The Craft



You Reap What You Risk
How do you make a Casting Director want to hire you?

Actors who risk by using their own energy, humor, intelligence, passion, vitality, and sense of fun get work. Who wants to watch people who are gloomy, angry, or weary? Too many actors throw out their personalities when they “act” becoming small shadows of themselves. Quiet and unemotional is not real or natural—it’s boring.
Fear of overacting makes actors use excuses not to risk. I’m a nun, so I can’t show sexual feelings. I’m a soldier, so I have to be subservient to my superiors. But we overact in real life. We get strident about politics; we screech if we lose something; we yell at our spouses over a sock on the floor. But we are quick to acknowledge that we went too far, and we apologize for it. Melodrama is playing a scene with one heightened emotion without relief. Actors who work all the time know how to use their charm, humor, and energy in every part. They don’t play it safe.
In my book How to Make Your Audience Fall in Love With You, I give an example of two actors playing the part of a bank robber. “The first actor commands men, women, and children to sit on the floor and not move. He sounds like a cop ordering around criminals he despises. He threatens to blow them all to hell if they give him any trouble. Then he grabs the money and runs. The next actor is just as tough, but even though he has the same lines, he uses a flirtatious tone when he talks to the women. His eyes widen with glee when he sees the money. He even winks at a scared kid.” Which actor would get the part? In his book Audition, Michael Shurtleff says acting is not “about our everyday lives or the moments of peace and placidity but about the extraordinary, the unusual, the climaxes.” He says, “I am always surprised at how actors try to iron out the conflict by flattening it instead of heightening it.”

Penetrate the Surface

“I’m tired.” If you say the line as if you are weary and exhausted, you have made a bad choice. A casting director watching 20 actors in a row complain about being tired would yell, “Next!” Instead, play a game with the line by saying it with a jokey groan and flopping dramatically on a couch. Or make it a flirtatious mock-whiny excuse to get out of a chore. If the scene is serious, raise the stakes. Make “I’m tired” full of fear because you are worried that you can’t cope with an important job, or choose that you are terrified that tiredness is a symptom of a disease. Or say it to your spouse with the subtext of “I’m tired of the marriage, and I am leaving now.” In The Green Mile, Coffey, the innocent gentle giant who is to be executed, tells the warden that he doesn’t mind dying. “I’s tired boss,” he says. “Tired of bein’ on the road, lonely as a sparrow.” If Coffey says these lines gloomily, drained and feeling sorry for himself, the audience will say, “Go ahead and fry him.” But if Coffey works to convince the warden that Coffey is looking forward to the next life, then we care about Coffey and root for him.
There is a saying: “The casting director has to want to (bleep) you.” Well, in the class I teach in Los Angeles, I put it more properly by saying that I and the class have to want to have dinner with the actors who did the scene. You’d like to have dinner with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lector (as long you weren’t the main course), because Hopkins made him fascinating. In the hands of a lesser actor, Hugh Laurie’s lines in House would be negative and self-pitying. Laurie’s energy, dark humor, and vulnerability about being an outsider make us love him.
Look for mistakes in your script. If your boss sniffs all day, burst out as though you’re going to kill her if she does it again. Then, horrified, apologize with a line or a look or a laugh. Go full out with mistakes.
In my book I warn about pouring molasses over your scenes. If you’re drunk, work to articulate your words instead of showing the audience how well you play drunk. If you are dying, work to get a message across instead of showing you’re sick. Fight being shy, and your bravery will make us love you. Anger is easy to play and unpleasant to watch. Don’t pour anger molasses over your scene. Instead, add the pain and vulnerability that cause the anger.

Let’s Play Risk

Risk by putting humor in every scene. Shurtleff in Audition says, “Humor…is the coin of exchange between human beings that makes it possible for us to get through the day.” Smiles and laughter don’t come just from jokes or funny situations. People laugh for many reasons: to release tension; because they are nervous, vulnerable, or excited; because they are smoothing over social situations. Imagine laughing before your first skydive or at the altar when you’re getting married. Audiences find laughter appealing.
Risk by allowing silences. Actors often hear important news and go right into their response. Wait and absorb the import of what was said. If someone slaps you, take the moment to take it in before your next line. If the line is “Well, it’s not good news,” separate the “well” from the rest of the sentence, stretch out the silence between it and the rest of the sentence, laugh slightly to take away the sting, play a game with it, or find it hard to say. Silences draw your audience to you.
Risk by raising the stakes. Acting is about making choices. If your date spills soup on you, you can dab it off without a fuss, or you can go ballistic. Which choice is more fun for an audience? If you’re having a fight with your spouse about irresponsibility, raise the stakes by choosing that if you don’t win, you’re divorcing. It’s a misconception that a scene should start small so it has “somewhere to go.” Start huge if you can. An actor who can make a scene go up and down in energy is electrifying. And speaking of energy, never sigh or say “Uh.” Would you say “We should, uh, set off the bomb now” or “He is (sigh) going to give me a raise”? Uhs and sighs are boring and show a lack of commitment.
Risk by making unexpected choices. A girl in my class had a line asking for a favor. When it was granted, she said, “Really?” with such charm and happiness that we laughed. A casting director may not hear a line the whole day until one actor makes that casting director take notice. If you make a CD hear a line for the first time, you have scored big points. I coached an actor for an ER episode in which he was singing a lullaby to his granddaughter who had almost drowned and was in a coma. Instead of the obvious choice of doing it with tears, I suggested he sing with a smile, as if he were encouraging her to come out of the coma. The song became unbearably poignant, and he got the job.
Risk! Add to your acting the time you stood on a bed for no reason, like Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise, or when you couldn’t stop laughing in church, or when you laughed gently after hearing a story about your mother at her funeral. Make exciting, bold, unexpected choices. Risk is what acting is all about.