Even non-actors can spot acting that has an element of danger to it—even if they can’t articulate that it is in fact the sense of danger that keeps their eyes glued to the screen or stage. One of the major dynamics at work which makes “Breaking Bad” such a phenomenal show (aside from brilliant writing and great casting) is the element of danger that all the characters commit to fully. The actors on the show either commit to instilling their acting with such danger or to being visibly affected by it. These commitments can’t help but foster the very palpable sense that something really terrible may happen at any moment—which makes it truly glorious to watch.
It’s your job to figure out where the danger in the scene is and to consistently ask yourself where and how you can add a more genuine element of danger.
1. Surprise Your Partner. Surprising your partner is one of the simplest ways to infuse your acting with some danger: doing this is akin to knocking your partner on his or her ass. Everyone needs to be knocked on his/her ass once in a while; when it comes to professional acting, it’s practically a necessity. Many people in the industry know the story of Robert DeNiro’s notorious improvise in “Cape Fear” when he surprised Julliette Lewis by sticking his thumb in her mouth before he kissed her. “‘Before we did that scene,’ Lewis recalled, ‘(Scorsese) said nonchalantly, 'Bob is going to do something.' But he wouldn't say what. I'm sure they didn't know how I was going to react, if I would stay in the scene or lose it’". Pushing your partner to the brink—to the teetering balance of either staying in the scene or losing it, is truly a gift bestowed upon them as you’re doing your job and your best at injecting the scene with verifiable danger.
2. Because You Wanted To. This tip can be particularly helpful when playing very disturbing characters or a character who has done something you truly believe (accurately or not) that you would never do. Forget the amateur psychology involved in looking at why your character did whatever he/she did. Just decide that whatever it was your character did, it was because you wanted to—and say it over and over. This can help in removing a great deal of the extraneous crap from your mind regarding your character, and it can help simplify your view of the character as someone who takes a certain pleasure in what us civilized folks regard as pure evil.
3. Fool Your Partner. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting someone who’s different from us mere mortals—such as a remorseless criminal, or a real true psychic-clairvoyant, people who have special abilities or unique pathologies that separate them from the ordinary folk—you might notice that they often look at people differently. When I say look, the actual, physical use of their eyes is different. There’s a certain lingering quality that can be loaded with a great deal: the criminal calculates, assesses, and determines weak spots. The psychic clairvoyant can be weighed down by a sense of you and the bigger picture of your past and present not accessible to others. Give your partner a look when the cameras aren’t rolling and when the curtain isn’t up that is just meant to slightly alter his/her reality or perception of you. For example, if you’re playing the sadistic boss that humiliates your partner at the end of Act II, find that sadism in yourself, and communicate to your partner through your eyes, when you’re not acting. In this sense you are suggesting, only through look, that you just might in fact be the sadist, the psychopath, the adulterer, the child molester, or the liar that you’re playing.
Consider how the element of danger in a scene would be different if you gave your partner a look off camera while he’s relaxed and drinking a lemonade that said, “Tonight I’m going to fuck your wife.” This look will just last a fraction of a second. Your scene partner may not even consciously register that this has happened. But somewhere in his subconscious, the seed has been planted.
When you let go of the fear of looking like an asshole or a freak, you drag your partner with you onto the thin ice of dangerous acting. On this thin ice, there’s no room for ‘acting technique’ as you shouldn’t feel like you’re ever doing anything; the acting will feel alarmingly easy. The hardest part is giving yourself permission to really go for it, trusting in the knowledge that you’re interesting enough. This trust and the constant commitment to danger is what separates the “good actor” from the Oscar winner.
Joseph Pearlman is a private and on-set coach for Hollywood’s top actors, musicians, and comedians. He works with clients like Zooey Deschanel, and also coaches presenters for all the major award ceremonies including the Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys. Joseph Pearlman Coaching was voted Best Acting Studio in Los Angeles by Backstage’s 2011 and 2012 Readers’ Choice Awards. Joseph Pearlman Coaching is also located in New York. Joseph Pearlman Coaching offers private coaching and classes from beginner to working professional.