Saturday, 22 November 2014



We may act partly because we love the attention, but beginning is usually the high point of nerves and for some actors there is real fear in it.   So it’s worth acknowledging the difficulty of starting.  Despite how precious and luvvie it might sound, to begin is to expose yourself: all eyes will be on you as you, effectively, announce that you have something to say. Things may not come out quite right: your voice might squeak, you may find your hands performing unexpected and unconvincing gestures, your delivery of the lines may lack conviction and so on.

On stage usually only one person has to take the decision to begin and once the first line has been uttered, or the first action taken, the play is up and running and the path of least resistance is to keep going.  What’s more, because the audience is at a distance and still settling into the experience itself, any wobble on the part of the actor gets overlooked.  But on screen every take requires you to begin.  And the tiniest lack of commitment is utterly exposed, if only to the director in the cutting room.  Many times I’ve searched in vain for a take in which a particular actor has nailed the opening half-second and truly hit the ground running.

It’s partly to assist with the difficulty of beginning that the director, or sometimes the 1st AD, calls ‘action’.  (Although I know there are a few directors who say the equivalent of ‘when you're ready’ instead of ‘action’ and I assume this works for them.)  In my book From Stage to Screen I use the analogy with jumping off a high diving board.  ‘Action’ is the equivalent of the helpful push in the small of the back and before calling it I was always looking to see whether the actor was there, really in the drama. 

So one way to respond is simply to jump when pushed.  But if you are one of those actors who needs to take the decision to go for yourself – and that’s fine – make sure that when you go you really go.  There can be no half-measures when it comes to the screen: commitment is all.

Thursday, 13 November 2014


In the theatre there is a collective imagination at work that supports and reinforces the actors’ imaginations. When you walk onto the stage, you walk into a bubble where not only the cast, but the entire audience is committed to sustaining the make-believe that the world is that of the drama.  This world has clear boundaries: it exists in a pool of light and once you set foot on the stage, you are your character.  But as soon as you step back into the wings, you re-enter the real world where other actors and stage managers talk to you as you, rather than in the persona of your character.

On a film set the only people fully committed to the imaginary world are the actors.  The director will occasionally come to visit, but much of his time and energy is spent managing and directing the mechanics of shooting.  Everyone else is concerned almost exclusively with their individual practical tasks.  The Director of Photography has his attention fixed on the picture and his team is working to deliver this technically, the assistant directors just want the shoot to run smoothly and to time, the camera operator is concerned to frame the shot beautifully and so on.  It’s well known that asking members of the crew about the rushes is pointless for an actor.  “They look great” means variously “you could hear every word”, “there were no cables visible” or “the lead actress looks lovely” depending on whom you ask.

So you are hugely outnumbered by people who are not directly engaged in the emotional creation of the fictional world.  And living truthfully in it is not their department, it's yours.

To make matters worse the boundaries to the imaginary circumstances are often fuzzy, with partial sets and technicians trampling in and out of the story world with objects and equipment that don’t belong there.  You may also be asked to float to and fro, delivering your off-camera lines from the gloomy fringes of the lighting to an actor who is pretending he can see you clearly.

What an actor must do, first and foremost, is create a vivid and truthful inner world in this partially constructed external world.  To do this, the quality he or she needs above all others, and the one directors most look for, is that of commitment.

By commitment I mean an absolute acceptance of the fictional reality without hesitation, embarrassment or inhibition.  When we see an actor totally committed to what he's doing, we are gripped by it.  The room goes silent and no one shifts in their seat for fear of breaking the spell. Unfortunately a combination of the airy distractions of the theatre, the need to project, perhaps the fatigue and predictability of repeated performances and, sadly quite often, complacency means that these moments are rare.  And sometimes, to be less harsh, a stage actor's commitment can go unnoticed because the audience is just too damn far away.

But on screen, the intense scrutiny of the camera means we know absolutely when an actor has committed.  And equally it's glaringly obvious when he or she hasn't.  Through all the trickery of filmmaking, the fictional world that is presented to the audience is fully realised,.  The only part that can't be faked is the actor’s emotional engagement.


Recently I was teaching a class at Drama Centre London and saw one of the students lying on her back on the floor, being dragged around by her feet by another student.  This was obviously part of some private game they were playing and she stayed rigid and horizontal, allowing him to swirl her around the floor like a mop.  When she got up her clothes and hair were visibly dirty.  This abandon was all the more surprising because she is 28, attractive and the best-dressed woman in the group - someone who takes a lot of care with her appearance. And yet she had let herself be dragged around the floor because she had given herself up to the game.

For many of those who come to study at drama school, the biggest challenge is to stop thinking and start feeling.  Our education system trains young people in thinking and the prizes are given out for analytical skills.  If you plan to become a doctor or an accountant this is just the ticket and personally I'd rather be operated on, or have my tax return done, by someone with the appropriate intellectual rigour.

But the ability to dissect an issue into its constituent parts is a dry engagement: impassive and rational. And this kind of education - especially at degree level - is often in direct opposition to what actors need.

True experiential understanding is something deeper and more holistic. The foremost job of an actor is to commit to the fictional world of a drama and this is not an intellectual or rational activity.  Being reliably sensible will not help you become a great actor. It’s not that actors don’t need to be bright or that there’s no analytical work involved in understanding the character and the drama.  But the qualities that will really make a performance fly- spontaneity, impulsiveness, emotional availability, unguarded vulnerability – are neither intellectual not logical.  These are qualities drama schools aim to cultivate in students and it frequently involves them unlearning much of what they have already learnt.  A spirit of play is a big part of this.  The difficult thing, for us all, is to strike the right balance between abandon and the professionalism that the industry demands.