How to Act in a Period Piece

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When approaching a role in a period piece, it’s critical to become immersed in the time in which you’re portraying the character. Social mores, clothing, class level, education, and every other aspect of life at the time must be thoroughly researched, explored, and ultimately integrated into your role. However, you must also remember that many things transcend time. So where do you start? From learning what a period piece is to understanding the different types of projects, here’s everything you need to know about this historical genre.

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What is a period piece?

Downton Abbey period piece“Downton Abbey: A New Era” Courtesy of Focus Features

A period piece is any project—be it film, TV, theater, or otherwise—that takes place in the past during a time period that actually happened. While the plot of a period piece can be fictional, the setting must be historically accurate. For example, a story that is set years ago in a made-up world, such as “Game of Thrones,” does not fall into the period piece category. TV series including “Downton Abbey” and “The Crown” and films such as “Marie Antoinette” and “The Favourite” are considered proper period pieces.

What are the different types of period pieces?

The Woman King historical movie“The Woman King” Courtesy of Sony Pictures

There are four types of period pieces in film.

  • Biopics: A biopic, such as “Elvis” or “Lincoln,” follows the real-life story of a person in history. The storyline doesn’t have to be entirely accurate but must depict the person’s life over the course of time. 
  • Costume dramas: Like its name, costume dramas include wow-worthy outfits that are reflective of the film’s or TV series’ narrative. Examples of this sub-genre are “Little Women” and “Downton Abbey.”
  • Historical romances: This type of period piece is set in the past but revolves around a romantic relationship. A famous historical romance is “Titanic,” which took place primarily in 1912, following the relationship of passengers Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater.
  • Historical epics: This sub-genre often features large-scale battle scenes and are usually set during ancient times. Well-known historical epics include “Spartacus,” “Gladiator,” and “The Last of the Mohicans.”

Why should actors explore performing in a period piece?

Outlander period piece“The Outlander” Courtesy of Starz

Joanne Baron, the artistic director of acting studio Baron Brown Studio, says there is a great value to working on period material that goes beyond the joy of performing brilliant classics or original works. “The demands of this work expand an actor’s abilities, ultimately enhancing all acting. Working on period pieces can even open up an entire avenue of opportunities in contemporary work,” she says. “For example, three-camera comedy sitcoms actually had their start in Restoration plays. The stock characters and comic circumstances all track right back to this period. At our studio, we complete the character and script interpretation training with style and period work for these very reasons.”

How to prepare for acting in a period piece

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood historical film“Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Here are the best preparation tips and acting advice for anyone approaching a role from another time period. 

Start getting acclimated at the audition: When it comes to getting into your character’s physicality, start as early as the audition. This could also help you stand out against anyone who is thinking too modern. “The point is to not get in the way of the casting director envisioning you in the appropriate dress, and 21st-century clothing, makeup, hair, and shoes have a way of doing that,” says acting coach Denise Simon. “However, a hint of history in your appearance can often be memorable. Hair pinned up in a proper manner, for instance, can be just the thing to express your 19th-century persona.”

Do your research: A great period piece performance is less about altering your personality as it is about tailoring it to the standards, practices, and rules of the time period. “The rules and expectations of society, and what a character would have understood about the world in that time, is different than what we know today,” says Simon. This is where your research comes in. What would your character know and not know about the world? What would they believe? How would they be expected to hold themselves or behave in public? “The observance of a small detail of period etiquette, for example, can help make your portrayal of a character believable.”

Immerse yourself in the time period: Seek out “material both from and representing the period of the project you’re acting in…to fully connect with the world of that time,” says Baron. This can include anything from classic movies and high-quality TV productions to books and paintings. Your immersion will depend on the time period. If you’re doing a drama movie set in the 1970s, find films that accurately represent that era, such as “Rocky,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” or “Taxi Driver.” If you’re playing a character who lived during the Italian Renaissance, study the artwork of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. 

But also remember timeless themes: Your posture, attitude, wardrobe, and vocabulary may be different, but the subtext and internal wants of your character can and should remain relatable to a modern audience. “Human values, desires, and wants transcend time periods,” says Baron. “The desire to be loved, the fear of rejection, the dream for success—these are all universalities and can be portrayed in any piece. But it’s also essential to understand that it takes work on physicality, voice, speech, and dialect to specify your expressions to the time and place your work is set in.”

Work with a coach on voice, dialect, and movement: Nailing down the particulars of your voice, speech, and movement likely means you’re “ahead of the game in approaching period work,” says Baron. “It’s advisable to consult with a speech and voice teacher, as well as a movement teacher, to find the most specific tempos, rhythms, pronunciations, and specific physical movements that are truest to the period and most powerfully complement the piece.”

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