A fast and simple way to take your performance to the next level is by changing your focus. If you, like most actors, are a strong empath, you relish mining the emotional core of your script. However, before diving headfirst into those heart wrenching or hilarious moments, you need to learn to step back and approach these emotional nuggets of acting gold from the most basic of building blocks: Objectives.
Emotions are what you want the audience to feel, not necessarily what you should focus on feeling. An emotion is always a byproduct of an action, so an actor is required to act an action, not an emotion. See the common thread? Before you get hyped up trying to cry on cue, or time the perfect punchline, go right back to the basics of script work and get your actions sorted out. A tried-and-true lesson is “If the actor is crying, the audience isn’t.” While not always literally true, the essence here is that it is far more affecting when we watch someone struggling against their emotions. Ever tried to suppress a laugh and found yourself in hysterics? Don’t always assume that the punchline, whether comedic or dramatic, is the actor’s responsibility. The hook may be in the cutaway in an edit, or the reaction of another character, or a call-back to a moment from earlier.
Essentially, you need to just be believable in the moment, which leads us back to objectives. No one says or does any action without a reason, or an ‘objective’. If you tell a joke, your objective is ‘to amuse’. If you tell a story to explain why you are late, your objective may be ‘to convince’, or ‘to distract’, or ‘to exploit’. Each of these verbs informs the way in which you’ll tell the story. Note that it is pointless to cheat here, and to use an action like ‘to make them feel pity’. You can’t direct your fellow actor, and you can’t control the reaction they will have to your delivery.
Stick to verbs, and be as creative as you want, using an action for every beat of your script, every line, heck, even every word. This is to get your emotional cogs working while ensuring you are always playing to win, and effectively acting within the scene. Let the director worry about the ultimate effect that the audience should feel. Your job is to play your role with as much strength, conviction and energy as necessary. As long as your character continues to play true to their objectives and intentions, you can go nuts with how they achieve this. Jump from harass, to baffle, to excite, to incinerate.
You might find that visual actions work best for you, or that your character uses every tool in their arsenal to circumvent their ultimate motive. As always with your homework, the more you do now, the less you need to bring it on set. Break down your scripts with active verbs, and this will stick in your line delivery when it comes to your performance.
Check out Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus for an endless bounty of applicable actions.