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Tips, tricks and advice from the artistic battlefield. Hopefully what I know will make your road a lot smoother.

How to keep Actors from Acting

In the previous post, I mentioned some things to try when working with actors. This time, I want to take a look at a different side to it all. There are some things you should be watching for while they are performing.

Actors are funny creatures. Most actors spend their lifetimes watching themselves to learn little tricks that look great on camera or stage. Many times these are gimmicky gestures that have worked as substitutions for real emotions. An untrained eye may not spot that the actor is doing the worst thing an actor can do:  “Acting.”

Trust me, acting is not what you want. You want them living in the moment of the scene. Just the word “acting” suggests something that isn’t real. If you know anything about the craft, you’ll discover that acting is all about truth. (One of these days I’ll invent a new term for this craft. If any of you have ideas, I would love to hear them.)

In the spirit of this truthfulness, here are some signs to watch for that may tell you when an actor is “Acting.”

1) The Breath Hold 

In the last post I talked a bit about this. This is so important to watch for. Acting is a lot like running a sprint. All the racers are on the starting blocks, the lights are set, the camera rolls, and the actors are waiting for the proverbial starter pistol. This is prime territory for breath holding.

Oftentimes I’ll let the camera and sound roll for several moments before I say “action,” and I’ll have the actors breathe. It gives them a chance to settle in to the moment before the race begins. Other times, I will get everything rolling and then calmly talk the actor into their space. Remind them of what their character has just gone through. Then, instead of saying "action," I'll just let them go when they are ready. One of the most powerful tools an actor can have is when the director gives them the choice of when they want to start the scene. 

2) The Dramatic Pause

You can spot this one pretty easily because the actor usually won’t just say their lines after the other actor stops talking. They’ll give a clever little pause before gifting the world with their speech.

Two things are happening here. First, they aren’t listening to the other actor, they are just waiting for their turn to talk. Second, they are controlling the moment. They give you that little pause because in their minds it looks like Oscar winning drama. It almost looks like they are thinking. Don’t be fooled. This is control. In real life everyone talks over the top of everyone.

Actually, the only person who patiently waits for you to finish speaking before replying is my wife. She is the most polite person on the planet. So, unless your actor is in a scene with my wife, they are trying to control the moment.

Here’s a tip: Have them start interrupting each other. Yeah, your sound guy and editor will hate you, but the acting will be real. Your scene will suddenly become alive.

3) The Blowhard

This one is very much like the dramatic pause, but usually it comes out in some sort of audible expression. The most common is a big exhale or chuckle. A lot of actors love this one. The “heh” and then the line. Sometimes this comes out in the worst of all forms: the stutter. 

And man do I hate the stutter.

Once again the actor is attempting to control the moment. They do this because stuttering, stammering and exhales look a lot like real life. It’s all a big show. It might slip past most audiences as authentic, but it isn’t. The main direction point here is to just get them to say the line. That’s it! Just say the line.

Doing more than “just saying a line” is a strong temptation when you’re performing. As an actor, you feel like just saying the line in your present space isn’t enough. You aren’t doing anything. (So you think.) In order for it to feel like you’re doing something you will add anything. The direction is to back the actor off. Tell them they don’t need to add anything on top of who they are. Who they are in their own skin is enough. 

4) The Smokescreen

All of you know this actor. This actor is usually considered bold and daring by most. They are the ones who love to just scream and yell and get all blubbery. They tend to gravitate towards material where they lose it and throw some sort of temper tantrum.

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At first blush, you might think that this is what you want in an actor. It’s true, when it works it is so awesome. However, some actors are so comfortable with the tantrum that they can actually do it and not feel a thing. Many times they’ll just throw this action out there when they feel stuck. The reality is that it is a big circus show. Some emotion is behind it all, but not the deep emotion that you want.

The raw beating heart that you are looking for is hidden behind a smokescreen. Believe it or not, many times what you must do here is have them stop moving. Even when you want them to explode, many times locking them down will really produce something phenomenal. The key to this, and to all actors, is to watch their eyes. You’ll see it when they are plumbing the depths.

Another thing to try with an actor like this is to give them the chance to explode. Sometimes I’ll let them scream their guts out before the cameras roll. I’ll let them just get all raw and messy, and then once the cameras start, just have them bottle it all up. It’s like squeezing Niagara Falls into a garden hose. The emotion has no choice but to spill out through their eyes. Prepare to be riveted.

5) The Thespian

I don’t think this one requires any explanation. This is the stage actor who carries his “staginess” into the world of film. Unfortunately, the few actors who commit this sin give the rest of the theater actors a bad rap. Most, if not all, of the actors I have worked with have spent considerable time on stage. Many of the actors you love in film learned what they know on stage. Kenneth BranaghJudi DenchEmma ThompsonBenedict Cumberbatch, and David Tennant are just a few who jump to mind. But not everyone easily makes the transition from stage to screen.

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The Thespian does two things. First they use the “you have to be big on stage in order to be seen” technique as a crutch. Second, they hide behind a big shield. They have spent so much of their life in front of audiences, exaggerating emotions, that they have built an iron barrier around their hearts three feet thick. Working with these actors can be tough because they just aren’t used to being seen close up. They think that what they are doing looks good because years of live audiences have told them so.

The only way to get through this is to aggressively dismantle that shield. You have to call BS when you see it. A word of caution here, I don’t mean humiliate the actor. Never, never, never do that.  This direction has to be approached with love. Talk to them from the place that you want them to be great. You want to see that inner beauty. You want to see that fragile human heart.

Usually what I have to do is tone them down. Sometimes I’ll just have them speak softly without moving. What will happen here is they will feel very uncomfortable. The key word in that last sentence is “feel.” You’ll see the shift in their eyes. Start with that feeling and let them blossom.

It is worth mentioning that I completely understand that stage acting requires bigness. Actors are performing for the last row of the audience, and in order to do that you have to exaggerate. However, I would argue that that doesn’t mean that the actor shouldn’t connect to their partner and feel. Big doesn’t mean empty, it just means big.