Observations by Arvind Sivakumaran
Acting is a craft like anything else like building a house or fixing a radio. It involves a systematic, logical thought process and technique that needs to be learned and practiced so that an actor may give the best performance he or she is capable of.
Firstly it is important to remember that as actors, our primary job is to tell a story. It is through the actors that the audience understands most of the story. So an actor’s job (like a director’s) is communication of the story. The simpler our method of communication the more effective we will be as actors.
How do we tell a story as actors? Consider this.
Many of us have read plays by Shakespeare, Miller etc. For example I have read Julius Caesar, I have never seen it performed by actors but I have read it. However by merely reading it, I still have a great idea of the story, its characters and their mental makeup. How? Just by simply reading the play. Through the lines and through the stage direction. Lines tell the story, lines tell me about the characters.
Many actors I’ve met spend hours laboring on their characters and never get anywhere. What is character? The answer-Lines are character.
So don’t work on character, work on lines. Play the lines.
Character will follow suit. Its inevitable.
To understand this better, go back a step in the creative process. The writer writes a story. He fills them with characters. And he tells his story and helps us understand the characters through dialogue and action. Since he is the 1 who wrote them, let us assume that 90% of the time he is the one who understands them best. The very fact that he has a character say a particular line or do a particular thing at any given point is only because he believes that is what that character will do or say at that given point of time. If a character says “ No! No!” I’ve seen actors who would eliminate the 2nd “No” because they are not comfortable with saying No twice. But the fact they have to remember is that they are not saying the line, the character is and at that point of time in the story the writer felt that the character would say ”No No”.
If I’m Joe and I’m playing Macbeth I may be uncomfortable with a particular line but Macbeth wouldn’t be. So a great way of getting to the heart of a character as an actor is to simply play the lines, no frills just play the lines.
However it is very important that the actor play the meaning of the lines. Too many actors simply deliver lines. When a line is delivered without the actor playing the meaning of the line, then audiences have to hear the line, think about it, make their own meaning and by the time they go through this cumbersome process the next line is upon them and they have to do the same with that line. This makes it a very tiresome process for the audience and after some time they will lose interest, the performances will become unclear and muddled and along with it the story because performances tell the story.
A good actor on the other hand makes the meaning for the audience so it is absorbed directly by the audience without the intermediary stage where the audience has to do their own work. Good actors do the hard work for the audience , work out the meaning of a particular line and play it.
I believe that this is the 1st stage of building a good performance-delivering the meaning of the lines. That way at least the story is communicated to the audience. When we say an actor should at least be competent this is what we expect—that they convey the meaning of the lines and tell the story.
Old actors are terrific at this. Delivering lines perfectly. As much as people may disagree, sometimes there is only one right way to say a line. Sometimes 2. That’s why old actors like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Bogart never seem to give a bad performance.(Though they often play the same character in all their films) Their performances work so well because you never feel they muffed up a line. Sure they had charisma but they were also great at playing meaning.
Coming back to our theory of communication, if we accept that the actor is an instrument of communication of the story lets see how we can communicate with an audience.
One way is through the lines. Another way is through the body.
If you observe the greatest actors and the greatest performances notice how still they are. They rarely ever blink and they hardly ever move. When they do move it is very purposeful. How does it become purposeful? It only becomes purposeful because they have not moved earlier so when they move they attract attention. And good actors are able to attract attention at the right moments—moments of discovery,realisation etc. Watch Al Pacino In the Godfather 2. He is masterful at this, raising his eyes at the perfect moment, to grab your attention. And the directing by Coppola is spot on-the camera is always there to capture these moments. Good actors also blink less frequently than lesser actors. We know from life that when we look a person straight in the eye and talk without blinking we have their attention. They will listen to us intently without turning away. It’s the same with film. The less we blink the more attentive the audience is. This is important especially in intense scenes when you need the audience to be glued to the screen. This is not to suggest that blinking is not important. Blinking can be very effective in certain scenes. But it has to be judged by the objective of the scene (discussed later). More often than not my study has shown that the fewer the blinks the better the performance.
While on the subject of body language it brings us to a very important relationship- that of body and lines.
In the old days of silent film there were no lines. There was only body language. The actors had to communicate through gestures what they were feeling. So reactions and movements were big, exaggerated. To some extent that was necessary for the audience to know what the people were feeling. But with the advent of sound, the characters often said what they were feeling—“ I’m going to kill you” “ Don’t you dare do that” “ I love you”.
When we hear these lines we know what the actors mean. No longer does the body have to communicate the same message communicated in the lines, at least not always. A good actor might not play an angry line angry. (This is an effective way to layer a performance) He may not scream and clench his fists when he says “ I’m going to kill you”. On the contrary he may speak in a low tone, his body showing no visible signs of anger. This contrast makes the line more interesting, more subtle, less obvious, more layered. Of course there’s a time for subtlety and a time for playing the obvious and good actors know how to judge these moments. But most actors will tell you never play a drunk drunk. Play the body drunk because under the influence of alcohol our body is unstable. But play the lines straight. Its more layered that way. The voice and tone seems sober enough but our body betrays that.
When actors talk about layers in a performance this is one of them. Body and lines working in contrast, what we say against what we do. However contrast should always be weighed against the objective of the scene. Because but it is important that for the sake of contrast, our body doesn’t betray the purpose of the scene.
Again stillness becomes a key factor when it comes to contrast. Anger with stillness makes us focus on the line, our attention is attracted to the line since the body is still.
A great example is the scene in the Godfather 2 where Michael Corleone strikes his wife Kay. Kay has just told him that she has aborted their child. Pacino is still, we see the rage in his eyes, we fear what he may do knowing what an unforgiving man he is. He stays still, hears her out, we fear for Kay. Pacino keeps us in suspense not foreshadowing his reaction. Then suddenly he strikes her, it is terrifying. We always expected some reaction but when the moment comes it doesn’t feel as if we expected it, it feels sudden, motivated, real, genuine.
Another extremely effective moment comes in “ In the Bedroom” when Marisa Tomei goes to meet Sissy Spacek. Tomei is indirectly responsible for Spacek’s son’s accident. This is the 1st time they have met since the event. Marisa does the talking, Spacek is still. We fear a reaction from Spacek, then suddenly breaking the stillness she slaps Tomei flush across the face. The slap makes you jump out of your seat, again it is sudden, real, genuine. You feel the shock of the slap-the actor hasn’t foreshadowed the moment.
Foreshadowing is a common problem with actors, they know the lines so well, know what happens next. They have to remember the audience doesn’t. For them its happening in real time. Life is playing itself out before their eyes.
Every line should feel as if the actor just thought about it, every gesture natural as if that’s exactly what the actor would do at that moment.
I’ve noticed with all bad actors just like bad films, you know exactly what’s going to happen 10 minutes down the line. They preempt moves, lines. You know they are angry 3 lines before they actually get angry. They are never in the present moment, always in the next one. You know exactly when they will pick up a glass or use a prop.
This brings us to a very important aspect of acting-prop use.There is an incorrect notion that actors who rely on props are inferior actors who need props to be comfortable. Not true. Props are good if you know how to use them. Effective prop use can elevate a performance, make it more real, sometimes make entire scenes work.
Props are necessary in any film or play. In life we are surrounded by objects. We use a lot of objects in our day to day activities—pens, glasses, water bottles, papers, computers, remote controls ..the list is endless. When we see objects we see in life on screen it grounds us in reality, it makes the world up there on the screen identifiable.
Often in life we carry on conversations while talking on the phone, while sleeping, while reading newspapers. So if that is incorporated in performance it increases the reality of that performance. A good actor will always say lines while using props. Often he will be reading a newspaper, looking at the newspaper while carrying on a conversation with another actor. Of course he may choose certain moments when he looks up at the other actor. A bad actor on the other hand uses props as something to do between lines. He will deliver a line, use a prop deliver a line use a prop and so on. The prop becomes a crutch, something for him to do between lines because he is not in the moment. His prop use appears forced, mechanical and staged. Another common problem is whenever an actor has to drink on stage. He always drinks between lines. Often in life we are drinking and we want to say something at the same time, but we have to wait, finish the drink that’s already in our throats, and then we can say whatever we want to say. On stage however you will notice that often the actor is always ready with his line, the sip has been taken, the glass is down before his line arrives. All too neat ,convenient and FAKE.
Too many stage plays even movies nowadays seem fake and distant. There is no identifiable world, the actors are standing all the time, even if they are in their own houses ---that’s unreal, there are no objects around them --- unreal. In these cases the actors houses serve merely as backdrops it doesn’t feel as if they live there, sure they stand in the space but they never interact with anything there, they never sit on a chair, pull up a stool, put their legs on it, untie their shoes, go to the fridge pour a glass of water. Most of the time, the glass of water which the actor needs is already there on the table, even if there is no bottle nearby. Ridiculous.
Prop use is another great tool that can be used in something we discussed earlier –attracting audience attention. If I’m absorbed by my prop, lets say I’m eating my breakfast looking at my plate, talking to the other actor but not looking at him/her and suddenly the other actor says something dramatic like “ I’m pregnant” or “ I smashed your car” , I can attract audience attention to the importance of the moment by choosing that moment to look up. The moment becomes more effective because so far I have not been looking at him. I may also choose to continue eating. I may choose not to exercise my option to attract audience attention to the gravity of what has happened. Whatever the choice, prop use gives you options with which you can layer your performance.
On the subject of layers, people often talk at length about layers and complexity. What are layers? What constitutes a complex performance?
A complex, layered performance in the end comes from a combination of very simple elements. We’ve discussed a few, concentrating on lines, playing meaning, playing contrasts—body vs lines(drunk body,sober speech), meaning of lines vs tone (angry lines in soft tones), prop use.
Other important elements are accent, look and costumes. Not many actors are capable of the former. It is hard for some people to change their voice or accent and maintain it for the duration of the film or play. But if you can do it (and it can be done with a bit of hard work) it can make you a very accomplished actor. Someone like Meryl Streep has the remarkable ability to look and sound different in every film. She can play any nationality, any accent effectively. If you can play each part with a different voice depending on the part’s needs, then even audiences who are familiar with you will have no problem believing that you’re not A or B but the character you are playing.
Look and costumes depend to a large extent on the costumes hair and make up people, but good actors will pay attention to these details. This is critical. Often our impressions of certain characters especially their social status, habits etc. can be reflected immediately through their dress and hair.
There’s nothing more annoying than the sight of a supposedly upper class, wealthy character in a tacky dress borrowed from Grandma’s garage.
If you’re rich look it, unless the intention is otherwise.
If you’re playing a 19th century Duke learn to walk like one and talk like one. Research is critical. With more complicated parts, period films, these things become more important.
Finally I come to a very very important point, perhaps the most important point in my entire discussion. Concentrate on the visual.
As actors often we spend most of our lives being told who we are. You were sodomized by your father when you were a kid, that continues to traumatize you. You are oblivious to the world around you. You are a post modernist type, with an acute sense of history and art, a quiet, intellectual type etc etc etc.
Fine they tell you that, you know what you are but how does the audience understand that? How can you communicate all these things, these abstractions to me sitting in the last row?
Let me illustrate with an example. Take 2 characters both standing at their respective windows, brushing their teeth. Both see a murder on the street. One of them stops brushing when he sees the murder, the other continues to brush.
BASED on the above we will form two entirely different opinions of the 2 characters. WHY? After all both are looking at the same event. Both are at their windows and both are performing the same mundane act—brushing their teeth. Yet they are different. One seems more concerned than the other. Why? Because one stops brushing—he is concerned, shocked. The other doesn’t stop. He is used to this or maybe he doesn’t care, its not him out there on the street. It’s a dog eat dog world. The simple act of him brushing his teeth while witnessing a gruesome event, gives us a totally different impression of his character.
We learn a lot about him from his action. That action is a simple visual cue. It is important for us to make things visual and tangible for an audience especially internal states of mind. Audiences can’t look into our soul but they can see what we do, how we react to events and draw conclusions from this. If they see you talk less, wear glasses and read a book while cooking , they know you’re an intelligent, silent type. This too can be used as interesting contrast. Maybe an actor will wear glasses and still play a dumb character, to add an interesting layer. Anyway the point is there’s too much verbal masturbation, too much pontification. Forget that, simply think about what it is that you have to communicate, then think about how you will do it visually or otherwise. How can I know who you are? If you’re an alcoholic drink, drink several times, drink in the shower, wake up in the middle of the night and drink – we’ll get the message. If you’re a glutton eat. If its important for us to know something about you, communicate it. If its not eliminate it. Know the themes, the objective of each scene, what is the story of each scene, then tell it.
It is very important that an actor play the objective of the scene and not try to simply make an impression by attempting to dominate the scene. If you’re a drunk in a bar who’s just there to give the hero a clue about the missing woman that will help him solve the case, do that and get off. Never forget what you’re there for. Sure you’re a drunk in a bar and you have to play that but why are you there in the first place? Answer-To give the hero an important clue that will help him solve the case, that’s your contribution to the telling of the story. If you forsake that to make an impression and try and be a scene stealer, the audience may miss that clue, the lead actor will not miss it because he’s not supposed to-his next scene depends on this clue you have given him, so he will act on that clue which the audience missed, solve the case and the audience will wonder how? In short they will be confused and the story will become muddled and fail.