Making Strong Acting Choices
“A great actor acts what the writer wishes she had written” ~ Vanessa Redgrave
A practice I try to instill in all of my actors is the habit of making hot choices. It can sometimes take a while for actors to truly grasp this concept but it is invaluable! It is the difference between getting a callback or not; it is the difference between booking the role or not; and it is the difference between being remembered for the performance and being hired by the producer or director for future roles.
A hot choice forces the audience to watch you. It is compelling, it is evocative.
When my student asks for clarity with this, my answer remains the same, it is often a choice that is difficult to play and usually involves incredible obstacles. For example, I might ask an actor what their scene objective is and they might reply “I want this person to like me.” A hotter choice is “I want this person to love me,” and an even more interesting choice is “I want this person to love me but they hate me or they don’t know me, or they are married or a hundred other possible obstacles.”
A piece that is well-written will have these elements in place but any actor who has been on even a handful of auditions knows that just because something is being made, doesn’t mean it is actually good. In fact, because making movies is more accessible to more people than ever, there is a plethora of poorly-written material that actors must still somehow navigate and somehow rise above. This is where knowing how to effectively break-down a scene and make interesting choices can truly give any actor a winning edge.
In addition, there are certain traps that I see actors fall into weekly that lead to ineffectual, boring choices that guarantee lackluster performances. One of these traps is believing that because they are feeling deep, strong emotions, they are interesting. This is not necessarily true. I often see actors decide that their character is struggling so they just succumb to whatever they are feeling and then “give up” and make the choice to just be “sad” or implode into the idea that because this is “what they would do,” it’s the best choice rather than fighting to rise about the hardship and sadness the character is experiencing.
It is human nature to want to watch people have a huge want/need in life with incredible obstacles to overcome and see how they navigate that journey and hopefully win whatever it is they are fighting for. When actors just show up and commit to being “conversational,” it might be believable but it doesn’t mean it will be interesting, or that anyone would pay to watch it. Again, just because it is something one might do in their real life doesn’t make it art.
Another element of a hot choice in acting involves the choice of the character’s primary emotion. I am still amazed at how often I ask an actor what their character is feeling and I get everything but an actual emotion. I usually get thoughts about the scene but seldom the emotion … happy, sad, angry, disgusted, scared, etc.. If an actor can identify what their character is actually feeling, it will help them in breaking down the entire scene more effectively and the scene will be full of more interesting ideas.
Should an actor answer with an actual emotion, they might say “disappointed” and I will encourage them to make an even stronger choice and decide that their character is “angry.” It will be harder to play and much more fun to watch that battle.
I once coached a scene from the film “Raging Bull.” I asked the actor who was playing Jake LaMotta what his primary emotion was. He could not give me an answer. I told him a big clue was in the title, “Raging Bull,” not “Slightly Annoyed Bull but Raging!” Once he had Jake’s rage in place, everything else worked beautifully.
Below are three clips from a scene we recently did in class. The first short clip is what the actors did on their first work, the second clip is just a sample of some of the notes given and the third short clip is the rework the actors did implementing the suggestions I gave them.
The focus of this rework was for the Rich character to have his own agenda/objective which is to have a great work environment as opposed to just being reactive and defensive which was done in the first work.
I think you will agree that their rework is far more engaging.