What do I do with just one line? This is an important question that beguiles many actors and has prompted many lengthy discussions. The quest for a certain answer is understandable since one-liners, or co-star roles, are how most actors start acquiring credits and building a résumé.
The answer is ultimately the same as approaching any role of any size, but somehow that often gets lost when actors feel pressure to show casting directors and producers that they are talented and qualified for the job. Nerves can kick in. It’s a lot of energy to get yourself to an audition, sign in, spend less than 10 seconds in the room, turn right around, and get back in the car and go home. It’s easy to overdo it in the room. Or the exact opposite: just “throw it away” because after all, it’s just one line and you’ve heard so many people say that’s the way to go. Maybe you should just “be yourself” and not think about it. Losing strategies.
There is no pat answer that covers how to perform all one-liners because they aren’t all written for the same reason, and are not spoken on the same projects.
Examination of context is required, just as it would be for a larger role. In addition, I often remind actors that they are involved in telling a story greater than the role they’re playing. That’s true, even if they’re playing the lead. Acting is always about storytelling. If you think about the story the writer is telling, you’re much more likely to become an asset to the overall production than the actor who is thinking of “playing a part.”
Often, one-liners are utilitarian in nature. Consider a service provider interacting with the lead and verbally acknowledging a transaction. “Here’s your drink, ma’am.” Almost always the breakdown for this type of role is a pleasant person, happy to do their job in an emotionally neutral state, who comes and goes without making the audience wonder what’s going on in their life.
Many actors make the mistake of making service-oriented workers grouchy or in a bad mood. Unless the breakdown or stage directions specifically call for that—and trust me, it will be made very clear—it’s generally a huge error. The overall story is never about a person with one line. Playing a character as cross, upset, or moody when it’s not called for redirects the storyline to them and away from the leads.
So then just “throw it away,” right? No, not at all. The producers of the show aren’t looking for lifeless wet blankets for these roles, either. Throwing away a line has a very dismissive, negative connotation aligned with it, and incorporating it as an acting strategy just makes you look boring and uninterested.
And not all projects are the same stylistically. Some are more dry, some are more broad. Some writers give jokes to the co-stars, some never do. Shows on Disney and Nickelodeon allow for very broad performances from guest actors.
In summary, when presented with a co-star audition, you can never go wrong with doing excellent actor homework, the same as you would for a lead role. Since there’s only a line or two, it should go very quickly!
Without creating a backstory or reality that isn’t right there on the page, ask yourself the following:
- What is the tone of this particular show? (If you don’t know, look up some clips, episodes, or trailers.)
- What do I want to accomplish in the scene?
- Where am I? What’s the geography of the scene?
- What are my eye lines?
- What is my next thought after someone speaks to me (even if I don’t say it)?
- Do I enter or exit? If so, how and where?
- Is there an object or physical reference I need to enact? If so, how do I keep any space work clean, edited, and minimized?
- How am I feeling in my “moment before?”
- Do I change emotionally if someone speaks to me?
- What is my intention under the line I’m saying?
That’s what to do with one line! Do your homework and tell the truth! No part in a television show or film is a concept. You’re always playing a person, living their life, and having internalized thoughts and emotions that make sense in relation to the circumstances in which they find themselves. Be lively and full of life, keep the performance simple and within the context of the scene, know the project for which you’re auditioning, and be confident. You’ll make fans and hopefully get the job, too!
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