The Best Film Actors Know These 7 Rules

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Photo Source: Photo by Noom Peerapong on Unsplash

Sure, the industry has shifted to give more attention to television these days, but film is still the be-all-end-all for many actors. If that’s you, you’ll want to know these seven rules specifically for film acting, all provided by industry and Backstage Experts who know their way around a film set—in front of and behind the camera.

Films foundation is not the same as theater’s.
“[It is a] lie that theater is a strong foundation for film acting. A film actor should get on the fast track. In today’s youth-driven market you should get to L.A. and get in a great on-camera class now. Once you have a name in film, you can get a lead in a Broadway show and sort out your theater acting if that intrigues you. Text analysis is fairly universal, I’ll grant you, but the application of technique is so vastly different between the two forms, I shudder to imagine anyone still believes this. I myself went to drama school and did professional theater along the way. Better than going to film school—for a director like me. Theater is a lot of fun, but my advice here and in my own classroom is always geared toward helping you achieve true success through ‘A’ picture style acting. Skip theater if you don’t want to do theater.” —Ryan R. Williams, L.A.-based on-camera acting teacher and Backstage Expert

The secret is simplicity.
“I believe the ‘secret’ to film acting is telling the story as simply as possible. In the theater, a performance must carry to last row. In film, cameras and microphones are perilously close and capture even the smallest gesture and sound, but the "internals" for the actor are exactly the same as they would be for the stage, only their outward expression must be much subtler. Theater-trained actors, with limited or no on-camera experience, tend to reveal too much of their work externally. “Less is more” is never truer than when it comes to acting for film.” —Todd Thaler, casting director, acting teacher, on-camera acting coach, and Backstage Expert

Great film acting is not a mystery.
“As a university professor, I work a lot with young actors experienced in nothing but theater. They come to me fresh from high school with bad habits learned from teachers who haven’t acted in decades, and ask me to teach them the mysterious art of ‘film acting.’

“‘Film acting?’ I ask. ‘What’s that?’

“For my money, the only difference between acting for film and stage is venue. Just as an intimate black box calls for a different size performance than an amphitheater, film presents your performance to viewers at closer range. There’s nothing ‘deep’ about the difference; it’s just like moving from outdoor Shakespeare to 99-seat contemporary: Different, yes, but not mysterious.” —Jackie Apodaca, associate professor and the head of performance at Southern Oregon University and Backstage Expert

Pump the brakes in film acting.
“However you achieve a powerful emotion, beware of forcing it out while the camera rolls. If the editor uses that over-emotive footage, you’ll look ridiculous. Instead, play the feeling as an obstacle. Contain it, but make sure it’s deeply felt or it will disappear on film. You want to play an emotion so viewers notice the power, detail, and nuance in your performance, not just a single solitary emotion that screams ‘I’m sad!’ or ‘I’m angry!’

“Be the brake (not the gas) while on film. Less is more, I promise.” —Ryan R. Williams

Stage directions, however, can be applied.
“To achieve solid eye contact, focus on your scene partner’s downstage eye. Yes, there is an “upstage” and a ‘downstage’ when working on camera, although ‘stage left’ becomes ‘camera right’ and vice-versa. (While there are still some directors who use the terms ‘stage left’ and ‘stage right,’ it is becoming a less frequent practice when directing for the camera.) Inexperienced actors often look shifty-eyed, as they move back and forth between another actor’s two eyes. Depending on the tightness of the shot, this may not be an issue. However, you should be very careful if the shot is extremely close and intense. By focusing on the downstage eye (the one closer to the camera), your performance will have more stillness, which both directors and audiences prefer to the shifty-eyed look.” —Brian O’Neil, acting coach, career consultant, audition coach

Film is a crash course in character development.
“Actors who recognize the difference [between film and stage] are able to immediately adapt to the rigors of film by finding the most compelling intersection of themselves and the character, and are able to call up the right qualities whenever action is called. They don’t need tons of rehearsal, they’ve done the work themselves and are ready at a moment’s notice to connect and shine.” —Craig Wallace, acting teacher and Backstage Expert

No one holds your hand on a film set.
“This one is always a little surprising to young actors who are used to the collaborative nature of a theater rehearsal. On a film set, the director is solving a thousand different little puzzles with the help of many highly specialized artists, and you are just one small piece of that puzzle. If you can do all of your own work and replicate what you did in the audition room, which is how you got this tiny little role in the first place, do it. Your job when you’re playing a small part is to not make them do another take because you can’t say ‘Mogadishu’ when the pressure’s on. That’s how you get to play larger parts.” —Timothy Davis-Reed, actor, teacher, and Backstage Expert

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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