How to Act Realistically

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Photo Source: “Succession” Credit: Graeme Hunter/HBO

Unless you’re appearing in a campy comedy or a purposely bad B movie, the ability to act realistically is vital to any acting performance. But while discerning between realistic acting and overacting is simple enough when you’re watching someone else perform, you may need a little help to hone and assess your own craft.

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Overacting vs. acting

Bryan Cranston asWalt White and Hal“Breaking Bad” Courtesy AMC / “Malcolm in the Middle” Courtesy Fox

Realistic acting is usually nuanced and subtle while still signifying complex interior emotions. Alternatively, overacting is clumsy, campy, and excessively exaggerated, as evidenced through its over-the-top physicality, unnatural speech patterns, and discordant facial expressions. Of course, the distinction is dependent on context: Bryan Cranston’s performance as ridiculous-but-lovable family man Hal in the sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” doesn’t constitute overacting—although it would if he acted the same way in his role as meth kingpin Walter in the crime drama “Breaking Bad.”

To ensure that you’re acting realistically and not overacting, consider the times that you’ve used your acting skills in real life. That could be giving a less-than-true response to a “How are you?” query from a stranger, adapting to a friend’s emotional needs even if it’s not exactly how you felt in the moment, or telling a white lie to get out of an undesirable commitment. If you’re not feeling great but don’t want to talk about it, you likely wouldn’t respond to “How are you?” with an effusive exclamation of exuberance; instead, you’d probably say something along the lines of, “Fine, thanks for asking.” Remember that real-life acting is usually understated, and apply that to your own realistic acting onstage and on set.

Tips and techniques to act realistically

Uncut Gems“Uncut Gems” Courtesy A24

Acting realistically is a matter of honing your craft, understanding your character, and portraying emotions in a nuanced yet compelling way. To help you get there:

Take acting classes: Attend acting school, workshops, or classes. These classes will train you as an actor and show you how to engage with other actors during performances. Finding the right class for you is “like test-driving a car,” acting coach Anthony Meindl told Backstage. “It’s really important, in the early stages, to go see everything and test every class. Most classes are probably free to audit, and they should be.... You should be able to go and sit in and get a vibe of the room.” 

In the end, “the right class will speak to you at your heart,” Meindl says. “It’s not an intellectual concept. I discovered when I started training many years ago in New York, the class I ended up being in was the class that scared me.” 

RELATED: Essential Acting Skills Every Performer Should Master

Try a specific technique (or mix and match): Many actors subscribe to one of the many training methods taught at schools and in classes across the country. More often than not, performers take parts of several different methods to build their own process. Those methods include: 

  • The Stanislavsky Method: Developed by the legendary theater teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky, this technique encourages actors to put themselves in their characters’ shoes and imagine what they’d do if the story was real, instead of trying to recreate reality. 
  • Method acting: Method acting asks actors to inhabit their characters’ psyches to live out imaginary scenarios with full commitment. 
  • Stella Adler’s acting technique: A student of Stanislavsky, Stella Adler’s approach to acting encourages performers to bring their own ideas, individuality, and experiences to every story, expanding the world beyond the ideas of the director or playwright. 
  • Meisner technique: Sanford Meisner’s approach to acting is grounded in verbal repetition exercises and improvisation. 
  • Uta Hagen’s acting technique: In many ways, Uta Hagen developed the anti-technique, which asks actors not to overanalyze their process and instead focus on observing everyday life. 
  • Viola Spolin’s theater games: Viola Spolin’s game-oriented approach to acting turns stagecraft into play, emphasizing improvisation and quick reaction. 
  • The Chekhov Technique: Another pupil of Stanislavsky, Michael Chekhov created this “psycho-physical” approach to acting that connects physical movements to corresponding emotions. 
  • The Jerzy Grotowski Technique: Experimental Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski honed his teachings by eliminating everything in the theater he felt was “extraneous”—elaborate costumes, props, and sets—and focusing on the talents of his actors. 

Answer the W questions: To get a better sense of your character’s motivations, their central conflict, and the stakes that drive them, ask yourself the five “W” questions: 

  • Who is my character? This can mean anything as obvious as your name, job, and appearance to more core concepts such as your beliefs, values, fears, and darkest secrets.  
  • When does this story take place? Orient yourself in a specific time, and then ask how that year, period, or era would affect how your character acts and thinks. 
  • Where am I? Answer this question broadly—the city, state, country, or even planet—and then work inward on a scene-by-scene basis to see how your immediate environment might affect your decisions. 
  • What do I want? Identify your character’s driving goals. This is a two-step process: What tangible thing does your character want to possess? And what is the inner need that would change their life in the way they want (possibly without even knowing it)? 
  • Why do I want it? What is the desired outcome of reaching your goal? How does your character want their status quo to change? What trait is holding them back that needs to be fixed? 

Irishman“The Irishman” Courtesy Netflix

Fully develop the history of your character: Flesh out your character’s backstory, daily routines, and even inner monologue. “Initial details are uncovered through delving into the script. Then others are logically inferred,” artistic director Catherine LaMoreaux told Backstage. LaMoreaux believes actors should always write character biographies to get into their roles.

“A biography should start with the character as a child,” she said. “Where did he grow up? How many siblings did he have, and what was his position in birth order? What was the family’s socio-economic level? What was his earliest childhood memory? Then, transitioning from childhood through teenage years and into adulthood, what were important events in the character’s life?”

Consider your personal style: Realistic acting is contingent on audiences believing you can be your character. “Embrace your personality; it’s your secret weapon and greatest asset as an actor,” acting coach Joseph Pearlman told Backstage. 

Director and author John Swanbeck agrees. “Start developing what I call ‘target market characters,’ ” he advises. “Think of all the films and television shows currently being produced as a large pie. Ask yourself which is the largest slice of the pie you easily fit into. Start developing a repertoire of target market characters that fit into that slice of the pie.”

Swanbeck identifies one of the biggest mistakes young actors make, which is “presenting themselves as an actor who can do everything and everyone.” Instead, he says, it’s up to you to tell casting directors, producers, and other gatekeepers “how to see you, how to think about you, and where to cast you.” 

Identify your specific look, skillset, and strengths, and then apply for roles that align with who you are. This can help when it comes to selling your performance.

Think holistic: It can be easy to get caught up in the intricate complexities when trying to delve into your acting. Think instead about acting as a holistic system rather than getting too preoccupied with the minutiae of its parts. 

“Should an actor begin with research? Improv? Given circumstances?... Does an actor first focus on objectives? Personalization? Imagination? Stakes? Range? Listening?” asks acting teacher Paul Barry. “Just start wherever you can, but remember it’s about growing an organic system that works together to keep the whole functioning.” 

Annotate: Write notes in your script to help you remember how you want to perform and when. Include your character’s thoughts and emotions, as well as technical concerns such as pauses, intonation, and facial expressions. In the early stages of studying your script, try actioning, a technique that involves assigning an active verb to all of your dialogue lines. This helps to draw out the subtext and intention of what you’re saying. 

Practice, practice, practice: Take the time to study your lines until they feel like a part of you. Look through lists of practice scripts you can use at home, or try writing your own. Test out your delivery with other actors, family and friends, and in video recordings until you’re confident that your body movements, facial expressions, and voice all depict your character realistically.

Be responsive: As Stanislavsky taught, actors should live a role rather than perform it. Think of what it means to react as your character rather than act as them, and use that as you actively listen and respond to your showmates. “I used to get so annoyed at actors who I could see over in a corner running a scene. It seemed like they were running the scene the way they were going to play it. What kind of fun is that?” asked Emmy winning “Euphoria” actor Colman Domingo in an interview with Backstage.

“I think what’s interesting is that I know what I know,” he said. “Eighty percent of it is I know what I know; I did my homework. And then the other 20% is: I have no idea what [co-star] Zendaya is going to do, and I have no idea how [‘Euphoria’ creator] Sam [Levinson] wants to stage it. I just have to experience all of that, and then all of that will make it honest and make it real.”

Be subtle, but emote: When it comes time to perform, remember to emote—but be careful not to over-emote. If you’re having difficulty becoming your character in the moment, try thinking of a time when your own emotions and history mesh with that of your character. If your character is going through a divorce, but you haven’t experienced that, think about another time you went through heartbreak. Express your own emotions as your character via your demeanor and voice.

The show must go on: If you accidentally miss a line, convey an emotion that your character isn’t supposed to feel, or otherwise feel that you’ve flubbed your performance, don’t let it get in the way of the rest of the show. Let it go and don’t break character—the audience likely won’t notice if you keep it moving.

Have fun: As James Dean once said, “The gratification comes in the doing, not in the results.” Enjoy the “doing” of acting as much as you can by having fun during the performance, engaging with your fellow actors, and forgetting about audience response and results until later. Finding joy in acting will improve your capabilities in the craft.

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