Acting Lessons from "Poor Things" | Learn from Bizarre Masterpiece

Acting Lessons from “Poor Things”

Written by on | Acting Tips

Poor Things was one of the strangest, most original films to come out of 2023. A sharp-as-hell script, unmatched production design and all brought together by one of the best directors working in the business. The acting was superb to a tee: Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef, the delightful rakish oddity that was Mark Ruffalo. Even now, months later, it continues to astound as it hoovers up awards around the world.

In this article, we’ll examine acting lessons you can learn from the 2023 film Poor Things, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe. We’ll cover physicality, voice work, characterisation and how a strong knowledge of script elevates performance—aided by the support of a strong director.

Before we dive in: this article contains some fairly massive spoilers for the 2023 film Poor Things. If you’ve found yourself here before seeing it, track down a cinema and see it for yourself on the big screen. Love it or not, you owe yourself that particular experience…

Watching A Movie as an Actor

It might feel funny to watch a movie like Poor Things and count such an activity towards your skills development as an actor. Truth is, there is incredible benefit to sitting down in the dark with your popcorn—provided you watch and engage with the film in the correct way. Take a look at our full article on How To Watch Films As An Actor for a more comprehensive guide.

As a quick summary, consider the following when watching something like Poor Things:

  • Character. How has the actor crafted this particular character? How do they interact with props, costume or space? Is there a physicality—a mannerism or a posturing—that they have incorporated? How about their voice?
  • Technique. Can you see evidence of the actor’s training? If it’s an older film, how has training or acting style changed in the time since? Are they employing a stylised technique or training? How is it similar or different to your own?
  • Choices. How does the actor navigate a scene? How clear is their objective? What kind of actions are they using to achieve it? Are their choices simple? Complex? Unexpected?
  • Career. Contextualise the performance within the actor’s larger career. Where does this film sit in their journey? Does it mark the start or end of an exciting chapter, or the time they first worked with a new director, or opposite a soon-to-be collaborator? What did these relationships or films did to shape them as actors?
  • Acting For Screen. Think on the actor’s relationship with the camera, the soundtrack, the language of cinema. Does their performance gain strength because of a low-angled close-up? Or is it the subtle use of sound design under their monologue that builds tension and dread…

Poor Things Revisited

Here’s a quick re-cap in case it’s been a while since your last viewing. In any case, it’s the kind of film that rewards a re-watch, especially in regards to how the characters develop and the performers portray them. (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD)

Poor Things tells the story of Bella Baxter, a woman borne out of an extraordinary science experiment by her creator/father Dr. “God” Godwin. He found her near-lifeless body after a suicide attempt in the Thames, and transplanted her unborn child’s brain into her grown-up skull.

As a result, Bella is completely fresh to the world: unafraid, unashamed and hungry for new experiences. She meets different people, experiences the joys and traumas of living as she attempts to triangulate her position in culture and society. All the while, the figures in her life try to understand and contain her—even those in her past, who view her new consciousness as something to destroy.

Physicality

Take a look at the embedded trailer for a look at Emma Stone’s strange gait as Bella Baxter. Before we’ve even met her properly as a character, we get a sense of who she is by the way she moves through the world. And as her mind and body develops, her posture and movements change, improve, refine. We are able to see her grow in front of our eyes.

Physicality is a fundamental part of character work. Too many actors develop negligent habits around it, due to ‘acting from the neck up’ in an endless parade of self-tapes. Pay attention to how your character walks, moves, sits, does anything. Even if you are indeed preparing for a tight-mid shot, know how that character got there, and how they moved through their world to do so.

Voice Work

Screenwriter Tony McNamara fills his plays, films and television series with polished, stylised, witty dialogue. In the mouths of lesser actors, it might sound entirely contrived and ridiculous. But spoken with confidence and ability, it is captivating—and contributes to the unique style we have come to know from his films (including The Favourite, which boasts the same star and director.) Emma Stone learns to speak throughout the vast majority of the film. And yet her intentions are never unclear, or her presence diminished.

Voice work brings gravitas to any dialogue. Speak with purpose and consideration when you deliver your lines. And support your voice with vocal exercises and warm-ups that will help you command a room and captivate an audience.

Consistent Characterisation

There’s no other way to put this: how the hell does Mark Ruffalo’s ridiculous performance, just, y’know, work? It’s the same reason Willem Dafoe’s scarred ‘mad’ scientist is so effective, or Ramy Youssef’s unlikely love interest and Christopher Abbott’s sadistic villain. These actors have crafted characters that fit consistently within the world of Lanthimos’ film. They adhere to the logic of the story world, and then are permitted to flourish.

Engage in thorough and consistent characterisation. Engage with the source material and build your character from the ground up, utilising every piece of information you can find in the script to help you. Know their journey, know what they want and how they plan to get it. Once you have those ‘rules’ in place … you can start to experiment and have some fun.

Small Things (Parts)

As an extension to the above: this kind of character work is doubly important for smaller, supporting roles—a single scene, even a single line! Small parts build out the story world, giving the audience a taste of the space beyond the narrative. It’s why certain small roles remain some of our most beloved characters on the screen: some with less than ten minutes of screen time!

Poor Things is chock full of memorable smaller roles. Jerrod Carmichael and Hanna Schygulla feature in the below clip; despite their relatively slim screen times, they remain memorable parts of the larger narrative.

Trust the Script, Know the Script

True for Poor Things, true for all films and series and plays exceptionally acted. The full ensemble of actors have a clear understanding of how their script is written and where their characters are placed. This enables them to make bold choices that remain supported by the text.

Engage in script analysisFind out how all the pieces fit together by breaking down the words on the page and mining the subtext. It’s the same set of ‘rules’ we spoke about with characterisation: that kind of logic can make you bulletproof, and aid you in knowing when and how you can make the script yours.

A Great Director…

Emma Stone speaks highly of Poor Things‘ director Yorgos Lanthimos. “I obviously have full-blown, very intense trust in him”, she told The New York Times. And it shows. Her character Bella Baxter is put through some extreme situations—the kind of thing that requires a close working relationship between actor and director. And such closeness and trust results in the thrilling performance that is already racking up accolades.

Develop a healthy relationship with your director. Lean on them for dramaturgical support and character information. Don’t be afraid to try things in front of them that might not work: the worst they can say is no, and even a bad offer can uncover something more interesting beyond it. Most of all, build that trust, and remember that no matter the job, you’re in this together.

…And an Intimacy Coordinator to Match

One last point: it’s fair to say the content of Poor Things is fairly extreme. Actors participate in some graphic sex scenes—and the treatment of Bella Baxter raises uncomfortable questions for an audience around agency exploitation. However, sex in Poor Things is a positive force, especially for its protagonist. And its positive, unflinching portrayal in the film is vitally important.

What’s the lesson we can take away? An intimacy coordinator is the actor’s best friend. IC Elle McAlpine, who worked on Poor Things, explores the way safe practices can be used to create moments of intimacy—and not shut them down, as many (usually male directors) might think. As with most roles in the industry, it comes down to communication: “There is a language in this work that helps make it professional … that helps people open up, and really consider what might make them feel uncomfortable.”

Any time a character you play does something intimate, you need an intimacy coordinator on set/stage. Speak to your director about finding one if they are yet to do so, and approach them with this knowledge: many ICs will work pro bono on smaller productions, simply to support the actors. Your resulting performance won’t only be stronger and more truthful, it’ll make you feel that way as well.

Conclusion

So there you have it: lessons galore to be learned as an actor from Poor Things. As state earlier: give this film a re-watch, no matter how you found it the first time around. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, there are plenty of things you can learn that will help you develop your own process and craft.

And don’t forget, such analysis isn’t only for Oscar contenders. Everything you watch/listen to/read/play can help you garner a greater understanding of character and story. Be a sponge and soak it all up—such is the joy of the artist’s life.

Happy viewing!

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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