What are you doing when you act on the line? You read the script and think, "This is what the line is telling me to do." For example, if you have the line, "I love you, but I hate you," the actor who acts on the line would think that they have to make a big transition between the words "love" and "hate." So, they would emphasize "I love you," and then they would try to change to a feeling of hate for "I hate you." That is not human. What’s human? To see that I feel both feelings equally. I love you and I hate you. I come from the circumstances. The circumstance is telling me what’s going on in the scene. How many times have we said to somebody, "I love you," and not really meant it? You can say "I love you," and you can certainly be sarcastic about it. It can be a dig. You could say "I love you" in a very fun and silly way. You can say it in a seductive way. It depends on your relationship in the scene.
The words, in and of themselves, do not determine how they should be said, which is why I give the "neutral scene exercise." The neutral scene is a scene I wrote that can be played by any two actors. There is no set gender or given circumstance. The actors have to come up with time, place, relationship, and circumstances. They learn that it is not about how you say the words but what you bring to the words. That determination is going to come from who you are, what your relationship is, what your circumstances are, and what you want in the scene. You have to be very careful not to look at the scene and go, "Okay that’s an angry word. I’m mad, so I have to be mad on mad. I’m sad about this, so I have to get sad on sad." That’s why I get so outraged by teachers who have their students circle operative words. There are no operative words. It isn’t the lines. The lines are clues.
You have to read the script like a detective. So often, actors miss the given circumstances. They are not reading the script properly. You need to read the script over and over again for information first. There’s a wonderful scene from the play called Compatible by Anna Li, where clearly the male character is in love with the female character. He has a hard time saying the words "I love you," so when she demands that he say it, he actually goes on to say, "I’m sorry, I don’t love you." And yet it’s his birthday, he’s made dinner for her, bought her champagne and caviar and has brought her roses; he’s playing a song with her name in it. He’s not taking any calls, and he’s not spending any time with anybody else. He didn’t even tell her that it was his birthday. He wanted to surprise her on his birthday. So what does that tell you? He sure is in love with her. Where do you get that? From a careful reading of the script.
This is a typical exchange that occurs when I assign this play: "But he says, ‘I don’t love you.’" Yes, but look at your behavior. Look at what you say and look at what has happened. Now you begin to understand why you can’t say "I love you." What is it that you’re afraid of? Clearly your behavior is telling you that you do love her. Acting on the line is going to that top literal level of what we think is being said. That happens all the time. You’re not here to act on the line. The lines are clues to circumstance. You have to look at the behavior. You have to analyze the behavior within the scene. That begins to tell you the story on a deeper level. Again, it goes back to knowing who we are and what we are about in our own lives. We tend to ascribe the most benign motivations to ourselves at all times, but that won’t get you where you need to be as an actor.
Howard Fine has been teaching acting for more than 25 years. He headed the Acting Department at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York City, then founded the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Los Angeles. Additional excerpts from his new book, "Fine on Acting: A Vision of the Craft" (Havenhurst Books), will be published at BackStage.com over the next week.