We’re all familiar with the concept of action, intention, and objective in acting. It’s a staple of most acting classes and conservatory training. And frankly, if it’s not being discussed, it’s a red flag to consider leaving that class. However, the way “action” is commonly taught to actors is unfortunately a one-dimensional technique that can deliver narrow results.
In most acting classes, action is often defined as, “What do I want?” or “What am I trying to get?” or “What am I doing?” The real question that must be asked is: When in real life are we ONLY trying to “get” something or “do” something to another person? What if, God forbid, someone does something to you?!
Can’t a large menacing spider on your pillow just as easily freak you out as you may endeavor to freak it out? Or, what’s to stop you from having the need to freak it out or the need to be freaked out by this naughty arachnid? If this is true, why are we limiting our actor’s toolbox by only employing such crude and basic outwardly directed actions in our scene work?
Here are some ways to incorporate action of all types into your performance.
1. Keep It Moving! Most of what we experience in theater, film, and television writing is real life with all the boring parts conveniently stripped away. The scene can’t dawdle—it must move along! Finding a suitable action is essential to keeping any piece progressing with proper pacing, but it may not be the obvious “do/get” action so frequently taught. We don’t have to be trying to change or impact our partners every second for the dynamic to work and be interesting. Sometimes it’s our skill in choosing what the other person is doing to us, or, an internal “need” for something that propels a performance from “cool” to “WOW!”
By realizing the full potential of action/intention/objective, we’re upgrading our actor’s toolbox from a basic flat and Phillip’s-head screwdriver to a sharper, more advanced set of tools.
2. Action is multi-dimensional. It’s not always something you’re doing or trying to get from someone else. Let’s rephrase the old concept of “what is my action/intention/objective?” to “what is the action in the moment?” Some actors will resist this because they’ve been taught that they must always fight for something. However, that’s simply not realistic. Some of the most common co-star roles that actors will go out for on TV are victim roles. Many of these victims recount traumatic events or speculate on the criminals they’ve met when under questioning. And, many of these character lines aren’t going to be attempting to “get something” from their partners or “fight” for something. These lines may also express a need to be comforted—and in committing fully to this action, one is able to effect great change in their partners.
In “The Dark Knight,” the Joker’s explosive entrance into the party scene is a perfect example of an action inflicted by Heath Ledger upon the shocked and terrified guests—the guests being the recipient of the action. Christian Bale’s Batman adopts a very different action/attitude. Disgusted by the Joker, he engages in the need to protect the innocent.
3. Be in the moment. You must find your specific action(s) for the start of every scene—what you are actively doing in the moment. In doing this, you need to remember that it’s okay to not always strive to do/get/accomplish something—trying to do so may produce work that looks and feels unnatural and smells too much like “acting training.”
Here’s an example, using the word “comfort,” that illustrates the multidimensional action.
- To comfort – actively attempting to comfort your partner.
- Comforted by – everything your partner does comforts YOU.
- The need to comfort – an internal driving need to act upon your partner.
- The need to be comforted – an internal driving need to receive this from your partner.
Carefully examine the first moments of every scene and then choose the most specific action to fit the start. You may be surprised to realize it’s really your partner who’s doing something to you.
4. Keep a literal toolbox. Use your thesaurus to find a fun action that turns you on! While actors aren’t roof-repair specialists, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a toolbox—a literal one, not the metaphorical “toolbox” of techniques. I’ve heard that Kate Winslet always has a journal and a tape recorder on set in her literal actor toolbox.
What you keep in your toolbox is up to you, but consider adding a thesaurus. A thesaurus can help open you up to more fun and specific ideas to what your character is experiencing in the scene. Making the shift from the far too general choice “my character is sad in this scene” to the specific and fun choice “my character is inconsolably heartbroken in this scene and reaches a very desperate place at the end of this scene” can’t help but lay a foundation for a more nuanced performance.
Sometimes in acting it’s okay to just be affected by your partner. In a New York Times interview, director Paul Thomas Anderson acknowledged that in casting “The Master,” he knew he had to find “a formidable opponent for Phil.” Apparently, the idea of just working with Joaquin Phoenix was an exciting prospect for both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson recounts, “I remember Phil saying, ‘Joaquin scares me, in a good way.’” What a tremendous gift to be able to give your partner. It’s nearly impossible to receive this type of gift when you’re too busy trying to “do/get” something in a limited trajectory of action.
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.