Resources for Aspiring Actors

How to Learn the Craft of Acting

Red OneCredit: Martin Thompson

This article is about some of what I have learned from working for a few years in a film studio, both attending acting courses and helping out with them, and from my occasional work as a film extra. I will provide a link to more resources at the end of the article. I mention a few books, but of course with such a practical subject, you will gain the most from a combination of reading, actual physical practice, and professional training.

Barriers to Acting: What Limits Most People’s Acting Ability?

In Bill Howey’s book, "Actor's Menu: How to Create Powerful, Believable Characters", he points out that people have what he calls a "Hidden Acting Agenda." This is some thought or way of being that limits what they can do. For example, someone may have told them at some time, "You are no good at comedy" and they went and believed it, instead, for example, of fighting back, saying, "I'll show you!". Or, they may not actually believe it consciously but the unconscious sabotage is still at work in their minds and now they struggle and squirm and don't do comedy freely. They are too scared.

My take on this is that it applies not just to acting, but to all of life. We as humans are full of self-defeating ideas, and they stop us from acting and from living our lives fully. Examples of such ideas may be:

  • I must not look silly;
  • I am not clever;
  • I must never show emotion;
  • I am not lovable;
  • I can't understand (machines, computers, maths, you name it)
  • I will be abandoned;
  • People cannot be trusted, ever;
  • I must be perfect;
  • I must win;

And so on. I think it is plain that a belief such as, "I must never show emotion" will be a barrier to acting - yet in my past work at a London film studio I’ve seen many, many students who act as if this very belief is what is limiting their behaviour. Their faces and bodies stay rigid, their voices are restricted...

Filming a SceneCredit: Martin Thompson

For all of us, I think, acting therefore serves a dual purpose: we can get some acting done and at the same time, we can begin to break down those pesky personal barriers to our own freedom. I do think, though, that to gain the full benefit of it, we have to become conscious of just what it is that is holding us back. I also think that it is not necessary to have some huge cathartic crisis breakthrough about it: a gradual pushing back of the boundaries will do fine. Safe, small steps have to be the way for most people, I think, otherwise it will be far too frightening to try, and painful failure will invite quitting. Small successes, however, can be built upon. What is your barrier to acting, and to life?

Faking It

What do good film and TV actors do that bad or inexperienced actors don't? Some people take the view that acting can be seen as a form of 'lying' - we are faking our reactions in front of a camera to tell a story. But is that right? Well, I think not if we are good actors.

It seems to me that after millions of years of competitive evolution, we humans are actually pretty good at spotting persistent liars, so someone who is 'lying' persistently in front of a camera will be easily spotted as a fake. Their 'acting' will look inauthentic. And, when you look around for various sources and quotes about how to act well, people often say something along the lines of James Cagney's famous advice, "Find your mark, look the other fellow in the eye, and tell the truth." But what does this mean?

A person behaves authentically when their emotional responses, however modified by social and personal constraints, are basically congruent with their personality: in other words their reactions fit their circumstances correctly. Or, if you like, they show how they feel, truthfully. They are not trying to be something that they are not.

On the face of it, that would seem to present a problem for an actor who is pretending to be somebody else! But not so. The actor's problem is how not to lie whilst pretending to be somebody else. How to do that? Simple (in principle): let your instinctual, emotional responses, albeit constrained by social and script requirements, straight out.

Now look at the following difference. Authentic behaviour is limited by social and personal constraints. Authentic acting is limited by social and script constraints. The difference, personal constraints, is the key. To act, you need to bypass or otherwise deal with your personal reluctance to be emotionally authentic. Those emotions you find difficult to express happen even though you may be in the habit of restricting them. The trick is to learn not to restrict them while acting (and maybe at other times too).

Once you have turned off your personality's interference, you will find that you react, automatically (instinctively), to the scene, the other actors, and so on, almost as if it were real. We all have a kind of “emotional body” - our animal, instinctive side, if you like - that gives an emotional, pre-language response to everything that we experience, think and feel. This is the way that animals respond to life and we have that facility too. We may not express it outwardly, or even be in the habit of noticing it at all, but nevertheless, it is there. All you have to do to be authentic is allow those natural reactions out without undue censorship. When you are acting, you are not trying to be "you" as you have defined yourself in the past, so there is no need to keep forcing your behaviour into a "you" shaped mould! The good actor can step completely beyond their normal behaviour patterns when performing a role.

When you hit those boundaries of yours - when you are afraid to express something - notice, and try to push past it or let go, at least a little. There is no need to go all-out in a single day: as I mentioned above, a step-by-step approach to pushing boundaries outwards works better as it doesn't lead to disappointing failure, which is what happens when you try to do too much at once. Instead, each time you push the boundary a little bit, it stays pushed for a while so you can push it some more later.

The Actor’s Ego

A related question is, does it help to have a big ego if you are an actor? Well... actually that question is a bit complicated. First of all, we have to know what an ‘ego’ actually is. We hear words like "egotistical" bandied about freely enough: such a person is thought of as being big-headed, basically. But that isn't exactly what I am talking about: big-headedness can help some people, I am sure. Confidence, if I can call it that, and if it is genuine and not just a front, has to be a benefit to any actor (unless it makes them lazy I suppose, or generates too many enemies...). But in mentioning a ‘front’ I am touching on the truth of what an ego really is.

When we are children, we have to learn how to get along in a world we know very little about. We are absolutely dependent upon the assistance of powerful adults if we are to survive. What we do, therefore, is learn ways to behave that either get us what we want from these adults, or keep us out of harm's way to some extent. That is, we put on an act. After a time, the act becomes a habit. We forget that it is an act: we behave in these ways unconsciously. The pattern has become embedded in our personality and over time we build on the childish assumptions we have made about how to behave without realising what we are doing. In effect we assume, albeit unconsciously, that our earlier choices were correct (after all, they helped us to survive). This complex of behaviour and assumptions is our ego: it is the person we think we have to be, in order to be loved, or to get our way, or to be accepted, or whatever our particular personal weakness may be.

Such an ego can be extremely rigid because without realising it we retain the childhood fear of getting it wrong and not surviving if we transgress the boundaries that we have taught ourselves. But the thing is, as adults, we now know how to survive in the world. We now don't have to be unduly deferential or fearful or resentful of those (we think of as) ‘superior’ to us. We can decide for ourselves. We can look after ourselves, more or less. In short, the ego is now superfluous.

So: how to dispense with it? Either become conscious of it, that is, conscious of when we are acting how we think we have to be, or, get used to pushing past our own boundaries a bit, in a safe environment: for example, on an acting course!

So, in answer to my initial question, does it help to have a big ego if you are an actor, I think my answer has to be, in most cases, no. Having rigid boundaries limits your behavioural possibilities too much. You will be too scared to act outside your comfort zone, both in acting class, and in life. Things that other people do, you will not be able to do even if you want to. Time to start pushing, maybe?

Letting Go

Acting ExercisesCredit: Martin Thompson

How can new actors reach a point where they "cross over" or suddenly stop being inhibited (or as inhibited) in their acting, and how new actors might reach that point more quickly.

You might say that you have to "explode." If you want to do what you want, you must break through.

More timid souls might push their boundaries little-by-little instead.

Some, more simply perhaps, just take in what other people do and apply it to their own acting, on the physical level, and on the mental level too, if they can discern or find out what’s going on in somebody else’s mind.

You might check out the DVD of ‘Looking For Richard’ and how Al Pacino is able to seemingly wander the streets of New York acting wherever he happened to be without being embarrassed: self-consciousness in the sense of getting embarrassed is no help to an actor: worrying about whether you are looking good or behaving well is just a hindrance when you have a specific act to perform.

My view is that essentially, the Buddhists are right: the ego is a fiction - it is not real; it is just a set of ideas and habits we have about who we are supposed to be, or how we are supposed to behave. For an actor, all it can do is either get in the way, or limit them to acting as themselves only. Anything which pushes their boundaries too hard will result in too much fear.

To my mind, when you feel that fear, you know you are endangering your ego, which is a good thing. You are pushing beyond your normal self-imposed or learned limitations. Each time you push that boundary, you are expanding your range.

Probably, therefore, meditation would help: the point of meditation is not relaxation, it is to switch off the ego for a while so you can see the difference between the real you and the limited ego, that set of habits and ideas that you have about yourself. When your mind, especially your verbal mind, is quiet, there is no support for the existence of an ego and it fades away. Normally, your internal monologue, that incessant chatter from your brain's language centres, keeps your idea of yourself alive: "I must not be silly," "that woman's an idiot!", and so on. This mental garbage serves the purpose of helping you to survive when you are a child and don't know how to behave. As a child you learn or invent a load of rules, many of them nonsense, to help you avoid danger on the one hand, and get what you want on the other. As an adult, you know how to get by, so you don't need those rules any more! However, the habits and habitual mental catch-phrases are burned deep in the brain and typically we don't even realise any more that we're endlessly repeating mechanistic garbage in our minds. We only really notice this when we manage to silence it for a time: this is what, for example, the Buddhist breathing meditation can achieve. If you can silence the garbage while acting, you limit your fear, and limit your limitations.

When you have done this, you can, seemingly paradoxically, stop trying. The thing is, you stop trying to be yourself all the time, and you can be what you want to be instead.

Naturalistic Acting

Take a movie like George Clooney’s Syriana: The movie may be a bit dull and hard to follow (in my view), but the acting is low-key, naturalistic and above all, believable: nobody is doing anything dramatic, just living their lives. It is as if there are no cameras and lights. We could be watching through hidden cameras, almost. The acting is so natural in style that it looks like nobody is acting: they are just having lunch or something and will shoot the movie later. In a way it probably helps that the movie is dull and confusing as it makes it easier to watch the acting for itself.

This kind of acting is what the best try to achieve in filmmaking: acting that doesn't look like acting. No standard expressions, no hammyness (which works better in the theatre), no pretending. Just truth. Natural behaviour. Congruence with your inner self.

Funnily enough, that's also the secret of enlightenment, isn't it?

Acting David Mamet Style

There are many different schools or techniques of acting, most notably Stanislavski and Meisner. David Mamet, in his book, ‘True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor,’ Mamet leans strongly towards the Meisner method, although he doesn't approve of any method in fact. Obviously, different techniques will suit different people, and Stanislavsky and Meisner are much-loved by some of those theatre actors who have to perform the same lines over and over again in repeated performances, but the simplicity of Mamet’s direct approach for film acting purposes is particularly useful.

He says: “The actor does not need to ‘become’ the character. The phrase, in fact, has no meaning. There is no character. There are only lines upon a page. There are lines of dialogue meant to be said by the actor. When he or she says them simply, in an attempt to achieve an object suggested by the author, the audience sees an illusion of a character upon the stage. To create this illusion the actor has to undergo nothing whatsoever. He or she is free of the necessity of ‘feeling’ as the magician is free of the necessity of actually summoning supernatural powers.”

The point is that the feeling is in the mind of the viewer, not the actor. The Director and Editor juxtapose images and music to add to the illusion: the actor doesn't really have to do much more than let go.

Let go of what? Let go of the ego, I believe. As long as the actor is not stuck within their own self-image, they can use their body in any way that they can imagine, as long as it is physically possible. This mental barrier is the main obstacle to be overcome by an actor: free yourself from acting as yourself (and it is an act) so you can behave differently - outside your normal range of behaviour - and look like someone else for a few moments.

Reading Skills

Recording VoiceCredit: Martin Thompson

Supposing you need to do something like a documentary or news-reading piece to camera, or maybe some so-called 'cold’ audition pieces, where you attend an audition and are given something to read out. Many auditions are like this: you are just given a piece of some play or movie or any text, and asked to read it,without being given time to study it, beyond perhaps a minute or so. This means that there is no time to learn the words, not much time to 'understand' the characters or 'interpret' the piece. Instead, as in many auditions, they want to see a) if you have the basic skills required to be an actor; and b) if you are naturally suitable for the role. The process makes it difficult to fake it if you don't suit the role.

Item b) is, I suppose, always going to be up to the producers who called the audition in the first place: either you are something like what they are looking for, or you are not. Item a) however, is in your own hands. What has struck me, watching many aspiring actors and students, is how many of them lack one of the most fundamental skills of all: they cannot read.

By that, I don't mean that they cannot read at all; I mean that for audition purposes they are functionally illiterate. That is, they cannot read straightforward text, and certainly not complex text, without stumbling over the words. They struggle so much that the meaning of the passage is entirely lost. Of course, just about everybody will stumble here and there. However, many of the actors are stumbling in almost every sentence and often more than once in each sentence. That is absolutely not good enough to get chosen. And, not only is it necessary to be able to read without tripping up, it is necessary to put some vocal expression into the passages - and that is only possible once the basic mechanics of reading itself are handled.

So, what can they do about it? Well, apart from those who may be dyslexic (perhaps), reading is simply a skill, and it can be practised. Probably the easiest way to start would be to read out loud one article a day from a newspaper. Also, don't try to go too fast: read slowly enough that you don't trip yourself up. It is not necessary to speak quickly on film and TV anyway as the microphone is not very sensitive to fast speech. You can speed up when the skill develops, if necessary. It is not totally necessary, but you might also record yourself and listen to how you sound more objectively: is it smooth? Is there expression? Have you managed to clearly convey the meaning of the passage? A mumbled monotone counts as a disqualification for just about any audition, I’m afraid.

Monologues & Audition Speeches

Monologues are important of course, since whatever acting job you go for, the odds are you will be asked to perform a monologue to prove what you can do. No matter that most actual acting is not done solo: castings are done solo nevertheless. It is just more practical, I suppose. Now, at the moment, the only way to learn a monologue seems to be through plain old hard work. Being lazy, I have been hunting around for an easy way to learn a speech (and get it word perfect) without luck. A traditional mnemonic technique such as the ‘short journey’ or Roman Room technique is fine for learning the key points of a speech - but not for being word perfect with it. And being word perfect is what is absolutely required for a monologue. I find that perhaps the commonest error students make is to accidentally change a word here and there, because they are not double-checking that what is written in the passage is the same as what they think is written in the passage. Every word should be checked carefully, especially the little ones, because the human brain, by its nature, summarizes data rather than remembering it precisely.

From time-to-time, students ask if it is important to be word perfect with a script or monologue, and the answer generally is that it is up to the director at the time: some don't mind, and some will be really angry if you make such simple ‘mistakes.’ I take the view that if you don't remember or use the exact words, then you don't really understand the true meaning of the passage in question. This is because a lot of subtle meanings are conveyed by a person's exact choice of words and if you use different ones, you are getting those subtler meanings wrong. Furthermore, not knowing the passage exactly conveys laziness to the casting director: I may be lazy, but that's a secret, OK?

Learning Lines

So: how to learn a passage and get every single word right? For a busy person with a full-time day job it can easily take a couple of weeks of spare-time study to be 95% plus word perfect with a short piece. And it requires sheer repetition - rote learning - to get there. Plus, I suppose, some studying of the piece itself to figure out the character's thought processes helps as well, and not just with memorization but with delivery too. Also, thinking about how to perform the piece can help (when, how and whether to move about, in what way to say this or that section, and so on). But rote learning itself is nothing if not laborious. Trawling about on the Internet hasn't thrown up anything much beyond rote learning so far, but there are a few tricks that I haven’t seen online that one can use to speed up the learning process, and I’ll mention them later on, after some further discussion about the accuracy problem.

Diligent beginning students will quickly discover just how difficult it can be to learn even a quite short passage and get it absolutely 100% word perfect. I think there are a number of factors involved in this problem:

  • you have more distractions when you are actually performing;
  • not realising how careful you have to be to get every little word exactly right;
  • not realising that being able to recall the words does not mean you have learned them well enough.

There may be more that I haven't thought of. The first one, distractions, is pretty obvious, I think. The next two reasons, however, trip most people up.

The Editor’s Mind

It can help with accuracy a lot if we read the script as if we were working as an editor. Editors don't just read the text: they look at it closely and double-check that it says what they think it says. It will come as a surprise to many people that when we read text, we are not usually all that conscious of exactly which words are used: we tend to be aware of the general meaning, but not of the words themselves - and this is one reason why we get them wrong when we are repeating them back. As a result we are inclined to learn and recite text that is only approximately what is written. And for a script, that is simply not good enough: if  you are getting the words wrong, you are subtly changing the meaning of the passage. Writers choose specific words not just for their main meaning, but for all the secondary meanings and emotional meanings as well. Change one word and you could be deleting some vital subtext to the passage in question. It is also possible that you will damage the rhythm of the passage in question.

One common mistake is inserting, removing or changing small words such as on, to, the, and so on. They need to be double-checked especially carefully to make sure you have them correct.

Another common mistake is paraphrasing a passage: you recall roughly what it means and say it with the wrong words. For example, a passage could say, "I want to try and talk some sense to him," but you say, "I'd like to talk sense to him" or "I'd like to tell him some sense." Double check every sentence - both when you start learning a script, and again later, when you think you've got it but before you have got it really drummed into your memory.

Full Learning

Just because you can recall the text, it does not mean that you know it well enough to be able to perform it. This is because at first we need to expend some mental effort to recall a newly-learned passage, and that effort is visible on our faces when we're supposedly acting.

Instead, it is necessary to learn the text so well that we don't have to think about it at all when we're reciting it. In other words, saying those lines has to become a habit, that is, automatic or unconscious, so we can say the lines whilst thinking of something else (our performance). I have heard the term 'muscular memory' for this: you have to get the memory into your body so it physically recalls even the the muscle movements involved in saying the passage. This is, I suppose, a bit like learning to ride a bike. Once you've got it, you don't have to think consciously about it: your body knows what to do.

So, you may find it helps sometimes to physicalize the learning by saying the words whilst expressing their meanings in physical movements (however stupid it may look). Prance about the room like a lunatic expressing the lines with your whole body: this uses more of your brain and speeds up the learning process. It may look crazy, but for many people, it works! I find saying the lines in various funny voices, or different serious styles, helps too, and can be fun anyway (fun helps learning generally, as children know instinctively and adults too often forget). All these methods cause you to use more of your brain when you are learning the lines: you can recruit more neurons to the learning process, and the more neurons that are involved in learning, the more likely it is to stick. Furthermore, getting used to saying the lines in different ways, both verbally and physically, helps get you used to... distractions. If you have learned the script under various circumstances and not just one, then the actual performance event is just one more such circumstance, and you're used to that already. Furthermore, if you take it to an audition and the casting director wants you to do the passage in a different way, you will not be struggling to do so because of a deeply ingrained habit of always doing the passage in just one way.

Speeding Up The Learning Process

Many students are not full-time actors and can't afford to be sitting around all day learning lines. Therefore it behoves them to find ways of making the learning process more efficient.

One method that works very well is to go through the lines immediately before you close your eyes to sleep at night. This seems to give it extra weight in your memory and your unconscious processing will lock at least some of it into your long-term memory as you sleep. Revise the passage again immediately on waking in the morning, before you get out of bed. If you can't manage it exactly at these times, then as close as possible helps too.

Another method is to practise it each day as you go to work and come home - three times through a passage in the morning and evening for five days is 30 times in a week (42 times if you can manage the weekends as well). People might think you're a bit strange muttering to yourself as you wander about the streets, but you'll get used to it.

If you must waste much of your life watching the TV, you can also practise during the adverts. Just mute the volume and there you have some 4 minutes several times an hour.

Sometimes when learning a script, we get stuck at particular points such as between paragraphs. To lock those joins in, we can use the art of mnemonics. For instance, if one sentence is about dishes, and the next one, where you get stuck, is about cows, you form a mental image of a dish whacking a cow... You will find that from then on you remember that join much more easily!

Resources for Actors

If you would like to find out more about some of the things mentioned in this article, you might like to take a look at my acting resources web page.