“How can I know what the character is feeling if I haven’t done my homework?”
What homework are we talking about here? Your algebra test? Your history lesson? Reading the first chapter of you English book?
Acting is not homework. Nor is character study.
You read the scene (or the play). If it’s not written in Swahili, you probably understand what’s going on. The guy is breaking up with his girlfriend. The sister finds out she’s pregnant. The man is trying to steal a priceless painting. You get the gist of what’s going on very quickly. While reading it, your brain immediately makes choices and creates ideas about who that person is. You then get up and you try—that’s it.
You can’t ever know what the character is feeling until you give yourself the permission to feel what you’re feeling as that person. If you already know what the character was feeling, we wouldn’t have a play. (If Hamlet knew everything we wouldn’t have “Hamlet.”) The actor playing Hamlet is figuring it out as we, the audience, are figuring it out. This is what creates conflict in a story. This is what creates story, period.
You don’t have the character of yourself fully figured out in life, do you? That’s the mystery of being alive and trying to figure things out! Without exploration and discovery, we would all be robots moving toward the same end.
I had a student I was teaching in London recently who didn’t commit in his scene. I asked him why. He said, “Well, if I had time to prep and really do my homework, then I would’ve committed.”
“Was there anything you didn’t understand about the scene?” I asked.
Silence. I then asked him to tell me everything he knew about the scene just by reading it. After a long moment, he explained perfectly what the entire scene was about. He didn’t need to do any “homework.” He did that in two minutes! What homework is there to do here? Write a biography about why the character feels a certain way? Show us your intellectualization of what someone is fighting about? The blood and guts of the scene are being evoked in the moment, not in the journal entry of how you interpret the character.
In a Vanity Fair interview, Jesse Eisenberg says this about the over-conceptualization that is often taught to actors. “Acting is kind of difficult to intellectualize—it’s a far more visceral experience. It’s really hard to be able to think about and then employ these kinds of esoteric notions of this person’s backstory and try to weave it in somehow. It’s just kind of impossible.”
Actors use homework as a default to keep from taking the risk. So they plan, control, come up with clever ideas, and then try to play those qualities. Oscar Isaac says, “How do you play ‘righteous’? Do you just stand up straighter? What does that mean as an actor? You don’t really play a quality.”
So, if we can't play things (or rather, we try to but it creates “acting”), then what do we do with the information in the scene?
To find out, check out my No. 1 bestseller, “Book the F#©king Job! A Guide for Actors” to help dispel a lot of acting myths and open up new ways of thinking about “homework” and a lot more.
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