“To be!? Or not! To be!?” I shouted at the top of my lungs—using all of my projection skills, hands waving in the air like I was trying to hail a taxi. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!?” Another deep question, unnecessarily shouting into the abyss. I was being quite emotional, despite the delicacy of the scene. “Or to take arms against-”
“Cut!” The director shouted. “For God’s sake cut.” I stood there dumbfounded. “What are you doing, Sam?” The director asked, trying to be kind, but clearly a little puzzled. “Well, it’s a dramatic scene, I was being dramatic-” “But at what cost? The scene is already dramatic, inherently, so you don’t have to be. Stop over-acting.” Ouch.
There is nothing worse for an actor than being told that you are “over-acting.” It hurts your confidence, your ego, and makes you doubt your craft—all in one crushing blow. However, it is not the end: believe it or not, the director in the scenario above was actually doing me a favour. He was giving me a chance to grow, to learn, to become better. Whether you are a seasoned actor or a fresh young pup, this article will tell you everything I have learned about how to avoid over-acting. Learn from my mistakes, while we share an enormous slice of humble pie.
What Is Over-acting?
Before we can fix the problem, we need to have a clear definition of what it is. Having spoken to my peers, my mentors and comparing this to my own opinions, I came up with this:
Over-acting is when an actor exaggerates an action, tone, reaction, characterisation or performance with the intention to convey an emotion that is already obvious—which results in an unnatural performance.
Simply put, the actor’s job is to make you forget that you are watching an illusion. Over-acting is when the actor breaks that illusion and reminds you that you are indeed watching something unreal.
Over-acting can have its merits (which we will discuss later in the article) but it becomes troublesome when it is not desired from the director and it is out of place. Unfortunately, it is extremely easy for an actor to slip from acting into 0ver-acting territory. It can stem from such variables as:
- Wanting to be good.
- Trying to elicit a specific action from your scene partner or audience.
- Trying to play a certain emotion.
- Trying too hard in general.
- Not being present.
- Lack of self awareness.
- A lack of experience (you don’t know you are doing it).
- It is what the director wants.
- A combination of these above things.
None of these factors are desirable, and they’re probably exactly what the actor was trying to avoid when they started over-acting. That’s why having some tools in place can be so beneficial, because over-acting is almost synonymous with bad acting: it’s what people pick up on when a performance fails to run true. Take a look at the video below for a few classic examples…
Extreme examples? Certainly. But it’s well worth a watch. Another way to spot over-acting is to watch a scene, decipher what the intent of the scene was, and ask yourself whether the acting (and reactions) aid the pursuit of the objective or diminish it.
Over-acting In Comedy
Comedy is a deceptively difficult genre for an actor. While the topic of acting comedy is an article unto itself, we’ll summarise the important takeaway like this: there is nothing less funny than watching someone try too hard to make an audience laugh.
Over-acting in comedy can either be part of the charm and joke, leave scene dead boring, or even worse—cringe. So how do you know how to act? Often it depends on the vision, and the genre of comedy that you are in. Jim Carrey’s performance in The Mask would be over-acting anywhere else, but it works because the character he plays is built around slapstick and heightened reality. However, in HBO’s excellent Barry, any over-acting for the sake of a joke would kill the show’s gritty, macabre vibe.
In comedy, keep in mind that your character does not know that they are being funny, nor are they trying to be funny, and the behaviour they exhibit is completely normal to them. A great example of this is in the cult classic comedy show, The Office. The characters, in their own special way, are way over-the-top, whimsical and mutually weird. But to them … this is just reality. Despite the heightened sense of the genre, the characters don’t know that they are in a comedy; much of their acting is portrayed serious. It is the situation and the serious reactions to the situation, that creates a comedic effect. If you can take one piece of advise away from this, it would be: never play or act funny.
Over-acting In Drama
Unlike comedy, where over-acting can be part of the joke, drama leaves little room for heightened acting. In the current movie and television climate of today, trends gear more towards naturalism and realism. TV shows The Bear and Succession are great modern examples of the current screen drama genre. They depict realistic characters, scenarios, and conflict that happens in the respective environment that the shows are set in. The art is imitating life as an illusion of reality.
If characters were to over-act—act in an unnatural manner—this would snap the audience out of the realistic illusion of the show. Even in cases where characters experience heightened emotions, yell and scream at each other (which they do in both of the above series mentioned) such outbursts have to exist within the natural logic and reality of the story.
Side Note: Both Uta Hagen and Stanislavski are great guides in regards to realistic acting in drama. Below are our two in depth articles into both of those great pioneers and their methods which I believe will be of great value to you.
How To Overcome Over-acting
Now that we have a clear idea of what over-acting is, let’s journey towards ensuring that our performances are free from falling prey to it. Something you may notice as you browse the below points is that many of these concepts don’t only safeguard against over-acting, they promote good acting (whatever the heck that means.) Trust in your training, trust in your process:
Focus on the Process
We over-act when we are after a reaction, an outcome, which is usually a desperate attempt to get your scene partner/director/audience to feel something. To make a change in the scene. When you break down a character—their objective, motives, goals, what they want from people—the temptation to over-act starts to drift away as your mind shifts from being results-driven to a process-driven mindset. The deeper the character work, the less over-acting makes sense to do, and and the less it becomes appealing to do.
Be Present. Be Connected. Be Natural.
Once, I needed a new monologue for an acting class I was taking. I decided to tackle the infamous Doug monologue from the play Cosi and, feeling pretty confident that I could pull it off, I went all in. It’s about a pyromaniac who burns his mother’s pet cats alive in front of her lawn; what could go wrong? A lot apparently.
Instead of being a crazy character, I played a crazy character; I acted like one—or, rather, I over-acted in my attempt to play one. I lost the sense of naturalism, the truth. The remedy, in this situation, is to be natural, to be present and you do that by staying connected. Listen to your scene partner and work with what they give you. If you spend time trying to think of a good/clever/funny reaction to something your scene partner is saying, then you are not truly listening, being present or acting natural.
Master The Fundamentals
The reality of acting, and pretty much any artistic craft for that matter, is that you can never be great until you master the fundamentals. What does this mean? It’s having the basics, the 101s of acting so ingrained into your being, that the chances of over acting are slim to none. The fundamentals stop you from over-acting because you will have no need to: you’ll be supported by your understanding of the craft and made to feel confident. Mastering the basics, for stage and screen, will help you understand what is truly needed from you and your character within the scene.
The Power of Stillness
Over-acting comes from over exaggerating our character emotions outwardly. An obvious remedy to this is to internalise these emotions instead and portray them inwardly. You can achieve this by focusing on stillness. Realism and naturalism on screen and stage are simulacrums of real life; in real life we rarely express outwardly how we feel. Think on what people say when your character has to cry: try not to. As humans, we try not to cry when we feel something because we don’t want to show weakness at a vulnerable time.
Stillness is a sharp tool in your actor’s toolkit that will help your acting feel natural. It’s also an interesting dynamic to play with because it means you can really let go in those larger emotional moments—unleash the emotions your character has been keeping bottled up for the rest of the story!
A Vulnerable Actor is an Authentic Actor
If there existed one acting superpower (other than listening), vulnerability would be it. How is vulnerability achieved, you ask? By practising the advice in the last three paragraphs. Vulnerability requires you to be present, open, to listen, connect and to be natural. When you tie that all together with your fundamentals, you start to become vulnerable.
The true antithesis of over-acting is authenticity. And the greatest actors of all time, across the decades (even centuries), are those who strive to be authentic. Take a look at a favourite example of mine, by way of the late great Robin Williams:
Is It Ever Okay To Over Act?
Of course! Just like all things in life, art, and acting, there is always an exception to the rule. For over-acting, it depends on what the goal is and what the director/writer has envisioned for the scene. If the scene demands it, then it can be a useful tool:
- In most dramas, the norm is naturalism; so over-acting can clash with the nature of the genre and create a surreal effect. This can mostly be found in dream sequences, and often signal to the audience (and usually the protagonist) that something is not quite right.
- In comedy, over-acting can be a tool to create a specific kind of humour. Think of the slapstick style of Mr Bean or Charlie Chaplin. The secret in comedy is that the over-acting is consistent to the point where the audience accept that it’s a choice and not an outlier. It is then a part of the story’s (absurd) universe.
- Over-acting can create a tension, or a tense environment. This can be trickier to pull off, as it is a balancing act, but if done right can lead to some interesting choices. It is extremely risky, though.
Over-acting and Out
Much of what we have gone through in this article relates to screen acting, although I would argue that this applies just as much to theatre as well. Acting on stage can have a reputation that it has to be melodramatic and heightened. This is true in some cases, but only when the genre or script calls for it. Even the most heightened drama must sit within its own logic of truth and reality.
One final thought: I do believe we over-act because we wish to show the world that we can, indeed act. We feel the need to externalise our feelings and ideas. So to sum up, the greatest safeguard we have against over-acting is being sure of ourselves and our abilities. We do not need to go for the external, for we already have what we need within. We do not need to over-act, because we are already enough as we are. We just have to let the audience in.