12 Steps to Consistently Brilliant Performances, Part 2

Continuing from last week’s Part 1:

Step 3: Initial Character Impression
As you find the story, you will start to imagine the scene in your mind and start getting a sense of who your character is. The writing will give you either very clear or subtle clues as to the qualities of your character. An example of clear clues is the character description when you first appear in the story: “…SARA, early 20s, smart, sassy, and not afraid to use her good looks to get what she wants…”

An example of subtle clues include the voice of your character, how they speak, and what words they use. For example, if your line is, “What the hell is this, coz? Get your dirty-ass feet off my damn coffee table!” it should indicate to you a big character difference than if your line was, “I would greatly appreciate you removing your dirt-encrusted feet from atop my table.”

You’re looking for everything you can possibly find to tell you what character qualities are non-negotiable—things we shouldn’t change when making our character choices. Beyond those non-negotiables, you get to create the rest of who this character is using your own essence and making choices, as long as they don’t conflict with the story. For example, you can’t choose to make SARA dumb, because the writing already describes her as smart.

This initial character impression is your own creative voice, and you need to learn to trust it and listen to what it is telling you because that is going to be the foundation of your brilliance. Only you see things the way you do, so if you trust yourself and foster your creative voice, you will create performances that are so you.

Step 4: Other Character Choices
The trap that so many actors fall into is that they become married to their initial character impression and choices. That’s a bad habit for two reasons:

1. Acting in TV/film is a collaborative art form where many artists make contributions and you need to be open to their input and direction, such as the writer, the director, the producers, and the network or studio partners. They have to know you are able to take direction and work with others.

Oftentimes, casting will love what you did on the first take of an audition but give you a contrasting redirect just to see if you can take direction. So, you want to have imagined and rehearsed the character in a variety of ways during prep so that, hopefully, you aren’t surprised by their redirect; you’ll already have thought of it.

If it was a one-person show, you could call the shots on everything, but in on-camera acting, it’s team effort, so you have to be flexible. You can’t think of your character choices as the right way, only a great way, a great option.

2. Our goal with our craft is to help tell our part of the story in the most compelling way possible. How can you do that unless you consider a variety of ways to play the character? Try to imagine at least one or two other ways to play the character that doesn’t conflict with the story, or the non-negotiables.

If you want to create the most full, brilliant performances, it will be essential to experiment with a variety of character choices as you work to settle on how you want to help tell the story.

Step 5: Identify Opportunities for Making Choices and Make Them
Many actors don’t understand what making choices means, so they end up making bizarre ones, like playing a stereotype, a cliché, adding an accent, or a lisp, or whatever. But choices are actually very simple. You’re actually very good at making them because you do it all day, every day, anyway, as part of your life.

Right now, it doesn’t take you any effort to be you because you already know how you feel about everything in your own life story. Your character would have that same relationship with everything in the story of his or her life, so all that’s left to do is for you to choose those relationships.

That doesn’t mean you need to decide how you, as the character, feel about everything, including the walls, the floor, your shoes, etc. The script does a great job of narrowing that list down to what is relevant to the story. So, just make choices about how you feel about every person, place, thing, or event in the scene.

Think of your choices as toggle switches that you can always change and see how its effects ripple through the scene.

Step 6: Create Reasons for Your Lines and the Moment Before
In real life, you never open your mouth and say anything without a reason. Only in acting do people just say their next lines without a reason simply because it’s on the page. And, if you have a reason to say something, the line says itself. You never need to question if a line sounded “natural” if you had a reason to say it.

Some people call it “character thoughts” or “subtext,” but all it really refers to is this: Why are you saying what you’re about to say, with those specific words, and what is your expectation as of this moment in the scene?

Just listen to your scene partner, and based on your choices about everything and your character choices, you will have thoughts or feelings about what just happened or what was just said. Act from there. It’s not about picking up your cue or being smooth. Those elements will get handled as you have an authentic experience.

As for the “moment before,” make a choice about what just happened and what you were doing in the three or four seconds before the scene begins and start from there. A great moment before is the only time in casting when we’re just watching you as the character, not judging you. If you have a great moment before that tells us a little about who this person is, from that point forward the role could be yours to lose, not win. We could fall in love with you in those few seconds.

Step 7: Word Emphasis Exploration
This step is to be used as needed, because it would be tedious to do it with every line, but it’s so important for two reasons: as a line-reading buster for newer actors, and a way to escape our own bias and discover new reasons for our lines for experienced ones.

Take a simple line like “Can I help you?” Reading it, you may automatically assume the point of the line is that you’re asking someone if they need help, so you place the emphasis on the word “help”: “Can I HELP you?” But if you switched the emphasis around, you might discover a more compelling reason for your line: “CAN I help you?” “Can I help you?” “Can I help YOU?” Each one completely changes the reason you’re asking.

By moving the emphasis around, you will be able to gain insight and find choices that you wouldn’t normally discover unless you used an objective tool like this. It helps you be more intentional about what’s most important to you about that line. Use if and as needed, but it has led to some wonderful moments that would otherwise have gone undiscovered.

Tune in next week for the conclusion of steps 8-12.

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Shaan Sharma
Shaan Sharma is a session director, on-camera acting teacher, and author of “A Session Director’s Guide to Commercial Acting in L.A.”
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