Acting is 90% preparation and 10% perspiration. Some actors make it look so easy, like they have just turned up and opened their mouths. But trust me when I say, for every flawless, easy performance that seems like it’s just off the cuff, there has been hundreds if not thousands of hours of preparation, work, rejection and failure that has been met with resilience and most importantly, preparation. Adrian Brody said it best when he said:
“My dad told me, ‘It takes fifteen years to be an overnight success’, and it took me seventeen and a half years.”
That fifteen years of hard graft is where you learn how to prepare properly for any role. The following is going to be a general guide for how you can go about preparing, in the knowledge that the better you prepare, the better your outcomes will be. There are three main limiting factors to your preparation, and therefore, your success. 1. Time 2. Procrastination 3. Knowledge. If you can use your time wisely, stay on task and implement your skills effectively there is no limit to what you can accomplish as an actor.
Thoroughly examine your script
Okay so the first thing to do to prepare, is to thoroughly examine your text. If you are working on a published play, get a hold of a copy (beg, borry or buy from a reputable publisher). You need to read the full play twice (initially) the first time just to get a sense of the story, the second time to focus on your character specifically. Look for the narrative arc of the character. Where do they start and where do they end up? How do they change over the course of the piece and what are the key moments in the script where they do?
A very helpful activity at this early stage is what is called an I Say/ They Say list. Go through the script for the second time, and make two lists, one of everything your character says about themselves. Hamlet for example says :
‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’
That would be a statement to write down in the ‘I say’ list as the character is saying it about themselves. However, if you were playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and you came across this line from the Nurse:
O Tybalt, Tybalt, the best friend I had!
O courteous Tybalt! Honest gentleman!
That ever I should live to see thee dead.
You would put that in the ‘They say” column as it is another character talking about your character. By doing this you start to get a clear idea of what your character thinks about themselves, and what other characters in their world, think about them. Notice any disparities or differences in how a character sees themselves and how the rest of the world sees them this can tell you a lot about the character. Also look for any common words or phrases that are used to describe them. This can be really useful too.
You want to ground all of your character choices in facts, facts found in the text. Not invented from your own mind, but grounded solidly in the world of the play.
Preparing for Film and TV roles
This can be trickier in film and TV in that it is rare that you will get a hold of the entire script to do this with. Sometimes you will only get the individual sides, for major projects you may even get scenes from completely different material! Heres some things that can help though, look for a page number. If you are auditioning for a film, it will most likely be around ninety minutes, therefore around ninety pages – its roughly one minute per page. So, depending on what page number your scene is on will tell you how close to the climatic moment it is. If its on page 80, you know you are at a particularly significant moment of the story and therefore the stakes in that scene need to be really high.
If you are looking at page 5 of episode one of a TV show, it is relatively safe to say that it will be more expositional than later in the piece. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is useful. You may also get a character description. Examine these thoroughly, here is one for Jenifer Kents incredible film The Nightingale
Jago is Hawkin’s protégé. A boyish giant of a man in his early twenties from middle class origins. Jago hides behind Hawkins, completely intimidated, he is too scared to stand up to him. A good little soldier, he shuts up and does what he’s told, even when he knows it’s wrong. Think Lenny in Mice & Men. Regional class (not working class). Lower middle class regional UK accent
What is the key information to pull out of this? Well, we know that he is close to the character of Hawkins, it also says Jago is scared of Hawkins – this is the first thing to think about, the relationships in the text. If you have someone from your life who you’d consider an intimidating mentor, thinking about them while talking to or about Hawkins could be useful. Also, we get a very specific accent here lower middle regional UK accent. Especially if you are short on time, you’re going to need to make a snap decision of an appropriate accent you can do authentically, that captures this description. Additionally, it would be worth watching Mice and Men to get a read on the character they have described.
The real come up here is that with less information, you will have to make more choices. If you only have a few pages, as opposed to having the full play, there are going to be a lot more gaps about the character and their relationships that you are going to have to fill in with your imagination or details from the character brief. Personalise these things, make it personal and real for you. In film and TV – you ARE the character. They are going to cast you for you! And your ability to be natural and vulnerable under imagined circumstances. That is what all of your preparation should be about, making this imaginary situation real for you!
Once you have read the play a few times, made your I say/They say list or alternatively dug out all the information you have from the audition breif and sides it is time to research. The first part of this is the script in front of you. Do you know what every word in this text means? And I mean every word. If you dont, you need to figure it out. Shakespeare can be as complicated as medical jargon. You need to be across The knave turns fool that runs away; The fool no knave, perdy.’ as much as this sheer insanity from Greys Anatomy:
Put simply, look it up. Look all of it up. To make your dialoge seem natural you need to know what you are saying. To know what you are saying you have to understand it, so hell – make mind maps, print off pictures, sketch it in your notebook! Whatever helps you understand the meaning of the text.
If your play or film is set in a specific historical context then you will need to research that too! This can be tricky. It is important to have the basic historical context alive in your body when you are doing your scene. Don Draper in Mad Men behaves differently to Ricky Recardo in I love Lucy who behaves differently to Will McEvoy in The Newsroom who behaves differently to Sledge in The Paciffic. This all depends on historical context, which dramtatically changes between decades of the 20th century, country, gender and social perspective. Get deep into the world that your character lives in. Watch documentaries about that time and place, read books from that time and place or about it. Immerse yourself in the world!
Additionally, think about what your character knows about. I was working on Jouneys End by R.C. Sherriff, this is a play about a 17 year old boy who gets sent to the Western Front during WW1. I got deep into the military tactics of the British forces at the time, but the director reminded me that the character was a school boy. He didnt know anything about military tactics, what he would’ve known about is cricket and rugby in England in the 1910’s. This was a real lightbulb moment for me to not only understand the world that your character is in, but also understand what they would’ve understood at the time as well.
Learn your lines
Now you understand all of the things you say inside the text and the world that your character inhabits, it is time to knuckle down and learn the lines. Now, there is no perfect way of doing this, I would recommend that you avoid learning the lines by sheer repetition only. This can rehearse in choices that make it difficult to react to direction with. Instead try learning the thoughts behind the lines. I always try and make this as physical an experience as possible. Get up! Physicalise the words with your body, make them into shapes! Say the meanings of the words and use that in a sentence. For example if I had to learn the line
Romeo: Shall I compare thee to a summers day?
I would walk around my room and define each word in that sentence, saying it outloud and jumping between the actual line, and the definition of each word like this:
Could I, me, Romeo – compare: make a comparison between, thee: you, Juliet, love of my life (insert image of actual person who is that for you in reality) towards, a bright, happy, warm 24 hour period in January.
Dance it out, move it out, do whatever you have to do to learn it into the ground! We have more ideas on how to learn lines here and here. How you learn them matters less than the fact that you learn them! So get cracking! This is the one essential, non-negotiable parts of acting. You must, must, must, MUST learn your lines! It takes dedication and hard work so go for it!
So now you know the world, you know the text, you know your character and you know your lines its time to rehearse. In an ideal world you world work with the director on the text, but failing that grab a friend whose an actor and run the scene or scenes with them a few times. I love collaborating with creatives! It makes me incredibly happy and it is the most fun part of the process! Discover some new choices, play around with the scene and find the most appropriate and authentic way to do it. Really try and work for something vulnerable and authentic that really shows who you are under imagined circumstances!
Listen to what the other person has to say and take on their advice. Keep it playful and curious and see what comes out!
There you have it folks, this is how you can go about preparing for any role! Do your research, examine the text thoughtfully, learn the living daylights out of those lines and get it up on the floor to work it with someone great! Collaboration and creativity are the true joys of storytelling. If you dont have any actor friends in your area or you want to try working on your acting in a really great online community hit the button below and sign up for the Stagemilk scene club!