How to Act Drunk for a Role

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Photo Source: Kristen Wiig in “Bridesmaids” Courtesy Universal Pictures

Playing drunk is a very difficult thing to pull off. Only with a sharp mind can you infuse a bit of business as a drunken character with the art of the actor—so put down the bottle and pay attention.

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Why should I learn how to act drunk?

Shameless

William H. Macy on “Shamless” Credit: Cliff Lipson/Showtime

From the passion plays of Ancient Egypt to “Shameless” and beyond, many stories shared onstage and onscreen include portrayals of alcohol consumption (and overconsumption). Knowing how to portray a drunk character with nuance and authenticity—and without overacting—will make your acting skill set more robust.

How to act drunk

Dooley Wilson and Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”

Dooley Wilson and Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” Courtesy Warner Bros.

Research. 

As with all things acting, sometimes it’s best to learn from the masters. Start your journey to artificial intoxication by asking the question, “How do drunk people act?” Head out to your local watering hole or tailgate and observe how people behave after having a few drinks.

It can also help to watch iconic performances of drunkenness such as:

  • Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in “Casablanca”
  • Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”
  • Nicolas Cage as Ben Sanderson in “Leaving Las Vegas”
  • Johnny Depp as Paul Kemp in “The Rum Diary”
  • Kissy Edgell as Darcy Olsson in “Heartstopper”
  • William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher (really, any of the Gallagher characters) in “Shameless”
  • Martha MacIsaac as Becca in “Superbad”
  • Samira Wiley as Poussey in “Orange is the New Black”

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 pretending 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 conditions you create as an actor, both physical and emotional. You need to represent your character’s vigorous attempts to behave normally. As acting teacher John Homa tells his students, “A bad actor acts drunk; a good actor tries to seem sober.” 

You might be able to get away with being actually 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 reproduce the action technically, to appear drunk without actually drinking. 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 their motor skills are not in great shape, a drunk person usually tries to be precise in the things he or she does. 

Overly concentrate 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 Novocaine 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 body’s balance mechanism, causing the sensation of a spinning room even as you’re lying still on a bed. 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 less aware of making a spectacle of themselves. They can tend toward overstepping boundaries—becoming overly familiar with strangers, or overly confidential with acquaintances—and, being less concerned with propriety, they’re more likely to be messy and poorly groomed.

Show other physical affects.

These may include numbness, sleepiness, blurred vision, sweating, gas, and sickness. 

Create a clear emotional line.

One of the best ways to create an impression of drunkenness is to have a single clear trait that characterizes the condition. There are four classic types of drunks:

  • The aloof drunk: It’s been said that you know you’re drunk when you feel sophisticated but you can’t pronounce the word. 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: As a happy drunk, you surrender any pretense that you’re sober, and revel in your freedom from inhibitions. You’re probably given to laughter and camaraderie, and will 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 ostensibly 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. 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 drinking has made you absent-minded or careless, but because of the way alcohol affects motor functions, you may make a mess even when trying to be careful. As opportunities for discomfort or humor, depending on the genre in which you’re working, these blunders might lead to further mistakes, compounding as you attempt 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 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.

Remain vigilant. 

One of the main obstacles to playing a realistic drunk is that it requires constant vigilance. 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 you pay attention to the overall degree of drunkenness over time, but all the many elements of the condition must be presented at a consistent level in relation to each other.

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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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