I saw my first bullfight when I was twenty... in an arena in Madrid and it was bewildering, frightening, disgusting, exhilarating, thrilling and very stimulating for the macho ego. I had read Hemingway and seen Tyrone Power in "Blood and Sand". I fell in love with Flamenco, I fell in love with Lorca, I eventually came to understand what the Spaniards revered in the ancient ritual of corrida de toros (literally, the running of the bulls), what the Spanish gypsies call, la furia. But I never quite accepted the final killing of the animal... it was disturbing and rubbed against my growing misanthropic preference for non-human companionship. I came to prefer the Portuguese ritual with a man on a trained horse pitted against the raw, reflexive power of a creature that simply wanted to be left alone. More beauty, more elegance, more "fury", even though it irritated a belief I had (and still do) that humans should not ride on the backs of horses, that horses don't like it. But that's another comment for another time.
Fast forward to some years later in San Francisco. I was directing a studio program for actors in the days when I still believed that this kind of training was significant and that American actors, especially California actors could be significantly trained. One day, out of the ever-present bay fog, a fellow walked in, registered for the full program and plopped himself down in a corner of the studio to take his first acting class. His name was Peter, which he pronounced "Pater" in well-spoken English but with a European accent that was hard to place... definitely Nordic, not necessarily German, maybe Icelandic. He was quite good looking, actually beautiful: many of the women in the class couldn't stop staring at him and it was true of some of the men as well. He was tall, dark blonde, smiled easily with a gentle nature and had the movement grace of a dancer.
Peter was also poor. We never did find out exactly where he came from and many suspected that he was in the country illegally because he worked a series of odd distasteful jobs that prevented him from socializing with any of his fellow acting students. His clothes were last year's "thrift shop" discounts, and he was awkwardly thin and always hungry and grateful when anyone offered to share a snack. He often came to class with sores around his ankles which he attributed to a rampant flea problem in the hovel he rented. He had no pets, just fleas.
His work in the studio was mild, nothing special other than a brooding aloofness which on occasion lent an interesting presence to a scene or an exercise moment. But one day, he unleashed a surprise, a dimension of himself and his acting talent that... for lack of a more handy cliché.... took everyone's breath away.
This was a week in which the students were preparing and performing a piece of their own design that explored risk, the risk of opening oneself up completely to an audience, of walking that high wire of an all-or-nothing emotional state. On this late-light Thursday afternoon, it was Peter's call. He rose, took off his shoes, and pulled out a large red cloth. Then he startled us: out of his backpack he produced a mouse, a live mouse, actually a hamster. Now prepare to accept this: it was an Israeli hamster, a brown and white desert creature that had an amusing and effective defense strategy against predators. This little furry rodent had a tail made up of horn-like segments each connected to each other. When a hungry hamster-snacker grabbed the running mouse (sorry, hamster) by the tail it simply pulled out of its connections leaving the hunter with a mouthful of tasteless pieces and the hamster with an escape. And to fully exploit this amazing strategy of evolution, the hamster could act... it was an actor, a natural. Because when it was cornered, instead of dissolving in fear or rearing up on its hind legs, it turned on some faux aggression and charged its attacker, turning away in just the nick of time to seduce the predator to lunge at it and its deceptive tail. Didn't work all the time, but evidently enough to promote the longevity and abundance of these Israeli denizens.
Peter placed the hamster in the center of the floor. It was obviously his friend and a pet since it just stood there twiddling its mousey nose. He announced his performance with one word: "Matador". Then he began to move like a Flamenco dancer, circling the hamster, waving the red cloth like a cape. It was rather funny at first but eventually the laughs disappeared as Peter intensified his performance punctuated with increasingly gripping short bursts of dialogue. It was a scene about a bullfighter who had lost his nerve and his portrayal became simultaneously intense and well defined. The incongruous comedy dropped away when Peter's little fire breathing "bull" played his role and began his storied charges... racing toward him and then away and then again... each time driving Peter's character to his knees until, finally, he collapsed and the "bull" ran right over him and vanished into the backpack. Peter responded to this moment as if he had been gored, terribly wounded by razor-sharp horns. When he struggled to his feet, sweating and breathing with unendurable pain, there were no smiles anywhere in the studio, only an audience in fear and pending sorrow, as he sighed his last breath and crumbled for the last time. He could have played the scene with an imaginary "toro" with good effect, but there was something unnerving and emotionally rocking that came from the belief in the reality he had created around that little hamster. It was that belief we all absorbed and it moved us.
Peter stayed at the studio for a few more months and then left. The next time I heard from him, he was... well, you know... in the movies. And about six years later, he was a "star" (so to speak), fully vested in the magazines, on the talk shows and with a nomination or two. Don't ask me! Pater, no longer called Peter, reads Scene4 and I'm sure he's pissed as hell that I told this little story. He's actually a very private man!
The last time I talked to him, he said, "I learned in your classes what acting was and how important it is to me. Some day, I'm going to do it!" And I said to him, "Con mucho gusto."