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Backstage Experts

How To Stand Out in the First Moment of a Scene

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How To Stand Out in the First Moment of a Scene

There’s discussion and debate on the importance of the “prior moment”—or “moment before”—in acting. Rarely is the “moment of” ever discussed. My work with actors is sharply focused on that first moment of the scene. It’s one of the most important parts of your preparation, as it launches you into the reality of the scene.

Have you ever noticed that most audition scenes never start at the beginning? They usually start somewhere in the middle of something—an often awkward and uncomfortable situation yet emotionally full.

I once coached a client for a film audition scene that started in the middle of the most awkward and uncomfortable sex. (It wasn’t a porno, I promise.) But try to picture all the physical and emotional sensations that are going through you in the middle of the stark act of sex; this is what this woman had to successfully prepare. I mention this for the next time you get a “tough set of sides” for an audition. Are those sides as tough as starting a scene mid-intercourse?

It’s the first moment, or moment of, that can either save or sink the scene. I call that first moment the character’s “hook” in the scene. The hook is the very specific attitude you adopt at the top of the scene, after you’ve safely chucked your acting preparation out the window.

The most effective hooks are best expressed in four words or less. I recently coached a very talented young client for a juicy guest star role on a gritty hit cable drama. He played a fearless 15-year-old, the youngest of four brothers, who would gladly fight to the death to protect the honor of his highly dysfunctional, backwoods family. The scene opens with him and his older brother slowly tossing a firecracker back and forth with the intention of not flinching. My client, clearly the more dangerous and powerful of the brothers, distilled his attitude or hook—in relation to his brother—to be “Bring it on, bitch!” Saying those specific words lit him up to the truth of that first moment in the scene. After that hook was expressed, his emotional sail was so full of wind that all he needed to do was start the scene and enjoy the ride. He was able to function like an emotionally full-but-blank canvas and engage with his scene partner—moment by moment—not knowing what was going to happen next.

This is important to keep in mind because so many actors will go into the audition room, having planned out every single moment, like a chess player planning eight moves ahead. This is so problematic because it’s so transparent. The casting director can tell; the actor’s work seems over-prepared and far too safe.

Like life, every scene must ultimately be entered as if you’re a clean slate—you might know what you want and what you’re afraid of, but you don’t quite know what you’re going to do, and there’s absolutely no telling how your partner will react to it.

In order to approach the scene from this perspective, you must ultimately discard all acting technique and preparation. Acting technique/preparation is like a band-aid. You need to apply it to the work before you perform for obvious reasons, but if you keep it on too long, it will pollute the acting process at large. Thus, you need to rip off that bandage before you go into the audition room.

Have you ever watched a performance that reeked of acting technique? It’s the unmistakable odor of safety and predictability, free from the danger and fire of the moment. Most of all it’s boring.

When was the last time you consciously executed a beat change while hanging out with your best friend? What actions were you aware of playing when you last fell in love? You can tell someone you’re not in love with them anymore and that you’re leaving and try to predict how they will react to this news, but your likelihood of predicting with absolute accuracy is very slim. This is largely because natural actions and reactions happen in life without planning. You owe it to yourself to instill your acting with such riveting qualities.   

Joseph Pearlman is a private and on-set coach for Hollywood’s top actors, musicians, and comedians. He works with clients like Zooey Deschanel, Skylar Grey, Michael Welch, and Julian Sands, and he also coaches presenters for all the major award ceremonies, including the Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys. Joseph Pearlman Coaching was voted Best Acting Studio in Los Angeles by Backstage’s Readers’ Choice Awards. Also located in New York, Joseph Pearlman Coaching offers private coaching and classes from beginner to working professional.

Joseph Pearlman Coaching helps actors launch their careers and reach Oscar potential. With the highest percentage of booked roles in the industry, Pearlman helps his clients go into the room and book the role. 

To learn more, visit www.josephpearlman.com and follow Joseph on Twitter @JosephPearlman and like him on Facebook www.facebook.com/PearlmanCoaching. To schedule a free audit contact: info@JosephPearlman.com.

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