How to Look Real When Acting
How do you look real, honest and authentic while acting? Well, as the legendary Kate Winslet once said ‘acting is about being real, being honest’. Put simply, the easiest way to ensure your acting looks and feels real is to ensure that the situation that your character is engaging in is real for you. The techniques for how to do this are the basis of acting, and have been the intrinsic challenge of the craft since the Greeks were pulling on their togas and heading out into the amphitheatres of Athens, circa 6th century BC.
In order to look real while acting, you must make the given circumstances of the piece so real, so vivid, so palpable for yourself that you are unable to separate them from reality. You must see what the character sees, smell what they smell and most importantly feel what they feel. Then you wont have to worry about it looking real, as for all intensive purposes, it will be real.
What Is Real?
At the risk of getting terribly existential really early in the article, lets quickly solve the question of what is ‘real? When you think about it, nothing about acting is real right? The sets are made of plywood and gaffer tape, the swords have no edges, the blood is glucose syrup and food colouring, hell, even the tears are sometimes dropped into the actors eyes by the makeup department! And yet, somehow, through all of that artifice, we can still feel it when we feel like an actor isn’t being truthful with us. We can still recognise it when we feel like an actor is ‘lying’ to us.
This is the exact same problem that the Greeks faced, that Shakespeare and Ibsen and Checkov and Miller and O’Neil and Labute all faced as well. The essential problem of acting and drama is, how do you make these words and these scenarios, written out on a page, feel to an audience like they are happening for the very first time, in the moment that the audience is seeing it? Even when it is the third show of the day or the 96th take of the day (I’m looking at you David Fincher!)
The answer is, by making the reality of the play or the film the reality you are experiencing right now. Using your senses, your imagination and your craft to fool your body and spirit, and the bodies and spirits of the audience, that this fabrication is your lived experience and you are experiencing it moment by moment, second by second in front of their very eyes.
This has been the essential challenge of dramatic performance since its inception. And every acting teacher, director, guru and acting website has proclaimed to have solved it in a myriad of ways. Presented below are the most common solutions this this problem and some potential solutions for your next performance.
#1 Understand Your Given Circumstances
The first step in making your performance look and feel real is to understand the given circumstances of the scene or monologue you are working with. ‘Given circumstances’ refers to the who, what, when, where, why and how of your scene. There are thousands of different takes on exactly how this works and how best to use it so let me condense it for you. Firstly, check out our article on some of the basics. Then read this on script analysis. Honestly, that script analysis article is absolutely brilliant, it is all about helping you find all the facts of your scene, and figuring out a way to bring those facts to life. I cant recommend it enough.
You see, it is going to be impossible to make a scene look or feel real if you don’t understand exactly what is happening, in that scene. When it is taking place, both in terms of year and period but also time of day. The same goes for where it is taking place and how the character feels about their environment, the town, the city, the state, the building, the room all impact how the character approaches the dialogue. You speak very differently to an authority figure in your home versus the dungeon of a wizard for example. Finally, the more internal aspects too, such as how the character feels about the people they are talking to and about, and what they want from the other characters in that scene.
All of this is about textual analysis and given circumstances. The more the actor devotes themselves to mastering this aspect the more chance they give themselves to make this scene or monologue as real as possible. If you don’t know these elements, the audience is going to be able to tell that you are just making it up, that you don’t really believe it, its not truthful, it is not something you are experiencing, its something your inventing or even worse, pretending.
#2 Know Your Lines!
I feel like this is a subheading in every single StageMilk article, but we just cannot overstate the importance of learning your lines. If you don’t know your lines intimately, personally, down to the core of your being, you are going to look like someone who is trying to act. Someone who is pretending to be someone they’re not. Your acting is never going to look real if you are grasping at or forgetting what to say next, so please, learn your lines! We have a great video on how to learn lines fast!
#3 Use Your Senses and Imagination
Once you have done your text work and now have a deep understanding of the world of the scene or monologue it is time to engage your senses to make the world around you come to life. If you want it to look real, it has to feel real, if it’s going to feel real then you need to use your eyes, your nose, your touch and your recall to make it as real as possible. Take for example a little bit of Henry V.
Now imagine that you had to audition for the role that Kenneth Branagh is performing here, and you don’t have a cart to step on, or a hundred extras in perfect military garb surrounding you, or a sword at your hip. How can you make this situation real? Well lets first deal with what is around you. Henry is in Agincourt in France, he is in the woods on the eve of a battle that he is leading his men into and they are drastically outnumbered. At the start of the speech he overhears his cousin saying how screwed they are. These are the given circumstances of the moment before the speech starts.
I would first create the ‘where’ in my mind, I would think about a place I have been to that is similar to that battlefield. The trick here is that it doesn’t have to be exactly the same, it just has to have crossover with how the character feels about the location. A couple of years ago my team made it into the semi-finals of our local cricket competition. I can remember the ground, the fence around the oval, the smell of fresh cut grass, the anticipation in my guts of the finals to play for. If I close my eyes and think about it, really think about it, I can imagine myself back there on the side-lines, ready to step onto the field. This is what I am going to recall before I start this monologue. For you, it might be more helpful to create the fields of Agincourt in your imagination, to smell the horse manure from the cavalry, see the French banners across the field, waving in the breeze, feel the cold steel of the armour against your chest and the soft rain on your head.
Either way, you must make the surroundings of the scene real and palpable for yourself, so much so that the blue screen behind you and camera in front of you in your self-tape disappears, as the power of your imagination drives you into the moment before your monologue begins.
#4 Intention and Objective
Now you understand the text, the world of the piece and you are using your imagination and your sensory recall to make it feel real to you, the last piece of the puzzle is what you are doing with the lines on the page. How you are going to use them to get what your character wants in this moment? Which brings us to the oft maligned and thoroughly misunderstood concept of objective. You see, in every scene, in every monologue, in every moment on screen or onstage, your character is there for a reason. They want something, more often than not, they want something from the people they are talking to in that scene. Henry V above wants the men in his army to realise they have a fighting chance, and further more that they don’t want men who don’t want to be there, they want to remember this day forever.
The truth is, the writer would not have put this scene in the play or the screenplay if it wasn’t necessary. They’d have cut it. So if its necessary, it is there for reason, therefore the character has a reason to be there, therefore they have something they want to get. It is your job to figure out what that want is and then ruthlessly pursue it until you get what you want! Until your soldiers are cheering, ready to charge into battle against impossible odds!
#5 How It Looks Is Not Your Problem
So now we have this beautiful combination of factors right? You know the world of the play or the scene, you know the lines, you have a vivid imaginative picture of the world your playing in and you know what you want to get in this moment. Now the time has come to realise the most important truth of acting, and the intrinsic problem with this question of ‘looking real’.
It is not your job to make it look real. It is your job, to really feel.
See what I did there? Clever right? Seriously though, it is the director’s job to make sure it looks right. It is the designers job to make sure the costumes and sets are of the correct period, the makeup and hair artists job to make sure your face and hair looks right, the continuity or script supervisors job to ensure your sword is on the correct hip. Your job, your only job is to make sure that you really feel it, in your bones, on your insides, from the tips of your hair to the edge of your toenails.
That the lines, the imaginative world, the objective your pursuing, the given circumstances of the moment are all such a part of your body that you are unable to separate their fictional reality from your own. Then all of a sudden, you no longer have to worry about weather it looks real or not for you, because simply, it will be your reality.
There you have it, an in depth guide to making any scene or monologue look real! The trick is that you have to do the work to take something completely fictional and convince your mind, body and spirit that it is in fact, your lived reality. That you are experiencing it moment to moment, as it is happening. Not the words of a old white guy who died four hundred years ago, that has been performed by every man and his dog for the intervening period! The only way to do this, is to work hard, and make it your reality! If you’d like some more help doing this, click the link below to work with us at StageMilk every month and you can become the acting powerhouse you know you can be!
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