There are also different ways that actors work. “Robert De Niro knew where the camera was and adjusted his performance accordingly. Vin Diesel would do pushups before takes energy. Nicole Kidman never does one take the same way twice”.

“Great actors also don’t have the “gene for embarrassment”. Nothing really embarrasses them so they’re free and playful, willing to take risks in their work and try things.”

“Marlon Brando once said, “we’re all actors, we’re all acting every day”. He adds that the difference as a trained actor is he now has a process. Ironically, as you explore characters you inevitably end up exploring yourself. Actors can make an audience laugh or cry. They make the audience feel something. This is a great skill to have in life; communicating with intention and having the ability to make people feel something. The tools I’ve mentioned in the book are built around how we behave, in a mid-shot and in life”.

In closing, some audition advice for new actors; “The word audition can conjure up feelings of evaluation and judgment. Semantics and labels can influence our emotional experience in a situation. I encourage actors to treat the audition as an opportunity to live another life for a few minutes. An opportunity to live someone else’s experience. Give yourself a secret goal in the tape, to do one thing that is just for you. Even if it’s so subtle that no one sees it. Having a secret goal gives you an extra edge on camera”.