Onscreen Chemistry: Magical Alchemy or Just Good Acting?

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Photo Source: “The Last of Us” Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO

It feels ineffable and undeniable—you just know it when you see and feel it. When two people have chemistry, onscreen or off, it’s a captivating thing to behold. But is it a magical moment of happenstance or something you can actually work to achieve with another person? In real life, it may feel like the former, but when it comes to telling stories, the latter is also true. A good actor, a solid script, or capable direction can all absolutely bring that “thing” to the screen, whether the two people playing the parts get along or not. 

Curious to understand what makes onscreen chemistry work? Let’s break it all down.

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What is chemistry?

In the simplest sense, chemistry is a visible, notable connection and tension between two people. It’s an ease they have with one another that electrifies them both—and it’s obvious to anyone watching. It’s a feeling of being seen. It isn’t all that tangible, which is why it’s so hard to talk about chemistry in concrete terms; it is often romanticized into a sort of magic. But chemistry takes work in the real world and onscreen to cultivate—it just has a far shorter timeline to manifest itself when it comes to acting as one half of a very compatible whole.

Chemistry isn’t just a romantic thing, even though that’s what it’s mostly associated with in people’s minds. Friends and acquaintances also have chemistry. It’s an energy that exists between people that complements and expands. One of the strongest examples of this is the relationship between Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) on “Broad City.” Sure, these friends may have realized by the end of the series that they were deeply codependent in a toxic way, but that doesn’t take away from how hilariously complementary they were to one another. (And not just because Ilana was maybe a little bit in love with Abbi.) 

For actors, “Broad City” is a great reminder that good chemistry is often noticed most in the moments when people don’t say anything. Watch this clip from Season 2, but pay attention to Jacobson when Glazer is talking and vice versa. It’s their natural reactions to what the other is saying—listening, scoffing, nodding—that make an onscreen friendship feel like it comes with the type of shorthand and understanding you develop over years. 

Of course, when we think of chemistry, we often think of the romantic sort; there are endless examples of that sizzling hot spark that happens between two people. Anjelica Huston as Morticia and Raul Julia as Gomez in the “Addams Family” movies are a great example of the more overtly sexual nature of chemistry. Their every word, look, and touch are absolutely pulsating with desire for the other person. These two performances demonstrate how to toe the line between over-the-top and relatable. It’s an impressive balancing act that any actor can learn from. Both Huston and Julia are projecting big and theatrical emotions—but quietly, which translates onscreen to a palpable sense of yearning.  

Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in “The Way We Were” are another timeless example, but of a different sort. Their enemies-to-lovers story shows how two very different people can sometimes complement each other, and how electrically (and sexually) charged that can be. One of the most vital parts of portraying romantic chemistry is how you look at your scene partner. In this scene, Streisand and Redford don’t even share the same frame—their characters see each other from across the street—but aspiring actors should freeze the frame and study the range of emotions on their faces. 

Sanaa Lathan as Monica Wright and Omar Epps as Quincy McCall in “Love & Basketball” showcased the more tender and playful sort of chemistry that happens so often with first loves: It’s nostalgic and wistful. Though all different in tone and style, there’s no denying the enigmatic heat and energy that pulses through the scenes these actors have with one another. 

This scene, in particular, demonstrates how much framing and blocking can subtly enhance the audience’s investment in a relationship. 

When Monica is professing her love for Quincy, director Gina Prince-Bythewood places Lathan lower than Epps, in a vulnerable position. When she challenges him to a basketball game, she steps onto the porch above him, changing the dynamic. The key thing is that Lathan doesn’t lose the vulnerability of her performance. That push-pull, back-and-forth contrast makes the viewer feel just as engrossed in the moment as the characters. 

“Love & Basketball” is also a prime example of how chemistry is not a magic thing, but the result of carefully crafted performance and filmmaking. In 2019, Lathan revealed she was “miserable” filming the movie, but none of that comes across onscreen. Chemistry is an elusive concept, which is why it’s so hard to describe and pinpoint. Be it platonic, romantic, or somewhere else on the spectrum (we’re looking at you, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny circa “The X-Files”), you just feel good chemistry when people look at each other a certain way, fight, touch or don’t touch, or even just listen.

“I’m as fascinated as you are about the question [of chemistry]. I truly am,” actor Rose Byrne told us. “I think it’s like lightning in a bottle. I see actors onscreen or onstage, and I’m like, Wow, the chemistry. And they could very well hate each other. It’s so ephemeral; you could really get along with someone and then have no chemistry onstage or onscreen with them. It’s so intangible. Particularly on camera, I think, because it’s something that happens between the lens and the real thing.”

How to create chemistry

Fences

“Fences” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Be 100% present. Chemistry, whether you’re faking it onscreen or not, ultimately comes down to respecting your scene partner(s) and really listening to and engaging with the person you’re with. “You can take some liberties in improvising as much as you can, but it’s all about the improv skill of listening,” says actor Lamorne Morris. “You have to really listen to what your scene partner is saying in order to give an honest, funny reaction to it.”

It is imperative for any creative to respect the process, the people involved, and the ultimate goal of every scene and story to know that chemistry isn’t always just there; you have to cultivate it by existing in—rather than overthinking—it. That simply takes time and a willingness to be open to the process. To learn, or pretend, to have chemistry with someone takes effort—you can’t just want it to be there and hope that is enough, because nine times out of 10, it won’t be.

Make an effort off-screen. As is true to life, it helps to get to know the person with whom you’re working, not just the character they’re playing. Building a personal connection and understanding your scene partner will take you far in cultivating the sort of chemistry that really pops onscreen. 

“I could look at Pedro and he’d know what I’d be feeling, and vice versa,” says Bella Ramsey of their “The Last of Us” costar Pedro Pascal. “It's just someone to look at in a funny moment or a moment where there’s some tension on set; to be able to look at a person and share that? That was always there, and I’m really grateful for that.” 

Do your homework. Good chemistry ultimately comes from actors analyzing, understanding, and really knowing who their character is, what they feel, and why. Knowing the “want” that drives a character’s machinations from scene to scene also helps to home in on how and why a character may respond to someone else, and vice versa. “If [your character has] a strong need in life to love and be loved because you were abandoned when you were a baby, everything in your life is ‘I need to be loved. If [I’m not], I don’t think I matter,’ ” says Viola Davis, speaking on her chemistry-heavy “Fences” performance with Denzel Washington. “How does that inform your objectives? I guarantee you, if you answer the question of the need first, that’s a way more interesting actor.”

This is also true in the writing and directing of moments where the chemistry between two characters is essential. Who are your characters? What emotions are rippling through them in these moments? Why might they be drawn to or repelled by someone? How does that conflict with all the other factors at play in the story you’re telling? Asking yourself these questions as a writer, actor, or director is imperative to nailing the nuances of chemistry between characters.

Cultivate a safe environment. Some actors cite the introduction of intimacy coordinators as helpful in creating opportunities for more vulnerable onscreen moments. As “Bridgerton” star Phoebe Dynevor told us, having an IC around “just enabled us to feel really safe around each other. We formed a friendship, we formed a working bond, and we both felt safe within that and we talked a lot about what we wanted out of it.”

“You’re rehearsing it so that everyone feels comfortable and that there’s no one that can ever get crossed because you’re very specific with what you’re doing,” she explained. “It just makes everyone feel comfortable, not just the actress, but the actor, and the crew members. It just makes for a safer space, and therefore you can let loose a bit more and feel freer within that role that you’re playing.”

For many actors, knowing the parameters opens them up to the type of play that creates chemistry. “Sometimes people think that’s limiting, but in my experience, the feedback that I’ve gotten from actors is the complete opposite,” said intimacy coordinator Mia Schachter. “When you know what it is that you can do and what’s in your toolkit, you can actually feel way freer to play around and try new things—because your scene partner has told you, ‘You can touch me here; you can touch me there.’ ”

Understand that onscreen chemistry is not instant. Ultimately, this is a job, and cultivating chemistry takes work. In real life, this may happen naturally and slowly over time, but when you’re building that sort of relationship onscreen, the timeline is a bit more truncated, making everything you do to build that chemistry a purposeful, focused assignment. Take it from Ewan McGregor, who told us he believes chemistry is “not magic.”

“I’ve loved some actors I’ve been in scenes with, and it works. I’ve also been in scenes with actors where we don’t get on at all,” McGregor explained. “And yet you wouldn’t know in the movie, because we’re both good actors.”

If you’re doing your job correctly, a good actor could have chemistry with a toaster—so long as the actor is willing to put in the work to make it happen.

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