Sometimes, actors elevate stories through their own creative—and unexpected—contributions. And while going off-script can be a risky venture, it can also create iconic moments on film and TV. Here are some of the most famous examples of actors ad-libbing, the ways their improvisations changed scenes, and advice on what you should do if you find yourself in a similar situation.
“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971): Wonka’s pratfall
Mel Stuart’s classic children’s film takes its time building up the legend of the titular candy mogul (Gene Wilder) so that characters and viewers alike are filled with anticipation by the time he finally appears.
But Wilder subverts these expectations when he makes his big entrance. As Wonka slowly limps toward the camera with the help of a cane, the spectators—clearly shocked by his condition—fall silent. But just as it seems he’s about to topple over, Wonka performs a somersault, revealing that he’s in perfect physical health.
Wilder came up with the idea himself and proposed it to Stuart. With this simple off-script stunt, the actor immediately signals how enigmatic and unpredictable Wonka is. “From that time on, no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth,” he said in an interview with film historian Robert Osborne.
Most actors shouldn’t attempt a move like this; Wilder was renowned for his spontaneity, so directors learned to expect the unexpected when filming with him. To make something like this work, you’ll need to have strong storytelling instincts and a deep understanding of your character.
“The Shining” (1980): “Here’s Johnny!”
Oscar-nominated auteur Stanley Kubrick was notoriously difficult to work with due to his perfectionism; he often insisted on filming dozens of takes for each scene. The most infamous example of his exacting filmmaking process is his horror classic “The Shining.” He put his actors in grueling situations, which sometimes resulted in them going off-script in an attempt to find a take that Kubrick would be satisfied with.
That’s exactly how Jack Nicholson came up with the famous line “Here’s Johnny!” delivered during a heart-pounding scene in which his character, Jack Torrance, breaks through a door with an ax in pursuit of his wife (Shelley Duvall). The reference to Johnny Carson’s well-known entrance line on “The Tonight Show” seems to come out of nowhere; but it makes sense in the context of Jack’s insanity and adds to the film’s sense of surrealism.
Generally, actors should stay away from improvising dialogue if it’s just to mix a scene up—but as this example proves, it can work. Although Kubrick’s methods were controversial, Nicholson’s unscripted moment has a valuable lesson to impart: Sometimes, the best lines are the most out-there ones. Just don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find one.
“Clueless” (1995): Cher mispronounces “Haitians”
One scene in this mid-90s teen comedy classic was improved by a pronunciation joke, but even Alicia Silverstone, who stars as Cher, didn’t realize it was happening at the time.
Cher’s teacher, Mr. Hall (Wallace Shawn) poses a question for his students to debate: “Should all oppressed people be allowed refuge in America?” Cher argues that they should, citing Haitian refugees as an example. She mispronounces Haitians as “Hay-tee-ans” and compares their plight to RSVPing to a garden party.
Silverstone’s pronunciation error wasn’t scripted; she genuinely didn’t know how to say the word. Writer-director Amy Heckerling happened to overhear Silverstone’s mistaken read before filming began and didn’t correct her. She even told the crew to play along and ignore the mistake.
The moment fits in perfectly with Cher’s well-meaning but, yes, clueless, persona. She’s a sheltered white teenager from a wealthy family who isn’t very worldly; so the mistake is fitting.
This moment shows how actors can bring new angles to scenes through their idiosyncrasies. It’s equally important for talented filmmakers like Heckerling to recognize unexpected opportunities and let their actors shine—even if it’s by accident.
“The Blair Witch Project” (1999): the whole movie
Going off-script is one thing, but what about when there’s barely a script to begin with? That’s exactly the challenge the cast of this iconic horror indie faced. Writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez gave their actors a 35-page screenplay consisting of character notes and story beats, but no dialogue. The cast was then left to invent all their lines themselves.
This risk paid off in spades. The improvised dialogue made the film’s found-footage style more convincing, and the gambit was particularly fitting considering that the movie’s chills and thrills draw almost entirely on the audience’s imagination; the horror doesn’t come from witnessing horrifying things, but rather from not witnessing them. This clip demonstrates how the unseen comes together with the unscripted to create a truly terrifying moment:
This aesthetic definitely isn’t for everyone. A lot can go wrong if you have to act on top of coming up with all your own lines under pressure. But if you have a vivid imagination and share a strong sense of trust with your fellow cast members, then this style of performance may be right for you.
“Thor: Ragnarok” (2017): Thor and Loki’s “Get help!” con
Director Taika Waititi strongly encouraged his actors to improvise while filming this comedic MCU installment. In an interview with MTV, he said that approximately 80% of the lines in the movie were ad-libbed. “I’m trying to create—like, foster—a very familial, very loose and collaborative mood on set,” he explained.
This style of filmmaking led to instantly classic moments like this unscripted scene between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). After the brothers’ touching reconciliation, Thor undercuts the emotion of the moment by suggesting a tried-and-true tactic they can employ to escape their captors. While Loki pretends to be injured, Thor shouts, “Get help!” When the guards approach, Thor throws his brother at them, knocking them to the ground.
It’s a bit of old-school slapstick elevated by the chemistry between Hemsworth and Hiddleston, who perfectly sell their characters’ love-hate dynamic. The moment also serves as a reminder of how close Thor and Loki were before they became enemies and how in tune they still are despite their epic falling-out. If you’re working with a director like Waititi, who loves to choose organic moments over scripted ones, then feel just as free to experiment.
“Succession” Season 1, Episode 1 (2018): Kendall’s bathroom meltdown
Oscar-winning filmmaker Adam McKay goes out of his way to make sure his actors are comfortable going off-script. “I always throw improv in there to make sure there are some collisions and accidents,” he said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter.
He applied this principle when he directed “Celebration,” the pilot episode of HBO’s Emmy-winning “Succession.” During a tense confrontation with his domineering father, Logan (Brian Cox), Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) quietly leaves to go to the bathroom. Since he can’t directly express his anger to his dad, he melts down in private. Afterwards, he cleans up the mess and leaves as if nothing happened. This pivotal moment, which was completely improvised by Strong, highlights Kendall’s inner turmoil at being forced to act as Logan’s obedient lap dog.
This scene quickly became a famous—and highly memed—moment. But hitting just the right note of emotional volatility off the cuff demands a seasoned actor.
McKay said that he felt comfortable letting Strong dominate the scene because he understood him as a performer. “I think part of it was we knew Jeremy was that kind of actor,” the director said. “There are other actors that’d be like, ‘You’re basically saying there’s no net; go for it.’ But because we knew Jeremy loved that, he rose to that challenge.”
“Black Panther” (2018): “We are vegetarians”
When it came time to film a tense scene between the Wakandan royal family and M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari tribe, Angela Bassett (Queen Ramonda) knew it needed a little something extra. Filmmaker Ryan Coogler approved of her idea to go off-script by proxy.
The stakes are high: T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) allies are on a mission to secure backup from M’Baku (Winston Duke) in order to overthrow the recently crowned King Killmonger. When the American Agent Ross (Martin Freeman) tries to speak up, M’Baku instantly shuts him down by aggressively barking and saying, “If you say one more word, I’ll feed you to my children!” But he breaks the tension a moment later by revealing it was a joke and that his people are vegetarian.
The whole thing was Bassett’s idea, and her instinct paid off. Coogler agreed that it improved the scene and decided to keep the bit in to bring some levity to the intense exchange.
If you think a scene you’re working on needs a little extra oomph, you can respectfully suggest breaking from the script to the director; they might just listen.
“The Irishman” (2019): Tony Pro loses his cool
Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese is no stranger to asking actors to improvise, and “The Irishman” is no exception. One moment in particular stands out as an example of how going off-script, even in a small way, can deepen the relationships between characters.
Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) and Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) have a tense dynamic throughout the film—but one moment goes above and beyond. Balking at a perceived insult in the prison mess hall, Provenzano gets to his feet and smacks Hoffa’s beloved ice cream sundae off the table before lunging at him. The moment amps up the tension between the two and shows how Hoffa’s stubbornness tends to get him in trouble, foreshadowing what’s to come.
The dialogue as written is already explosive, but Provenzano’s violent outburst, improvised by Graham, is the cherry on top. “I’d already come up with an idea at home when I was reading through [the script],” the actor told Netflix. “I didn’t tell Marty, and I didn’t tell Al.”
The move paid off for Graham, but most actors should proceed with caution. If you’re lucky enough to work with legends like Pacino and Scorcese, choose your moment wisely.