For me, as an actor, it is much easier to play an action rather than an emotion. Acting is doing, not emoting. Emotions come as a result of the actions we play. If I'm trying to get my four kids ready for school in the morning, I will take very clear specific actions in order for me to get their butts out the door. I may become frustrated, angry, relieved, proud, etc. in the process, but those emotions would have come as a result of taking action in pursuit of my goal. I don't start with the emotion. I start with the action. I then incorporate my chosen actions to the given circumstances of the story.
Once you have a solid understanding of the circumstances, you need to decide “how” you will get what you want. You must take action. In life, we are constantly involved in action on some level. Think of the many actions you have taken today. What were they and why did you take them? There is a reason for almost everything we do.
When pursuing a goal or an objective, playing the same action over and over again will not be very interesting or effective. You must choose your actions wisely. If you know what you want then ask yourself, “What is the most effective way for me to get it? What is the best action for me to take?” If one action does not work then choose another one. The more specific your action is, the better.
When a child wants something and his parent denies him, the child will most likely play specific actions in order to get what he wants. He may do any or all of the following: cry, scream, show affection, run away, threaten, hit, flatter, etc. This is a perfect example of using actions. Children are natural actors – they know what they want, they take action when faced with obstacles, and many times they are willing to go to any length to achieve their goal.
When approaching a scene, starting with a general action is not a bad idea, as long as it is followed up with more specific ones. Don’t settle for general actions. To seduce is a very general action. I don’t know how to seduce someone but I do know how to run my fingers through their hair, whisper to them, massage their feet, share my passion with them, etc. To convince someone is also a general action; get specific. What actions do you take to convince them?
How do you know if you're getting closer to your goal? How do you know if your action is effective? The answer is in your partner. Observe their behavior as you pursue your need. Are they receiving what you're sending to them? Are they listening? Are you creating change in your partner?
There is a very clear example of the use of different actions in the film Flatliners with Keifer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon. Sutherland’s character Nelson, an extremely gifted and ambitious med student has recruited three of his colleagues to conduct an experiment on him in which they will medically put him to death until he “flat lines” and then revive him through a very dangerous medical procedure. He cannot perform this procedure without the help of one more med student, his best friend Dave, played by Kevin Bacon. Dave wants nothing to do with such a dangerous and illegal procedure. Nelson, fascinated and obsessed with the idea will do everything he can to make it happen. Cleary, the two characters have conflicting objectives.
Within the short two minute scene between Dave and Nelson, Sutherland uses six different actions to get what he wants. He flatters, he reasons, he begs, he insults, he apologizes, and finally he tempts Dave by saying, “What if it works?” Although the scene was well written, it was Sutherland’s choice to use those specific actions in order to play his objective and “win the scene.” He made it difficult for Dave to say no, which raised the stakes of the scene. He played the action, not the emotion. A less experienced actor playing Nelson may have washed the scene over with a general idea of frustration and not played any action whatsoever.
Here are some examples of different types of actions:
If you notice, some of these actions are very concrete and simple while others are a bit more abstract. Some actions might be considered physical while others may be considered psychological. Some actions can be broken down into more specific actions. Either way they are all playable. Keep in mind this is merely a short list of actions. There are literally thousands of actions to choose from to improve your work. I also encourage you to create your own.
How do you get what you want, what actions do you take, and why? Play the action first, effect your partner, and let your emotions be the result.
For details about my upcoming online acting course, The Actor's Road Map to Success, please leave your email below!
For info aboutFor
In life, at any given moment we know the given circumstances, and they are always specific. We always know exactly who we are, where we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it. When you are preparing for an audition or have been cast in a project, whether it’s a play, a television show or a film, it is crucial that you determine the given circumstances of the story.
Here are some very pertinent questions to explore:
When playing a role you have to have a complete understanding of your character. Knowing that you are playing “Richard – married to Rachel, early to late 30’s, short, and a nice man” is a broad generalization and will be of little service unless you explore the character in greater detail. Investigate the script and do your homework.
Here are a few questions to explore when considering character:
This is only a partial list of the questions you can and should ask yourself about character. Some of the answers may be found within the script. However a lot of them will need to come from your imagination and research. The more specific your answers, the better.
The relationship between characters is the glue that holds the story together. All stories are about relationships on some level. The stronger and clearer your relationships are, the more powerful the story will be. Here are some very important questions to ask when considering relationship:
This last question is an interesting one to explore. Your relationship with the other characters needs to be directly related to what you want, your motivation.
In life, there is a reason for everything we do. We all have dreams, desires, and aspirations. Every day we take action in order to fulfill those goals. Some days we may be more proactive than others but all of us have daily motivation for our actions.
In acting terms this may be referred to in several ways:
Whatever term you use it all means the same thing – what do you want?
What you want or need in the story should be broken down into several categories:
What are you doing right now? Reading this blog, right? Why? What is your motivation? What do you want to accomplish from reading this? You know the exact answer. I’m sure you can break your answer down into the categories listed above. We do everything for a specific reason. We all want something out of life. In any given scene it is crucial that you know what you are fighting for. I make it a habit to write my intentions on the pages of my script so I’m constantly reminded of my motivation.
A great way to raise the stakes and give more importance to your motivation is to add a phrase to the end of your stated intention. The phrase I like to use is, “Or I will die.” For example, if your intention in a given scene is to find your car keys so you can go on a date, you may say, “I have to find my cars keys right now or I will die!” This might sound a little dramatic but it will clarify the importance and urgency of the event – your date. It will give the scene more conflict. The way you phrase your intentions is entirely up to you and doesn’t need to be shared with anyone, but I suggest you always make it specific and extremely important.
Just because we know what we want doesn’t mean we’ll get it. There is usually something keeping us from our goals. This is known as conflict. If you can identify the conflict, the obstacles you must overcome, then you can more effectively go after what it is you want.
Any story worth experiencing is rife with conflict. Think of your favorite book, film, play, or television show. Is conflict involved? Of course it is. Conflict is good. Conflict is great. Conflict is what creates drama and comedy. It’s what holds our attention.
In life we go out of our way to avoid any confrontation or discomfort. We don’t like to disrupt life as we know it if we don’t have to. We are creatures of habit and constantly seek comfort. As an actor the opposite is true. You must seek out those moments of conflict and fight to get what you want no matter what. Let go of your ego and do not play it safe. Don’t be a polite actor!
I was working on a scene with two students in class in which the girlfriend wanted to have a serious conversation about their relationship and the boyfriend desperately needed a drink because he was an alcoholic. After they ran through the scene I asked him if he got what he needed. The guy playing the boyfriend said, “Well I couldn’t get into the kitchen to get a drink because my scene partner was standing right next to the couch and blocking the entrance.” What?! Jump over the couch, move her out of the way, threaten her, throw something at her; anything to get to that drink! He was being a polite actor and not playing truthfully. He was afraid of getting messy and confrontational and the scene suffered because of it.
Knowing who you are, how you relate to others, what motivates you, what your obstacles are, and how you will get what you want will be insignificant if you disregard the environment. The environment of any story is like another character. It influences your behavior. We behave differently depending on where we are.
Think about a personal and private conversation you have had with a loved one. Take a second and get really specific as to what you talked about. Once you have a detailed image of it, picture having that same exact conversation in the following places:
Can you imagine how each of those places would change your behavior? Our surroundings influence our actions. Too many actors disregard the environment and it shows in their work. Don’t be that actor! Relate to your environment in order to bring truth to your acting.
In conclusion, remember to be clear and specific about the given circumstances – the who, the what, the where, and the why. Life is specific, and your work as an actor needs to reflect that.