Going Off Script: When (and How) to Improvise as an Actor

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Photo Source: “Bridesmaids” Courtesy Universal Pictures

Acting often means interpreting the dialogue, actions, and directions set down in a screenplay. But what is it called when an actor goes off script? Actors sometimes have the opportunity to deviate from what’s written, which is also known as improvising. Here’s a full guide to when (and when not) to let your instincts take you off the page.

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What does it mean to go off script?

Goodfellas“Goodfellas” Courtesy Warner Bros.

Going off script means you’re adding dialogue or actions to a scene that aren’t in the screenplay. You may even run into situations where you’ll be acting without a script entirely. The interesting part about improvising is that it’s entirely up to your creativity—the possibilities are infinite.

When is it appropriate to go off script?

Parks and Rec

“Parks and Recreation” Courtesy NBC 

But when should you go off script? Let’s break it down with some common situations and guidelines.

When you’re ready

Going off script and improvising may come more naturally to some, but not as much to others. Some actors are immediately comfortable moving through a scene and coming up with their own dialogue and actions on the spot, while others may be uncomfortable with it at first.

“You’re going to feel a little yucky, you’re going to feel a little insecure. And that’s just part of learning the process,” says actor Sarah Hunt (“Manifest,” “Prodigal Son,” “Animal Kingdom”).

On the subject of improvising, Hunt says, “It is a skill that’s really, really helpful for anyone who wants to be working onstage or working in film because it fine-tunes your listening.”

RELATED: How to Gain Confidence as an Actor

When you have a good connection with your peers

Developing a rapport with your scene partner(s) and other peers will open up new doors for improvising. 

“I do think that’s something that you intuit more so after having really worked with a group of people and working within yourself,” says Hunt.

When it can improve your audition

When you’re trying out for a role, you should always be prepared with the material. But if you’re in an audition where you’re having a back and forth within that creative space, or if you’d like to tweak your sides in a way that feels natural to you, then it might be time to go off script with some modest additions.

However, please note that this isn’t always the best course of action. Some casting directors will love some well-done improvisation, while others will be turned off by it. It’s a calculated risk that can either make or break your audition, so consider it carefully.

“If you enter into an audition room or onto a set with people who have been pouring themselves into these projects for years and [you] think that your ideas are better than their efforts, or that you’re going to teach them how it should be written, then an actor is closing themself off to what others can teach them,” says Hunt. “And worse, closing themself off to collaboration.”

When the director asks you to

There are times when a director will invite you to be inventive with your acting choices. If that is part of their process, it makes it easier for improvisation to become part of yours. 

“Now if you’re working on a project where that is part of the process and it’s encouraged, then that is totally different,” says Hunt. “Then, open yourself to the possibility of what could happen and let it fly.” 

These changes could be subtle, such as altering the inflection of your dialogue and shifting your body language, or something more overt, like inventing new lines and actions. 

When it contributes to the story

The bottom line is, if you immerse yourself in the story and characters, developing a deep understanding of your place in the narrative, you’re in a position to enhance what’s already on the page. 

Spontaneity can be the secret ingredient that elevates a good scene to a great one. If you’re at the right place at the right time with the right idea and understanding, the payoff will be sensational.

When is it not appropriate to go off script?

21 Jump Street

“21 Jump Street” Courtesy Columbia Pictures

There are occasions when improvising is unnecessary, disadvantageous, or even detrimental to your career. Here are the most common scenarios.

When you’re a newbie

Many actors begin their career with background and day player roles, which are great ways to get your feet wet. But those positions also aren’t intimately involved in creative discussions, and often won’t even receive an entire script. This limits your knowledge of the story and your ability to improvise meaningfully.  

As you develop trust and work your way up the call sheet, those opportunities to make creative adjustments will come. For new actors, a little patience goes a long way. 

When the director doesn’t want it

As Quentin Tarantino told Howard Stern: “I am paying [actors] to say my dialogue…. If they’re right, then I’ll listen to them. But if they’re wrong or if they’re just too lazy to learn the dialogue so they’re going to paraphrase it, that shit can’t fly.” 

If you bring your suggestions to the higher-ups and they shoot you down, leave it alone. You may believe you know what the scene should be (and you might even be right), but ultimately projects get made under the director’s vision. A good director will genuinely listen to your input, but they also have final say in the matter. 

“I’m being paid to act, they’re being paid to write, and it’s someone’s baby, ultimately. Every project is someone’s baby,” says Hunt.

When you’re not being considerate of others’ time and effort

On top of appreciating the position of others in the production, you have to recognize the often exorbitant cost of professional shoots and the difficulty of organizing every moving part. 

If you go off script in a way that holds up the schedule, you’re inevitably costing the project money. Even more crucial, you’re taking up precious time for the crew who makes the shoot run efficiently. Every project, no matter how big or small, is a meticulously planned affair; ask yourself if your improvisation is making that plan harder for anyone else. 

When you haven’t captured what’s in the script yet

Before throwing your own ideas into the ring, try a few takes of what’s already on the page. This is how you free yourself up creatively while still respecting the writers, directors, and the rest of the cast and crew. 

Trying both options is a sign of healthy collaboration; Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne calls it “that thing I dream of as an actor…when a director goes: ‘Great, we’ve got it, now do one to just play.’ ” 

When you’re letting ego get in the way

Even if you’re more experienced, you can still improvise for the wrong reasons. You have to be honest with yourself about why you’re stepping out and making changes. Are you going off script because it’ll improve the production or because you want to show off? If the case is the latter, you’re in dangerous waters. 

“If you bring something to the table that is thoughtful and humble and generous and about the project, then they may really take to that, and they may appreciate it but not want to use it,” says Hunt. “But if you’re just bringing something to the scene that’s an idea based solely on you, I think that’s a little more about yourself and your own boredom than the project and how that carries the story forward. Believing that you know what should be right and what should be wrong discounts everyone else’s contributions to a production.”

Examples of actors going off script in movies

Here are some examples of successful improvisation to learn from.

Robert Downey Jr., “Iron Man” — “I am Iron Man.”

Robert Downey Jr.’s final line as Tony Stark in 2008’s “Iron Man” became so integral to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that directors Joe and Anthony Russo brought it back for the climax of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.”

“It’s a fine line,” says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “If you’re changing something for no reason, that’s one thing, but if you’re changing something because you want to double-down on the spirit of who the character is? That’s a change we’ll make. Tony Stark not reading off the card and not sticking with the fixed story? Him just blurting out ‘I am Iron Man’? That seems very much in keeping with who that character is.”

Rutger Hauer, “Blade Runner” — “Like tears in the rain…” 

At the climax of Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” replicant antagonist Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, makes a final speech to his foe, Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford. Hauer modified the monologue with the final line “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain…time to die,” creating a deeply emotional moment that synergizes with the visual aesthetic of the scene and the themes of the film. 

Meryl Streep, “The Devil Wears Prada” — “Everybody wants to be us.”  

Proof that the smallest changes can make a big difference, Meryl Streep changed the final line of her much-loved “The Devil Wears Prada” character Miranda Priestly by one word at the initial table read. Originally scripted to say “everybody wants to be me,” Streep instead said, “Everybody wants to be us,” a much more impactful button on the character arc of Anne Hathaway’s Andy. 

Roy Scheider, “Jaws” — “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” 

One of the most quoted lines in movie history, Chief Martin Brody’s (Roy Scheider) “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” in “Jaws” originated as a tongue-in-cheek joke on set. 

“[Richard] Zanuck and [David] Brown were very stingy producers, so everyone kept telling them, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat,’ ” co-writer Carl Gottlieb told The Hollywood Reporter. “It became a catchphrase for any time anything went wrong.” 

Scheider attempted to get the phrase into several takes throughout the shoot, but the version that remained in the finished film was “so appropriate and so real and it came at the right moment, thanks to Verna Field’s editing,” Gottlieb said. 

Richard S. Castellano, “The Godfather” — “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” 

In both Mario Puzo’s source material book and the script he co-wrote with Francis Ford Coppola, the post-murder line from Richard S. Castellano’s Peter Clemenza is simply “leave the gun.” The actor added “take the cannoli” on the advice of his wife and fellow “Godfather” actor Ardell Sheridan, adding an iconic piece of dark humor to the film. 

Robert De Niro, “Taxi Driver” — “You talkin’ to me?” 

According to Martin Scorsese, the scene where Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, fools around with a gun in front of a mirror didn’t have any scripted dialogue at all. 

“I remember saying, ‘Can you say something to yourself? In the mirror?’ ” Scorsese told “Today.” “He kept saying, ‘You talkin’ to me?’ He just kept repeating it, kept repeating it…and the [assistant director] was banging on the door saying, ‘Come on, we got to get out of here.’ And I said, ‘No, this is good, this is good. Give me another minute.’ ” 

The director described De Niro’s still-iconic improvisation “like a jazz riff. Just like a solo.”

What do all these instances have in common? They’re all cases of actors going off script because they understood their characters and the tone of each film. “Those magic moments where a scene lifts and we all get surprised by a very real moment amidst the structure of a script and a job and a budget and a timeline…that’s what it’s all about,” says Hunt.

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