“I would like you to look at your total personality as if it were a jewel. Each facet is necessary for the structure of the polished stone if the full potential of the gem is to be revealed.”

So says Moni Yakim, renowned dramatics instructor at America’s great performing arts academy Juilliard. Indeed, Moni is a founding member of the prestigious institution and, over four decades later, is the only one still teaching at Lincoln Center’s Upper West Side campus. His former students include Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Laura Linney, Viola Davis, and many more. Mr. Yakim emphasizes the gestalt of body, mind, and spirit in regard to the actor’s journey.

The documentary Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy, executive produced by Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain and The Hurt Locker actor Anthony Mackie, explores the incredibly influential work and unique career of the teacher and mentor to the stars.

Yakim started as a mime in post-war Paris where he studied with the fathers of Mime, Marcel Marceau and Etienne Decroux. He then traveled to New York City to be a part of the Stella Adler acting revolution. Stella noticed a visceral connection between a mime’s physical expression and body-conscious performance, and an actor’s mind-body interpretations, and the attendant challenges therein. So, she invited Moni to come to New York and study at the Stella Adler Studio for Acting. “You’ll come to my school and you’ll become an important factor,” she told him. The Israeli-born Parisian took the famed coach up on her offer, and he ended up on her teaching staff. Moni had never taught before, so Stella gave the avowed pantomimist these words of advice: “Teach them what you’re doing and your exercises, and just remember you are teaching for acting and not mime.”

Moni’s class became one of the most important and popular classes at the mighty conservatory. Using his intuitive sense of animation and life-force in acting, Moni focused on the intention and dynamics of movement and the inner motivation for action. “There is the action that is expressed physically that is seen to the eye clearly. And there is the action that is not seen very clearly but is felt by the audience. Action does not always mean that you move physically. It means that there is something that has happened within you and is expressed outwardly,” he says.

Indeed, Moni’s classes are often marked by intense conditioning exercises which leave students physically, psychologically, and emotionally drained. Of such classes Jessica Chastain explains, “There’s this feeling of fear because so many students have walked out exhausted, dripping with sweat. They had been really tested.” And Anthony Mackie concurs, “Moni gave us the ability to allow ourselves to go as far as we wanted to go.”

Describing what he does in his classes, Moni says, “What I love, teaching here, is coming every morning and seeing twenty people and having a good time with them. And the truth is, I used to think myself for many years as a teacher. I don’t think of myself anymore as a teacher-teacher. I just come to the class and feel that I’m a vehicle for experiences, basically. So I propose something—and exercise—and we do it together. And I look at them and I learn from them. Some of them do it better than I ever thought that it can be done, so I take that and I adapt that, and I adopt it to be in my repertoire.”

The venerable teacher stays in touch with many of his former students, and he states proudly, “This spans from the very first group at Julliard, which is over 52 years ago, through to today. We swap stories about what’s going on in our lives—or sometimes they just seek advice.”

Creating a Character: The Moni Yakim Legacy is now playing in Virtual Cinemas throughout North America.