The One True Way to Become a ‘Character’ Actor

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Years ago, I gave students a script to learn for the following week’s class. It contained tricky overlapping dialogue, incomplete thoughts, and specific idiomatic phraseology unfamiliar to the group. The result was that many complained the scene was difficult to learn because, as they said, “nobody speaks that way.”

This surprised me since the scene was a direct transcript of a conversation improvised by my students in another class two weeks earlier. Everything on the page came out of a real human being’s mouth, in that order, in those exact words and phrases. They were not acting; they were simply using their own experiences and words to get the other person to help them reach their objective, which is exactly the goal of every character on screen. Real life conversations aren’t all clean and neat. Real people don’t always complete thoughts the way they think they’re going to, which actually what makes the situation more interesting dramatically. A thought begun in one scene may be completed in another or abandoned altogether when a more pressing objective comes along.

Tennessee Williams advised writers to “never hammer a nail in the wall in act one, unless you’re going to hang your hat on it in act three.” This terrific advice encourages the writer to both excise redundant stage direction and dialogue, but also to follow through on anything already written so that the audience isn’t left wondering. The example of someone opening a drawer and revealing a gun in act one is a useful one. If, in act three that gun does not become an important plot point then its introduction in the first place was a red herring, which in itself can be an interesting plot point if done by choice, but not if the result of laziness.

READ: Why ‘Interpreting’ Scripts Is a Dangerous Idea

Williams’ advice keeps plots taut and lean, but the dialogue of real life conversation isn’t always so streamlined. Mike Leigh certainly adheres to Williams’ advice in terms of plot, but had he stuck so doggedly to this rule with dialogue he wouldn’t have garnered the scores of award nominations and wins that he has over the past few decades, because Leigh’s largely improvised and wholly naturalistic dialogue made him the preeminent master of modern cinematic social realism.

I have taught actors in scenes from Mike Leigh films and the material is glorious to direct and perform. Even though the original dialogue sprouted from months of improvisation and actors living as the character, the final takes—by Leigh’s own admission—are far from improvised. Improvisation was the vehicle by which the words and actions arrived but when it comes to the final take, the actors aren’t making everything up in front of the camera.

The other point is that real people aren’t always consistent. Instead of attempting to iron out inconsistencies because of our erroneous belief that we wouldn’t be so flawed, we can seek the underlying goal of the character’s speech as more important than the words coming out of their mouths. In this way, it is no longer puzzling that your character says he loves his wife madly in one scene and in another hires a sexual companion. To seek to make his words consistent would remove one of the most interesting and lifelike traits about his character: his struggle to reconcile his words and his actions.

Go fully to the character’s words, actions and contradictions, regardless of how unfamiliar to you they are, and you will transform. Drag the character kicking and screaming to the way you already talk, think and act because it is easier for you, and don’t be surprised if you are type cast in every role you ever play.

When you lament that your character wouldn’t speak that way be sure you’re not just attempting to lower the bar in order for it to be easier to hurdle. If you’d truly like to consider yourself a “character” actor, all you need to do is say the words and know what you want. Malcolm X, Travis Bickle, and Daenerys Targaryen are all vehicles for your own transformation, but not if you keep changing their words just because you wouldn’t speak that way.

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Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.