“You have an honest face”: Daniel Day-Lewis, Viggo Mortensen, and … Paula

Anyone who’s paying attention can tell that she’s gifted, and gifted at the highest level. The passion is there, and there are a of couple of those unmistakable “telltale signs.” All a person has to do is watch Paula for a while. Y’know how there are dogs that … well, you only need to catch a moment’s glimpse of them, and there’s no doubt at all in your mind that that’s not only a biting dog, but a mongrel that’ll drag you out into the middle of a busy street and leave you there, if it concludes that you need running over. (Have you also noticed that it’s difficult, and maybe not all that smart, to take your eyes off a dog like that?) That’s how it is with about one in a million actors, musicians, and singers. You can tell at a glance, even when they’re really, really young, that they have an innate ability to grab hold of you and take you just about anywhere they’re moved to take you. They can do that because, as Mark Twain said, it’s “the law of their make.” They were born to do that. Having said that… I have to admit that, hard as I’ve tried, I haven’t actually heard Paula sing. (Not that I need to hear her to know what she’s capable of…) I suppose I could just find a way to sit closer, but it’s at least possible that she hasn’t yet learned to fully project that presence of hers, that voice, so that everyone can hear her! Some dogs, you can hear them howling from two miles away, and your entire being shudders. With Paula, it’s not like that. Yet.

Have you ever known anyone like that? Someone who is just compelling to look at, and you instinctively know better than to take your eyes off of them, but you can’t tell why you can’t stop staring. I mean, Paula’s gorgeous, no doubt about that. But goodness, the foothills to the west of our home can be gorgeous in a given moment, too … “gorgeous” is a fleeting thing. In order for something to be truly compelling … I mean, beyond cur-gonna-bite-and-drag compelling … it has to threaten to carry us right into the heart of a beauty which is eternal … and Paula has that “Himalayan Sherpa” quality. We here at RiceHouse first saw Paula when she was a fairly tiny nine year old, and that awe-evoking magnificence was already fully present. (No surprise in that … the sort of “compelling” I am talking about is present from the moment of birth, and it never fades. Which is not to say that most of us have been trained to see it, or even look for it, which is why we’re sometimes so taken by surprise when it pierces our unconsciousness.) When I first spent time with Paula (I was eleven, and about the same size she was), I found myself just staring at her, wondering, “Who is Paula becoming, who did God create her to be?!” It takes a while, sometimes, for a presence like hers to fully manifest, and…. Well, until that happens, about all a person can do is look for clues.

With Paula, there were two major clues right away. First, when beautiful music was played, her entire attention went to the music. If even the distraction of breathing requested her participation, her response was imperceptible. It was immediately obvious that her soul bore some profound connection to Beethoven, to Chopin, to Liszt… Second, as the mood of the music changed, so did Paula’s face. The changes were sometimes dramatic, sometimes subtle, but she without exception captured, and her features then expressed, the nuances which the music conveyed, from its architectures to its passions.

Only the very greatest, and most courageous, of our actors, singers, and musicians have the phenomenal indwelling gift of being able to capture and convey, in a completely honest and authentic way, the widest range of human emotion and behavior. In doing this, they inform us, and they stretch us. Have you noticed how many folks greet the world from behind a “mask?” They find some pretense, some way of presenting themselves to the world which is “acceptable” or “safe” or “jolly,” or any number of other things, but is never authentic. Theirs is never an honest face. Have they ever truly considered what it might be like, for themselves, and for others as well, if they stepped into their fullest possible magnificence, and expressed their gifts in a completely authentic and honest way?

Consider the plight of, say, a father who has only discovered how to be “stern” in relationship with his children. What might it take for such a father to discover all the other, and particularly the more glorious, possibilities? What might suggest to him that, inside him, there lives a whole array of choices?

Well, when Daniel Day-Lewis, one of our greatest living actors, played the role of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, in the movie Gangs of New York, he showed us what life can look like when most of a person’s choices range from (merely) stern to horrifically brutal. How utterly different from the choices demonstrated by Cecil Vyse, the priggish character Day-Lewis played in A Room with a View, or the beyond-courageous Hawkeye / Nathaniel Poe, from The Last of the Mohicans! Similarly, look at the amazing differences among the characters portrayed by another of our greatest actors, Viggo Mortensen: Tom Stall / Joey Cusack in A History of Violence; Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy; and Nikolai Luzhin in Eastern Promises! It is stunning to realize that any two of the characters in these movies, so completely and totally different from one another, could be played by the same actor!

One of the telltale signs that you’re dealing with a great actor or singer or musician is that their various photos look so different from one another … it’s often difficult to tell it’s the same person in each photo! And yet, each photo is startlingly compelling! Paula’s photos have this quality about them. Have you ever thought about why, for most of us, every photo looks almost exactly like every other photo? Many of the roles which we humans are called to play in life only require us to look one way … so one face, one appearance, is all we ever need (more or less)! This can be a good thing, of course! I mean, all a little child needs is for the loving, kindly, comforting face of her or his trusted pediatrician to suddenly transform, at a next office visit, into the visage of, say, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, during his … uhm … less charitable moments! But for the greatest of our actors, singers and musicians, well, God just wouldn’t have properly equipped them, would He, if He didn’t provide them with faces which were capable of completely transforming, in any given moment?!

At best, each of us expresses the “beautiful music” which lives inside us… But… How do we discover the full range of that music?! Well, it always takes a miracle for such a bright light to go on in our heads. And, oftentimes, the light is kindled by our greatest actors and singers and musicians, who have the ability, the gift, to make vivid for us the magnificent possibilities which prompt our most beautiful music to spring fully to life.

These folks, the Daniels and the Viggos and the Paulas, are all profoundly gifted. We can be thankful that each of them has done, and continues to do, everything necessary to fully develop their talents, so that they can set before us, in the purest and most passionate ways possible, example after example of what our “beautiful music,” our highest and best choices, can look like, and feel like, and sound like. Each of them is gifted and, by Grace, a gift … to all of us.

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