How to Act: A Guide for the Untalented
For every person in the world there is a passion to be found, a god-given gift of potential excellence, whether it be in writing, or athletics, or one of those other things people do. For each of us willing to nurture these skills and pursue the passion wholeheartedly, success waits with open arms. For anyone who thinks that sounds like a lot of work, there is acting.
Sometimes the best life-goals don't have hurdles.
The beauty of acting is that it has no quantifiable metric and no one ever asks you to show your work. Consequently, you are just as likely to be talented as to be mistaken for being talented. Still, there are some tricks that, if performed correctly, will confuse everyone into thinking you are a true thespian, without fail. Most performers don't want you to know these tricks, partially because they like to insist that being a good actor is simply feeling the truth of a scene, but also because actors are conniving and genuinely want you to fail. I, however, have no vested interest in you, and in the world of theater that makes us something like friends. So here you go.
Create a Secret for Your Character!
Actors love to throw around an old analogy equating the characters they play to a drifting iceberg; they will tell you that an audience should only see 10 percent of what's really there beneath the surface. This comparison is flawed for two reasons: 1) It suggests that actors only need to make unpredictable choices to be good; and 2) playing an iceberg would be the easiest role in the world.
I say your character should be at least five times more interesting than a block of ice. You can achieve this by creating a strong back-story for any part you play. "But Soren," you will say because you don't mind interrupting and because you don't understand how reading an article is different than a conversation, "if I wanted to do a bunch of work, I would have just become an obstetrician or something." Well I'm sympathetic, and I have a shortcut to offer. The trick to avoiding a bunch of extra work creating a back story is to just choose one secret from your character's past he/she doesn't want anyone to know. Then, you can allow that secret to drive the character's action in every scene. Watch:
There we are. Could you tell what my secret was? If you guessed that I was adopted, you're right! I chose to make my character a foster child which was a great source of embarrassment for him growing up since all his friends had real parents. I allowed this little nugget to simmer in the scene and really drive my reactions, specifically the way I emoted when I was drilled in the face by that masonry bit.
Channel an Animal!
Another great way to surprise and entice your audience is by choosing an animal you want your character to personify. Careful though, a little goes a long way. You don't want a character that's 100 percent shark! That would be confusing. The animal should only add a subtle accent to the role, try playing 90 percent human and 10 percent animal. For really intense moments, like courtroom scenes and love scenes, you can shift the percentage to favor the animal. It's also best to choose a creature that lends itself to your character. For example, an actor playing a timid secretary would probably choose a mouse, just as an actor playing a serial rapist would naturally choose a Shetland pony. To truly understand the value of channeling an animal, it's easiest to see the process at work.
Aaaand scene. Can anyone guess which animal I was? If you said, arctic fox, you're absolutely right. You no doubt sensed the layers of the character, you could feel the creature trying to free itself from the hunter's trap of self-control. For this particular scene I was playing 35 percent human and 65 percent arctic fox which was the main reason it was so easy to tell which animal I had chosen. As you act, find your own and experiment with the ratio. I have one final warning from personal experience: Should you choose to channel a large predator in a production, no one will tell you afterward how interesting or unique they thought it was when you mauled the female lead, even if she did forget her lines and was generally kind of a bitch.
Find a Moment From Your Own Life!
Audiences are fickle, they either want to believe the lines you are reciting, or they want you to be devastatingly attractive as you recite them. Rarely do they want both. If you are cursed with a body designed for stationary pursuits or your face was caught in some kind of mechanical accident, then right off the bat an audience won't trust you. You will have to win them over with your ability to emote. Now, sometimes you will be forced into scenes you can't possibly relate to because the situation is so far removed from your everyday life. How are you supposed to embody the anguish of servitude when you personally keep your servants so happy and well fed? The secret is pinpointing the emotion you are supposed to feel in the scenario and substituting a moment from your life that elicits the same emotion. So, if the scene calls for you to cry after a breakup, you can think back to that wolf you trained one summer in the Yukon and then left behind when you had to go back to boarding school. As far as an audience is concerned, the sadnesses are interchangeable. The following is a perfect example of emotional substitution.
Did you see it? Once you are looking for the substitution it is easier to spot. In fact, sometimes you can tell what drove the actor's emotion despite knowing nothing about his/her life. In this scene, I had to switch between two emotions: I had to be angry enough to kill and then transition effortlessly into dead. The scenario was foreign to me because I have never been dead and I have never wanted to kill someone else on purpose. Before we shot this scene, I found an accessible moment in my own life from which to draw my anger. As a child, my family was visiting Greece and my au pair thought I was too young to take a ferry by myself to the see the remnants of Troy, even though my parents later said that would have been fine and that they didn't care one way or another. Needless to say, I was furious. So if you saw "robbed of a cultural experience" written across my face then you were right!
In conclusion, acting is a craft that carries with it tremendous power and surprisingly little responsibility. With these tricks up your sleeve, there is little need to hone your skill, after all, you have been training your whole life for this. In the words of the immortal bard, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Hopefully this guide will help you on your meteoric rise to success, or, at the very least ensure that you get in on some of those theater department massage trains.
You know the ones.