Hello interwebs! I’m known by most of my friends and family as a somewhat dramatic personality (to understate things). Maybe because of –or in spite of– this, I’ve enjoyed performing since childhood. That’s part of the reason I started making films: so I had an excuse to act for fun. I’m not a professional, but I’m also no beginner. Besides my film and stage experience, I’ve taken acting classes at both the high school and university level (for what that’s worth to you). This week I wanted to share tips from my acting process, cultivated over the last ten years. Hopefully this guide will help any aspiring performers out there, whether you aim to act professionally or as hobby, like I do.
For all the TL; DR people out there…
QUICK STEPS TO ACTING:
-Use your unique personality to enrich a role, or else your character will feel fake/ two-dimensional.
-Understand what motivates your character and why.
-More preparation for your roles is better than less; but less is better than none.
-Know what genre of production you’re in, plus tone, and adjust your performance accordingly.
-Use your imagination to visualize and react to things realistically.
-Know how your character feels when you deliver a line, and pay attention to the script’s punctuation.
Don’t Lose Yourself in a Part
Not every actor can play every kind of part. They just can’t (or shouldn’t). I know that seems counter-intuitive to the very idea of acting. Surely the most versatile performers can have their pick of any role? Maybe. But most actors can’t pull that off, no matter how good they are. Can you imagine an actor like Tom Hanks playing a despicable villain? Or someone like Christopher Lee being a hero? Some people simply fit certain roles better than others. That doesn’t mean their performances are one-note; it just means that casting directors know what they’re doing.
But why did they pick you for a part? Well, it’s probably because they liked your particular energy. It might seem unorthodox, but I suggest letting your unique personality bleed into a role. Producers liked something about you in particular, afterall. Act however you’d like– just don’t act so unlike yourself that you lose whatever made you stand out.
That’s not to say you should play some version of yourself in every project (because that would be boring for both you and your fans), but certain aspects of your personality are more bankable than others. It’s really a matter of how you come across to people. Maybe you seem dorky and shy like Michael Cera; tough and short-tempered like Sam Jackson; sophisticated and intelligent like Meryl Streep; offbeat and strange like Helena Bonham Carter, etc. I don’t know if you’re any of these things in real life, but some producer out there might have the impression that you are a particular type of person– or at least that you could act as if you are.
Whether or not you have anything in common with a character on paper, you still ought to put some aspect of yourself into your roles. What if you’re playing a murderer? That’s nothing like you, I hope. But remember: those heinous actions are just one aspect of a complex human being. And somebody imagined a person like you would play well as this person who (though they could be very similar to you in many other respects) happens to kill people.
Maybe in the script, this murderous character has a mother, and they seem very loving and empathetic, if only with her. That’s relatable isn’t it? How can a person who feels empathy and loves their mother be a cold-blooded killer? That’s what you’ve got to figure out. That’s the space where you fill with your own mind. If you distance yourself too much from the humanity of a role (even of a ruthless killer) that part will feel unbelievable in your hands. It’ll play more as a caricature than a character/ human being.
Characters are essentially a blank slate of words and actions. You’re their personality. You’re what brings them to life. No two actors will play a role the exact same way. Even if you’re just reading in your head, you probably imagine characters differently than anyone else reading the same thing. They move differently, speak differently, come from different backgrounds, etc. Don’t lose yourself completely when acting because you’re the only thing which differentiates one iteration of a role from the next.
Though your character receives life through you, they are outlined within scripts first. Everything they do or say within the story can be found in those pages. By extension, everything you need to understand your character is there as well. This understanding will allow you to decide how the character ought to be played. You need to anticipate how this fictional person thinks and feels and interacts with the world around them. What do they like and dislike? Who are their allies and enemies? Most importantly: what do they want and why?
Oftentimes people will talk about what a character “needs” as well as wants. I don’t think this matters for actors so much as writers. Most people don’t know what they ultimately need in life, but many people are aware of their “wants”. In fact, our wants drive almost every decision in life. Keep that in mind. Your character is always motivated by a desire for something in every single scene. Even if you don’t say a word, you’re in that scene for a reason.
The “why” of motivation is just as important as the motivation itself. Knowing what your character wants is good, but finding justifications for those wants, and understanding the character’s emotional attachment to them is how real acting begins. Whatever your character wants needs to be a big deal for them, or else what’s the point in pursuing it? There’s no drama without stakes.
A couple years ago I read a book by Michael Shurtleff (Audition). I highly recommend it for actors of any experience level! In one chapter, Shurtleff discusses the many ways actors miss the point of their scenes. He gave an example something like this: two characters are furious at one another. Many actors tend to think that, because their characters are angry, their motivation is to get away from the fight. So they play the scene aloof and as if they can’t wait to leave. Shurtleff corrects them and notes that, if the characters truly wanted to get away, they’d just leave.
Why is your character sticking around for this fight? Because they can’t stand to lose an argument? Possibly, but that’s a weak motivator. Because they care for this person and genuinely want that person to agree with them? Probably that one. When we care about people, we want them to align with our way of thinking, and when they don’t it can really hurt us.
Understanding a character’s true motivations (like in the above example) may lead to a compelling performance. Great plots are formed by characters who both want something, but only one of them can have their way. Acting like your character doesn’t want to be present at any point (especially in emotional moments) is almost never the right call. Every scene is the most important thing in your character’s life at that time. Otherwise, why would it be in the story?
This is sure to be my most controversial section… Whatever else you do, be certain to get –at bare minimum– a loose feeling for the material in advance of your performance. Ideally, you’ll memorize your part from start to finish, but that’s not necessarily a must. Such circumstances entirely depend on your job. At TPM, for example, we plan our shots so that actors need not say more than a few sentences per take. And, if they absolutely must speak a lot, we have a teleprompter in place. We don’t come to set with lines memorized, but we do understand our characters, how they feel at any given point in the story, and roughly how we’re going to play our scenes.
I don’t intend to encourage lack of effort, but as long as you’ve done your homework to fully understand the proper context for your character’s headspace throughout the story, you can do a solid job without knowing your part word for word. Once again, this completely depends on the process of each individual set. This is just how TPM does things, so don’t lean on my advice too hard. More preparation is better than less. Just never show up to set without an idea of what you’re doing.
Bring the Proper Energy
Think beyond your role for a moment to ponder the greater project of which you’re part. What type of story is this going to be? How is the director translating the text? It’s smart to consider these things, as they might directly influence your performance. For example: Shakespearean theatre is markedly different than musical theatre; blockbuster popcorn films are often distinctive to Oscar-bait dramas. You wouldn’t normally start singing or dancing in Shakespeare, and you wouldn’t utter cheesy one-liners in most grounded dramas.
Read the room and behave accordingly. There’s a level self-awareness to acting many never achieve. Have you ever seen a terrible film where all the actors are taking their roles super serious? But there’s that one person who’s clearly just having fun, and they stand out as exceptional among the cast? That one person knows what kind of movie they’re in. It’s not to say they’re phoning in their performance, or not taking their part seriously, but they aren’t pretending this hypothetical film will be a masterpiece drama either. That actor instinctively understands the project and what sort of performance will help it. Nicholas Cage is the master of this art. Change my mind.
Sometimes, in contrast, otherwise fun projects turn out badly because actors miss the point entirely. I’ve seen it happen too many times where a script is super fun, yet the actors play the scenes straight. They clearly didn’t pick up on the story’s vibe.
Reactions/ Non-verbal Acting
Non-verbal communication and reactions make up the majority of acting. Unless you’re a lead, most of your performance will probably be silent/ involve watching other people speak. Even if you’re a lead, you’ll do your fair share of observation.
When in scenes where you don’t speak at all, or for a long time, don’t forget that your character is still present. Actors can’t perform only when they have the spotlight. Your character is still thinking, feeling, and reacting to whatever’s happening around them, even if they’re not the focus. That said, you have to walk a line with non-verbal acting. Be interesting enough that people can see you and appreciate your non-verbal acting skills, but don’t upstage the stars of a given scene.
How do you react realistically to situations or cues? Ideally you’ve got something real to draw from (like a joke which you genuinely find amusing), but more often than not you’ll have to use your imagination. Try to anticipate how you (or others) would feel in your hypothetical scene’s situation. What if your best friend was murdered in front of you? What if you caught your significant other cheating? What if someone you love got a great gift for you? Visualize the scenario of the scene in your head and really believe you’re there. The feelings will come out more naturally in your performance. The script will tell you what words to say. Sometimes it’ll even tell you what your character does. But the reaction itself is all on you.
Grease is one film where every cast member gave it their all– even the less prominent T-Birds and Pink Ladies.
SIDE NOTE: Remember that people don’t always process shocking things straight away. Sometimes we take a second to realize how we should feel. Incorporating such hesitation in your performance will make it more realistic.
Beyond your reactions, general body language and behaviours are good things to keep in mind. Stand tall with grand confidence, or slouch in perpetual shame; make expressive movements or be rigid, etc. Also find quirks to make your character stand out from the others and feel more alive. Maybe your character always keeps their hands in their pockets? Or they push up their glasses when nervous? Maybe they stomp on the ground when frustrated? One great quirk I’ve seen is cleaning off utensils every time the character sits down for a meal. Humans do a tonne of unconscious and dumb things. Part of your job as an actor is to create the illusion of reality by mimicking the minor details of personality inherent to us all.
Line delivery, like reactions, emanates from the mindset of your character. Remember the old cliché: actions speak louder than words. Look for what your character does, both to themselves and others, rather than what they say. People don’t always say what they mean. They do, however, act exactly as they mean. Actions are clues to how characters process and react to the world, and these clues give you context for how characters deliver their lines. For example: your character may speak confidently to make up for the fact that they’re shy. Their lines are sure and steady, but their body language betrays how uncomfortable they are in the moment
Understanding how your character thinks is key to line delivery. Even if you, as the actor, knows something about the story that your character wouldn’t, you should always consider what information your character knows. And how do they process that information? Maybe they don’t fully comprehend it, or maybe they interpret it differently than you might. Most importantly: why are they speaking in the first place? People generally talk with some sort of intent. They are trying to gain information, or convince people of their beliefs, etc. Even when people say dumb things, they have a reason in their own head. You need to figure out what your character is trying to accomplish with their words.
Massive Spoiler Alert Ahead for the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes 4-6)!!!
Here’s another example: In the original Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker of the Jedi order, Luke’s father, and a dark apprentice named Darth Vader. According to Obi-Wan, Vader “betrayed and murdered” Luke’s father. We find out in the next movie that Vader is Luke’s father. In the movie after that, Obi-Wan returns to tell Luke: “You will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view”. In other words: to Kenobi, Darth Vader was a separate entity who killed Luke’s father. Obi-Wan views the death of Anakin Skywalker metaphorically. Therefore, the story he told Luke was true from a “certain point of view”.
As to the “why”: Obi-Wan told Luke a half-true story to spare Luke the pain of knowing his father was evil. Or, perhaps more cynically, so he could more easily convince Luke to kill Vader. Obi-Wan’s belief in the metaphor of the situation and his intentions with Luke are simultaneously true. These are the kinds of contradictions you’ll have to deal with as an actor.
SIDE NOTE: I’m aware the later movies hadn’t been written yet when the first Star Wars was filmed, but Alec Guinness’ acting still manages to convey that he’s not telling the whole story.
Another note on delivery: pay attention to punctuation in the script. Too many actors I’ve known ignore these details and bungle their delivery as a consequence. Here’s an example using a line from the movie Airplane: When Ted bluntly says to the doctor: “Surely you can’t be serous”, the doctor replies: “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.” Many actors may read the later line as if it had exclamation points. That might make sense. The wording sounds like someone is annoyed and pleading for respect. However, the text is written with periods. Therefore, it ought to be uttered as a simple statement and not exclaimed (or, in the case of the movie, outright deadpan). The former way would work in context and probably get a laugh; the later method results in an iconic line.
I used to like perfect line deliveries, planning the ideal emphasis on every word. But I’ve come to appreciate a less rigid approach. In my experience, the more “perfect” a delivery gets, the more said delivery sounds like an actor’s performance than an actual person’s speaking. Actual people are messy with language. We stutter, put pauses in weird places, and emphasize the wrong things. The trick to acting (at least, the way I act) is to strike a balance between human imperfection and movie fantasy. Too perfect and you don’t seem realistic; too imperfect and you look like a bad actor.
Acting isn’t as easy as it might appear. Convincing people to emotionally invest themselves in your make-belief characters takes time, discipline, and talent. I hope any of the tricks I’ve shared today can help you with that challenge. I still haven’t mastered these techniques myself, but I’m always looking to better my craft through each performance. You only get better with practice.
What’s your biggest challenge as an actor? Who’s your favourite performer? If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time,