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The Craft

Be a Smart Actor

Be a Smart Actor
Knowing what to use and when to use it is important for your success as an actor. I have had to learn this over and over again myself, both as an actor and as a coach. You can't bring the whole kitchen sink in with you every time you go to perform or audition. Nor can you "do nothing and just be natural." Good acting takes skill. Great acting takes skill and faith in your work. But what is the work?

I moved to Los Angeles fresh from grad school and with a master's degree in theater. I landed a great agent, and when they started sending me out on auditions, I realized that I had no idea how to audition. You would think that they would teach auditioning in school, but they don't. I hit the streets and took many different classes. At times it feels like I have studied with most of the teachers in L.A. I took bits and pieces from each and developed my own style.

Often the conditions under which actors are asked to perform are less than perfect, and guess what: They never will be. Use your time wisely. Often we are given a short amount of time to prepare for auditions or jobs. So we have to work quickly, and to do that we need to have confidence in our choices.


What is required of you to fully play the part and help tell the story? Are you the straight man, there to set up the joke for the series regular? Are you the killer on the drama series? The red herring? The victim? The love interest? Understand how you fit into the piece as a whole. Your job is to help create the world the writer conceived. Why did the writer write the scene? Remember, it isn't about you; it's about the story. You are there to help tell the story.


What do you want? What is in the way of what you want? How are you going to get it? These three questions form the holy trinity of acting. When a scene seems laborious or general, it's usually because the intention work is weak. Intentions drive the scene and keep it active. How are you going to make the other person think, feel, or do what you want? Are you going to needle, guilt, soothe? I use actions in a scene to achieve my want. It is the intention that drives the scene forward, not an "attitude" or "mood." You can't play a mood, but you can take an action. Having a clear intention is one of the quickest ways to fix your work and make it specific.


You might give a great audition, and still someone behind the table says, "He/she is just not the right type for our show." This often has to do with tone. Just as you wouldn't perform a David Mamet play the way you would a Neil Simon play, you wouldn't audition for "Desperate Housewives" the same way you would for "CSI." You must fit the world of the show. For "Desperate Housewives," your choices should be bigger and more on the nose. For "CSI," they should be more subtle, more about subtext: what you are thinking and not saying.


Know what type of show you are going in for: drama, dramedy, comedy (sitcom versus single camera). If it's a pilot, research what the writer has already written or produced. The Internet makes this easy to do. Utilize and so that you can be well-informed about whom you are going in to meet and what kind of work they have done in the past. It also allows you to "give good room." You can talk about the work and allow them to get a feel for who you are.


The last thing you want to do is be boring. To make your scene dynamic, you have to figure out its arc. The best way I know to do that is to work backward. If you confess your guilt at the end of the scene, start by believing that you will get away with the crime.


First impressions are everything. In this fast-paced, give-it-to-me-now world, our attention spans have shortened to such an extent that if you don't capture us in the first few moments, we are on to the next thing. Think about how many auditions directors have to get through. If your first few moments are weak, they fast-forward. Audiences are fickle, and if you don't entertain them, they push away. You don't want to spend your whole performance trying to earn their attention back.

To command attention, have a moment before, meaning know what has happened to your character immediately before the scene begins. This gives you confidence and puts the audience or casting director at ease.


Flexibility is a great skill to master. You don't want to be so married to your choices that you can't allow for change. In film, we are often asked to shoot out of sequence or to tweak a performance as conditions change on set. The same goes for auditions. You may have planned your audition one way, but the CD is asking you to try another approach or the director has a suggestion you never saw coming. That's when you relax, listen, and adjust. You still know who your character is, what he or she wants, and what's in the way of that. Adjust, but don't throw the baby out with the bath water. More than likely, you've been given an adjustment because someone likes what you're doing.


In the theater, you usually don't have to work so quickly. Let your characterization evolve as you discover the part in rehearsal with your cast and director. Working on a complete biography of your character will serve you well, particularly in the long run of a show, allowing you to keep digging deeper into the part and feel as though every performance is alive and new. Keep reinvesting in the part. If you find that four weeks into the play, a moment when you are supposed to express a certain emotion no longer works, go back to your technique. Either find a new substitution or imagine a new trigger to bring the needed emotion out.

The work never stops. But you can't bring all of your work into your performance every moment. You play the moment for what it is and what is required to tell the story. Actors have to have faith in their technique, faith that they can depend on preparation and then be free enough to let it go and allow intuition and instinct to take over.

Aaron McPherson has trained under Larry Moss, Jeffrey Tambor, and Patsy Rodenburg (he is profiled in Moss' book "The Intent to Live").He studied at the American Conservatory Theater and holds a master's degree in acting from the California Institute of the Arts. Along with coaching and directing, he continues to act in film, television, and theater. He opened Aaron McPherson Studio ( in 2005.

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