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One of the things that I get asked most frequently by new actors and one of the biggest points of frustration is how to act realistically – how to do it, go through the motions and say your lines without it feeling stiff or rehearsed? I’m not going to lie to you… it’s hard! But as the saying goes, “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
I’m kind of joking, but not really. Chances are one of the reasons you might be considering acting is either the potential high earnings and / or prestige. Neither one of these is given out randomly to people who haven’t done something to earn it. So let’s roll up our sleeves and figure out how you can act more realistically, be a better actor and potentially make more money doing it.
1. Stop pretending and doing things that are ‘make-believe’ or unrealistic.
One of the biggest things that drew me to acting as a child and draws many people to the work when they are young, is the idea that you get to tell big, fun stories, to be a part of those stories and to pretend for a little while that you are someone else…. And without getting in trouble for it! (Yes, as a kid I could make up fabulous stories and pretend all sorts of things… which usually ended up in detention or being grounded! 🤣) But with acting, this suddenly made it totally legit and it became a good thing. The problem is when you go into “pretending mode” or decide that now it’s time to start “acting”. This is when both speech and movement become unnatural, you get stiff and become hyper-conscious of yourself as a performer. Instead, try to find the truthfulness in the moment, and be that kid who is telling the fabulous story and doesn’t want to get caught! The kid isn’t thinking, “Wow, everyone is going to be so impressed by my performance.” Self-conscious adults do. 🙂
“Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”~ Sanford Meisner
2. Stop worrying about your face.
Another one of the biggies that comes up when I’m coaching new actors is, “What should I be doing with my face? Should I raise my eyebrow on this line and tilt my head on that line?” In our normal day to day interactions, when you are speaking naturally with another person, you simply don’t do this. You just get on with the conversation, and if you are fully engaged, the emotions, and therefore your face, takes care of itself. One way I will demonstrate this in a one-on-one private session is to immediately say something a little outrageous to the other person while the camera is rolling – instinctively they react! It’s both beautiful and amazing because then we can just play it back and talk about what happened and why. Be in the moment. Listen to your scene partner. Your face will take care of itself.
“Be in the moment. Period. Just be there. Because if you get all like, ‘Oh, I got to do this big thing.’ It just never works. It just doesn’t work. You’ve just got to let go. If it happens it happens. If it doesn’t it doesn’t. Whatever you do is okay, just be truthful, honest, real. And that’s all you can ask for.”~ Robert DeNiro
This brings me to the next point…
3. Acting is reacting.
It’s so easy to get caught up in what you think you should be doing, what your next line is, how to say it, how you look, and what people are going to think when they are watching you, but really, at least 50% of acting, if not more, is reacting. Read that again. Your lines are always a response to something that has happened in your (your character’s) world. Even if you have the first line in a scene, it’s because something just happened to make you speak. If you want to stop ‘acting’, start listening. Start paying attention to what’s going on with your scene partner, what they are saying, and how that makes you / your character feel…. And then let it show. In day to day life we are conditioned to hide our emotions and not to react, but when the camera is rolling, that is exactly what people want to see!
“Movie acting is primarily listening. If you’re really engaged, that’s all the movie audience wants to see is you processing what’s happening in your world.”~ Richard Gere
4. Know your lines really really well but don’t lock them in.
You can’t act truthfully, or have any freedom in a scene if you don’t know your lines and you are constantly worried about remembering them. You have got to know them almost backwards and forwards if you want to have room to play. But one of the traps that new actors tend to fall into is repeating their lies over and over in exactly the same way. This ‘locks in’ a read on the line and makes it really tough to change. What are you going to do if your scene partner starts to yell unexpectedly? Or cry, whisper or laugh? You can’t deliver your line the same way you’ve rehearsed it if it’s not truthful to the moment and appropriate to what’s going on. Or worse yet, what if the director asks you to change your read in an audition and you can’t? There are a hundred different ways to say, “Where have you been?”. Imagine saying it to a sibling who ducked out of a family gathering for an hour…Imagine saying it to a spouse who has been out all night with no phone call or text…. Imagine saying it to the same person if they come in drunk? Or covered in blood? Or pissed off?
For more on learning lines read:
5. Don’t demonstrate. Rely on the script.
Another dead giveaway that someone is ‘acting’ is when they try to ‘demonstrate’ something instead of just doing it or being it. I had this experience with a new actor that I was coaching who did something absolutely bizarre when we were working on his self-tape. When I asked him why he did that, he told me it was because the character he was portraying was suppose to be ‘crazy’. Yes, that’s true, it was in the character description, but it was also in the script! I got him to look at the dialogue and look at the actions of this person and tell me if this was the behavior of a mentally stable person – we both agreed that it wasn’t! He didn’t need to absurd tick he had decided do, instead, just to stay true to the lines and the actions as laid out in the scene… it was already crazy enough. Trust the script. Follow the script. If it’s well written, it’s going to do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
“The foundation of acting is the reality of doing.”~Sanford Meisner
6. Watch yourself and watch your gestures.
The only way you’re going to improve is to watch yourself, critically, again and again. And yes, I know, this can be uncomfortable. One of the big things to watch for is a ‘nervous habit’ or unnatural gestures that many new actors tend to adopt. For me, when I first started doin on-camera work, I use to look up and off to the side constantly, and on-camera, that is such a big movement that you effectively leave the room! One of my girlfriends use to have a nervous habit of brushing her hair behind her ears every 10 seconds, literally. Was super annoying to watch! Another guy I knew constantly made such big arm gestures that the director finally had to have him sit on his hands and tighten up the shot. But it’s hard to see these things, and then modify them if you don’t watch yourself.
Get into on-camera scene study if you can where you can be recorded and watch yourself. (I know, tough in COVID era!) Check for your own nervous habits and excessive gestures and then make a note to work on them.
7. Study great actors, but never try to mimic.
If you want to get better at anything, one of the best ways to do that is to study someone who is doing it exceptionally well. Watch Academy Award winning movies and performances. Start to pay attention to how the things mentioned above are utilized by the actors and in the scenes. Notice the subtle nuances and how often the most impactful performances come out of the smallest of details. Pick a few actors who’s technique you really love and see what you can learn from it without trying to mimic them – there is no art in that and it will just come across stiff an unnatural.
“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”~ Judy Garland
8. Forgive yourself.
Above all, be gentle with yourself. Yes, study, train, work hard and try your best, but the bottom line is that this is both a profession and an art. You’re going to fail miserably sometimes and you’re going to be a really ‘bad actor’ every now and again… oh well! Improve if you want to. Change if you want to. But this is not brain surgery, no one is going to die (probably) if you suck, and there will always be another role, another audition, another chance!
I hope these tips have helped you, but keep in mind they are a starting point. Acting, like any other skill and craft evolves with practice, over the course of your life and your career. Personally, it’s something I am passionate about and could talk about or write about for days. Above I’ve tried to give you the most crucial elements and tips to acting naturally to help you get started in your career right now.
Acting is a very unique profession in that if it’s done well, it should be imperceptible – people should forget that you are an actor and you are doing your job. The whole point of it really is for people to forget about ‘you’ and to only see the character.
As always, if you like it or love it… share it, pin it, post it tweet it!! Send it to an actor friend … it’s a tough business and we could all use a little help!