Why Actors Need to Always Think on Their Feet

Photo Source: Nathan Arizona

Before his breakthrough as Earl in 2015’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” RJ Cyler made a cross-country move from Jacksonville, Florida, to Los Angeles after getting accepted into an acting camp in the city—and he hasn’t looked back since. He’s staying especially busy this year, reprising his role on Showtime’s “I’m Dying Up Here” and co-starring in “White Boy Rick” opposite Matthew McConaughey, in Netflix’s “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,” and on MTV’s “Scream.”

What skills have you taken away from the various projects you’ve worked on recently?
I definitely learned how to think on my feet, but to think consciously on my feet. There are certain times when a whole scene could get cut out or a whole scene could get added, and you need to know it in 30 minutes as if you’ve been rehearsing it for two years. And then just how to respect everyone’s energy on set and around you. You don’t really know how people’s days are; you can never say, “I know exactly how you feel.” But to respect the energy that’s around you and invite that energy, it makes for fluidity on set, it makes it better. It makes you better at working with people and being around people. I used to not like meeting new people. I’m only outgoing when people approach me. But now it’s like, “Hey, what’s up?” It opens the doors for more opportunities, because I’m more socially available to just say, “Hey, how you doing?” I’ve got friends from everywhere because this acting thing makes you a people person.

Tell me about that acting camp in L.A.
At the time we did the camp, I was new to [acting] but I used to watch “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and “Hannah Montana” almost religiously. When I did the program, it was too much fun. After that, I felt like all my dreams of being a desk worker or a teacher—because that was one of the most fun careers I thought I could have…I did acting and everything else went down the toilet.

How important was it as a developing actor to watch Disney shows and learn from those stars?
It was more like I watched a lot of Disney Channel because that’s all we watched in the crib, me and my brothers. Watching [Dylan and Cole Sprouse and Miley Cyrus], it kept my imagination alive. They’re, of course, teenagers, but they can take on these childish roles. They do these things that you only see kids doing. If they’re comfortable doing it, then I can be comfortable reacting like a kid, too. It takes that pride thing out of the way—and that’s one thing you can have too much of as an actor: pride. You won’t get far. I didn’t even notice it was a tool that I was using at the time, but now that I think back, I’m like, “Damn, I do catch myself doing a lot of things that I would recognize in Dylan Sprouse or Cole or Miley.”

How do you keep from burning out?
I always think about the times when I was asking for this. It’s the hunger, really. I can’t burn out when I asked for it. I can’t say there’s too much on my plate when I want to eat.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Go for it and don’t be scared. I feel like I would’ve been more sharp at times where I needed to be. We all learn from downfalls and shortcomings, so I don’t regret anything that I didn’t do, but I would definitely tell myself to trust my decisions and be open to the reaction that comes from them.

How do you typically prepare for an audition?
I like to be as familiar with my script as I can. Weirdly, it comes from me not looking at my script every day. When I read my lines, I play my Xbox at the same time. It’s like my mind isn’t too solidly focused. I know that there are going to be changes to this line or that line. I know these lines well enough and I know this character well enough where it’s instantaneous. I’m already embedded in this character. It makes you become the character instead of creating one.

What special skills do you have listed on your résumé?
People don’t know that I DJ. I’m really good at it. I learned how to do it from my dad. My dad used to be a DJ, and he used to be on the cheer squad at his school. He also used to be the best dancer in his school. I’m a little version of my dad. He skates; I learned how to skate from him. I learned my DJing bases from him, my dancing—we’re basically the same person.

Do you ever improvise? It sounds like the way you create characters could allow for it.
Definitely! When it comes to improv, it’s so easy to get lost in it, and then you lose the whole message and what the scene was. I always give the solid performance my director needs because they have a vision and I don’t want to be the one to mess up that vision because I feel like my idea’s better. If there’s improv allowed, I’m dancing with it.

Tell me a bit about roller skating. Your videos on Instagram are great.
We used to skate a lot where I’m from in Jacksonville, and it became this thing that I felt like I was really good at. It’s almost like dancing. I love to dance, but it adds a little more swag to it. It’s therapeutic. It helps me cheat when it comes to going to the gym, so that’s always a plus. Now I’m addicted to it.

Do you DJ with vinyl?
I DJ with vinyl records, and I’m good on controllers. I play less on CD-Js, but I’m learning right now. I’m old-school.

Do you feel like being able to read a crowd adds to the way that you act as well?
Definitely. It’s like you wouldn’t bring a tray of bourbon to a class of kindergarteners. It may be a good drink, but it’s not their flavor. It makes you acclimate your own attitude and your way of approaching people differently. It makes you more fluid, more fun to be around. It’s better to have someone in the room that everybody can somehow relate to. It helps with acting because we’re all just a bunch of creatives. I’m weird, you’re weird, she’s weird, he’s weird. Cool. We’re a bunch of weirdos, let’s make some magic. We choose our imagination over society.

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