I saw a preview screening of American Sniper yesterday and was struck by two things – one obvious, one less so.
The first was just how much Bradley Cooper had beefed up for the part - hard to miss.
The second was the challenges Sienna Miller must have faced when shooting many of her scenes. Her character, Taya, is repeatedly on the receiving end of distressing phone calls from her sniper husband, sometimes in the middle of battle. More than once she can hear the fighting and once it even continues after he has dropped the phone and she doesn’t know if he is still alive. This kind of scene – hard in any medium – is especially difficult for an actor in the hurly burly of a film set.
Filming a phone call usually requires you to imagine the person on the other end of the phone, as their dialogue will be recorded separately, on another day. This is harder to do than it sounds and often results in a stilted exchange that is difficult to edit because the actors are not actually having a conversation. Ordinarily someone else will read in the other character's lines on set, although some actors prefer simply to imagine what's being said. I’d advise against asking for this unless you’re 100% sure you will be better that way and, even then, be prepared to be overruled by the director.
(Then there are the phone calls in which the other character's lines are not even written. In a way these are easier. Because the audience hears only one side of the conversation, it follows the actor’s lead in imagining the other side and is less likely to sense a break in the connection between the characters – the ‘unbroken line’ described by Stanislavski.)
In his Screen Acting Masterclass for the BBC, Michael Caine said that he doesn't need the other actor there during a face-to-face scene, so presumably this applies to his phone calls also. My belief is that Ben Kingsley's approach of being driven totally by a truthful reaction to what's coming from the other actor will create a much more connected performance. But phone calls present particular obstacles to this.
I write in my book, From Stage to Screen, about the importance of preparation, not just for the day, but on the day. For scenes like phone calls, you have to be fastidious in your psychological and emotional preparation beforehand as for any other scene, and then especially careful to manage your concentration and resources in the run-up to a take, since you are working alone.
For Sienna Miller – and I'm guessing here – she is likely to have been the only actor on set. However generous an actor Bradley Cooper is, it's unlikely he was there: the schedule of a star generally won't allow it. So she will have had to find her way into the right emotional state prior to the take and then react truthfully to the words of her husband which were, most likely, being read neutrally by an assistant director.
Added to which, she will have been hugely outnumbered by upwards of 30 crew, all diligently doing their job but none of whom are directly engaged in creating the emotional reality of the narrative.
So she will have had to know precisely where the scene lay within the story and, in particular, where Taya was within her own emotional journey through it. A number of the scenes take place at a time when Taya feels distanced from her husband: angry, upset and frustrated. You cannot simply ‘act’ this emotional context without making it real for yourself by imagination or substitution or personalization or whatever technique you use.
As each new set–up approached she will have had to draw on whatever preparation she had done to make the situation real for her. She will have had to protect herself from distraction and intrusion, probably by avoiding conversations with those around her. What you do in the minutes leading up to a take is massively important. She will have had to carry out the normal tasks of an actor on set, as part of the team, to make the shot work – rehearsing positioning, hitting marks, taking direction including technical direction – all without losing the emotional connection to that moment in time within the drama.
Between takes she will have had to take further direction perhaps, hold herself emotionally at the right pitch, but without exhausting herself, possibly over lots of takes. I understand Clint Eastwood does very few takes, expecting that everybody will get it right on the first one, as a means to create focus. However, many directors like to do lots until it is absolutely perfect. This may well involve the actor repeating again and again, until there is a collision of perfection between actors and all the various technical elements. This can be absolutely exhausting and requires deep stamina and really careful energy management. And it’s something that regularly takes actors by surprise if they are used to the rhythms of working in theatre.
Oh, and Sienna Miller is very good by the way.