Acting coaches unimpressed with World Cup players' flopping

SAMARA, Russia - Alarm bells rang inside Jim Calder's brain earlier this week as he watched Neymar, the Brazilian soccer superstar, squirm on the grass and cry out in apparent distress.

“Neymar does what all beginning actors do,” he said. “They oversell the event.”

Calder would know. For three decades he has taught acting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. His voice has been consistently hoarse this summer, a consequence of yelling at students all day at a theater workshop he runs every year in Florence, Italy. Yet when the classes have ended, when he turns on the television to watch the World Cup at night, he continues to have his thespian tastes affronted.

The same thing happens every four years: On the biggest stage in sports, some of the world's best soccer talents reveal themselves to be D-list actors. They pantomime pain. They exaggerate like silent film stars. They don't seem to care who sees.

While the players' theatrics are provoking a familiar hand-wringing ritual among soccer purists, they are drawing a different, more specialized sort of attention from acting coaches like Calder, who have trouble quieting their professional impulses while watching the tournament.

“I will say I've been impressed by these players' commitment to their choices,” said Peter Kelley, the acting coach on the set of the television series “NCIS: Los Angeles.” “When an actor has a moment - you open the door, you see your wife's body on the floor - you have to commit. ‘Do I break down crying? Am I numb?'

“And when your choice as a player is, ‘I don't know if I'll ever walk again,' you can't go halfway,” he added.

Most will agree that Neymar has not gone halfway at this World Cup. While leading Brazil to the quarterfinal round with his electric play, he has also committed considerable energy to ensuring that the world - as well as the referee - understands his pain.

Things reached melodramatic heights Monday night when his rather overstated reaction to having his foot stepped on during Brazil's 2-0 win against Mexico earned him a round of condemnation in the soccer world and a tidal wave of playful derision on social media.

“He's one of the best five players in the world - why do you need this acting? For what?” Lothar Matthäus, a former captain of Germany's national team, said.

Playacting has various purposes in soccer. Players flop to draw a foul or feign innocence (or even injury) to avoid one. They nurse imaginary wounds to waste time. They embellish contact to make pedestrian fouls seem far worse, hoping to coax a referee to present a yellow or red card to the perceived offender.

Philippa Strandberg-Long, an acting coach from London, has found the players' World Cup histrionics frustrating, too. As a soccer fan, she feels the playacting diminishes the game; as an acting teacher, she feels it diminishes the art form.

A proponent of the Meisner technique - acting is reacting - Strandberg-Long highlighted a basic lesson about proportional responses called “the pinch and the ouch” as relevant to the World Cup. An acting student who is pinched, she said, should not tumble out of his or her chair. A soccer player who is hit in the arm should not grab his face. The audience, in both cases, will not enjoy that.

“If you have a response that doesn't correspond to the event, we won't empathize, we won't believe you, and we'll start to question why,” said Strandberg-Long, who has a son in the youth academy of the London soccer club Millwall. “Either you are lying or you're psychologically ill.”

“We have this urge to exaggerate to make people believe us,” she added. “But a lot of the time it has the opposite effect.”

Despite a mountain of evidence and bad movie cameos to dispute this, Kelley insisted that professional athletes could in fact make good actors. In the 1990s, he coached the NBA player Rick Fox, who appeared in several films and television shows while playing for the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers. Kelley said he and Fox sometimes discussed the finer points of flopping on the basketball court, evaluating the good and bad performers around the league.

Kelley scolded the players who failed to remember that the audience does not only watch the main actor in a scene.

“You see the teammates standing around like they're waiting for the show to end,” he said. “Improvisation is a team sport.”

Individual World Cup players, nevertheless, get singled out for scorn - and often rightly so. For all the sublime refinement of Neymar's dribbling and passing, his acting this month has displayed all the finesse and subtlety of a reality show dust-up.

But Alejandro Chacoff - a writer from Rio de Janeiro whose essay “Falling Men” for the literary magazine n+1 examined the changing perceptions of diving in soccer - suggested this was not a solitary problem. “People call Neymar the actor,” Chacoff said, “but I think it's just that he's the worst actor out of all the others.”

That may feel true to those watching the World Cup, where few of the 32 teams could claim not to have tried to influence a situation with a bit of role-playing.

Some, then, have come to the defense of Neymar, who has been fouled 23 times already at this tournament, more than any other player by a wide margin. His countryman Ronaldo, who won the World Cup with Brazil in 1994 and 2002, said Neymar was adeptly using his body to defend himself from further harm.

“Football has many interpretations,” said Ronaldo, who is providing commentary here for Brazilian television. “I think referees need to give him a little more protection, personally.”

Likewise, people's moral standards on these issues have proved to be mutable. Tite, the coach of Brazil, has vigorously defended Neymar throughout the tournament. Yet six years ago - when he coached Corinthians against Santos, Neymar's club at the time - he criticized the player's antics as “a bad example for a kid, for my son.”Others might point to the conduct of England, a team that has often presented itself as ethically above such behaviors but nevertheless used a plethora of theatrical tricks and deceptions in a scrappy win Tuesday against Colombia (which eagerly acted out, too). “Maybe we're getting a bit smarter,” manager Gareth Southgate said after the match. “Maybe we're now playing by the rules the rest of the world are playing by.”

Calder, the acting coach from NYU, has thus tended to take a wider view, shaped through decades studying the craft.

“All humans are acting,” he said. “You learn when you're a baby: If I cry, my mother will come over. If I cry, this guy will get a red card. It's the same thing.”

And so even as Calder critiqued Neymar's technique this week, he suggested fans perhaps could think more like actors, too, as they considered the players' behavior. Good actors must be empathetic people, he said, and the best ones, as a rule, do not judge the characters they play.

“That gray zone of a Hannibal Lecter, an Iago, that's fascinating,” Calder said. “That's part of every human being: that desire to destroy, that violence. If you judge them, you will not go deeper. You will not explore why. You will not understand what it means to be human.”

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