If done poorly, bad drunk acting can be one of the worst things ever. It’s the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, or putting styrofoam in the bin. It’s a nightmare! But when done well, when done convincingly and in the service of the story, good drunk acting can be absolutely electric. Alcohol is extremely common all over the world and its effects on characters fuel the narratives of stories from Shakespeare to The Sopranos. Being able to convincingly act a little intoxicated is an important part of the modern actors toolkit regardless of whether you are working in film, television or theatre. It is a skill you need! This article is going to give you a bunch of useful tips to help you next time you need to act drunk for a role, let’s dive in!
To act drunk you have to understand your given circumstances, just how drunk are you? How does that affect you? What have you been drinking and for how long? Most importantly, it is better to do less than more, trying to hide how hammered you are will serve you best!
Understand the Given Circumstances
As with any other emotional or physical state in a text, the place to start is with the given circumstances. Who is this character? Why are they drinking? Where are they drinking? Who are they drinking with? How long have they been drinking for? Each character in each text is going to have a different response to these questions which will undoubtedly affect their behaviour on stage or on screen. Let’s take a character like Falstaff in Henry IV by William Shakespeare. Falstaff spends their time primarily drinking at the Boars Head Inn and is described as a fat, vain and boastful knight.
There is a big difference in this character doing a scene at the Boars Head Inn, surrounded by their friends and deep into their cups (say on his 8th beer) than this character drinking whiskey alone and doing a soliloquy to themself. In the pub, he is more likely to be loud, confident, sloppy, slurry and stumbling. Alone is a different matter. Drinking alone usually implies a degree of sadness that may result in more of an emotional vulnerability.
Just because a character is drinking doesn’t mean every kind of drunkenness is the same. There are varieties, shades of grey and intricacies that encompass every type of drunkenness and only by getting deep into the script analysis and given circumstances are you going to be able to figure out where your scene sits for your character.
Richard Roxbrough, famed Aussie actor of Moulin Rouge, Van Helsing and Rake amongst many others said “‘Remember that the person that you’re playing almost invariably doesn’t want to appear drunk,’ he said. ‘In bad drunk acting, you see somebody wobbling around all over the place and slurring their words in a very overt way.’” You can read the full interview here instead, work for subtlety! Less is more when it comes to drunk acting.
Reflect on Your Own Experience
Importantly, reflecting on how you behave when intoxicated is a very important activity at this stage. Alcohol affects everyone a little differently, for example I am a 6’2 near 90 kg male and I really love drinking alcohol. It’s delicious. For me, after four or so beers I have a nice buzz going, my confidence is up and my inhibitions are starting to drop. Four beers for my partner however and she is ready for bed. Forget about it, she is heading straight for her PJs and ready to hit the hay! Take notice next time you are out drinking about what you are consuming and how it affects you and the people around you. You might even notice that different alcohols affect you differently.
Rum for example has a reputation of making people more aggressive, red wine particularly varietals like Shiraz and Syrah have a reputation for making people sleepier, gin has the reputation of making people sadder. Again, this is going to be different for everyone. My sister for example gets very argumentative while drinking Prosecco but nothing else! It can be without rhyme or reason!
What is important here is authenticity, and going right back to given circumstances basics, if you were in this position, how would this particular alcohol affect you? And how would you be behaving?
Don’t ‘Act’ Drunk
This is the big one, as in the Roxbrough quote above, drunk people, more often than not are trying to hold it together and not appear too drunk. Let’s be honest, while it is an accepted part of culture in many places, being obviously drunk can get you in trouble with the bar, the police and other strangers in your general area. Most of the time, people who are drunk do not want to appear too drunk. In that same interview with The Times Roxborough said “The more determined they are not to seem drunk, the more clearly drunk they will seem.” Now this is great advice from an experienced actor here. Roxbrough made a late career hit with Rake which has since been syndicated in the UK and USA largely off the back of his character, an alcoholic lawyer.
The mistake many young or inexperienced actors make is trying to do too much with their performance, over acting the drunkenness of the character to the point that it is clearly fake. Instead, the actor must have a good grounding in the given circumstances and look to achieve less is more, hiding away their drunkenness and appearing to be as sober as possible. This tension line internally for the actor generally brings about a more convincing drunk performance.
Another tip, particularly for that later stage of drunkenness when things are all starting to get a bit blurry is using dizziness to your advantage. Both Asher Keddie star of Offspring and the Danish actors behind the acclaimed film Another Round have subscribed to this tactic, they were interviewed by BBC Culture a few years ago. Literally spinning on the spot as fast as possible before a take!
‘To help themselves seem properly dizzy, the actors would spin around before each take – well, some of them. “I don’t think Mads Mikkelson did that,” notes Vinterberg.’ You can read about their experience and views on acting drunk here.
Spinning around can be a useful trick to help create that unsteadiness in the body that is required for believable drunk acting. Wherever safe and possible, it is always good to have a physical sensation that you don’t have to completely invent. Dizziness is an easy sensation to achieve that can help you, in combination with your given circumstances work and an active imagination!
Alongside that unsteadiness that excessive booze gives you, another key factor of the drunk is volume. Generally speaking, your drunkard gets louder rather than softer. This works nicely in combination with that dizziness sensation above, but importantly make sure you are still really talking to the people that are in your scene. This is an easy one to overdo, no one wants to hear excessive yelling for long periods of time. Think of it as going for extra resonance rather than simply yelling. From that same BBC Culture article ‘ the next stage of drunkenness is when “nobody’s listening anymore, it’s just people talking very, very loud”.
Volume can be an excellent vocal tactic to play with to enhance the drunkenness of your performance. Additionally a slight slurring of the words can be useful too, but be aware – Less is more again here. Watch this video below from Rake on ABC TV featuring Richard Roxborogh doing this wonderfully. He is a little loose, a little unsteady, this volume is slightly raised and there is a subtle slurring of the ends of words. A pitch perfect performance.
The final and most important tip to act drunk onstage or on screen is confidence. Imagine that your confidence is on a volume dial on your TV. I want you to grab your internal remote, and ramp the confidence right up to 11! What happens with alcohol consumption is that your internal levels of inhibition go down, you are literally less inhibited to say or do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Drunk people are more inclined to jump off that roof, or put money down on that game or take that risk. What that is about, is confidence. And for you the actor attempting to play someone who is drunk, ramping up your confidence is really going to help.
You can see it wonderfully in that clip above from Rake – just go and check that out again. See how Roxborough’s character is saying things that would not be appropriate in a social situation, the mostly drunk wine glass in front of him and the very cutting dialogue tells us this character has clearly been drinking for a while and is prepared to speak his mind! If you were to play that scene, then having a clear idea of what you’ve been drinking, how you feel about the people around you, how the alcohol is affecting you and where your inhibitions are is going to be vital.
Next time you have to play a drunk character, start with confidence! Try ramping that confidence up to 11, and in conjunction with the given circumstances, the dizziness and the volume you are on a good path for a convincing performance.
If Appropriate, Get Experience
See the first part of that sentence? If appropriate! You have probably noticed at no point in this article have I recommended you actually get hammered. This may well not be appropriate for you and your circumstances. I can say unequivocally that it is NEVER appropriate to turn up drunk or even under the influence for an audition, a role, a performance or a shoot day. It is never the right thing to do, and it is never necessary.
Richard E. Grant, the famed British actor, has a medical issue with alcohol. For his role in Withnail and I, the director insisted he got drunk on his own time, to ensure he unstood what it would be like for the character. That BBC Culture article tells the rest of the tale: ‘Grant dutifully worked his way through two bottles of champagne, and was retching in agony for hours while his wife asked, “Why don’t you just try acting?”’
Personally, I side with both the director and Richard’s wife! I think if you are playing a character who drinks a lot, then you should experience what that feels like for you, if it is safe, possible and most importantly if it is legal for you to do so! Alcohol is an addictive, controlled substance that is regulated for a reason. However, if you have no idea what it feels like to be drunk, you are really going to struggle to portray it. You want to have some reference point for the physical effects of booze on your system, so when it comes time to perform, you are able to recall the physical sensations to bring an authentic performance.
Similarly, John Travolta was preparing for his role in Pulp Fiction where he played a hitman with a heroin addiction. Travolta’s character at one point in the film has to shoot up heroin. Now the actor, understandably not wanting to try one of the most dangerous, illegal and addictive substances in the world, instead went and did his research. He talked to recovering addicts and asked them what it felt like to do heroin, and learnt that the closest thing to it was to be drunk on tequila in a sauna. When you watch the movie and see that scene, being drunk in a sauna is what he is recalling in that moment! And it is incredibly convincing!
All of that is to say, if you are unwilling or unable to try alcohol that is absolutely fine. Do your research instead! Watch and study drunk people in real life and on Youtube! Google the physical symptoms of alcohol consumption and play around with what that might feel like and find something similar that is appropriate for you. As long as you can find something similar, that works for you and helps you tell the story of the moment, you are on the right track!
There you have it folks, a definitive guide to how to act drunk! As a recap it is all about understanding the given circumstances, making it real and appropriate for yourself, getting dizzy, getting loud, getting confident but most importantly do not overcook it! Remember that most drunk people do not want to appear drunk! Try and keep it together, the more drunk your character is, the bigger the need to keep it together! And finally if it is safe and appropriate for you to do so, get some experience with alcohol away from acting in a law abiding way or find something else that approximates the sensations to help you believably act drunk! If you would like to regularly practice your acting, you should come and join us at the StageMilk Scene Club below!