4 mistakes actors make

Moving and fiddling
Of the things I’ve noticed when I’m directing or teaching is the insatiable need most actors have to constantly be moving while they’re acting. Their acting becomes about where they’re going to move next. There’s nothing wrong with having physical movement in a scene, the staging of a play or the blocking of a scene for film needs movement, and lots of it. But there’s a difference between organically motivated moves and the self-directed moves of actors.

As a director, I’m always interested in the actor’s natural impulse to move. I’m not as interested in the actor’s impulse to stage the scene. Sometimes actors think they’re following an acting impulse, but what they’re really doing is coming up with ways to block the scene. They say things like, “how about if I walk over and put my foot on this bench while I talk to him?” In life, people don’t make plans like that.

The problem I run into when I’m directing a scene with move happy actors, is it creates confusion. The actor’s attention is split between servicing the information of the scene and thinking about where they should move to next. Human beings don’t concern themselves with how they should stage their body in a room. Human beings move to better pursue what they’re after or to find more comfort. That’s it. If the actor isn’t fully committed to the content and conflict of the scene, we are not having an honest rehearsal. If the actor is focusing on blocking himself in the scene, then I’m not working with a clean, honest canvas. My actor is constantly going AWOL with all sorts of erroneous wanderings. Next time you work on a scene, see how few moves you need to make to accomplish what you’re after in the scene.

Along with attempting to quiet the unnecessary movement, I also want you to quiet the need to play with props. This business of giving your character activities to make the scene more natural can also lead you down a false path. Some actors are obsessed with wanting to do activities because they think it makes them more interesting. I’ve heard actors say many times: “I don’t feel interesting just sitting here. Is there a little activity I could do? Perhaps I could shuffle some cards, peel a potato, or play with a box of matches.” It gives their hands something to do. It makes them feel more natural. While these little activities can add texture to a scene and certainly scenes should have activities, actors should never feel that they need an activity to be interesting.

In life, people are interesting and it’s not because of the little activities they happen to be doing. In fact, how often are people doing activities when you’re in discussions with them? Most people don’t do little activities when they’re having discussions and it annoys them when other people do. You’ve heard it many times: “Put that down, I’m talking to you.” “Stop washing the dishes, I’m trying to discuss something.” “Quit playing computer games, we’re having a problem.”

Let your character’s need motivate your moves. If you don’t need to move, don’t. Always remember; In real life, you never need an activity to be interesting. If you truly believe you need an activity to be interesting, the next time it’s important for you to impress someone you might want to take along a little piece of brass you can polish, or perhaps a little needlepoint.

Be still. Focus on your story. There’s nothing as mesmerizing as an actor who can sit still and still be mesmerizing. Aspire to that.

Quit trying to “become” the character
This is one of those myths that really needs debunking. Actors don’t become their characters. They can’t. If they actually became their characters, wouldn’t suddenly finding themselves on a movie set be confusing for them?

If you think I’m taking the phrase too literally then what do people mean? Do they mean, you just become the character between, “Action” and “Cut?” Still, even between, “Action” and “Cut,” if you became the character and were playing the part of a criminal on the run, wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable with a crew filming you? Wouldn’t you want to get out of there fast? I would.

Perhaps they mean that you become the character but still know it’s a movie and you still know your lines and all your blocking. And even though you’ve become the character, when the fight starts, you’ll remember not to actually hit the other guy. Then, when the guy shoots you with his fake gun, even though you’ve become the character, you’ll remember to fake die right after the fake blood pack explodes on your chest.

Because if that’s what they mean, then all they’re describing is, acting.

Some actors get caught up pursuing a romantic notion that they will “become” the character. As a result of “becoming” the character, all of the mannerisms, movements, and line readings will all be channeled through this “other” person they, “magically” or “hypnotically” become.

Rubbish. Come on, doesn’t this all sound a little romantically silly?

All sets are generally in a hurry. The best they can sometimes do is try to create an atmosphere that they’re not in a hurry. But every set is fighting the clock and a setting sun. Actors need to be focused and present. Things change, locations, dialogue, etc. Actors need to adapt to those changes and “make magic” as quickly and efficiently as possible. Actors don’t have time to indulge in “character conjuring” to get the work done.

Never worry about the character, the lines and situation always dictate character. If you discuss what it’s like to be a policeman, we will assume you’re policeman. If you tell us about the third bar fight you had this week, we will assume you’re a rowdy person who likes to drink. If you tell us about the problems you had with one of the partners at the veterinary clinic, we will assume you’re a veterinarian. Don’t worry about becoming characters, just say your lines with truth and sincerity, Wear the costume, be the situation and the audience will see the character they need to see.

Try to be as truthful, as authentic, as spontaneous as you can be while still servicing the story as well as the technical requirements of the scene. Never worry about “becoming” the character. Don’t waste your time trying to trick yourself into believing you’re something you’re not. Spend your time tricking the audience. That’s what they’re paying for.
(Do we actually become the character?)

Stop with the excuses already
The more time you spend on excuses the less time you’ll spend on achieving results. Actors who allow themselves to make excuses will forever find reasons to need to. You see these types everywhere. They show up to auditions mumbling about how they just got the sides and how their agents screwed up their appointment time and how they had to take their cat to the vet first, blah, blah, blah. No one cares. Least of all the people you’re trying to get a job from. Avoid being this type of actor. There are already far too many of them out there.

Once you adopt the no excuse policy, everything about the way you work will improve. You’ll never be late for anything, you’ll always be prepared for auditions, and always ready to rehearse or work. Whenever an actor tells me their life is such that getting their work done or being places on time is next to impossible, I always ask them the same question, “If you were auditioning for Steven Spielberg’s latest film, would you be late for your meeting with him and would you have your material fully prepared?” If the actor says he’d be prepared and on time, then there is no excuse for his faulty behavior. If the actor says it really depends on the day and what he has going on, I would tell the actor to look for another vocation.

Put in the work and develop the focus to be a true professional. This will separate you from the rest of the pack. Be the actor who is always on time, fully prepared, and excuse free. You’ll never need to offer up excuses because there will be nothing you will ever need to excuse. Your work will improve and your confidence will increase. Become the pro all others aspire to be. Set the example.

Never apologize after a performance
Ever. It’s lame. Always. Amen.

Nip it in the bud. End it. Don’t ever do it. Lose this kind of thinking from your mental vocabulary. The more you allow this type of thinking the more apt you are to remain perched on your own shoulder when you work, forever whispering criticisms into your own ear. It’s a self imposed distraction. You’ll never be the free artist you want to be if you allow the critic gnome to reside on your shoulder. The actor who is forever apologizing and excusing has one of these gnomes in residence.

Actors think there is a certain humility about being brazenly honest in the assessment of their own work. There isn’t. It’s just self-indulgent. No one wants to hear apologies and reasons; we just want to see results. There is an old saying, “Woulda, shoulda, coulda.”

Apologizing for a performance can seem innocent enough. Someone offers you kind words about your performance, but in all honesty you feel it important to come clean with what you really thought of the performance. You want to make it clear that you’re normally much better. Well if you could’ve been, you should’ve been. Don’t apologize, excuse or explain, accept the compliment and say, “Thank you.”

It’s also an uncomfortable position you put audience members in when they’re thanking you for the evening and you respond with how lousy you felt you were. It’s bad form. If someone is sincerely congratulating you on what they perceive to be a nice performance, be gracious. Don’t put them in an awkward position by challenging their perception.

We all want to do well. We all want to give the performance of a lifetime whenever we get up to perform. But that isn’t always going to happen. Besides, anyone can say, “Oh you should’ve been here last night, I was really cooking and then.” Since talk is cheap, why bother?

Show us how great you are by example, not with disclaimers. Be gracious. Accept kind words and be thankful. If you think your work needs improvement, improve it. But don’t tell us about it, show us.

(The Real Life Actor on Amazon)

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