Brando on Stella Adler: Believing in Majesty

Stella Adler, as photographed by Rue Faris Drew

Marlon Brando
In Conversation
Via Phone
July 1990

I no longer know how to read or to study or to think or to memorize without inviting Stella into my consciousness. Stella, you see, taught me how a play was built, how ideas were inserted as if they were bricks and windows and cornices and buttresses; how characters were inserted to allow light or shadow or a better view; how a playwright transmitted thoughts and ideas, and how actors were then empowered, required, to pick up those thoughts and ideas and transmit them to both their fellow players and to an audience.

She taught me everything.

All actors, I believe, arrive eager and alive but dumb: They don't really understand anything outside of their desire to act, to be seen, to be understood, to bring understanding to others. I was particularly dumb, because I had come from a background, from a habit, of expression, of acting out, of feeling and thinking things, and I did not have a foundation of literature, of philosophy, of art, of music. I was a big, beautiful, blank sheet of paper, as Stella told me, and it was my job to impress on this blank page some notes, some thoughts--to make an impression. She would help me, she said, but she could not make it happen; she could not make me into an actor; she could not make me sensitive or intelligent.

What she could do, she said, and what she emphatically would do, was kick me out of her class and her life if I did not subscribe to her standards, did not appear to be working at my highest potential, if my page remained blank.

She was a tough, brilliant, beautiful teacher.

She taught me everything. 

Stella believes in majesty: The majesty of art, of all humans, of all life, and she also believes in demanding that we reveal it in ourselves and honor ourselves and others as we pursue this incredible assignment. Stella does not allow us to disparage the attempts of others, but she will remove you from the classroom if you fail to approach your work with the proper respect, the proper reverence.

She told me on several occasions that I was in no position to approach Shakespeare or Shaw or Ibsen or the very idea of a classroom if I arrived late or unkempt or unprepared. I don't ever think Stella was angry with me for failing to respect her space or her time; I think she was enraged that I was failing to live up to my abilities, that I was wasting time that I did not yet know was limited, that I was not elevating art and life in my own small way. All of us, she said, have a role in improving the world. Her great line about life beating you down and crushing the soul, but art reminds us that we have a soul, is not a sentiment reserved for the classroom or the studio: It should be embraced by all of us, as we live and walk around and live with each other.

I'm going to make you into both an actor and a man, she told me, and whatever is noble about me comes from my mother and from Stella. There is a way of moving in the world that defines our lives, and we need to be vigilant about what we allow into our minds and our hearts, or we become corrupted. I became corrupted, and the only way back to saner shores was to think as Stella had taught me, and so I returned to the grand basics--the majestic basics--she had taught me.

No one can guarantee you happiness or success or acceptance, but I do think a great teacher can show you some safe places to visit, to linger, to pine for, to think about living in. I was given a great syllabus for living from Stella, and when I followed it, good things happened.

One night--it was very late and we were very drunk; there was music playing--and Tennessee and I were talking about opportunities presented and opportunities dashed; about youth and beauty and aspiration. We were already growing old and thick and tired, but we remained dreamers. I told him some of my Stella stories, which were not new to Tennessee: He loved her as I did. But on that night, like a flash of light beneath the amber of Scotch, Tennessee told me a lovely thing Edith Evans had told him: Stand porter at the door of thought. We should only let in those thoughts we then want to see made manifest on our bodies, in our minds, in our lives. 

Tennessee and I were clearly hungry for so many things: love, affection, affirmation. We looked for it in flesh and food and spirits and wild rites of religious fervor. We were curious and so, so hungry.

Find a road map, find a path, find a teacher.

My teacher was Stella Adler.

Published August, 2012, by Alfred A. Knopf.



  1. Great material here. Never got to interview Brando myself, but I imagine he would have told me the same things about Stella. You wrote "to be continued." When?

    1. Working on that book right now, where Marlon continues his learning patterns.


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