A question that is often asked of casting directors is “What makes one actor stand out from another?”
The answer is very simple: Uniqueness. Uniqueness occurs when an actor has the confidence to allow himself to be seen. In other words, the choices any actor makes should not be from a generic idea or description. Everything must come from the actor’s own imagination and sense of self.
First realize that a script for a movie, pilot, or TV show is written primarily to be read by a development person. As such, it is usually over written, overly expository and narrative. The writer wants to make sure that the script addresses every possible note or question that the development person might have. Not leaving anything to chance, the writer puts in descriptive words to indicate how he wants the reader to “hear”the line.
The first thing you must do is cross out phrases like “angrily” or “yelling”and find your own road map into the scene. This is especially true when you see the word “crying.” If you do something you will feel something. Then because of that feeling you might or might not cry or laugh but it should not be the overall objective.
Below are three tips to help you find your own uniqueness.
Say the words, don’t speak the speech. We all have memories of elementary school reading classes when we read out loud from a book. Often our eyes raced ahead to our upcoming paragraph so that we could practice and “read with expression.”
Acting is more than reading out loud. In life we speak as a result of having heard what is said and thinking about it. In other words: We do not speak as if from a prepared document. In acting, while we know what words are forthcoming, our character does not.
Often actors approach a speech as if it were one large chunk that must be memorized like the Gettysburg Address. When acting, use the same thinking process we do in life and do not treat a group of sentences as though someone had pressed a stopwatch and ordered, “Go.” In life we use transition words like “um,” “but,” or “hmm” to allow space for our thoughts to form. Scripts are written cleaner than actual speech so transition words help to get you from thought to thought. Remember: Your character is saying these words for the first time and did not stay up all night memorizing them. Think of the whole process as “hear, think, and speak.” If your eyes are on the script while the casting director says her line, you are not hearing what is being said. If you don’t hear what is being said how can you then think about what you want to say and say it?
Transition words are also helpful at the start of the line, as if to get you off the hook. They give you thinking room and ensure that your first beat is coming from something you have actually heard. Transitional words do not give you license to change the script. Only use them to make the script more like spoken thoughts than written words.
Filling the playing area. I refer to the space between the actor and the casting director, another actor, the camera, or the audience as the “playing area.” To put it simply: The other actor is not a mind reader nor is the camera an x-ray machine. If you don’t have a thought, you will register as blank. Great and memorable acting occurs when you allow another person or the audience to share in the character’s experience and have their own feeling about what is going on. The playing area is key to that.
Use the playing area to “image” the people and events about which you are speaking. Note that I didn’t say “imagine.” To imagine connotes something that happens in your head only. To image means that you are actively doing something. Describing a tree? Put the tree in the playing area and see it. If you see something then others will see their own version of what you are seeing.
Using the playing area will also ensure that you are staying in the present tense and not trying to conjure up something from your past. If you are saying your character’s lines but, at the same time, trying to think of something from your own life, by definition, you are not in the moment. No one can be in two places at the same time. Therefore, you can’t just substitute the memory of being jilted at your senior prom for the scripted moment when your character’s husband asks for a divorce.
Now, before acting teachers have a coronary, let me explain that the senior prom event is not consciously evoked, but it does inform what you do. Whatever has happened to you in the past exists in the general mélange of experiences that makes you who you are. You are the sum total of everything that has happened to you. Therefore when your character is doing something that might be akin to your real life experience, the original experience will bleed through in an organic manner without your having to put it there. By allowing this to happen, you and the character will be as one and you will be playing the moment rather than “working” your technique.
Absent Partner Acting. Another use for the “playing area” is to create an “absent partner.” An absent partner is the person or persons to whom your character is referring. It is most useful as a way of keeping narrative content active.
In procedural TV series when a character testifies on the witness stand you need to keep the dialogue alive and use words to paint a picture that can be “seen” by others. When a lawyer says to the jury, “Picture this if you will…” he is urging the jury to see the picture he knows will lead to an acquittal. When you are playing a witness in a courtroom, most of your dialogue will be reviewing something that happened in the past. Using an absent partner allows you to keep from boring the audience with “just the facts.”
Here is an example: Your line is “Then John told me he was leaving and I asked him why.” Put “John” in the playing area and hear him say, “I am leaving,” as you say the words. Then say, “I asked him ‘why’ ”as if you are asking that question now. Thus you play the original action “as if” for the first time and the scene becomes active. The audience will share the experience with your character and make a connection that can live beyond the words.
When you watch real trials and documentaries where people are reliving a past event you will see what I am talking about. In Steven Spielberg’s film “Survivors of the Holocaust,” he interviews Holocaust survivors. Despite the fact that their ordeal happened 50 years ago, their faces show that the images are still fresh. When they speak about the past, they are seeing the past as the present. Also note that they are working against the emotion. They don’t want to cry and break down so they try to hold that pain at bay until the images become too consuming and they can resist them no longer.
These elements will free you from the ball and chain of “acting” and let your uniqueness shine through.
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