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