How to Act Drunk for a Role

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Playing drunk is a very difficult thing to pull off. Rarely is it done well. So even though you may be eager to conduct some firsthand research on this project, I'm afraid that it requires a clear head and great skill. You might be able to get away with really being drunk for a scene in a movie—Martin Sheen was totally blitzed during those opening scenes in “Apocalypse Now” (and he really cut his hand open on that mirror). But to act drunk eight times a week on stage, you’ve got to know how to do it technically, to appear drunk without actually drinking. Only with a sharp mind can you finesse a bit of business as a drunken character and infuse it with the art of the actor. So put down the bottle and pay attention.

Be consistent

One of the main obstacles to playing a realistic drunk is that it requires consistency. In the play "The Norman Conquests," Norman is meant to be three sheets to the wind, crumpled half-naked on the lawn. Yet in the next moment, the actor has to bounce up, showing barely any intoxication at all. Not only must the overall degree of drunkenness be consistent over time, but all the many elements of the condition must be presented at a consistent level in relation to each other.

Be relaxed

The fact that alcohol depresses the central nervous system makes it difficult to fake the deep level of relaxation that booze produces. Therefore, you can perhaps start by feeling as if you've been given a heavy tranquilizer and get yourself as profoundly tension-free as possible.

Try not to be drunk

This is the classic advice you get on playing drunk, and the same approach applies to many, if not most, conditions you create as an actor, both physical and emotional. You need to represent your character's vigorous attempts to behave normally. Even though the actor is trying to create the appearance of dysfunction, the character will most likely be fighting against it and trying to appear sober. Aware that his or her motor skills are not in great shape, a person who's drunk usually tries to be precise in the things he or she does.

Concentrate too much on what's easy

A clear way to depict a person who's having trouble functioning is to display an excessive amount of concentration on a task the audience knows should be simple. For example, you can put a great deal of focus on buttoning your coat, putting a napkin in your lap, or counting out money.

Slur your words

A slur is probably the single most distinctive element used to create drunkenness, and it requires a loose mouth and jaw. Imagine how it might feel if you had Novocain injected into your tongue. In keeping with the idea of your character trying not to appear drunk, you should usually set off your slur by overenunciating around it. Rehearse getting hung up on certain difficult words. You might even want to exaggerate your slur a little beyond what would be truthful because there's such a high theatrical expectation to hear slurred speech.

Continually adjust your balance

Alcohol impairs the balance mechanism—such as when the room seems to be spinning even as you're lying still on a bed. Not that I'm saying you've ever experienced this, of course, but you can ask one of your debauched friends what it's like. It's as if you're on the deck of a boat and the seas are as rough as you are drunk.

Be gregarious, sloppy, and reckless

People who are drunk are inclined to be louder, more outgoing, and unaware of the spectacle they're making of themselves. They tend to be inappropriate in their boundaries—overly familiar with strangers and overly confidential with acquaintances—and, being less concerned with propriety, they're more likely to be messy and poorly groomed.

Show other physical effects

These include numbness, sleepiness, blurred vision, sweating, gas, and sickness. Oh yes, it's great fun.

Create a clear emotional line

One of the best ways to create the impression of drunkenness is to have a clear, conspicuous emotional line. There are four types, and you can switch from one to another, but there's nothing wrong with maintaining one for an entire performance.

  • The aloof drunk: It's been said that you know you're drunk when you feel sophisticated but you can't pronounce it. Aloofness is by far the most common emotional line, and—in keeping with the effort to appear sober—it's an attempt to rise above the effects of being emotionally sloppy. You adopt a stance of detachment and act as if you're royalty, perhaps by attempting elegance or flamboyance or being confidently forthcoming.
  • The happy drunk: This is when you've surrendered any pretense that you're sober and revel in your freedom from inhibitions. You're probably given to much laughter and camaraderie and enthusiastically jump into whatever will bring more good cheer
  • The angry drunk: This is a mood of bitterness and smoldering hostility, sinister and sneering. Everything is grim, contemptible, and probably deserves annihilation. You're volatile—on the lookout for trouble and eager to insert yourself into it.
  • The maudlin drunk: This type is characterized by general upset over things both good and bad. You may be sentimental and weepy, nostalgic, or crestfallen. It's as if you have the right to be intoxicated because the world is so painful and depressing.

Create accidents

Poor coordination and judgment make a drunk person prone to mishaps. Miscalculations can occur because you're absent-minded or careless in estimating your capabilities, but you may even make a mess of something when trying to be careful, and your blunders might then lead to further disaster through your hurried and unskilled attempts to fix things. You could, for instance, have difficulty putting a cup on a saucer, and your botched attempt to set it right knocks the cup off the saucer altogether, followed by a lunge to recover the cup that wipes out the entire table.

Make the normal difficult

Like concentrating too much on what should be easy, you can demonstrate drunkenness by having trouble doing the most ordinary things, such as standing. Knees can buckle suddenly; ankles can turn; your head can snap the way it does when you fall asleep accidentally. Any ordinary thing can become a fiasco.

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D.W. Brown
D.W. Brown is an actor, writer, director, and studio co-owner and head teacher of the Baron Brown Studio in Santa Monica, California. Brown is also the author of the acclaimed acting guide “You Can Act” and a second book, “2500 Years of Wisdom: Sayings of the Great Masters.”
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