Acting is Thinking

There isn’t a person whose ever been to the movies who hasn’t had the thought, “Acting. That’s easy. I can do that.” The reality is, acting, good acting, especially good film acting, isn’t easy — if it was easy everybody would be doing it. But the flip side is also true, film acting isn’t as difficult as a lot of people claim.

Most actors who want to work in film come from a theatrical background and don’t realize that a good deal of what they learned in theatre doesn’t directly translate to film. Film is a much more intimate medium. In theatre actors are trained to reach the person in the last row of the third balcony vocally, physically and emotionally. In film however, everyone in the audience is automatically in the front row. When you see an actor on the screen he could be anywhere from two to two hundred times his real size. If an actor in a movie is working with the same intensity he needs on stage his work will be too big.

John’s crew setting up a shot on “Stand-By”

So, the film actor has to learn how to convey his emotions and ideas in a much more subtle way — through an active thought process. This doesn’t mean stage actors aren’t thinking; of course they are, but the theatre audience isn’t able to see what’s going on in the actor’s head, not the way a film audience can.

One of the things that makes As Good As It Gets such a wonderful film is that the audience can see Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt engaged in an active thought process. There are many scenes in which their characters don’t have any dialogue to drive the film from story point to story point but the audience can track what’s going on because we can read the actor’s/character’s thoughts. If actors aren’t engaged in a thought process that supports the story then that scene, and perhaps the whole film, falls apart.

It should be the goal of every actor to create fully realized characters who, given the circumstances of the script, are not only believable but truthful. The daunting task for the film actor is that he has to tell the truth twenty-four times a second — film plays at twenty-four frames a second — much of that time while working in close ups. Because the actor is often the only thing on the screen and because the camera has the ability to read his/her thoughts, the actor can’t afford to drop out, can’t afford to stop telling the truth, not even for a fraction of a second. The moment he stops telling the truth the audience is pulled out of the experience and the illusion is shattered.

Creating and maintaining an active thought process is difficult. How do actors do that? All the great actors of our time — Hanks, De Niro, Pacino, Streep, Lange, Bates — have all answered that question with two words — training and discipline.  It takes a lot of hard work to make it look easy.

A large part of the training component is technique. The plan for this blog is two fold: to share a technique that I have been honing in my nearly forty years in show business as an actor, director, producer and teacher. And to create a forum where you can ask questions.

The goal is that the answers to those questions will help you navigate your way on this exciting and special journey you have chosen for yourself. And please, never doubt this — acting is a unique and honorable career. As actors we hear the beat of a different drum and it is up to us to make sure the light of humanity is shining so the rest of the world can see itself.

I’ll be posting about every two weeks or so. If you think any of your friends might be interested in my blog please share it with them. And if you have any questions – fire away!

Acting – creating an active thought process that ignites an emotion that provokes a behavior.   JHS

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18 Responses to Acting is Thinking

  1. Marsha says:

    Great looking site. Full of fantastic information!!!

  2. Brook Visser says:

    Thanks. Keep me on your list. Wonderful information.

  3. Congrats John Howard Swain! A great read and full of informative ideas and knowledge about acting. Looking for ward to the next post

  4. Erin says:

    What a great site! Looking forward to reading more posts. 🙂

  5. viavirginiablog says:

    Very exciting new venture into the blogosphere! Soooooo excited to read future posts. Thanks for doing this, John! It’s going to be GREAT to learn from you in this way. Fun!

  6. Jack Drucker says:

    I am so thrilled you are doing this, John. Your description of film acting is suffused with such an eloquent use of language. Everything is crystal clear, and I look forward tremendously to future enlightening entries.

  7. Lee Kopp says:

    So good to hear your “voice” again, Sir.

  8. Bob H. says:

    Awesome, John. Now I won’t feel like a “pain in the ***” emailing you questions. I can be that pain, right here. Looking forward to the book signing, too!

  9. Stacey says:

    Awesome, John! You’re getting your wonderful technique and ideas out there. Thanks so much for your generous sharing of information!

    • Ellen says:

      I’ve been hearing that drum beat loudly lately and it is a sweet irony to receive this link. I would love to follow your blog and be apart of a conversation of acting.

  10. William Hall says:

    JHS….yeah…you’re blogging. This is good news for everyone.

    I would add that nervous directos often dont’ trust the actors and ask for bigger and bigger “acting”. They want to make sure they’ve “got it”. The best answer I’ve come up with …is to give them what they want (as truthfully as you can) and ask them to let you also give them a take with what you believe will work (often more subtle).

    Your thoughts about this actor challenge?

  11. ginnicolay says:

    Love the blog! Keep it coming!! I saw Hope Springs this past weekend and there were so many times throughout the movie I was completely uncomfortable by what M. Streep did not say. Thank you for the reminder 🙂

  12. Joie Seldon says:

    Great post. Most people don’t realize how much goes into the simplest of moments on film. You have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share. Congratulations and keep blogging!

  13. Kevin Kraft says:

    John, this is a great article. Truth is truth, just in different forms. You have to know what form you are working in. I look forward to the next post!

  14. gayle allard says:

    I found some new courage today. Thank you John. Several of your blog essays, but especially this one, and regarding the subject of the differences of stage acting and film were clearly said and very helpful. It conveyed “honestly” what ‘the work’ is all about. This demands a very clear thinking process of a characters actions. I’m planning to write an elaborate story today for my entrance of ‘Hair’ for Vagina Monlogues come mid March. Thank you!

  15. Lee Murphy says:

    John, you inspire me to keep pushing and learning.

  16. Thanks, John! Good to think of you! Great article! I look forward to reading more. I saw Barbara Streisand being interviewed once on TV about “Barefoot in the Park” and as the screen showed Robert Redford in a scene she exclaimed, “Look! You can SEE his thoughts! THAT’S great acting!”.

  17. Patt Franklin says:

    John thank you, thank you, thank you. As always this is so informative. I am so glad you are in my experience in acting. You know you are loved.

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