Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to my Blog!
I created it so that I could share acting tips with you; things I've learned over the years, working on set, teaching classes, coaching actors, auditioning actors, etc.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Breaking Down the Script

You did it! Congratulations! After months or years of training, after 5 or 10 or 50 auditions, after getting called-back – twice, after reading for the producers, reading for the studio or network, after a screen-test, you finally got cast in your first speaking part in a movie or TV show.  

What follows are what I consider to be the 4 essential steps you must take, whenever you breakdown a script. This happens before you begin to memorize your lines.  And these aren't things you should be thinking about when you are acting.  They are PREPARATION.  You break down the script, then you learn the dialogue, then when all the prep is done and you have your lines down, you simply react truthfully to the imaginary circumstances in the scene.  But first you must create those imaginary circumstances fully...

The first time you read a script you shouldn’t be trying to act it. This is the only time you’re able to read it as an audience. After this first reading you will always be reading it as an actor. This means reading more than just your lines.  This sounds obvious but many actors start reading a script by focusing on their own lines and how to say them. Big mistake. Read the whole script to yourself and learn everything you can about what is going on. Don’t say anything out loud – not even out loud in your head (think about it) and don’t try to memorize anything. Actors often miss extremely important information contained in the descriptive text or other characters dialogue because they focused on their own lines too soon. Read it for the STORY. Then, when you've finished...
Read it again. And then, depending on how big your role is...
Read it third a time.  Now you're ready to ask:

No, not those questions.  Before you begin to start learning your dialogue, ask yourself (and ANSWER) these four questions:
1. What is my Objective? (What does your character want? In five words or less)
2. What is my Obstacle? (What’s getting in the way of getting your Objective?)
3. What are the Stakes? (What happens if you don’t get your objective? Make it big)
4. What can you DO to get your Objective? (Name two things you can DO in the scene to try and get your objective.)
Let's look a little deeper...

“Objective” means what a character wants. I actually prefer: “What are you fighting for”. In my classes an actor must be able to state his objective in five words or less—“I want the girl” or “I want the money”, etc.  Sounds simple enough. And as a concept, it is simple.  More than just understanding what an objective is however, you must be able to effectively choose the best objective for a character and go after it. Otherwise you are acting without purpose, without drive. Once the right objective is chosen, the real creativity comes into play – making active passionate choices about what the character feels, thinks, speaks… does – to get their objective.
This is where the fun begins. Your objective tells you how to act. YOU choose it; so don’t be afraid of it. Go out and find it.

If acting is like painting (and it is) then picking your objective is like deciding what to paint. An artist may walk to a location knowing he’s going to paint a landscape. The waterfall, trees, mountains, whatever is there - but he still has to choose what he wants to paint. Just like the artist’s landscape—two artists, sitting next to each other, painting the same landscape, can (and if they are creative, will) have two completely different paintings
—two actors will approach a role completely differently and with different results. And both might be extremely good. Picasso had a style all his own. He saw things differently. He would, no doubt paint a different picture than you or I or Rembrandt, while looking at the same scene. Even two realistic-style painters will choose different visual subjects to include or move things around, to make the picture they want.
So how do you decide what to paint? Primarily, you want to pick a simple objective that you can try to go after with the help of the dialogue you speak. I say simple because most actors over-think their objective and, consequently overlook what their character really wants. Objectives are basic.
Your characters’ objective is found by asking questions. What does my character want? If the answer isn’t obvious, then ask, “What do I want, from the person I am speaking to? Most of the time, the answer will then present itself. It’s almost always right there, in the text—often towards the end of any given scene.  So, once you have found the right objective you need to know what's getting in the way.

The obstacle is what is getting in the way of you obtaining your objective. Contrary to popular belief, obstacles are also your friends. They are what make your acting interesting to watch. Many actors have a tendency to make the obstacles smaller, as you naturally would in life. While this makes it easier to obtain your objective, it also makes it less interesting to watch.
You’re hiking down a path to a waterfall (your objective) and find you way blocked (your obstacle). You can choose to have the obstacle be a log or a bear. Sure, the log can be jumped over with ease but how interesting is that to watch?  Wouldn’t you rather watch someone try to get around a bear?

The same is true when you are acting. If your objective in a scene is to get a divorce from your husband because he’s had an affair, naturally it’s easier if you decide that you hate him and are better off without him. But imagine how much more powerful your performance will be if you decide that you love him. You have to leave him (for your sanity, child’s well being, etc.) but you are torn and devastated. Which scene would you rather watch unfold?

"Raise the Stakes."  What happens if you don’t get your objective? I use this as a quick-fix on set all the time. Often actors inadvertently minimize the stakes. For example, if your objective is “I want to convince her” (to stay married to me). You might say that your stakes are, “If I don’t convince her, I’ll be lonely and miserable”. But a better choice would be, “If I don’t convince her, I will really kill myself because I know I’ll never be happy again”.
By raising the stakes, you will try harder to get your objective in the scene. Rather than looking sad as you let her walk out the door, you might grab her and try to hold her there or drop to your knees and plead with her. If your stakes are greater you won’t be over-acting, you’ll simply be honestly trying harder to get your objective. And if she still walks out the door, you won’t have to “indicate” your sadness, it will be triggered and you’ll really feel it because you're really doing something.

Now, look at your lines and ask yourself this question; “When I say my lines, what can I DO to try and get my objective?” I recommend that you try and find two things you can do and then try the scene and see if you are able to do them in the scene. In the example above, grabbing the girl or dropping to your knees could be considered doing something to get your objective. But you could also look intimidating or smile or cry. And it doesn’t have to be physical. The way you say a line (yelling, sweetly, threateningly) or the way you look at her could be considered doing something. Remember: Acting is Doing. If you look up the word “Act” in the dictionary it says “To Do”. If you aren’t doing something to go after what you want, you’re just saying lines and taking up space. And just because you come up with two things to do doesn’t mean that’s what you will do when the time comes. It's not "Planning" it's "Preparation."  It’s just to get you going. You must watch and listen to the other actors in the scene with you and react to what they do. Their actions should determine your behavior. So even if you’ve decided you might grab the girl to keep her there with you, if you’re playing the scene and the girl looks scared of you, you may decide - in the moment - to kneel and plead with her because that would work better for getting you your objective.

This is another stumbling block for actors. Some actors (especially TV actors) "don't believe" in rehearsing. They claim it takes away spontaneity. I say "Bullshit."  There is only one way to determine if your objective is active or if your stakes are great enough or if you can do something to get your objective and that is to try it. Out loud, full out, while you are saying the lines.  I’ve seen so many actors shoot themselves in the foot rather than do what works. Don’t think about it and “decide” if your objective will work. Try it.  If it works you’ll know it, and if it doesn’t work, you’ll know that too.
Analogy: You get a shirt as a present.  Does it fit? The tag says it is your size. Do you put it in you drawer and decide to wear it to a job interview tomorrow?
No, of course not. You won’t really know it fits and looks good on you until you try it on.
The same is true for an actor. The ONLY way to know that you have chosen the right objective is to try it on for size. Does the dialogue help you to go after your objective? If it doesn’t, then you need to try another objective on for size. You may try several before you find the one that works best for you.
 So, what if it fits but you still don’t like it? A shirt might fit but it still may not be the best one to wear to a job interview. The litmus test I recommend is this. Ask yourself “is it active”? 
Active simply means – Can the objective be played? Will the dialogue allow you to go after it?  For example Puck’s objective in “A Midsummer Nights Dream” could be that he wants to make mischief. Certainly he does this throughout the play. But, just because he makes mischief throughout the play, doesn’t mean this is his objective. This is where a lot of actors go astray. Your objective is not what you do; it’s what you want.
Now suppose the actor playing Puck chooses for his objective that he wants to please his master, Oberon. Everything he does is to please Oberon. Unfortunately for Puck, things go terribly wrong and he makes a huge mess of everything. Pucks’ misfortune (his obstacle) is the actors’ gold. The actor can try and try to get his objective (he can act) in every scene.

You see it’s the obstacle that makes your acting good.  It draws us in. It's also where you get to be creative.  There can be many ways for you to get past your obstacles.  The way you choose is uniquely you.  It's your chance to shine!  And the best part is that, as long as you are truthfully dealing with your obstacle, you will never be “to big for the camera" - as directors like to say - no matter how "big" you are. Really!

Many actors put way too much emphasis on memorizing their lines and not enough into why they are saying them. In fact, I’ve found that one of the most frequent mistakes actors make is to memorize their lines too soon. Once you have the four questions answered you are ready to start learning your dialogue. Not before. Then, when you do learn your lines, you will learn to say them in a way that helps you get what you want. 

Next Blog Post: Memorizing Dialogue. (The fastest, easiest way you ever saw - guaranteed!)
Follow me on Twitter: @SRSactors

Monday, October 21, 2013

Actor's Transition: From Stage To Screen, Part 2

 Last week we looked at the differences between acting on stage and acting for the camera.  If you haven't read last week's blog, you really should read it now. Then come back here and you'll be much happier.  Go ahead, I'll wait...
Another way the stage and the camera are different for actors is in the way you prepare or rehearse.  In the theatre, you rehearse a play for many days or weeks. When it’s ready you perform before an audience. During the rehearsal period, you ask the director questions and he guides you in bringing your character to life. In college and community theatre, the director often teaches actors (at least in their opinion) how to act. 

When you work on camera, everything that I just said is completely the opposite. On camera, sometimes the only rehearsal time that you have with the director and other actors is moments before you shoot and that is often more of a rehearsal for the camera than it is for the actors (or sometimes the first couple of takes are your "rehearsal"!) . The actors are expected to act when and only when the director says “action” - and not during any rehearsals.

In television, the director is often too busy talking to the DP, the AD and the rest of the crew to discuss anything in depth with the actors. You see,  the director's job is different when working on camera too. He's not there to help you be better or help you discover your character. He's there to get his day shot. That means he's there to shoot all the angles of all the scenes scheduled to be shot on that day.  If he doesn't get his day shot, it backs up the entire production schedule and causes the UPM or Production Manager all kinds of headaches.  Of course the director wants you to be good but that's not part of his job.  He also may lack the skills or knowledge to make you better. Many, if not most directors, (and many very good directors) have never trained as actors and in fact, often started in technical positions like Cameraman, A.C., AD, or Dolly Grip, before moving up to Director.  But regardless, if you are not doing good work, the director is more likely to "shoot around you" than he is to help you act better - there just isn't any time for that. When an actor reports to set, he must be ready to perform. That means that all character preparation must be learned, and all of your lines are likewise learned – BEFORE you report to the set.

I recall one time when the producer of a TV series I was coaching on, saw an actor he liked in a play, so we brought him in to read and (with the producer pushing for him) he got the part.

Let's call him "Dennis".  When I checked on Dennis in his trailer, he said he had his lines down but I asked him to run them with me anyway. He agreed and seemed to almost have them down. I told him he had a few hours yet and he said he’d get them down – no problem - and he mentioned that he had done some 40 leads in community theatre productions so I needn't worry.  I began to worry.  Then he asked about some of the series-regulars. It seems he was a little star-struck. We chatted for a few more minutes – he was a very nice guy – and I went to set.

When Dennis got to set a few hours later, I asked him if he would like to go over his lines one last time. He looked around and saw the well-known series-regulars chatting and joking around, so he winked and repeated (yet again) that he had done 40 leads in theatre productions and he told me not to worry. He proceeded to chat with the series regulars. I proceeded to worry.

As I said, he was a very nice guy, and very entertaining. He was telling jokes and the actors were laughing and I could see he was feeling pretty good. When the camera and lights were set the actors were called to their marks. The jokes kept rolling and the other actors kept laughing.

We shot the master and this actor had some trouble getting his lines out. But it was “only the master” and nobody seemed too worried about it – least of all Dennis, who continued to entertain the series regulars. Yet the series regulars weren’t laughing quite as much now. If Dennis noticed this, it only made him try harder… to be funny. 

After the master is shot, the actors generally have a few minutes while the camera and lights are moved to shoot the “coverage” (Close-ups, medium shots, overs, etc.). Because he had some problems, I asked Dennis to look over his lines. He took a cursory look at his “sides” but he heard the other actors laughing at something (perhaps at him?) and decided to join in the fun.

This joke telling and laughter went on as we shot all the coverage.

When he still couldn’t get his lines I gave him a script to read from (he wasn’t fully in frame for most of these shots). He got through the coverage (barely) and kept the cast in stitches. He was having such a good time that he didn’t even notice that they had shot close-ups of everyone in the scene EXCEPT HIM! When the A.D. yelled, "moving on" the series regulars all stopped laughing and looked at me.  They knew what this meant. When they edit the scene together there will only be a very, very distant shot of the five of them in the master shot and you won’t see him again. He walked down to lunch entertaining the cast and myself and he was still entertaining us after desert – but we all knew that he had blown his chance on this show. His role really could have become a recurring role. If he had done a good job... But he didn't.
The Incomparable Brooke Burns
So what lessons can be gleaned from this true story? I can certainly understand the temptation to regale the “Name” actors with entertaining stories. One of the Series regulars on that show was Brooke Burns (Shallow Hal, Dog Eat Dog, etc.), who is one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood. She is also one of the nicest, warmest people in the business. When she laughs it's infectious and the whole crew laughs. Who wouldn’t want to entertain her?

YOU!  If you want to do a good job. You see, they can joke and laugh and chat between takes. You can’t. It has nothing to do with talent. Series-regulars put in an incredible amount of time on set. They’re used to learning a lot of lines in a hurry. They do this work day in and day out. You don’t.  So don’t fool yourself.  Like I said, I understand the temptation, but remember to ask yourself this question: Would you rather be liked or respected?  

During lunch, I asked Dennis how he felt about not really knowing his lines in the scene and again he told me how he has acted for years in community theatre and ALWAYS knows his lines but he usually has six weeks to learn them - and that this schedule was "crazy".

So I asked him how much they PAY him to act in community theatre… 

If you’re going to charge a producer the SAG-AFTRA minimum (currently almost $900 a day) for your services as a professional actor, and you show up to set without having your lines down cold, then you are stealing from them, plain and simple. Train now so you'll be ready when your big break comes.

Next Blog Post: Breaking down your script and Line Learning! (an amazingly fast way to memorize dialogue)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Transition: Stage To Screen

While I am an advocate of theatre (I've worked on over 100 Equity plays) and of actors practicing their craft, I have also seen many problems arise when actors bring their “stage acting” to the film set. Acting on the stage and acting for the camera are similar in many ways, but they are also different in some very fundamental ways.


The main way that acting for the stage and camera are different is in how you communicate emotion. When you communicate emotion on stage, you use your body and your voice. Movement conveys emotion. If your line is “I’ll make you pay for that!” and you wish to convey that you are angry, you might shout the line and step forward, perhaps with an accompanying hand gesture. 

This helps to communicate your feeling to the last row of the theatre, sometimes ninety feet away or more. 

When you’re on camera, however, you communicate emotion in only one, very different way - with your eyes. Not your face. Not your gestures. Not your expression. Just your eyes.
Katharine Hepburn

If you move too much, your head falls out of frame. The sound people have control over the volume of your voice, so the only things that you have left with which to convey emotion are your eyes. The expression that directors use is that they want to see the emotion "behind the eyes.” 

But how do you get an emotion “behind the eyes”?  That is both the simplest and the most difficult part of acting. 

The answer is, simple. You feel the emotion fully.

Look, I've said it in previous blog posts but it bears repeating. Technique is like medicine.  You only use it when you need it.  If you are able to fill up with emotion on demand, simply by believing in the imaginary circumstances, then great!  You're all set! You don't need to use any acting technique. 

But what about after Take 12...? Will you still be able to make the tears come or feel real anger?  This is where technique comes in. The purpose of any good on-camera acting technique is to give you concrete steps to take that allow you to trigger (or fill up with) a desired emotion. Repeatedly. Dependably. On demand.  Or will you, like many actors, "indicate" the emotion you're supposed to be feeling?  You can get away with that sometimes in the theatre, but not when you act on camera. This always causes your acting to look, as directors say, "too big for the camera".  

You see when a director says you have "too much emotion," "it's too stagey," "too big for the camera" or some-such phrase, what he really means is "you're not feeling the emotion enough."  I know this seems paradoxical and hard to believe but I promise you it's the truth.  When we really feel an emotion we don't try to show it.  We simply feel it and THAT'S ENOUGH! The camera will capture it.  Even good theatre actors have trouble trusting that this is true when they first make the transition from stage to camera.  It's hard to believe that something so so little (your eye) can convey that much emotion.  

Consider this -

When you're in a close-up, on a movie screen, One of your eyes, would measure eight-feet across...  When you blink, we feel it.  It's like...baBOOM!  When you look away, for any reason, it’s jarring and to some extent the audience loses its connection to you. The eyes really are the clearest windows we have to an actor’s emotion. 

Michael Caine, in his wonderful and concise book “Acting in Film” says:
"I don’t blink. Blinking makes your character seem weak. Try it yourself: say the same line twice, first blinking and then not blinking. I practiced not blinking to excess when I first made this discovery, went around not blinking all the time and probably disconcerted a lot of people."
 My estimate is that upwards of 50 to 60% of the actors at any given audition won't get called back because of something they do with their eyes.  Either blinking or looking around or spiking the camera or looking up at the ceiling when they're trying to remember their lines (?!). Sometimes it's as subtle as an actor looking at the other actor's face instead of into their eyes.  Eyes are much more important than most actors realize...

Next week: More tips for making the transition to TV/Film (and a real life horror story!) in...
 From Stage To Screen Part 2... 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

An Actor's Reel

An actor's reel is arguably the most important marketing device an actor has... 

Sure, head shots, postcards, resumes, etc. are important too but your reel can literally win (or lose) you the role.

I can point to countless times when, after coaching an actor for their audition, their call-back, and sometimes their 2nd call back for studio/network, I get called by the actor and told that their agent called and said that the network or studio "loved their audition" and the part is "as good as theirs" but they just want to see some "reel" before they make their final decision.

Within a few days of this, the actor is either devastated or hired, depending upon his or her reel.  Can your reel really have this much power over your career?  In a word, Yes.  As I said, I've seen it happen countless times.  Parts are won and lost daily, on the strength of your reel.

So, what exactly IS an actor's reel...?  

That's easy; an actor's reel is a short compilation of clips of professional film and TV work, which features said actor.
What's difficult is answering the next question:

What isn't an actor's reel...?  

This is where I may lose a few friends or gain a few enemies, but I have to tell you the truth.

An actor's reel is NOT a compilation of scenes shot specifically for the actor to use in their reel, dressed up to look like scenes from actual work...

Sorry, but that includes scenes shot in your acting class or by companies that proclaim (for a hefty fee) they can "shoot your actor's reel!" These will NOT get you the job - and in fact, a reel like that, might just cost you the job.

You see, no one likes to be played for a fool.  And that's just what you're doing when you try to pass off a homemade (or bought) reel as a professional actor's reel.  Reel means clips of work you were hired to do!  Not playing dress up in front of a camera. Ouch.

So now that we're clear on what is and what isn't an actor's reel, the million dollar question remains...:

What makes a good actor's reel...?

Therein lies the rub. If you've worked at all you probably have some clips of your work that you could cut together to create your reel.  But do you really believe that this will convince someone to hire you?  

I know you looked really cool in your "under 5" on that police drama when you pointed and said to the series lead, "They went that-a-way!" But is that really going to cause some studio suit who was on-the-fence to suddenly say, "He's perfect! That's our actor!"?  Uh, no.  Your mom may think you were brilliant and had star quality but chances are no one else will be convinced. 

If you do have some experience and clips of your work that makes you look good, then you have two choices.  You can edit them into a traditional actor's reel that lasts from about 2 to 4 minutes, roughly, or you can cut them into the new thing in Hollywood; a "Sizzle Reel" that lasts about a minute. Basically, a Sizzle Reel is comprised of quick cuts between short clips with no text or explanations of what shows the clips are from.  They can be very convincing and I like them.  Rather than try to explain the differences, here are two good examples of reel from the same actor.  Ned Van Zandt is a versatile and talented working actor who had his reel cut both ways.  Watch both and compare...

"Sizzle Reels" - The hot new thing in Hollywood.
Traditional Reel
Sizzle Reel

I think a sizzle reel can be an excellent choice for some.  Hollywood executives can sometimes be a little ADD (IMHO) so it doesn't pay to make them have to pay attention for too long.  On the other hand, you may have a great clip, with a known star, that builds slowly and pays off big at the end.  A Sizzle Reel might not be the best choice in this scenario.  Choose what works best for you.

I know what some of you are asking now.

"What if I don't have enough good clips of work I've done?" 

If your work hasn't, so far, yielded great clips that show you off well, don't fret.  Everyone knows that your experience is just what people have hired you to do thus far.  It isn't necessarily all that you are capable of.  Some actors will just cut whatever clips they have together to make their reel.  I think this is a mistake, as I said earlier.

Instead, I recommend shooting yourself doing a monologue.  Now, before some of you start yelling at your monitors, "You said NOT to shoot it yourself!!!!!", take a breath.  I'm not talking about reel, I said shoot a monologue.  That means no costumes, no set, no props, no other actors. Just you and a neutral background (No unmade beds or messy closets in the background please!).  Don't try to make it look like Reel.  It's not meant to fool anyone.  It should look like an actor doing a monologue.  One static MCU shot.  The only catch is, it has to be GOOD! I mean really good. So work on it with a good coach so that you know it's the best you can do.  And I don't mean just me (although I can coach you via Skype, no matter where you live!).  Any good acting coach can help you be better.  There's no point in putting up a monologue that isn't really good.

Some will say this isn't good idea.  That it's better to put up a reel of your work, even if it's not that impressive, as it shows that you've worked.  I would only say in response; Your resume shows that you've worked. Put yourself in the studio's shoes.  What would convince you to give an actor the role, a powerful, well-acted monologue or 3 or 4 clips of an actor saying "They went that-a-way"...?

If you enjoyed this or learned something, please share, tweet, or whatever it is you do...