We all intuitively know that our choices in life tell us (and the world) a lot about ourselves. Ultimately, these choices define who we are. It can sentence us to a potential lifetime of regret or shame or to a confirmation of living by our values, which result in deep satisfaction. We can experience pride and joy as easily as shame and despair. What we choose to do and how we respond to the consequences of these choices will be the measure of us – both on screen and in the “real world.”
It is not the “big story” that will always hold our attention. We consume so much TV and film that we know most of the potential outcomes. It is not the car chase itself, but the “do I turn left or right” moment that grips us. It is how we get there that matters. It’s the micro stories that hold our attention. An acting technique that attends only to the overall objective (and the tactics needed to achieve it) is missing the intricacies that go into the nature of a choice. Unfortunately, many acting techniques are still rooted in 19th century Newtonian physics and Freudian psychology.
All stories require choice to be worthy of our time. Whether it's the reluctant hero’s story, a rag to riches story, a tale of retribution, redemption, or revenge (see Joseph Campbells: A Hero with a Thousand Faces for a more comprehensive accounting) we learn and get to know the characters by the choices they make. This accounts for so many disaster films, medical, legal, and crime dramas, etc. It enables the writer to consider “if I put character A and B together and X happens to them after encountering character C and D…how will they all deal with that?”
How many dramas and comedies start with an ordinary person or family being forced to deal with an extraordinary set of events? As a result of “the choices” they make, they get to know themselves and each other better. We the audience get the cathartic pleasure of sharing in and learning from their experience without all the fuss of experiencing the painful circumstances they must endure.
Example: We sit on the edge of our seats praying that this character will choose to do “this vs that”. The camera moves into a tight closeup as we watch the decisions being made. The activity is in their eyes. We see and feel every millisecond. One of my favorites is Robert DeNiro in Heat choosing to turn his car around, choosing revenge over freedom. Of course, who can forget Meryl Streep’s agonizing decision in Sophie’s Choice or Neo's terror in The Matrix of choosing the red pill or blue pill. It will always come down to that choice right there and then in the moment that will be the measure of the character. It forces them to confront the consequences of their choice. Even in silly Romantic Comedies there is a best friend or mother to guide the distraught hero into making the right decision.
Considering the depth and breadth of the topic, an actor making choices based on how to impress casting or stand out in an audition seems rather trivial. I have said it on many occasions and in other blogs “the character doesn’t want to book the part” they want what they want and will get it (or not) based on the choices they make.
There's a lot going on! It is about human choices; not egotistical choices actors make in hope of getting booked.
Look, I get it, this isn’t always necessary. You get a great script and a great scene partner, just add some breathing + commitment and stir. Sometimes you can think on it too much. A couple of actors I know have been told in the past to 'dumb it down.' Sometimes all you need to do is learn your lines, put on the outfit, look the other actor in the eye, and speak. The director calls cut, and you all move on. However, that’s not what we all dreamt about on those sleepless nights when we chose this path. It’s the ability to dig deep and discover. To get to know ourselves and our place in the world better. It gives our lives meaning and purpose. This was a long preamble to address the issue of…
“You’ve got to make strong and interesting choices.”
As an acting coach I consistently hear the banal and over simplistic phrase “an actor must make strong, interesting and bold choices”. First off, were you going to make weak, dull and boring choices? I hope you didn’t pay very much for that piece of wisdom.
I get it. Yes, I am being a bit of a jerk about this. I was trying out my “Larry David as an acting coach shtick”. However, this is a serious topic and warrants some serious attention.
As I’ve said, it's an insult for someone to tell you to make strong and interesting choices, however well meaning. It's like throwing shade on an actor. It leaves you feeling compelled to be interesting rather than being interested in pursuing the truth of the scene.
One of the things we talk a lot about in our classes is “breathing in transitions”. Actors often find this difficult, in part, because if you are compelled to make an interesting choice or are trying to remember what your choice or objective was in the moment, you're going to end up holding your breath. You know you should be letting go, yet you continue to tighten the body and hold your breath. So, one choice is nullifying the other.
I'm going to recommend that you try becoming more aware of all that actually goes into making a real human decision. It can be as simple as whether to have a banana or an orange, or should you break up with your mate of 10 years or not. By understanding the nature of a real choice, you might be able to bring more truth to a character’s choice in a script.
A) What was the sequence of thoughts that went into that choice? How did you process it?
B) How did the experience of making that choice impact on you emotionally and physically?
So much goes on within our bodies and brains when we make a choice. There are times when we make a choice but change our minds at the last second before the words come out of our mouths. In nanoseconds we weigh outcomes and consequences. If we see the actor anticipate or telegraph these choices because the choices were made cognitively not organically, it's going to look false and or at best predetermined.
How one deals with the consequences of good or bad choices and the secondary choices that arise out of those consequences is the measure of “character”. This is as true in life as it is in a film or TV.
So, my definition of character is simple and straightforward. Character is a response to a given set of conditions. Full stop. How else do you know anything about anybody or anything except by its properties or characteristics. It is never about the character, but it is always a question of character. So, you don't get into character the way you would a bunny suit. Character is something that arises out of you and is often determined by the choices the character makes. When you consider the nature of a choice you might be a little embarrassed by the oversimplification of basic beats, tactics and objectives.
“Hold it right there Lewis! Back that up.”
Now, I've been looking at this “choice thing” very carefully. I have been paying close attention to the way in which we all make decisions. What is it we see or experience? I compared this experience with the kinds of choices I have typically seen actors make when I view their class work, review their self-tapes or demo reels.
Most of us when we feel conflicted, experience an array of thoughts and feelings. Each one of them triggering a set of chemical impulses in our body. We swim or drown in our own chemical soup. We will often take an involuntary breath. The choice we make happens (as mentioned above) in the instant it is about to come out of our mouths. Until that moment it is possible to retreat from that decision. The weight of “consequence chemicals” start to negotiate with the “choice chemicals”.
The class, self-tape, and demo review often reveal actors lurching self-consciously from beat to beat with their overall objective trampling real human choices leaving a trail of rudimentary, over simplistic choices, in their wake. The acting can appear paint by number. It can be interpretively accurate but yield no human empathetic response in the viewer’s heart. The actors’ eyes revealing little to nothing worthy of our attention.
Watching a great actor in a scene contemplate the razors edge of choice can take our breath away. Sometimes there is agony as we watch the character come to grips with the consequences of their choices. This will work in comedy or drama as it does in life. How many choices have we made in our lifetime that we have wanted to take back?
If David Mamet wrote another book, I would want it to be called “Choice and Consequence”.
One of the main reasons actors have trouble with this notion of present tenseness is because they tend to play the beat rather than consider the character's choice at that moment in real time. They also tend to pre-set their reaction to what is about to be said to them, rather than deal with the consequences of what was said to them or what happened. These interactions occur behind the scenes as neurological looping. Without our knowledge, we are making choices to please casting.
The trauma loop goes something like this...
A) What choices am I going to make?
B) How am I going to impress casting?
C) How will I stand out?
The sentiment behind this is obviously healthy and normal, but it creates a certain way of thinking. Even when you approach the work with the intention to remain open and breathe into the transitions, you will keep coming back to this idea that you’ve got to make these strong, bold choices.
Actors, this next part is designed to make you question your own workflow when you pick up a set of sides.
We often assume that just because you memorized the line, assigned an intention to it, and found a substitution for it, that that’s enough. It is a far more intricate set of exchanges going on.
Example: If you pursue just memorizing your cue word, you're going to miss a lot of emotional data and clues.
Another example: If you're playing just a clean, simple objective, you're missing the likely possibility that there was a choice involved. Even if there was an objective, that objective would require a thought or a choice to motivate it. Even if you did say “this is my tactic” that tactic would require a reaction and then a choice to speak it or convey it with a behavior to enable the audience to recognize it.
You may have to read that sentence above 2 or 3 times. I know I did.
We are wired for choice. In short, if there was an objective involved it would have a subset of tactics to support it. We can bank on it. There was a choice involved.
Because so many actors are line obsessed, they try to figure out objectives, tactics, backstory and many other things. Actors often forget to ask what I believe are far more fundamental questions.
A couple of the things I've been reminding actors recently:
1/ Just because that's the line they have to say, doesn't mean that's what they meant or wanted to say.
2/ I encourage you to spend a little more time breathing into where decisions and choices are made in our own lives and in scenes.
You will notice that this advice has nothing to do with beats, objectives, intentions, or tactics. Even if there is a tactic of some sort, the choice happens at the last moment. (Obviously legal and cop dramas provide many exceptions to this statement.) At the moment you take that breath, and something is about to come out of your mouth, there is still an opportunity to change your mind. Sometimes that moment can get your heart beating really fast. So, contemplating an actual choice can draw you into “nowness.”
A useful technique is to ask yourself during your prep “'Are there any other words' other than the ones the writer gave me, that I might consider saying instead?”
We've all wanted to say something but said something else, or thought something and said something else. Why not the characters we play? Often, we can’t find the exact words we want to say so we settle with what we have at hand. Why not characters?
At first glance you might say “Lewis, why did you take so long to spoon feed us a first-year theatre school trope?” Hopefully I haven’t lost you, bear with me. Down the road from Stanislavski there was another Russian doing very important work. Spoiler alert: He loved dogs. His name was Ivan Pavlov. For the trivia buffs Pavlov had 40 dogs not 1. The first three were named Bierka, Nalyot, and Golovan. You’re welcome. I digress.
As the story goes, one morning Pavlov walked into his lab to work. He always brought food for his dogs. When he came into his lab a bell above the door rang. He realized that every time he would enter with food for his dogs, they would salivate. He soon discovered that even when he came into his lab without food the dogs still salivated. This became known as a “learned response” and this was the birth of behaviorism. We can thank Mr. Pavlov for all those books on habits you’ve been reading. Through a series of repetitions, the brain will create associations between two or more life forms, events, or objects.
It turns out that we are triggered and have associative reactions due to our neurological looping. You hear a certain song, you're in a great mood. You hear another song, and it's associated with somebody else and you're suddenly depressed. So, in breaking down a script if we can make “this” equal to “that” we can get rid of the time lag between an impulse and an action. This would be very useful for an actor to be able to withstand the scrutiny of a tight HBO closeup.
The details and drills used for this technique will certainly be a chapter in a forthcoming book (I hope sooner rather than later). This blog has gone on a little longer and more detail than I had planned. Suffice it to say, this is an early attempt of mine at a response and replacement for traditional subtext and inner monologue. It is my attempt to find an approach to acting that is 21st century in its thinking. It tries to address the acting challenges that contemporary filmmaking, writing, and the social/societal milieu from which they arise. This is still an evolving art form.
At LB Acting Studio we are aiming to eliminate the timeline between an impulse and an action. We want to see the character in the act of making the choice (where necessary). Here is where our friend Pavlov will be very helpful. But first, let’s examine the micro moments an actor must engage in to have a performance worthy of HBO.
It's very precise work we're doing here. We will still need other tools to create a fully realized performance, but I believe what I lay out below will contribute a great deal to it.
Until I find a better, more precise term, we will call this Thought Replacement. It replaces several 19th and early 20th century techniques. It roots the technique in the associative part of the brain, not the cognitive part.
One part of the analysis can start with the actor considering a line inquiry such as:
Is this what...
- my character was really saying.
- my character meant to say.
- my character wanted to say something else but couldn't find alternative words to say it.
- my character made the choice in the moment to say something else for fear of the consequence of saying it.
Food for thought
1/ Just because you say it doesn't mean it’s what you meant to say.
2/ You can learn a whole lot about a character by what they chose not to say.
3/ What about listening? Just because someone says something to us, doesn't mean that’s what we heard. We hear through our own filter. Movies and TV shows (comedy or drama) are full of these kinds of miscommunications.
I do have a series of exercises crafted to deal with the “how to” of what I am suggesting above. These exercises have been developed utilizing some form of Pavlov’s “learned responses” work.
Join a free class audit with me or attend classes to see them for yourself.
I will leave you with this powerful stanza of T.S. Eliot’s
THE LOVESONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.