How to Argue Authentically

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Whether you’re fighting with your mom, your boyfriend, or that mean girl from high school (who’s still mean), arguments usually happen in the heat of passion or in the throes of anger. Arguing is instinctive, and the most authentic arguments onstage and onscreen—such as in “Casino,” “Glengarry Glen Ross,” and ”Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—work because they not only capture that natural instinct, but it also seems like the combatants really don’t like each other.

Making a fight look real isn’t just about yelling and throwing vases. Acting teacher Carolyn McCormick offers her tips on creating a fight scene that will be a knockout.

Know both sides 

McCormick recommends that you know both sides of the argument very well, because it’ll strengthen your position. “You have to be able to listen to the other person’s point of view to sharpen your own knives,” she says. “Figure out a way to make your argument stronger, like a really good debate team.” 

Know you are right (even if you aren’t) 

“You don’t go in planning to lose. Go into [it] playing like you’re going to win, even if you aren’t going to. Look at Donald Trump: He bullies people into arguing and there’s an element of ferocity that just makes the other person give up. I would argue with that kind of ferocity. The complete objective [should be] making sure that when the argument’s over, you’ve convinced the other person that you’re right.”

Don’t go nuts

Be confident and thoughtful about your demeanor. “[Acting angry] doesn’t mean screaming all the time, because sometimes people get super calm,” says McCormick. “So you’ve got to think about how you best undermine the other person. You look at a really good lawyer arguing a case, and they stay so calm. They’re unruffled because they’re just stating the facts: ‘This is the fact, this is the truth. What you’re saying is not true.’ This can be disarming.”

Be prepared 

Arguments can get physical, so they’re very carefully staged. Sometimes people even get hurt, because adrenaline is a very real part of the scene. Think about your own personal choreography—how do you want to frame and position the argument for yourself? “It’s totally up to the actors,” McCormick says. “Some people like to do it cold and just see what happens. Other people, especially people who are trained in the theater, tend to rehearse and like to hear the other person’s lines. You learn what your trigger words are.” 


“Listen, listen, listen,” McCormick says. “Know what’s being said to you. Then you can relax and respond naturally without having to act. It’s very hard to listen on camera because often you’re thinking, Okay, my lines are coming out. What do I say here? Little things that your body just does when you’re listening tells a lot about what you’re feeling. Biting your lip, blinking, or turning away—all those things are huge. They tell a big story.” 

Carolyn McCormick is a Conservatory On Camera Technique teacher at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. She has decades of experience in film, theater, and voice acting. In the 1990s, she snagged the role of Dr. Olivet on “Law & Order” and has reprised the role on the show’s myriad spinoffs.