How to Fully Embody a Role

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To really know something is to know it through the three sense doors: mind, body, and heart. When we care deeply about something or someone, we take it/them in on these three levels and thus we have a complete and well-rounded relationship with that person or thing.

For actors, the three sense doors must be open at all times so that in the audition you’ll be able to turn the words on the page until a fully realized person.

The least interesting sense door for the actor is the mind. What you think about something is nowhere near as important as how you feel. Yet, so many auditioning actors take in the material through just this one door, and you can’t produce a three-dimensional audition with a one-dimensional approach.

You’d think it would be impossible, but in many casting sessions 20 out of 25 actors look exactly the same. When these 20 read the piece, they let their mind decide what they should do with no input from the body or heart. And given that most audition pieces aren’t rocket science, they all came up with the same decisions. The mind’s job is to put things in order, create logic streams, and keep you safe. The decisions that come exclusively from order, safety, and logic will not get you a job. It’s your job as an actor to illuminate the words with your specific point of view—to show us what you have to add to the role, to not just spit back the obvious.

The 20 actors who make decisions exclusively from their minds with no further exploration are what we call “neck up actors.” They offer ideas and thoughts, but no real humanity.

The actors actors actually competing for the role know that what the mind provides is just the beginning of the journey and that it’s in the heart and body that the role comes to life.

Let’s say you have a piece of material in which you’ve just found out that your spouse is cheating on you. First, you’ll have a thought about it, such as, I would be in shock and wouldn’t believe it. Cheating is wrong. I should be furious. This looks like a revenge piece, etc. You see that the mind immediately starts to order the experience and tells you what to feel, so you must hurry down to the heart and check it out there.

What are the emotions that the shock and disbelief bring up in your heart? Sadness, shock, anger, defeat, rage, shame? Notice how they all exist together and enrich one another. Sit with all of them and let them pierce your heart. Feel the feelings overtake the thoughts. If all of the emotions that come up are identified and truly felt, you’ll make choices that are rich with honest emotional life. You won’t have to act the choices, because you’ll be living in the felt sense of the choices. If you lead with the heart and not the head, you’ll bring real humanity and depth to every role you go out on, from the simplest one liner to the most complex 12-page scene.

Now that you know how the emotions of the piece feel in your heart, it’s time to experience how they feel in the physical body. Where does the hurt manifest? Is it an empty feeling in the gut or does it live in your chest? What does the disbelief do to your breath: Are you breathing shallowly or have you stopped breathing entirely? Does the feeling of defeat cave your chest in make you want to slump over?

The body needs to feel all of the emotions in order to give them back to you in the room. And though you will be mostly still, the feeling of the emotions in the different parts of your body will enrich and give dimension to the choices, and your stillness will be electric. You’ll be the actor completely living the role, not just a talking head.

Also, if the emotions are stored in the body they will be available to you in the audition. The body holds on to the information you provide it in a completely pure way, without the judgement and opinions of the mind.

One of my students came to me after class to show me a twoline role he had the next day for a cop. The lines were standard issue, “License and registration, please. Do you know why I pulled you over?” Something like that. We discussed an intent for the cop and the intent, “to go home,” worked well for the student. He made a couple of choices to support that intent and when he explored them in his body, his shoulders sagged a bit, his stomach stuck out, and his facial muscles went slack.

He wasn’t playing a tired cop, he was a tired cop in his mind, body, and heart, alive in all three sense doors and a complete person in two lines. And he booked it.

To be one of the five actors who are actually competing for the job, you need to completely embody the role and open all three sense doors so that the words on the page are rich with the life of the mind, body, and heart. If you work this way, you’ll be able to wrap yourself entirely around the words, leaving no space between you and the role.

You’ll be the epitome of the totally embodied actor.

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Craig Wallace
Craig Wallace is the creator and award-winning teacher of the Wallace Audition Technique, an audition preparation system that he developed based on his years of experience as a studio executive, talent agent, and casting consultant.
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