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Deeper feelings, conflict and technique

I recently finished a six-evening course in acting for screen with the Salon Collective, one of their Advanced Scene Study courses taught by Dominic Kelly and, as ever, it was really good.

It’s odd that, given how much professional acting is on screen, acting-for-camera classes are always a “special” class. Generic acting classes are more theatre-oriented. Presumably this is partly out of habit or tradition, but also because it’s simpler. Acting-for-camera classes require equipment, and reviewing what was just filmed, so it becomes a bit more fiddly to manage.

So, having done very little work on camera I was looking forward to practising and, while I was expecting to learn a lot, I learned even more than I expected. Acting is hard enough but doing so on camera added lots of new things to be aware of.

I’ve split this into three parts. First, a general description of the class and some general things that we all learned or discovered about acting on camera. Second, a list of the kind of techniques we use to prepare for our scenes, and what I did. And, third, things that I learned and struggled with while working on my scene.


§   The class in general

For the majority of the classes we were in pairs, each pair working on a single conversational scene from a TV series or a movie. Each week we’d run each scene twice, first with one person on camera – an over-the-shoulder shot – and then with the other. Then, if there was time, we’d review the footage.

We were supposed to come up with scenes we’d love to work on but I couldn’t think of anything. I never watch TV and think “I wish I could play that character!” So I arrived empty handed. Thankfully everyone else was much better at this and there were plenty of interesting scripts around. I ended up working with Becky, on a scene from Kramer vs Kramer, which I was and am thankful for; it’s a great scene and she’s a brilliant partner. The other scenes in our class were from Mindhunter, Stranger Things and Sabrina.

Watching back our initial performances was very interesting. We watched much more closely than one normally would, with Dom stopping and replaying each interesting moment. Every move of our eyes, every twitch, every shift of weight, many of them unconscious, conveyed meaning. We had a lot of things to be more aware of.

One thing we all did was “the Meisner stare”. We’re trained to focus intently on our partner and so, in a situation where we’re sitting still, with nothing in front of us except our partner, all we were doing was staring at them. Which might be fine on stage but when the watching audience is, thanks to the proximity of the camera, sitting close to you face it looks very odd when you’re staring quite blankly at your partner. And often we were staring blankly, unconsciously, focused on listening (as per our training) rather than on conveying what the character was thinking, with the result looking odd and lifeless. Staring at our partner was fine when there was something behind it, an intensity powered by thoughts and feelings. But not when it’s nothing but listening.

So we got used to looking away from our partners, which gives you a chance to “think”, or to show some disgust/animosity/frustration with them, or to have a private moment – some locations that we looked toward, in relation to our partner and the camera, gave the impression of having a private thought, an expression that the other person wouldn’t see. In reality they would notice this, but within the camera frame it, oddly, seemed like you could (for example) roll your eyes and it would only be between you and the audience, not your partner.

Being so close to the audience is very unforgiving. Other faults that were especially noticeable at such close quarters included:

  • Doing too many things at once (e.g. fiddling with your hair while, shifting your weight, while expressing a strong feeling with your face, while…).
  • Reacting too quickly to your partner’s lines; you might know what’s coming but the character doesn’t so you need to give a moment to let it land.
  • Saying a line without meaning it.
  • Saying a line without it having occurred to you; it’s obvious if you’re reciting a line quickly because it’s so well-rehearsed. Your character needs to have the thought before uttering it.

We’re used to having a “want” in each scene, the reason our character is there and doing what they’re doing. We realised that while, in training, we make these as extreme and dramatic as possible, we could afford to reduce the urgency a little. Wants don’t all have to be matters of life or death, and the character might doubt that they deserve it, or be scared of admitting it. But they still want it and we still need to be full. While we tend to think you have to act “smaller” on camera, compared to the stage, you still need to be just as full. If that makes it hard, because you want to act bigger physically, then this is a great conflict to give the character!


§   Preparation

I thought it might be interesting, particularly to those who haven’t done this kind of thing, to list all the things I ended up preparing for the scene (or could have prepared). This isn’t specific to screen acting, and there will be other things I’ve forgotten to do, and more things that I’ve never heard of.

First though, here’s some of the original scene from Kramer vs Kramer, with Ted and Joanna meeting in a restaurant, fifteen months after she left him and their son, Billy:

Kramer vs Kramer clip on YouTube

We started our scene a bit earlier and cut some of the lines to make it shorter, but you get the idea.

  • Learning lines, obviously. We learn our lines without any emphasis with the aim of not getting stuck in delivering them a single way. Although I still do often get stuck. In this scene for example I found “You’re the one who walked out on him remember?” particularly hard to break out of a habit with. Whenever I start learning some lines it seems futile, like they’ll never stick. But eventually, bit-by-bit, they go in and once solid I can (so far…) recall them after a few days of not practising. I find this LineLearner iOS app useful for practising cues once I’ve learned my own lines.

  • What’s happened so far? Obviously, I needed to know what had lead up to this scene. I didn’t want to watch the movie and be worried about copying Dustin Hoffman so I read a bunch of synopses. In retrospect I should have found the script and read that, which would have given more clues about Ted’s character and their relationship.

  • Last shared event. More specific that the entire back story. Is there something that happened when the characters last met or spoke that gives you a feeling? Something that, until this moment, remains unspoken between you?

  • Text analysis We’ve learned to analyse texts with a similar system to Practical Aesthetics and some of the points I considered in that are:

    • How does he feel at the start of the scene? This can give you an idea of how to feel at the beginning. I think I settled on “wary”.
    • What physical thing does he feel is being done to him? It can be useful to begin with a physical state or feeling. I went for “pulled towards something he’d rather not be”, although I’m not sure I ever used this.
    • What does he want from her? The all-important “want”, similar to “motivation”. It needs to be tangible, so you can tell whether you’re getting closer to success or not, which will give you a feeling. I started with: “I want her to say she’s never coming back, that Billy is mine. A ‘sorry’ would be a bonus.”
    • Essential Action. Sort of like a metaphor describing the nature of what you want. Like “Getting her to lower her drawbridge” or “Getting her to march into battle”. I couldn’t think of one. I am bad.
    • As If. Relate the Essential Action to something in your own life. The aim is to find an imaginary, believable situation that gives you a strong feeling because it involves people and situations you know. If the Essential Action was “Persuade her to leave her love” maybe your As If would be “It’s as if I know my best friend’s husband is cheating on her and I have to persuade her to leave him”. I always find this incredibly hard to do.
  • Character. How is this character different to you? How would they react to different situations? How do they behave, walk, stand, sit, eat? What do they wear? I thought a bit about this but probably didn’t do nearly enough.

  • Accent. We chose not to try American accents, given it wasn’t the point of the class. And, mainly, because I’m not very good at them.

  • Location. Where’s the scene taking place? Given we weren’t filming in a restaurant we needed to both be clear about our imagined surroundings. What kind of restaurant is it? Is it busy? How close are other people? What can we see? Becky and I met up at a restaurant so we could both have a clear idea of the place, and brought in a few props to make it feel more real.

  • Personalisations. It can help to personalise relationships and situations, in addition to the As If, to give you a stronger feeling about them. At first I didn’t demonstrate a strong enough feeling about Billy, Ted’s son. As Dom said, “I could believe it’s an uncle talking about his nephew, but not a father talking about his son”. So I had to find a way of feeling closer to this imaginary child.

  • Line-by-line thoughts. I went through the lines and rewrote them as if writing what Ted’s thinking in each one. Maybe the thought is more frank in his head, or more verbose. For example, Ted describes a scar Billy got in an accident and Joanna responds, “You can’t tell it from a distance, Ted.” Ted replies only with “What?” But writing out that he’s thinking something like, “That makes no sense. How could you possibly know that?” helped with putting more thought behind that single word.

  • Tactics. There are many ways to deliver lines and coming up with different tactics for parts of a scene can help vary how you approach the situation. Maybe Ted could, at different points dismiss, patronise, put down, throw away, etc.

  • Opinion. What’s your opinion of the other person? It’s good to be emphatic and honest about this. “You’re a selfish bitch.”

  • Good day / bad day. If all of that isn’t enough to give you a feeling at the start of the scene then imagining a situation that’s just happened that would be really good (Winning lots of money? Getting a promotion?) or really bad (Someone dying? Getting fired?), and letting that affect you, can ensure you’re entering the scene with something, so you’re not empty.

It’s a lot to think about but, in theory, if you prepare enough then anything that’s useful will be available to you when you need it.


§   What I learned

We performed each of our scenes ten times, twice each week. First with the camera on one of us, then on the other. Afterwards we usually had time to watch the footage back. It was fascinating to watch both myself and everyone else. Everyone improved noticeably from one week to the next, and every time there were things that worked and things that didn’t. I always know there are many ways to deliver every line, to perform every moment, but being able to watch them all back makes this even more obvious.

A still of me from one of the recordings
No, I’m not sharing the footage itself

There are a lot of things I learned as the weeks went by, trying to improve each time, and I’ve tried to group them into three categories: Deeper feelings, Conflict and Technique.

Deeper feelings

As I mentioned above, I had to find personalisations to make my connection to Billy, the son, closer. I always find this difficult especially, in this case, given that I hardly even know any children, never mind feel close to them. But I came up with something and it seemed help.

Also, although I didn’t watch the movie, I did watch the scene in which Billy has an accident and Ted carries him, running, to hospital. Because I had to tell Joanna about this incident in our scene, this seemed the best way to have a clear memory of what happened, so I could “see” it while describing it.

So that was Ted’s relationship with his son but I also needed to work on his relationship with Joanna. We didn’t have time to do any work on their earlier relationship – such as improvisations of happier times or when things got difficult – so I tried to personalise this relationship too, to try and get close to feeling enough about this woman I’d once loved, who’d left me in the shit, and eighteen months later had appeared in my life again.

We did have a chance to do some repetition that ended up quite tender, which was useful, and gave me a brief memory and feeling of how loving the couple once were, of what they’d lost.

As well as standard repetition, another week Dom had us prepare for the scene by repeating our opinion of the other person, and what we wanted. As I mentioned above, my “want” was initially, “I want her to say she’s never coming back, that Billy is mine. A ‘sorry’ would be a bonus.” This felt a bit too wordy and “thinky”, and I ended up simplifying it to, “I want you out of my life.” So we sat there telling each other:

Me: I want you out of my life. Her: I want my son back. Me: I want you out of my life. Her: I want my son back! Me: You’re a selfish bitch!!

etc. etc. It certainly got us in a suitable emotional state.

The first time we ran the scene I started it quite pleased to see Joanna again. It had been a long time, things were now going OK for Ted and Billy, and they had once been in love, so maybe it’d be nice to see her again. However, I think I became less pleased to see her each week. Partly this is because I very easily fall into being an easy-going, slightly awkward chap (I know! Who could imagine?!) and this felt like I was doing that. So forcing myself to do something else – being wary, with anger and upset not far away – was more of an interesting challenge for me. I guess this also seemed a more direct route to these deeper feelings I’d been developing.

Given that, it’s interesting now to finally watch Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep do this scene, which I’ve only done having written the rest of this post. They’re initially pleased to see each other. They’re a little awkward but they’re full of smiles and almost flirty; it’s lovely. This beginning also makes for a more dramatic journey towards the angry split at the end of the scene. And so now I want to try it again starting like that!

Conflict

Having a conflict of some kind is great. It makes everything more difficult for the character which gives you much more to work with.

Finding my main conflict really helped. Once I’d felt the loss of what the couple used to have, and how I felt about her now, it became hard to even look at her. How could she have done this to us, to our son? How could she be here now, sitting there so calmly? Meanwhile she, keen to persuade me to let her have our son, was looking at me a lot more. Having the frustration of being sat opposite someone I could barely look at was great, so that I only looked at her when I needed to.

A second conflict came from the setting, in a restaurant. We were having a deeply personal, and increasingly tense, conversation in public, very close to other people. It’s much more interesting to see someone get angry when they’re trying not to show it too much… until it’s too late and they can’t hold it in any more. The final time we ran the scene we had someone else play a waiter handing menus to us, and someone else as a customer going to sit down near us, before heading off. Both were great interruptions to have and added to the conflict of having private moments in a public space.

Another still of me from the footage

Technique

Finally there were all the little things to work on that were less about the characters, relationship, or setting but about selling the whole thing on camera. I mentioned lots of general discoveries in the first section, but there were some that were more specific to me.

I had to remember to take more time to think than I normally would. This is partly, as mentioned above, about making it look like I’m thinking about what to say, rather than merely reciting lines. But also, given the nature of the scene, some things required time to hit home or (like Billy’s accident) to “see”. Maybe we’d have sped it up again if we were doing the scene “for real” but then, also, a “real” version could be edited to cut out too many thinky pauses. (I’m maintaining that “thinky” is a real word.)

I need to work on talking more LOUDLY and CLEARLY. I’ve always been aware of this – I’m just not very loud – but the thought is one of the many things to vacate my head as soon as I start acting.

It’s clear in the script that the scene builds in anger and tension towards the end but, after early attempts, I had to remember to actively work on this and not assume it would happen simply because Ted’s dialogue gets more angry.

I had to work on selling the “damns” more, especially given how odd they can sound with an English accent. This involved both emphasising the words themselves more, but also being in a state, at those lines, where they can be justified. All part of building it towards the end.

Another useful note was to think about when Ted wants to leave. Just as we try to remember that the characters don’t know what they’re going to say next (while we, the actors, do) we shouldn’t just hang out in the scene until a certain point because it’s what the script says. Although the anger was building towards the end of the scene there was still a feeling that I was only still there because I wasn’t supposed to leave yet. I should have thought more about how early on he actually wants to leave. He should want to leave sooner, but hold back, only finally giving in with the last line when it’s too much. Another conflict!


§   It was a good series of classes and I learned a huge amount. Seeing everyone get better from one week to the next, and feeling myself gradually improving too, was great and a lot of fun. I need to practise a lot more but at least now I have a better idea of what I need to work on and, on camera, what works and what doesn’t.

At the risk of this sounding any more like an ad, here are the Salon Collective’s acting classes and if you just want to take a look, it’s free to observe a drop-in class. They’re a lovely bunch!