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Have you ever noticed that, often times, the first line of a scene sounds a little awkward or forced? After you’ve broken down the script the first question you should ask yourself is “what happened the moment-before?” meaning, what happened right before you entered or right before the dialogue started? Not the previous scene or day, I'm not even talking about the "minute-before". I'm talking about the 10 – 20 seconds before the director says "Action". This is a question many actors neglect to ask or, if they do, they tend to minimize the answer. That's why, especially in television, the first line of a scene often sounds forced or out of place.
The fix for this (and many other problems) is to construct a moment-before that propels you into the imaginary circumstances with drive and purpose. Here's how.
A good moment-before is made of two parts.
Part 1. Fill up with emotion. Determine what emotion your character feels at the top of the scene - not what they feel at the climax of the scene but at the top - and fill up with that emotion. This is where technique comes in! Method actors might use Affective Memory. Meisner actors would use Emotional Preparation. Use whatever works for you.
Part 2. Increase the Obstacle. Imagine something happening that makes it harder for you to get your Objective. This causes you to focus on the given circumstances and fight for what you want. I'll give a real-life example, in the story below.
This is where my on-camera technique differs from techniques like Meisner and Method. In these techniques, filling up with emotion is all that is required. But in my technique I require something more. I require Step 2, which grounds the actor in the given-circumstances, no matter what technique he or she uses. I've found that, when done properly, this "two-step moment-before", solves the often problematic openings of scenes, especially in television scripts.
Unfortunately however, because actors in television (especially series-regulars) have so much clout, the "solution" to an awkward opening of a scene is usually to simply change the line. Actors do this all the time - always to their detriment. I have fought against it for years. I've found that 9 out of 10 times (if not 10 out of 10 times!), it's not the line that needs work, it's the acting. And it's not so much a problem as it is an opportunity...
I remember one instance on-set, as we were shooting a very popular TV series. One of the series-regulars, a very experienced actor, approached me saying he was having a problem with the beginning of the scene. He had the first line of the scene and wanted to change it. His first line read:
“S--- is so generous. I’ll bet he makes his budget this month.”
He felt awkward starting the scene with this line and asked what I thought about changing it to:
“S--- really makes me mad. He probably suspended me just so he could make his budget.”
Now, at first this may seem like a minor change (especially in television, where actors change lines like dirty socks and some producers think that the more writers you have on a show… the better it’s written). I asked him what happened the moment before the scene starts and he said (and I quote!) “oh, that stuff never works for me”. He wanted to change the line and that was that. I said… “No”. He looked at me as though I had spoken some mysterious foreign language.
This was television after all and he was a series-regular.
I explained that I thought it would be a big mistake to change it because he would be "Saying" he was mad and "Playing" he was mad, which is REDUNDANT! Why give it to them twice?! But he was adamant, so I told him that he would have to go over my head. He smiled at me and grabbed a set phone from a passing P.A. and called the executive producer (who, lucky for me, was also the head-writer). Fortunately, the executive producer backed me up. He asked the actor, "What did Scott say?" The actor told him I said not to change the line. There was a pause and then the actor looked at me (oh, if looks could kill!) and hung up the phone.
The executive producer had told the actor to say the line "exactly as written" (unusual for TV but not unusual for this particular executive producer).
The actor’s problem was that his first line of the scene “felt awkward”. He knew his character was angry with “S---” so he wanted to insert the line “S--- makes me so mad” instead of simply being mad when he said, “It sure was generous of S--- to suspend me”. He was effectively eliminating the opportunity to act an emotion because he was going to state it. He was obviously pissed off at me that he had to say the line as written (very obviously), so I said, since he had to say the line anyway, that we might as well make him more comfortable with it. I suggested that we increase the obstacle in the moment before. I told the actor that right before the director said "action" he should imagine S--- walking through the room and giving everyone a box of donuts and leaving. Since the actor's objective in the scene was to win the other employees from S--- over to his side, we were increasing the obstacle (making it harder for him to get what he wants in the scene). This should immediately anchor the actor in the imaginary circumstances of the scene, as he must deal with this obstacle and try to win them over.
When he imagined the moment before, taking place right before his first line, he got angry. Real anger. (Probably some of it still directed at me!). But suddenly the line was not awkward anymore. He said "S--- is so generous…" with such real anger that it became clear to him (on the first take) that saying he was angry was pointless. He came up to me after we shot the scene and thanked me. He also said that the line we worked had become his favorite line in the scene(!). He said it like he thought it was the most unusual thing in the world, to have a line you wanted to rewrite become your favorite line in the scene. Funny thing is…it usually happens that way. So, the next time you want to change a line - even just a little bit - try changing the way you say it instead. I bet you'll find a real gem.
In my experience, almost every single time an actor has the urge to change a line, it's because your instinct is GOOD! That's right. You want to change it because you recognize that it's awkward and not working. You want to get something more across; the line doesn't say what you want it to. So, instead of changing the line, change the acting! Ask yourself what would you want to change the line to? And then, try acting that, without changing the line. As I said to this actor - if you put this much work into every line, they'd ALL be your favorite!
Postscript: In fairness to the actor described above, I should mention that, at the end of the season, he very graciously took my wife and me out to a very nice restaurant as a "thank you" for my work with him that season, but in fact we both knew, it was really for that one day when I wouldn't let him change a line...