In the last few weeks I've been working with students at the Drama Centre on scenes from movies. In previous classes we have covered many of the technical requirements of acting on camera and most of the students have successfully internalised the imperative not to ‘perform’, but simply to ‘be’. But where many of them have fallen down is on their preparation.
Without the structure and collaboration of an extended theatre rehearsal period, the discipline of preparing alone can be hard for stage actors. And it requires a big leap of faith that deeply imagining your character’s past and his or her relationships with other characters - both those that appear on screen and those that do not - will pay off.
But without it screen actors are very exposed. The difference between what you see in the eyes of an actor who has done some basic preparation on the lines but who has no real sense of past and one who is totally prepared - having created a character with history and memory and fears and ambitions - is tangible even if it’s hard to define. One of the things that always encourages me is that when I turn to a group of observing students after a good take, and ask “could you see the difference?” they always can.
I also recently did some work with an ex-student who is preparing for the lead in a feature film. Despite quite a far-fetched storyline, he has done huge amounts of preparation, creating a very vivid characterisation - not sensationalised, just richly and deeply imagined. I spent nearly an hour asking him, as the character, questions about his life and history, almost as a counsellor might do. And not once did I sense any hesitation or gap in his understanding. When he spoke about some of his (the character’s) personal experiences, it was like watching someone select what to tell you from a viscerally lived past.
The best actors take this kind of preparation very seriously. Al Pacino is reported to have realized, after seeing the rushes of the first day’s shoot on Dog Day Afternoon, that his preparation was inadequate. “I thought ‘this is incredible. There is nobody up there’. I came home, got a bottle of wine, and stayed up all night because I had neglected to work on certain things." (Quoted by Karina Longworth). His eventual performance turned out to be one of his very best.
As well as this deep characterization, you need to go into every scene with crystal clarity about the timeline of your character’s story: knowing, for every scene, absolutely, unquestioningly where you are, what has happened previously and what you want. It’s why I spend a large chunk of my book From Stage to Screen discussing how to do this.
In a previous blog (Preparing for a take) I applauded Sienna Miller for what was clearly very thorough preparation for scenes in American Sniper. Compare this with a film I once shot, in which the central love story turned when the hero saved the heroine from a near–rape. As we rehearsed to shoot a scene from later in the script, I was horrified when the lead actress asked me “does this scene come before or after he has saved me from the rape?" I could have wept. She had clearly had not done her homework and, at one point, she even asked me “do you want it happy or sad?” Of course her performance reflected this lack of preparation. Despite being very beautiful and, at the time, much talked about, you will not have heard of her because her subsequent career went nowhere.