BWW Exclusive: Advice from an NTI Alum - Matt Newton
This week students are honing their acting skills on-camera with NTI alum Matt Newton (NTI Fall '97). Matt is the founder of MN Acting Studio NYC and currently the on-set acting coach for Season 5 of the hit CBS show BLUE BLOODS. As well as teaching Auditioning and Business of the Business for NTI, he is a contributor to BACKSTAGE and the author of the book 10 STEPS TO BREAKING INTO ACTING. Scroll down for photos of Newton working with NTI, plus an exclusive Q&A for Risk Again, in which he shares his NTI memories, what it's like returning to campus as a faculty member, and his advice for young actors!
Why did you choose a career in the arts?
I enjoy the creative freedom it gives me. My mom went to art school, and I grew-up with an affinity for all things creative. I took my first improv class in high school, and that completely brought me out of my shell and made me want to audition for the school plays. I then went on to Vassar College, where I majored in Drama, and then studied at the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. I was interested in portraying other characters, and I always had this huge desire to perform.
How did your semester at NTI influence your career as an artist?
It was the single most important factor in my decision to become a professional actor. Absolutely life changing, in the best way. Great people, great teachers. I went into those 14 weeks in the fall of '97 not quite sure of myself, and left with the confidence to pursue this career for a living. I received so much honest feedback, worked on wonderful scenes, constantly pushed myself outside of my comfort zone, learned my strengths and weaknesses, and really developed my craft at a very high level with like-minded people.
What have been some of your favorite projects to work on?
My favorite theater job was a production of ROMEO and JULIET directed by Erica Schmidt I did with Rachel Jett (now the Artistic Director of NTI) in the summer of '99 in a parking lot on the Lower East Side. It was the middle of summer, I was brand new to New York City, and I've never worked harder in my life. My second favorite job was a recurring role I did on ABC Television's UGLY BETTY. My first episode was filmed in the Bahamas! I also got to work with my sister (Becki Newton, who played Amanda) for five episodes (including the show's final episode).
If you could give three pieces of advice to your 20-year-old self, what would they be?
Most of the time the reason you don't get a job has nothing to do with your talent.
Be who you are and own it. Age, type, weight, ethnicity, and all of your idiosyncrasies make you interesting and different.
Who have been your biggest inspirations?
I am inspired by great film performances. I find Christian Bale's work amazing, especially in AMERICAN PSYCHO and THE FIGHTER. I also find Joseph Gordon Levitt and Patrick Wilson to be amazing actors. I think McConaughey's work in TRUE DETECTIVE is beautiful and inspiring, and a great example of when an amazing director and a great actor work together with a terrific script. I also think Jeremy Renner's work is inspiring (my first movie was playing opposite him in DAHMER). I am inspired by realness, by truth, and by actors opening themselves up in front of the camera and seamlessly traversing between emotions in a subtle way.
What does your job entail as an acting coach?
It involves pulling great performances from actors, and getting them to be relaxed and confident in front of the camera. I spend most of my week between teaching audition classes, audition coaching, and taping auditions. I also coach one day a week on set with BLUE BLOODS, write a BACKSTAGE column, and just finished a book 10 STEPS TO BREAKING INTO ACTING, which is a great guide for actors new to the New York and LA market. Just like when I was at NTI, I keep pretty busy!
What's the biggest mistake young actors usually make in auditions?
Being unprepared and not making strong choices. Instead of worrying about what "they" (the casting directors) want, it's important to show them who the character is, your interpretation, and your unique spin on it. The words are just a rough guide, and the magic comes from what you bring to it. Many actors tend to be tentative in their choices, which strips away their personality hides what makes them unique and makes them stand out. It's about relaxing and going in confident with your craft and your choices, and earning the trust of casting directors.
How do I get better at auditioning/cold reads?
Practice with a friend and tape yourself. All the time. Find scripts online, use your iphone, and give yourself 5 minutes to look at a script before putting it on-camera. Cold reads are an essential skill in the world of TV and film (and voiceovers and commercials too, actually), and you must master it, as auditions come up so last minute. Be interested in what the other person is saying, focus on the connection, and trust that you can look down and grab the words when you need. Just relax and listen. It's not about the words, it's about your point of view and what you want.
How do I decide what my "type" is, and then find material to showcase it?
I wrote an article on this for BACKSTAGE that talks about how essential it is to lock down your type. It should be done before your headshots, before you start submitting for auditions, and before you do your demo reel. It's about knowing your age range, your ethnicity, your body type, and owning it. The most attractive thing an actor can do is be completely authentic and bring their unique personality to the script. Once you have that down, look for obscure monologues from plays and TV shows (Netflix is great for this), that really show who you are.
Do I have to move to New York, LA, Chicago to make a career as an actor?
I think to compete at a high level those are the essential cities to be in, as that is where most of the casting directors, agents, and high profile union jobs exist. However, cities like Miami, Wilmington, and Austin are becoming bigger markets, using local hires for union films. Also, many actors make a great career out of doing tours and regional theater.
How does TV work differ from theater work?
TV happens very quickly, with roles being cast up until the day before shooting, and constant rewrites happening during filming. It's less linear than theater work, in that everything is filmed out of sequence, with 175 people working on one scene for four hours, which ends up becoming 2 minutes on-screen. It requires internalizing the emotions, and letting the camera pick up the thoughts behind the eyes. Whereas, in theater, the actor has to convey those same emotions to the back row, thus forcing the actor to adjust their delivery (making the manifestations of the emotions a bit more exaggerated).
Do I need a masters degree to make it in the business?
No. While advanced training is respected, any agent will tell you actors don't need to get a degree to become a successful professional actor in theater, TV, or film. I think taking courses from great teachers in a conservatory environment like NTI is amazing, and gives you a really strong appreciation of the craft and the skill required to be a strong actor with a sustainable career.
What's it like returning to teach at NTI as an alum?
It is wonderful and nostalgic, as that place holds very special memories for me. Rachel has created an intimate, fiercely creative environment and established a really strong work ethic. I've been in their shoes. It's like looking at a version of my younger self, and I see how eager they are to learn and take the craft seriously. They are so receptive, and I love that I can give them firsthand experience of what it's like in the real world so they are prepared and ready when they begin their professionals careers, whether it's in film, TV, or theater. And the library still has the same books 17 years later!
What is the biggest risk you've taken?
Six months after I moved to New York, I drove out to Los Angeles for pilot season. All I had was a suitcase, a couch to crash on, and a Toyota pickup truck that I had won at the Ice Capades in 8th grade (don't ask). I was only planning on staying for a month, but I ended up staying for 7 years working in TV and film! It was amazing, and taking that risk really jumpstarted my career as a professional actor.
Matt Newton is a professional actor and acting coach, and the founder of the MN Acting Studio in New York City. He is currently the on-set coach for the hit CBS show BLUE BLOODS, author of the popular book 10 STEPS TO BREAKING INTO ACTING, is an industry expert contributor to BACKSTAGE, and teaches classes and workshops across the country. Matt has coached Golden Globe nominees and Emmy Award-winners, has worked as an on-set coach on feature films and TV shows, and has been a guest talent judge on several reality shows. Over the course of his career, Newton has worked alongside top industry veterans including Oscar winner Jeff Bridges; Oscar nominees Jeremy Renner and Michael Lerner; and Karen Allen, Ryan Reynolds, and Amy Sedaris. He has guest starred on dozens of television shows, most recently THE AMERICANS, ROYAL PAINS, and UGLY BETTY as well as appeared in countless films, commercials, and voiceovers. He is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA and Fall 1997 alum of the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.
Next week: RISK AGAIN! takes a look inside NTI's Playwrights and Librettist Week! This collaborative week supports and amplifies the voices of the next generation of American theater writers under the mentorship of professional playwrights and librettist Donna Di Novelli and Adam Bock (NTI Fall '84).
To learn more and apply, visit www.NationalTheaterInstitute.org and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (@NTIRiskFailRisk). The application deadline for summer and fall programs is March 20. Early applications are encouraged.
Actor and acting coach Matthew Newton, trained at the National Theatre Institute
On-camera acting class with Matt Newton at MN Studios NYC
Matt Newton returns to the Eugene O'Neill Theater to teach.
Matt Newton and the Spring 2014 ensemble
From This Author National Theater Institute