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Acting teacher Elizabeth Mestnik wants to know what you would die for, and please no phony tears

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Part nurturer, part drill sergeant, acting teacher Elizabeth Mestnik tries to guide her students toward truthful performances.

The woman sitting next to the clock will lead you to the dark, scary place, the joyous epiphany. Her words are swift, her gaze fixed. A gleam, like a knife, waits in her smile. Elizabeth Mestnik has been teaching actors — strivers, posers and naturals — for decades. The unfortunate one standing beneath the globed-paper lights of her stage is about to get schooled.

Breathing hard, hands sticky with frosting, he is shaking, as if he had tumbled out of a sudden storm. Or maybe not. He had appeared ready, but when he stepped on stage for a scene with cupcakes and a cheating wife he could not summon the inner whisper that turns the make-believe into the real.

“I don’t buy it,” says Mestnik. “You’re not convincing me.” A pause, eyes bore in. “You can write it all down, but if it’s not in your gut, if it’s not in your passion, then it’s not on the stage. Give me righteous vengeance. That’s what I want.” She utters vengeance with sinister delight. The actor, still in the moment, wipes his brow, shakes his head, cleans up his cupcake mess and takes a seat.

“What’s the definition of acting?” says Mestnik.

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“Responding truthfully to imaginary circumstances,” says one student in the class of 12.

Acting teacher Elizabeth Mestnik, center, begins class with a yoga sequence of breath and movement exercises, at her studio.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

This town has many answers to that question. From art-house films to blockbusters, and from acting studios to creaky playhouses, the craft that has been drawing dreamers to Hollywood for generations is in essence a stripping down and re-imagining of self. Agents, publicists, fragrance ads, mega-bucks contracts, meltdowns and Twitter scandals come later or not at all. Jennifer Lawrence may have been discovered on a New York sidewalk, but such fables are at once incandescent and elusive.

If it’s not in your gut, if it’s not in your passion, then it’s not on the stage.

Elizabeth Mestnik, acting teacher

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The entertainment industry craves awards and stardom, a hyped veneer that often overshadows the introspective and exacting work of acting. Some actors study at top-tier universities such as Yale’s drama program or theater conservatories such as Juilliard. Countless others arrive in Los Angeles with a suitcase and a pile of ambition, enrolling in a constellation of acting schools, some of which prey upon vanity and naivete. The reputable schools, like Mestnik’s, become a home, a place to sharpen skills, commiserate over rejections and celebrate those fleeting, sweet callbacks.

Most of the students at the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio in Studio City are in their 20s, chasing parts in commercials, webcasts, movies and scripts that can be spun into pilots for a Netflix or Amazon series. They wait tables, tend bar, sell stuff on eBay. They are nannies and odd-jobbers, driving past small houses and tended lawns to a corner studio, which has a couch, piano and rows of hard-back chairs. They open notebooks, memorize lines, emotionally prep and step on stage, where Mestnik, like a fierce moth, circles them and stirs the air with truisms: “Generality is the enemy of art. We have to live in specifics.”

“We’re trying to live the truth when we act,” said Jaden Loughlin, a first-year Mestnik student and figure skater who wore a nose ring, long hair and denim jacket. “Too much in Los Angeles is about the brand of the person. So much about Internet followers. The business of it all can be discouraging, so you have to focus on the craft. I know people who gave up because their manager told them they didn’t have enough followers on Instagram. You have to keep your integrity.”

“I’m an anxious internalizer,” she added. “Elizabeth gets me out of my head and teaches me to ride my impulse.”

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Mestnik is a steely presence in the wings. She extends and cuts scenes, cajoling, comforting and edging toward feelings that hide in deep places. She wears glasses, keeps her studio swept. Her voice soothes and stings, challenging the genuineness of every twitch, glance and inflection. False notes are batted away with fury.

As a child she played a broken-winged bluebird in kindergarten, but over the years Mestnik drifted to teaching, demanding that her students “figure out what you would die for.”

“Elizabeth definitely can be very forceful,” said Matthew Jaeger, a former Mestnik pupil and working actor who has appeared in “Grey’s Anatomy” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” “I was intimidated by her.” He added: “But at the same time she’s very nurturing. She’s good at seeing what a student needs.” Since taking her class, he said, “my callback ratio has increased and my booking ratio has doubled.”

Mestnik jolts actors into the moment but has seen how iPhones and the digital world have changed how her younger students confront emotion. “There’s a little more fear of human contact and communication. Every year I notice a bit more resistance to it,” said Mestnik, who has coached Charles Michael Davis of the vampire TV series “The Originals.” “We are teaching them how to have conflict. All those things we used to have, to be present, to watch what we said and how it affected somebody, is no longer a part of their lives. They can just do it in a text.”

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Follow your instincts

Mestnik, 49, grew up in Denver, the daughter of a salesman and a teacher. She received a master of fine arts in acting at Rutgers University. She played Shakespeare’s Juliet in Philadelphia and Heidi of “The Heidi Chronicles” in New Jersey. Drawn to coaching and directing, Mestnik moved to Los Angeles and rented a space in the Elephant Theatre off Vine Street. She took on students and in 2000 directed Fred Savage and Ed Asner in “Wendell and Ben” at the Tiffany Theater.

“I loved acting, but at one point I realized I enjoyed helping other people,” she said. “That became more important to me than me doing it myself.”

Her studio, which includes seven other coaches, charges registration and tuition of $2,810 for classes that start in September and end in June. Mestnik follows the technique of Sanford Meisner, an actor in the Group Theatre of the 1930s who collaborated with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg before refining his own philosophy. Unlike Strasberg’s Method style, which pulls from affective memory and experience, and was key to the careers of Ellen Burstyn and Al Pacino, the Meisner approach relies more on imagination and creating a believable world by reacting with instinct.

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Mestnik stresses repetition, point of view, improvisation and learning to read other characters, deciphering more from what is done than from what is said. It’s like trying to paint a picture while a precocious or erratic brother, sister or stranger vies for your attention.

Of Method acting, she said: “I don’t think it’s healthy to continually rip open real-life wounds. People try to create drama in their lives to pull from for their art, and I just think that’s a hard way to live your life.” She added that Meisner technique lets the actor draw veracity from the imaginary. “You can’t fake it. It’s training your sense of truthful behavior with your uniqueness.”

“Not from the head,” she often says to her students, a mix of theater majors, professional actors and amateurs, “but from the gut.”

Elizabeth Mestnik, center, warms up her class.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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A recent day class began with breathing and stretching exercises. Shoulders twirled, students panted like dogs. “OK, now horse lips, up and down.” Tongue-twisters — “11 malevolent elephants” — were recited in quick succession. “Articulate,” said Mestnik, “articulate.” Voices and moans filled the room, as if from a tribe lost in a canyon. Students then regrouped and sat inches from one another, whispering intimacies. “Actors are not allowed casual listening.”

Scenes from plays, including “Barefoot in the Park” and “Proof,” were rehearsed. Students struggled to press beyond sentimentality to inhabit the raw and find tears, rage and fear that made them volatile but not unhinged. Winces and split-second mood shifts forced calibrations as actors adjusted within the script, and to Mestnik, who at times pounded her desk, yelling for improvisation.

“You have to be in response,” she said to one actor. “You’re frozen up.”

“Dial it down,” she said to another. “You can’t sacrifice context for this.”

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“You still got a lot of work to do,” she told one student after a skit about a fight over a contract. “But it was beautiful the way you didn’t give up.”

DeAngelo Paschal was battling joy. A big man with a quiet gait, Paschal, playing a mathematician who had solved a riddle, entered through a stage door. He was excited about his discovery but not, in Mestnik’s estimation, rapturous enough. She stopped the scene, told him to do it again. He sighed and grumbled.

“I hate happy,” he said. “How many times can I win the lottery? How many times can I think about my wedding? Happy is hard.”

“It’s ... hard,” said Mestnik.

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“The body,” she would later say, “doesn’t know the difference between real life and a fully lived fantasy.”

A well-built man with a reddish beard, Jaeger, trained in stage combat, enrolled in Mestnik’s classes after he was cast as a jailed child molester in a play. It was difficult to find the emotional depth and nuance the character demanded. “I had to tear it down and build it back up,” he said of his technique. Mestnik, he said, used the analogy that “you run 10 miles in class so you only have to run two miles on stage.”

An actor can find his place in the world on such advice. “I’m not rich and famous,” said Jaeger, who grew up in Milwaukee and is married to actress Carolina Espiro, who has appeared in “Days of Our Lives” and “Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders.” His ambition years ago was to make a living “while acting, supporting a family, having a little house in Pasadena. That’s what we have, a little house, a garden and two dogs.”

Jaden Loughlin is not there yet. She has a list of “survival jobs”: nanny, courier, bartender, hostess, eBay entrepreneur. She’s rehearsing for a short film, “Blueprint Soul,” and hopes it will turn into a pilot for a streaming network. She plays “a naïve innocent, feeling oppressed.” There’s a twist of irony in the description, but Loughlin is an earnest woman with shiny hair and a smile that hangs in the air a bit. The movie shoots in April.

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“I was hitting walls a few months ago,” said Loughlin, who in Mestnik’s class played a woman confronting a boyfriend after an abortion. “It was mental fry. Drained. I was very, very self-critical. But you keep doing it. You trust the process.”

See the most-read stories this hour »

Twitter: @JeffreyLAT

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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