Actors who get cast are actors who make choices.
Make an actable choice that is clear to you and easy to play. Keep it simple. Actors tend to make complicated choices that are difficult to play. For example, ‘I think I love her, but I’m not sure.’ A more decisive and playable choice would be: ‘I love her and I want to shag her brains out on the kitchen table right now.’ This objective is specific and there is a strong image that guides it. Turn your choice into an action verb. Do not choose negative objectives because they are not active and harder to play. ‘I don’t want to talk to him’, is a weak choice because it doesn’t give you anything to play. In fact, it gives you a reason to leave, but you need a reason to stay in the scene. A more active and therefore easier to play choice can become, ‘I want to punish him.’
‘I want to leave’ is a particularly weak choice because then you would just leave. It’s more interesting to explore what is keeping you from leaving. In Stanislavski’s terms that is called the obstacle. Is it because you still love him? If we have a crush on someone but don’t tell them, then what is keeping us from telling them? What’s at stake? What do we have to lose if we tell them? Rejection? Manhood? Self-esteem? Pride?
An actor I know once told me, ‘When a man and a woman get married, the husband wants his wife to stay the same and she always changes. The wife, on the other hand, wants her husband to change, and he always stays the same.’ Take the wife’s perspective when making your choices. Will the other character to change. Prove to him that you’re right and he’s wrong. Drama involves a competition between two characters.
When I was a young woman living in Chicago I took a self-defence course, where I learned an ancient parable. ‘A wolf chased a rabbit. The wolf was running for its meal. The rabbit ran for his life. The rabbit lived.’ The rabbit had more at stake than the wolf. In your audition, be the rabbit, not the wolf. Make the choices where the character has the most to lose, the most at stake.
A strong choice is easier to play. At a casting workshop, an actor was performing a blank scene and he had not bothered to make any choices about why he was on stage, what his motivation was, what he was playing. He had decided who he was and where he was (on a couch with his girlfriend) but had not decided what he wanted. So the performance was flat and lifeless. I asked him to do the scene again but to decide what he wanted. The second time the scene was equally dead. I asked what he had chosen and he said, ‘I wanted her to go get ice cream.’ Unless he was hypoglycemic and at risk of dying from lack of sugar, this was a very uninspired choice, as well as being inactive and difficult to play. Think about stakes. What is at stake for the character? What has he got to lose? What will happen if she doesn’t get the ice cream? In his scenario, not much. In the hypoglycemic scenario, then his life was a stake.
Films are often about sex and violence. Contrary to popular belief, this is nothing new. Sex and violence on screen (or on stage) have existed for all of recorded history, evidenced in ancient Roman theatre, the blood and gore of the Jacobean stage, as well as today’s slasher movies. Therefore choices involving sex (‘I want to get her into bed’) and violence (‘I want to kill him’) are often appropriate. Even in more subtle genres, the characters’ motives can almost always be reduced to these most basic terms – a fight for power, survival, love or money. Go for the strongest choices possible and they will drive your performance.
The objective is simply the action of the scene. Stanislavski tells us that an objective should have attraction for the actor, making him ‘wish to carry it out’. Keep the objective simple and clear. The objective has to be something that makes sense in the circumstances of the film. Your choices should be robust, but not random. Serve the writer, the story, and the facts of the scene.
The audition differs from work on set because it is an opportunity to make diverse choices. Once you have the role, you are expected to repeat the scene the same way, more or less, each time. On set, the director usually establishes a master shot, and then she will shoot it from different angles and in close up. To play it differently each time will disrupt the flow and continuity of the scene.
When auditioning, however, I would recommend the opposite. Make at least two different choices for the scene before you come in. If you get multiple takes, try it a different way each time. Experiment with the script as you would in a rehearsal. The casting director might say, ‘Ok, try it again a different way.’ She might not suggest an idea. This may be because you’re the 59th person in that day, and she’s exhausted, or it could be because she wants you to be the brilliant one. You’re the artist, so come in with ideas. She might also direct you to play the scene in a certain way and then you have to adapt to her directions even if they are completely opposite from what you prepared.
Nancy Bishop’s book Auditioning for Film and Television: Secrets From a Casting Director is available now.