Gonna make you a star

Oscar-winners thank her in their acceptance speeches, and top actors queue up for her classes. What's so special about Susan Batson? Kaleem Aftab finds out
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The Independent Culture

Susan Batson says she wants to remain anonymous. The 60-year-old gives the impression of being both surprised and galled to learn that her reputation as the most innovative acting coach since Lee Strasberg has made its way across the pond.

It is a Saturday, and Black Nexxus, the New York-based acting school that Batson founded and teaches from, is a hive of activity. From the elevator, you have to walk through the main acting studio to reach the administration area, which is cordoned off by temporary partitions. Cameras record a small group of actors doing soliloquies; the tapes are used as learning-aids for the pupils. In the administration area, several young pupils who look like they have been cut out of the cover of Vogue stand around outside her office, staring.

Inside her cramped office, which is in the throes of being evacuated, Batson seems cautious and on guard. She fires an onslaught of questions before excusing her forthrightness by stating: "I just want to know where you're coming from." Her high-pitched voice reveals her pride in being a mysterious figure, someone who can lurk behind the scenes unnoticed. To illustrate that, she joyfully recalls how at a recent dinner she bumped into the director of The Human Stain, Robert Benton. When he heard that Batson had been on his set in Toronto, coaching Nicole Kidman, he was so surprised that he just kept on repeating: "You were in Toronto? In Toronto where?" Benton was obviously distraught that he could fail to notice Batson, who despite her diminutive frame has the presence of Eartha Kitt on speed.

It's harder for Batson to stay off the radar now that the Golden Globes and the Oscars double as promotional videos for her talents; winners take it in turns to thank Batson in their acceptance speeches. Tom Cruise, Juliette Binoche, Adrien Brody and Denzel Washington are just some of the actors who give Batson a call when they need a little extra help in preparing for a role. Hollywood studios are equally enamoured of her. Aisha Coley, vice-president of casting for Fox, says: "Susan is amazing. To see an actor perform both before and after they have worked with Susan is unbelievable."

Spike Lee has employed Batson on a number of his films, most notably on He Got Game, when the sports-mad director wanted to cast the basketball star Ray Allen. Lee commented: "Before I decided to use a basketball player in He Got Game, I made sure that Susan Batson was free. There was no way that I was going to choose such a route without the help of Susan Batson." Allen, in his only on-screen performance, ended up being nominated for an MTV film award as Best Newcomer to Cinema.

Black Nexxus is also the first port of call for celebrities who decide to try their luck in front of a movie camera. Q-Tip, who rose to prominence with the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest and has starred in films opposite Janet Jackson and Wesley Snipes, says: "I hooked up with Susan Batson because of Madonna. I was at Madonna's house, and she recommended Susan Batson to me. Susan's a genius. I don't like using that word, because people overuse it, but she really is a genius."

Q-Tip's acting has proved a cut above the usual dour performances of the musician-cum-actor, and he puts to shame Naomi Campbell and Jennifer Lopez, who have similarly waxed lyrical about Batson's methods.

Batson had a miserable childhood in Boston. Her mother constantly reminded the girl that "the family can't stand you", and when she was eight years old, her mother told Batson that she was taking her to "a place". Batson, terrified that she was on her way to a mental institution, was dropped off at the Boston Troops Theatre. But before long, Batson thought that she had found her calling and started going to the theatre whenever she could; she was soon picking up regular work on television and in local theatre. As soon as she turned 16, Batson headed to the bright lights of New York City, where she achieved mild success, performing in the inaugural production of Hair and playing a minor role in the television series The Incredible Hulk. Acting took a back seat when Batson, looking for solace and a stable family structure, got married and had a child.

The dream of a secure family life soon evaporated, and her marriage failed after three years. Batson was naturally worried about the prospects for a single mother in the industry. When she was in Hair, she had struck up a friendship with Lee Strasberg, the acting coach credited with establishing the reputation of the Actors Studio as the Rolls-Royce of acting schools. Batson went to LA to seek his advice. Strasberg took pity on the distraught mother (and it's easy to see why - she has an endearing maternal air that makes you want to hug her) and gave her a teaching job.

Batson took to teaching like a bee to pollen, and her career quickly blossomed. Almost immediately, she was chosen to represent the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in Germany and France. On her return to New York, she started giving acting lessons from her home on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Transforming Kidman from eye candy in Days of Thunder to Hollywood's most sought-after actress sent Batson's reputation into the stratosphere. Kidman started to take lessons when she was preparing for the role of a manipulative weather girl in To Die For. It paid immediate dividends: she walked off with a clutch of awards, including Best Actress at the Golden Globes. Batson says of the relationship: "For me it is very painful and it is also a joy working with Nicole, because Nicole has steadily, steadily improved. Her understanding of the work from To Die For to the present day has totally and completely grown."

It was when she was asked to help Kidman in her performance in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut that Batson started to make headlines in her own right. Batson is loath to discuss that, and I start to realise that the caution she displayed when I first arrived was justified: she has access to the most intimate details of the lives of some of Hollywood's biggest stars.

What she does say about Tom Cruise and Kidman, in a tender tone that she reserves for big-name actors, is: "I think that what truly happened is that in the transition from the divorce from Tom, the solace that Nicole found in the work was extremely gratifying to me. I loved the roles that were coming in, and the commitment to the work was great, and we really teamed up from that period of time." Batson continually plays down her own role in improving the performances of her clients. Kidman grew to depend on Batson, and their careers got so close and connected that Spike Lee stopped employing Batson on his film sets in 2001, complaining that her involvement with Kidman prevented Batson from putting in enough time with actors on his films. It was a decision that disappointed her, because Lee is one of the few directors who does not fear acting coaches.

"Directors think that you are going to change the actors; they feel like you are playing interference; they are constantly watching to see if you are going to screw it up with the actor, constantly, constantly," Batson asserts. "Now it is my little mission, a little game I play on each film set, trying to get information to the actors without the director knowing that I'm there." She has invented a series of secret signs for that purpose, as well as sending information to actors via friendly crew members on Post-it notes. The advice is usually in the form of little titbits that she feels will spark off the actor who is not quite hitting the mark.

Her methods are dictated by the personality and the experience of the actor. For an inexperienced actor, Batson will try to find a part that resembles their natural persona. For example, a tomboy lesbian would be asked to do a scene from Boys Don't Cry. She will use that to see what emotions the actor has trouble tapping into, and then she will pick a scene that will allow her to work on that aspect with the student. The focus of her job changes with a more experienced actor. "Denzel [Washington] does not have to say anything; you can see the information go in. If I say to him, 'It is time to show love', he is open and he knows what love is. But with someone else, who does not have that openness, you have to help them through it - you are constantly seducing, affirming, having to drag them through it."

At the top end of the acting spectrum, it is the personality of the actor that will affect her approach, and she contrasts Washington's demeanour with the person she calls "the Southern gentleman" - Tom Cruise. "With Cruise, you get immediate gratification. He starts jumping up and down, saying, 'I got it, I got it', and it's fantastic. Most actors internalise, but he externalises everything, and that is great."

Batson looks out for three attributes that she says all actors need. First, they need a level of emotional access; it might be a person blushing or an excruciating shyness. Second, the person must have an ability to be intimate with you immediately. The final attribute is something that George Burns, the comedian, coined: "They can either fake sincerity, or there is a truly sincere thing in them that breathes." Once Batson establishes that the pupil has one of those traits, she looks for ways to access the subconscious of the student; often this demands that Batson take a forthright and aggressive approach.

A current pupil, Tiffany Limos, the star of Larry Clark's Ken Park, says: "Batson is ruthless in class. She will shout at you if you are not doing something right, especially if you are not showing enough commitment." Batson parodied this image of herself as a screeching demagogue when she played an acting coach in Girl 6, one of the few occasions that she has let herself be seen in public.

Batson believes that commitment and a respect for the art form are the essential qualities of a great actor, citing Al Pacino as an example: "It is never a job for him: it is always art," she explains. "He is constantly seeking and growing; he is constantly on the stage. He has failed many times, but it is not about that. When you sit down and look at his body of work, you see an exploration and a growth of himself as an artist; it is quite wonderful, and you have to respect that."

Batson is currently putting her thoughts on acting into a book to be published later this year; she smirks when I say that this is not the act of someone who wants to remain anonymous. She has just finished working with Juliette Binoche. "I always learn from Juliette," she says. "She is the best teacher that I've had in terms of acting - maybe in terms of life." Even so, it's Binoche who feels the need to pay for their time together.

Something that irks Batson is the career of Jennifer Lopez, who, despite showing early promise in Out of Sight, has rightly been slammed for her recent performances. "Nicole and I have talked about me taking time off to work with Jennifer," she says. "Jennifer has always been too busy with her music to really explode as an actor, and it's a shame, because she is one of the funniest women I know."

But right now Batson has to go and teach. On Saturday she takes an open class for anybody who wants to give acting a go. Following the lead of Strasberg, she wants to give upcoming actors as much chance as possible to succeed and explore the art form. Batson uses these classes to decide whether she wants to invite the actors into other classes at the studio, and who would be the best teacher for them. Even though she has worked with some of Hollywood's most famous stars, it is this class that Batson finds the most valuable to teach. "It keeps me investigating the work and keeps a certain aliveness in me that I need," she says. "The skill I get from teaching and working is sharpened, because you have to come up with immediate answers and solve problems."

Batson will need all the problem-solving skills that she can get if she is to turn Lopez into an award-winning actress.

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