I once overheard an indie film director confess that when he’s casting for a role, he’s looking for “someone to save my ass.” Judging from everything I know about casting and the industry, this is definitely true. At the same time, one of the most effective things you can do as an actor is in an alternate arena: Be so real that your partner, audience, casting director, director, producer, etc., can't tell whether you're acting or really talking as yourself. Cultivating such a level of “realness” is so scary-awesome, as it creates a seamless performance and it gives the appearance that you are speaking with no trace of acting. This is one of the greatest gifts that you can give to the entire production, as it causes the directors, writers, and producers to look at you with a sense of wonder and gives your performance a mild tinge of danger.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the difference between “good” and “great” acting is the actor who starts every scene lit up and emotionally full, instead of empty and having to warm up as they go. This creates a strong platform from whichto take the jump into the red mist and be the actor who acts in a way that seems so natural it doesn’t reek of the stench of acting technique or preparation. A great example of this is the opening scene of the Oscar-winning film “Birdman.” The film begins with a group of actors sitting around a table on a stage, seemingly having a discussion. As the conversation progresses and the camera moves, we realize they’re actually having a table read and acting dialogue from a play. This example so vividly demonstrates the elegance and ease that truly seamless acting can present: It can look startlingly real.
After all preparation and seeds of character have been planted inside the actor and that initial first-moment emotional “light up” has been sparked, the bravest “act” an actor can do is to be a “blank canvas” and exist moment-by-moment, just like life!
In life, you truly don’t know what the person you’re talking to is going to say or do. You can achieve this dynamic on stage or on screen as well. Some actors protest and say that the script prevents that sense of wonder and spontaneity, but I disagree. If you really are in the moment, emotionally full but allowing yourself to be a blank canvas which responds truthfully to what’s happening before you, you really will respond in an organic manner as if you don’t know what you’re partner is going to say or do. As Joaquin Phoenix explained to the journalist Elvis Mitchell in an article for Interview Magazine, he wants his experiences onscreen to feel so real (and presumably uncertain), that they feel like life. “Without fail, if I ever go onto a scene and say, ‘I’ve fucking got it,’ then it’s the worst thing in the world. I think you’re just looking for life… I don’t want to nail it. I want to go into the courtroom and feel like I might lose the case. I want it to be scary—and it still is.” This quote aptly summarizes how, by allowing yourself to live moment by moment in the scene, you can create a combined sense of fear, uncertainty, and the unknown—all of which are so captivating to watch.
Exercise: Keeping It Real
Call a friend, family member, or acquaintance and let them know you’re going to play a little game as you have the phone conversation. The game is that you’re going to interject lines of dialogue into the conversation but you’re not going to tell them when you’re doing it. The challenge is to see if the person on the other line can tell when you’re reading the text and when you’re really speaking to them. The person you’re talking to only has to engage in the conversation with you, and call bullshit when they see it, or if something seems like interjected dialogue (from your script or play) or simply inauthentic. I guarantee this session will make you more aware of when you’re being real and fully engaged with emotional fullness and when you’re not.
This article was originally posted on Backstage