The other night, leaving class, walking to the subway, one of my assistants asked me what was the hardest thing for actors to “get.” She had barely finished her question when I blurted out, “Getting actors to think in character in the moment.”
No matter where we began our careers – grammar school, high school, community theatre, college, we were taught we must learn our lines. That is driven into our heads from day one. And there is no denying that knowing your lines is an important, vital part of the process but it is just the beginning; not the end all, be all.
To be truly effective actors your characters have to think their way through a scene, going from moment to moment. If not, you come across as stiff, one-dimensional and your performance is guaranteed to label you as a phony.
Going moment to moment can be hard for the actors whose sole focus has been to learn their lines and say them on cue. I mean, when you think about it, that’s what parrots do. And if you’ve ever spent any significant time with a parrot you know how limited their repertoire is and how boring their delivery can be.
Fortunately, this process is easier than it sounds. While there may be any number of considerations and concerns your characters have to deal with, one thing is always paramount – are you getting what you want? In every scene you’ll have a main objective, something you’re continuously striving for. And regardless of how many times and in how many ways the desire to achieve that goal is impeded by circumstances or another character you still have to fight to make it happen. So, the question that should be first and foremost for your character in every scene is, “Am I getting what I want?”
That question is quickly followed by “Yes” or “No.” If it’s “No” – and it’s going to be “No” most of the time because writers advance their stories by creating conflict and tension – then your character needs to think of how to seek, strive ask for the same thing in a different way. The result of which causes your character to “think” in the moment.
Even if the answer is “Yes” and “Yes” usually only happens, if it happens at all, toward the end of a scene when resolution is near; your character still needs to think. The thought process will be different; you won’t be scrambling to get what you want but you will still be thinking. Perhaps now you’ll be thinking about how you’re going to spend all of that money you fought to get, or how good he or she will be in bed, or how you will wield the power you gained, or how the good you fought for will benefit humanity. And a good writer can and will snatch all that away from you, and your character will have to start the struggle, and the thinking process, all over again.
But regardless of the fortunes or misfortunes of your character, you will, if you want to be an effective actor, need to think your way through your scenes.
With commercials the process is slightly different. Because commercials are about resolution your job is to solve a problem not to create conflict and/or tension. The question then is “Am I helping the other person get what they need?” Again, the “Yes” or “No” scenario is still in play. Only now you’re striving for resolution and you’ll have to achieve it in thirty seconds…or less.
Hey, we’re doing a Where’s Waldo sort of thing with my book(s). Here is a shot of one of my students, Tommy Day, on location in New Orleans shooting an episode of NCIS. If you find yourself somewhere interesting send me a shot of you with the book and I’ll post it.
Like this, Elvis in Vegas. (Full disclosure this guy didn’t study with me but you can see he is reading my book.)
Other news Kimberly Graham, casting director of Homeland, was the guest in my scene acting class two weeks ago. So glad to have there so she could see the quality of work the actors are doing. Next up is Matt Penn. Matt is a prolific director and has directed tons of episodic television – Law And Order, Orange is the New Black, The Big Dogs, Queen of the South, The Mist, Secrets and Lies, Mind Games, Damages, the list goes on. He will be out guest on the 27th of March.
Class news: My next Level 1 Commercial Class starts on the 19th of March and goes until the 23rd of April. In the final week the students will have the opportunity to showcase their work for, Donna Grossman, one of the busiest commercial casting director in New York. Click here for more info on that class.
Hope to see you around.