You may have read some alarming news recently that not everyone has an inner monologue, an internal thought process that is constantly ticking over that if you were to print it out would read like a cohesive train of thoughts and ideas that drive you through your day. While some people may not have them out in the world, the inner monologue is a vital tool for an actor to use as part of their process onstage or onscreen. See it’s not just about what you might be thinking moment to moment, but how is the character processing the information as it comes to them, how do they feel about the world around them and most importantly where do these lines come from? What is the motivating factor behind your lines? Is it a reaction to what someone has said, is it an image or a memory from their past, is it their environment around them? By getting some clarity around this you can really help find specificity and life inside the silences of your next performance.
The brilliant Brazillian acting maestro Augusto Boal says in Games for Actors and Non-actors,
“[…] the human being is a unity, an indivisible whole. Scientists have demonstrated that one’s physical and psychic apparatuses are completely inseparable. Stanislavski’s work on physical actions also tends to the same conclusion, i.e. that ideas, emotions and sensations are all indissolubly interwoven.”
For more on the Stanislavski Method
I love this quote because I think it sums up the importance of having a real and palpable inner monologue working for you. We know the physical and the psychological are completely linked, you can’t pretend that you are having thoughts and feelings with your body and actually be thinking about the washing. They end in the same conclusion that emotions and ideas are linked. Your ideas must be aiding you in driving the emotional work of the piece. And dissecting the character’s inner monologue is a vital addition to this process.
Watch this clip from The Irishman:
This is a scene entirely without dialogue right for the actress right? Just action. The character of Jo played by the legendary Welker White has just been fired from her job, and she’s heading out to the car, she gets in, inserts the keys and remembers the spate of car bombs and it makes her wonder, what if her car is next? A little while ago we had an interview with Welker with the StageMilk Scene Club, you can see a full replay of it by signing up here. Watching the full interview is really worth your time!
But for the purposes of this article. Watch the above video and as you look at Welker, track each time her thoughts change. What is going on inside her head? She comes out of the building and she’s pissed off, she’s been fired, slams the door, throws the keys right up to the ignition – but wait, what about the car bombs? Is there anyone around? She checks outside and behind her. Do I start it or not? Screw it, I’m going to start it. God, I hope this works. She turns the key and the car starts. We get all of that, all of that and much more because Welker allows herself to experience all of that moment to moment, she has a palpable and alive inner monologue that is actually having all of those thoughts I mentioned, and as she has them, we see them! She needs to live in those, moment to moment, every single take until the director (in this case Martin Scorsese!) Is happy to move on! There is a story in this scene, there is a narrative and it’s Welker’s connection to her inner monologue that helps tell us that story.
Without that inner monologue, without Welker connecting the dots of the story, we wouldn’t get the tension that is so alive in this moment, we wouldn’t understand what was happening for the story or the larger picture of the movie. In our interview, Welker went into fantastic detail about Scorsese’s direction and his fine, fine detail that added immensely to her inner monologue work at this moment. Also, see how much detail and specificity there is in 59 seconds of a film! A great acting teacher said to me it’s the life, not the lines and with a moment like this I couldn’t agree more.
Okay so now let’s look at some text and figure out what the character’s inner monologue is and how to apply it. Here’s some Julius Caesar:
Julius Caesar (Act 3 Scene 1)
O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
That I am meek and gentle with these butchers.
Thou art the ruins of the noblest man
That ever lived in the tide of times.
Woe to the hand that shed this costly blood.
Over thy wounds now do I prophesy
(Which like dumb mouths do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue)
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men:
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy:
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war:
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds,
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice,
Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
So just looking at the first few lines let’s look at the inner monologue. It begins here before the first line. A great way to find the inner monologue is to ask yourself the question – ‘Where does this line come from? Why are they saying it?’
The answer, in this case, is, Anthony is standing over the still-warm body of his friend Caesar who has just been brutally murdered. He is looking at the body of his friend and taking in the horror in front of him. For me it’s something in the region of ‘Julius, what have they done to you, look at your chest, the wounds, all of this blood. Those animals…’ Those thoughts will drive me through before and during the first two lines, looking at the next two lines, again those are driven by what he is seeing in front of him. Caesars once mighty frame cut down by those conspirators my inner monologue might be ‘they tore his flesh out, look at this cut into his liver. Not days ago we were together talking about how to make Rome better and now look at him’
And so forth and so on. I like to write out my inner monologue next to the lines on the page just in dot points. After a while, you can let natural thoughts arise in your mind as you go, but being specific about your inner monologue especially in preparation and rehearsal. can give you some really nice structure. Hopefully, if you are really alive and present in the moment, you will only need to have a conscious inner monologue for the first part of the script, then you will be so alive and so present that thoughts will naturally flow from one moment to the next.
In your preparation, however, going through line by line and asking yourself ‘Why does my character say this? Where does this line come from’ is an essential part of script analysis on any text, be it film, theatre, commercial or digital. Once you have worked out why they are saying it, then you can actively engage in the thought process required to make that part of the script come real and alive!
So there you have it, folks, the inner monologue is the things you are thinking while you are speaking or listening in a scene. It is a vital part of staying alive and present in your scene and can really help you unpack the subtext and motivations of your character.