Not all things that are important to actors are important to film directors. These are five things we never say about actors.
1. “That actor is so real.” Because we’re not looking for actors who make something real. We’re looking for actors who make something believable. When actors make something real they’re concerned with how it feels to them on the inside. Making something believable is being concerned with whether or not the camera—and therefore the audience—sees it and feels it. When actors only concern themselves with making something real, it usually ends up being boring for the camera and the audience, no matter how genuine it feels to the actors.
2. “That actor’s really connected.” We’re not even sure what actors mean when they say this. It’s an acting class phrase, not a filmmaking one. It’s never used on set. It’s never used in rehearsals. Rehearsals are about bringing characters and scenes to life. Being on set is about capturing all of that on camera. And if we never use something on set or in rehearsals, why would we be looking for it in an audition? What we’re looking for is actors who bring our characters to life and make compelling cinematic choices.
3. “That actor really knows how to listen.” Unless we’re talking about whether or not you’re taking our direction, we never think about how well you listen. We assume if your character is a believable human being then you’re listening. We don’t need you to show us you’re listening. Human beings don’t. When human beings are engaged in a conversation, they’re listening while everything else is going on. When actors show us they’re listening, they come across as actors acting and not as believable human beings.
4. “That actor’s moments are so organic.” We never say this because we’re not looking for actors who play moments. Film acting isn’t about playing moments. If anything, it’s about creating moments and then not playing them. Film acting is about creating 10 things and playing one; it’s the other nine the camera finds interesting. Creating and playing a lot of moments isn’t being cinematic. It’s being messy.
5. “That actor is so present.” If your acting isn’t good, we never attribute it to you not being present. And if it is good, we never attribute it to you the fact that you are. But actors are obsessed with being “present” or “open” or with “just being themselves.” And yet we’re not interested in you being yourself. We’re interested in you bringing our characters to life. And being “open” can lead to passive acting because you’re simply waiting for something to happen. The strongest most interesting choices are always, always active choices that actors bring into the room and sustain.
John Swanbeck directed the existential film comedy “The Big Kahuna” starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. He is currently scripting a new comedy with the original writer of Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.” His stage productions have appeared in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. His highly acclaimed e-book for actors “John Swanbeck's: How to Steal the Scene and End Up Playing the Lead” is available now on Amazon, and coming soon to iTunes. His company BlueSwanFilms is producing the animated series “The Daily Life of ‘Pants’ ” set in Los Angeles and the live comedy show The BlueSwanFilms Traveling Comedy Show. For more on John visit BlueSwanFilms.com.