The 1 Thing Actors Must Know About Taking Risks

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Have you ever competently crossed a tightrope without falling off? Are you able to ride a unicycle, or expertly juggle nine balls? What about all three tasks at once? And what if I strung the tightrope across the Grand Canyon, lit the balls on fire, and loosened the wheel?

Though rarely as demanding in terms of strength, balance, or outright danger, the mechanics of acting can be just as taxing on your memory, concentration, and reflexes as circus skills, and yet actors attempt to (and are often encouraged to) take on multiple risks simultaneously, and are then left scratching their heads as to why they failed at every single one of them.

Regardless of how quickly you master physical skills, it is highly unlikely that you have ever taken two or more genuine risks simultaneously and immediately succeeded at both—not without a great deal of luck. But luck isn’t technique, and although random chance occasionally produces pleasing results, only practiced technique is consistently reliable.

Enter, my +1 theory of risk.

By risk, I don’t mean taking several tweaks or adjustments to your performance, like “Pick up the cues” or “Be angrier in that moment.” I mean actual risk. Risk with the potential of hurting, embarrassing, or losing something you hold dear, such as your physical safety, that great acting job, or simply your pride. Remember how risky it felt as a teenager to ask someone out on a date? Imagine doing that with English as your second language, and in front of the high school bully and his gang.

Doubling or trebling the risk doesn’t increase your chances of success; it actually makes failure and humiliation that much more likely across the board.

It is a growing trend for acting tutors to advise their students to eschew learning lines perfectly because when they try to it makes everything else that much more difficult. But would anyone tell a high-wire performer in Cirque du Soleil to pull back on a triple somersault because it’s too hard?

This is the difference between the Good and the Great. Master the risks, and then make it look easy. Don’t just make it easy by lowering your standards.

Extremely wordy procedural or scientific dialogue and legalese, complicated blocking and prop use, or even detailed character transformation work and unfamiliar emotional turns are all comparable to the difficulty levels of performing circus skills. To some, learning lines is a risk, and to many, standing in front of network heads for a final callback or chemistry test is definitely a risk. Since the combination of risks increases the likelihood of failure at each, stick to one at a time, and then add another one when you’ve mastered the initial challenge.

I once shot a TV commercial in Australia that was to be broken down into several 15-second bits, with my lines comprising only 10 seconds of each to be sandwiched between title cards and voiceovers. The dialogue was tricky and dense, so I rehearsed it like a demon. During the first on-set rehearsal I churned the dialogue out perfectly, and in record time, only to see the director literally click his stopwatch and ask me to shift two of the lines around, truncate the middle section, and cut four seconds off my overall read time.

Not three, not five. Four.

Adding to the degree of difficulty, the direction was intricate and counter-intuitive to me. I had to squat down on a particular line, pick up a UV light, and wave it over stains on the ground. I was to hit the ground on line A, then I needed to pass the light over the low-angle camera in time with line C, with my head moving in the opposite direction to the light (to suit the DP’s penchant for “visual opposition in the frame”). All the while, delivering rapid-fire procedural dialogue, hitting an imaginary three-dimensional “mark” for the focus-puller, and splitting my (re-ordered) lines on both sides of the camera in order for the boom-swinger to reposition between them; whilst balancing on the balls of my feet and not falling over. In 10 seconds.


Happy with the technical side after four or five takes, the director asked why “the freshness had gone” from my performance. Not feeling it was the time to school him in the intricacies of my +1 theory of risk, I kept quiet and focused on the task at hand. With the technical aspects down pat I could now focus on the performance.

I requested a couple more takes, gave the director different options, finished the shoot in half the scheduled time, skipped the catering, and went home early. The TVC ended up netting me over $50,000 for less than five hours work, including time spent sitting around.

I could never have done this had I not at first mastered the dialogue.

For me there were three risks in this process:

1. Learning tricky, rapid-fire procedural dialogue (and changing it on a whim).

2. Mastering specific blocking and prop-handling (to multiple departments’ satisfaction).

3. Dealing with a whole new crew (each member with their own time and budget pressures and egos).

Suggesting that technical skills in acting are less demanding because they aren’t stunts or high-wire work would be to say that playing Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” isn’t as demanding because failure at it is less likely to result in death. The fact is, risk is relative, and a child riding a bike for the first time would be as “risky” as Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a right-handed guitar.

There are two main reasons why I warn against multiple simultaneous risks in rehearsal, auditions, or performance:

1. Without practicing one risk to the level of proficiency, it’s highly likely that all attempted risks will fail, and

2. If multiple risks are employed and the result is a success, how is one to know which risk actually made the difference?

Master one risk at a time, and then add one more (+1). If it fails, try again. If it succeeds, add one more.

If you are playing a character with a different accent to you, a different physicality to you, and tricky technical dialogue, blocking, or prop handling, commit to one risk until you reach proficiency (or at least very close to), and then add just one more until you reach proficiency at both. Keep doing this until you are able to maintain several simultaneously.

The +1 theory of risk is not to prevent you from dying. Hopefully no actor will need to be in the position where that kind of risk is required. But with multiple simultaneous risks the likelihood of failure by far outweighs the slim chance of success.

One risk at a time succeeds.

You’ll see, with enough dedication and focus, you will be juggling flaming balls on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon in no time, and your only concern will be the wobbly wheel…

Like this advice? Read more from our Backstage Experts!

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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.
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