This is a question I get asked a lot ‘how can I be more believable, more truthful in my acting?’
The answer is simple and none said it better than that great sage of 90’s television – George Costanza from Seinfeld who said to his friend Jerry before a polygraph test ‘Remember Jerry, it’s not a lie – if you believe it’ and this in essence is the crux of it, believing in your given circumstances to such an extent that they cease to be divisible from your actual life. This is the ideal, the working towards for all actors – so what steps can you take to help you believe it and cease to be lying? Personalisation ladies and gentlemen, it is all about personalisation for every part of your work.
The first thing to look to personalise to be more believable is the relationships in the scene. You need to make them really real and tangible for you. Now everyone works in different ways, people find different methods to be effective – but largely there are two big schools of thought here. Either you fully create the imagined world of the character, create all the other characters and images in your imagination and completely invest in them. Think about how specific your relationships are in real life, for example if you got thrown in prison and had to call the last three numbers in your phone and convince those people to come and bail you out. They would be three very different conversations right? Because you have a specific relationship with each of those people and you would have to use different tactics with each to be successful in achieving your goal.
This is what every character, in every script, in every thing ever written has – with everyone they know.
The other school of thought and the one I subscribe too is that the easiest way to personalise with this level of depth and intention is to use real people from your life with whom you share a similar relationship as your character does with the person they are talking to or about. Then place that person from your real life, in the imagined circumstances of the character you are talking about. Think about how that would make you feel, if your real person did what this character did. Then do your scene. You should have this work done, for every single character you talk to or talk about in every script. It should be as detailed a relationship as you calling your ex to bail you out of jail in the above exercise. If you are able to do that, and truly believe it you will be amazed as to how much more believable your work is.
I have written ad-nauseam about images on StageMilk.com. I fully believe that images are the most powerful thing an actor has in their toolkit. Not only to encourage memory and make the audience feel like the actor is really the character, aka they’re believable but images are also an extremely valuable emotional tool. I wrote a big article about it called Images: The actors hidden power which you should check out if your interested. But to get to the crux of it : You need to do the same personalisation work on the images in your script that you did on the relationships above. Now whether you want to create completely new images for your character from your imagination, or you want to manipulate actual memories of yours to your characters world doesn’t really matter. That is totally up to you and what you find effective. What does matter is that for every single thing in your script, a particular sweater, a time of day, a mention of a parent all of it has to be detailed. You must have a picture of it in your mind and in addition you must have a point of view about it.
How does that image make you feel? Check out Meryl Streep in this clip from about 1 minute:
She has personalised the living hell out of every moment here. Look at the way she mentions the designers and the colours. She has a distinct point of view and image of each of those things, the jackets, the designers themselves and finally where Anne Hathaway goes shopping and further to that, what that says about Hathaway’s character. This is the essence of what personalising images is all about. Having a clear image in your mind, that you have a point of view on, shaped by the characters given circumstances.
So now you have someone you are talking to and things you are thinking about that are personalised and believable. You need to be doing something. Every character, in every scene is doing something to change the other characters onstage with them. What do you want from these other characters and how are you going to get it? Think back to being a kid, in the backseat of a car with a parental figure and wanting to go and get ice cream. The amount of tactics you could employ to change their mind and take you to the parlour – you could beg, you could annoy, you could blackmail, you could bribe, you could belittle or all of the above one after another!
You must always be trying to affect the other person, to change them. The minute you are focussed on yourself is the minute that you die. You cannot exist as an actor thinking about what your face is doing or what you’re doing with your arms. You will explode in a giant anxiety fire. You must keep your focus on your scene partner, and use a range of different tactics and intentions to try and change them and in doing so, allow yourself to be open to being changed by them!
All of a sudden we have a believable conversation and interaction happening before our eyes!
Objective and intention are two sides of the same coin, your intentions will feed into your objective. Your objective will help you keep your focus on your scene partner and stop you from getting bogged down inside your own mind. Recently I learnt a trick from the great Les Chantery, one of Sydney’s best acting coaches. He is now thinking about objectives in the following format:
You must (do blank) because I need (blank)
By putting it into second person makes it personalised for you! Just like our images and intentions and relationships this has to be personal and real for you as an actor and a human. An example for Romeo underneath the balcony might be:
You must come outside because I need to see you again.
Keep it active, keep it personal and keep it direct. You can imagine with that objective how many intentions you could use to make her do just that, you could beg, you could praise, cajole, berate – whatever! Limitless options. What is the right choice? The right choice is the one that makes you feel as vulnerable and open as possible or alternatively…. The one your director tells you to use!
So there you have it ladies and gentlemen! How to make your work more believable – it all comes down to making it personal for you. It should be personal, it should be heart wrenching, it might even be uncomfortable! If you want to be believable you have got to see it, feel it and be it as much as possible. And remember it is not a lie, if you truly believe it!