Although I’ve been acting nearly my whole life, I didn’t act on camera until my late teens, and I learned very quickly that on camera acting is totally different from acting on stage. Despite my numerous accolades in theater, my first part in a short zombie movie was embarrassing to say the least. Upon seeing the finished film, I immediately realized that if I wanted to continue acting on screen I would have to start learning again as a beginner. I’ve now been acting on camera for 10 years and I still find there is more to learn all the time. The one major adjustment I’ve had to make is to be completely ready when “Action” is called.
In theater there is an intense build up and finally the curtain is raised. Ready or not, you’re on! I don’t think I was ever 100% ready as soon as the curtain went up but I could always settle into my role completely a minute or two into the play and then I’d have an hour or two to perform. Worse case if my performance was a little off, I’d get another chance to perform at the next showing and only the people in the theater that night witnessed my sub par acting. That is not the case for on camera performances.
Movies and television are shot just a page or two at a time, and one page of a script is equal to about one minute of real time. So, if you’re not 100% ready when “Action!” is called, you don’t get that minute or two to settle in. The scene might be over by then. And because of all of the chaos of shooting, you may only get a handful of takes. Then before you know it, the camera’s moved, “we’re losing light”, and then “cut, moving on!” When that scene is done, it’s done; there’s no coming back tomorrow night to try it again. And now it lives forever on film or digitally and you never get to fix your mistakes. So be ready! Here are some great things I do to get myself ready for “Action!”
- Know where you’re coming from. You may find yourself shooting a scene where you’re driving home from having a fight with your ex-husband. This could be the first scene you shoot or you might shoot it right after shooting the scene where you and your ex passionately get back together. It’s easy to forget what you should be feeling, so take some time to remind yourself of how your character felt in the moment before this scene takes place. That means knowing where she is coming from. It sounds like such a simple thing and really it is, but forgetting it can drain the life out of your performance.
- Know your surroundings. We often shoot on plywood stages or even in front of green screens and it can be very easy to forget where your character is physically supposed to be; which will color her behavior. After you get to set, take a moment to close your eyes and visualize the world around you as it should be. Are you in a crowded mall, in the middle of an asteroid storm, are there children asleep in the room down the hall? These little details can make a world of difference.
- Know what you want. Humans are driven by our desires and we never stop wanting, stop needing something. If we do stop needing something, then we are apathetic and very boring to watch. So know what it is your character wants at this moment in this scene. Why is she here in this place, doing this thing, or talking to this person. Be motivated and you’ll be interesting.
- Know who you’re talking to. This not only applies to the other actors who are physically present but also anyone who is talked about. It’s important to know who these other people are in your life and what they mean to you. Maybe the person in the scene is your brother and you don’t have a brother in real life, but you do have a dear friend who you’ve grown up with who you feel that kind of connection to. It helps to project those feelings onto your partner or think of that dear friend when you’re talking about “your brother” in the scene.
Like I said, these are simple things that anyone can easily do, but as easy as they are to do, it’s even easier to not do them. Being on set is crazy and everyone around you is working really hard at their jobs. Most of the crew are stressed out and just want to get this scene done and move on, but you have to remember what your job is. You’re here to perform this scene as this character at this moment and do it truthfully and if you don’t do it 100% the best you possibly can, it’s you who looks bad not the crew or the other actors or the director. Either you’ll end up with a performance you’re not proud of or even worse, what could have been a great scene will get cut from the final edit. If I sound harsh it is because of course I’ve ended up with performances I’m not proud of and so many regrets of wishing I could go back and get just one more take. But of course we never can, so take my advice and make all of the chaos on set wait for a few brief moments while you get ready for “Action!”