Re: the delay w/this post – Hurricane Sandy, Nor’Easter, 21st wedding anniversary, full class load. That pretty well says it.
Actors are task oriented people, we like having goals. To pursue a goal we need to know what our characters want—main objective—and what motivates their desire to have it. Whether you call this an action, an intention or an objective – your character has to be striving to accomplish something.
There are four basic things that motivate human behavior: love, sex, survival, and attention. One of those things, or a combination of them, pretty much dictates whatever we do in life.
The same is true of the characters we play. What motivates Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman? What does he want? One thing he wants is attention, he wants to be liked; he even tells his sons that being “well liked” is the key to success. In A Lion in Winter, the Academy Award winning film written by James Goldman, Henry and Eleanor are pitted in a desperate battle, each willing to use their children as pawns to insure their own survival. Romeo and Juliet? This is a story filled with love, most notably the romantic love between the title characters. Body Heat? Ned is a testosterone raging male; Matty, a conniving female adulterer who manipulates Ned’s desire to get him to kill her husband.
Because both drama and comedy thrive on conflict and die with agreement the other character in the scene is, for the most part, going to say “no” to whatever your character wants in order to fulfill their own main objective. This is good. Their “no” forces you to be persistent in pursuing your main objective.
Let’s say your objective is to seduce your leading lady. Sex is your motivation. You start by flattering her. She rejects the compliment. You invite her to dinner. She refuses. You ask her to go for a walk. She can’t, her feet hurt. You ask her to go for a ride. Can’t, it’s late. Everything you do is motivated by your desire to have sex with her, to seduce her. And each time she says “no” you have to find a different way of trying to get what you want.
Most actors are smart enough to figure out their character’s main objective and pursue it with vigor. Really good actors, however, know the value of variety. They know the opposite of what their character wants also exists and should be played as well. If you only play your main objective you run the risk of becoming predictable. Once you become predictable you lose the element of surprise. If you lose the ability to surprise, your audience gets bored and we all know how painful that is.
How do we make sure this doesn’t happen? Once you’ve figured out your main objective—read the scene again and find where the opposite of what you initially wanted is also true. The opposite objective is not going to influence the scene to the same degree as the main objective but it will have an impact. The opposite objective may only be true for a short period of time, perhaps only a line or two, but if you play it successfully your work will be immeasurably more engaging. You have created variety and variety adds dimension.
Let’s go back to the earlier example of you trying to bed your leading lady and her saying “no” to your attempts. Even though the scene goes on for several more pages you come to the line where you say, “I’ve got to work tomorrow.” You’re tired of hearing “no” and at this point you don’t care if you seduce her or not. You say the line and play your opposite objective—to disengage. When you play your opposite objective an interesting thing happens, the other character then plays her opposite objective. Because you are no longer pursuing your main objective (or her) she says, “Can’t we just sit on the porch and talk for a little while.” She has gone from saying “no” to saying “maybe” and although she may not want exactly the same thing you want she is now pursuing you—albeit for a short time. Your interest is piqued. You think you’re getting closer to what you want and you re-engage in pursuit of your main objective only to have her start saying “no” all over again. The conflict is renewed and the scene continues.
I invite you to try this. Find both your main objective and the opposite objective in the next scene you work on. It will make your work much more interesting—not just for the audience but for you as well.
“Acting – creating an active thought process that ignites an emotion, that provokes a behavior.” John Howard Swain