the face of the actor turns toward us, the eyes look up, the lips open slightly, words emerge from the mouth, the timbre of the voice captivates us. we may not know at this point what is going on but we are already hooked. with good actors, even the tiniest moment can have an intensity that leaves us breathless. look at liv ullmann in face to face: at times she takes you where no one has gone before in a film.
yet actors are merely human beings who, more adventurous than the rest of us, are willing to let go their usual self and experience instead the inner life of protagonists who are probably eons away from their own nature.
professional actors are also able to alter themselves physically, using their body, and moving around as they imagine their character would. and, let’s not forget, they are able to remember lots of lines, yet owning the words in a way that heightens the tension in the scene.
there is still more: when they perform, actors join forces to bring into existence a make-believe world. to put it simply, they concoct a zone for themselves. sadly in film, as opposed to theater, the spell doesn’t last very long as they are constantly brought back to reality by the director’s “cut!”.
actors are therefore fascinating beings to work with. it really doesn’t matter what technique they use to impersonate another human being. let them find their own way into the character once you both agree on the general parameters that define the personage. after that, it’s a question of modulating the performance. never lecture an actor, talk to him/her as one human being to another. work together to find the truth of the protagonist in that situation.
words on paper do not automatically come alive when enacted. laurent cantet therefore suggests taking advantage of casting for testing some of the dialogue, even letting the actors (some of them at least) paraphrase it or improvise with it to see if something better can suddenly show up. rohmer went even further at times, writing only indirect speech in the script, then letting actors come up with the actual lines during the shoot.
when casting a film the filmmaker is familiar with the script. so the omniscient director is likely to select an actor based upon what will happen to the character as opposed to how it is initially encountered. in other words, someone is picked because he or she “fits the part”. this kind of contamination is naturally difficult to prevent. yet it might be more interesting to choose actors based on how the characters understand themselves at the beginning of the story.
when operating with a micro budget it is unlikely you’ll be working with experienced actors. you’ll get beginners or people who have been around but, for some reason, aren’t much in demand. so the job is harder, not so much because they are necessarily bad actors, but because they are unlikely to commit fully to your project for two reasons. first, they are not getting paid and, second, they will give you what is easiest for them: a formulaic interpretation of the part. indeed a constant pitfall when reading a script (not just for actors but for everyone) is to relate the role to movie protagonists one is already familiar with. as soon as this happens, the character is pigeonholed and it becomes almost impossible to flesh it out.
as we know, the command “action!” gets the actors going. the connotation is that some arresting activity, a physical action of some kind, is essential for the scene to be momentous and the characters memorable.
the hitting of the sticks (a sound that brackets the opening of a different universe) may also make actors believe they are responsible for telling the story. acting then becomes reduced to transmitting signs through words and body language. this is problematic insofar as characters are supposed to get through their life in real time, unaware they are creating in our mind impressions that will eventually solidify as a story. so we should do all we can to immerse actors in their characters’ present (not their scripted future) in order to make their words and actions as genuine as possible.
beyond this, there is also the fact that in most films the “action” that is performed is the one that has just been rehearsed. which brings up another question: why are we so fearful that something unpredictable might happen on the set? in other words, the protocol keeps the open-endedness of the shooting situation in check. yet, among all the arts, film remains uniquely suited to record life as it happens.
so it is interesting to consider another meaning for “action”. hannah arendt uses the word to describe a transformative act taken by someone in the political realm. the man holding up the tanks in tiananmen square in 1989 is a perfect example of such individual deed. no one told him what to do. he himself had surely no idea he would do something so momentous that day. with a grocery bag hanging from each hand he was probably back from shopping at a local store when he saw the tanks. outraged at their presence in the middle of the city (this is what the japanese did!), he stood in front of them, blocking their way, not knowing whether they were going to ride over him.
on a much modest scale, actors working in dogma 95 films can exercise a similar freedom. instead of having to perform the scene as rehearsed, they can originate an action neither themselves nor the director knew was coming up.
because most of our life is spent doing mundane tasks, we hardly remember any of them. hence we tend to privilege emotionally charged moments, e.g. when a friend or a loved one opens up and reveals something deeply personal. we also lionize such occurrences in documentaries. who can forget marceline’s tears in chronicle of a summer or neal at 42 (in apted’s up series) when he confronts the fact his life has been a failure? we are moved because the immediacy and rawness of the human revelation catches us by surprise. such situations are also the bread and butter of fictional drama. the outcome in this case however is far from guaranteed for viewers are on the lookout for any sign of mendacity in the presentation. something fishy about a glance of the actor, an inconsistency in the face or a false move will be immediately noticed and the suspension of disbelief is gone.
to avoid such misstep, the advice often given to actors is to act “real”. what do people who say this actually have in mind? surely everyone agrees that when someone’s acting is unconvincing it is as painful as hearing a musician play off-key (to joy). so actors are encouraged to ground their behavior in the script in some prior, dramatic circumstance that continues to resonate in the character. in other words, a motive (a back-story) is created in order to make sense of a situation. this of course is not unlike reverse engineering: the present shaping the past, the effect, as nietzsche told us, generating the cause.
there is more though. in ordinary life we have learned from childhood onwards to imitate parents, friends, and others around us. later on we also imitate what we see on tv and in the movies: in truffaut’s mischief makers, a kid, an invisible machine gun in his hands, rat-ta-tat-tats other boys who, pretending to be shot, fall to the ground in slow motion. are adults any different? for the sociologist erving goffman, role playing is a fundamental component of daily life. for instance, we do not behave identically when interviewing for a position, having a drink with friends in a bar, or reading a book to a child at night. we bring out in each situation a demeanor we have observed elsewhere. we harmonize our comportment in line with norms we have become familiar with. these norms, needless to say, are those trotted out by the local culture.
so the real in acting “real” is made up mostly of mimicry. it is not just that the antecedents imagined by actors have not been personally lived and thus tend to be generic in nature, they actually end up imitating what is already an imitation. because of this the impersonation is likely to be trite. it thus helps for an actor to construct his/her character on more idiosyncratic ground. only then will the behavior, produced organically from within, has a chance of being compelling.
if we act all the time, why is it that most of us are inept in front of a camera? if body builders and professional wrestlers can do it, why not the rest of us? somehow we freeze as soon as we must “act”. informal acting is easy but a bona fide performance is just too much to ask. despite this, it pays, at times, to hire non-actors. casting agencies, unfortunately, are useless in this regard. bruno dumont’s method is to look for interesting faces in the most unlikely places, e.g. the unemployment office or a line at a supermarket. he says he is not looking for someone whose looks or demeanor would fit the character he has in mind. rather he seeks individuals who possess a quality that compels people to pay attention. moreover, knowing that a non-actor will generally have difficulties playing someone else, dumont then adjusts the original character to fit the idiosyncrasies of that particular individual. you can see the extraordinary result of this strategy in humanité.
mixing actors and non-actors can also be stimulating because neither party is comfortable with the other. for both, the situation is daunting. the non-actor dreads being found lacking compared to the professional whereas the latter fears his/her portrayal will be shown fraudulent compared to the less affected approach of the former. this keeps both parties from becoming too cocky.
not all directors believe acting “real” is the way to go. bresson, to take the most famous example, was known to curtail his actors’ performance till they became as impassive as possible. no affected line reading, no underlying emotion. in his films the actors appear to wear a neutral mask, the same one all the time, regardless of the circumstances. when someone wears a mask, there is an imbalance between the face we see and the words we hear. inevitably this style of acting is perceived as stilted by audiences accustomed to visible displays of emotion. in general, bresson’s way of working with actors is best when enacted in sparsely furnished rooms or overtly theatrical settings.
in hal hartley’s early films, the actors do not attempt to own the words spoken by their characters. rather they let the text speaks through them. put another way, the lines are not embodied as is normally the case. yet, even though hartley violates well-established acting principles, the lighter tone and the dry humor in his films help make the presentation more palatable to a large audience.
beyond acting “real”, to be “there”, “present”, or “in the moment” are probably the most heard catchphrases in acting classes. although they must be in character at all times (even when the camera is looking at their partner), the actors are naturally most exposed when they deliver their lines. this is when they have to be convincing. this is the moment of truth. the situation thus recalls a court room where the jury’s decision is often based on the overall “performance” of those who take the stand. the witnesses or the accused is thus scrutinized during the direct or the cross-examination. is this person saying the truth? is his or her testimony heartfelt? one could easily have given the members of the jury all the relevant material on paper, e.g. the police reports, eyewitness testimonies, even a signed confession by the accused. but these documents would lack the human coloring that is so important in our ability to assess whether someone is truthful or not. in short, we believe that speech comes from the heart whereas writing is removed and dispassionate. for derrida however, the language system we use, with its vocabulary, its grammar, its conventions, necessarily preexists any individual speech. to express our thoughts to others, we have no choice but to take up an impersonal communication system. in short, the utterances which we believe are organically ours are mediated (fouled up?) from the get go.
in acting, the situation is even more complex for the hierarchy that conventionally privileges speech over writing is inverted, the written dialogue in the screenplay preceding the actors’ speech. hence the presence that appears to emanate from the actors when they deliver their lines, far from originating from an organic symbiosis between what they say and what they experience internally, is necessarily always a counterfeit. not only that, in this state of affairs, the past (the written script) asserts itself over the present. it smothers it. it sucks life out of it. the performers are fated to reenact, time and time again, a dramatic situation that had been waiting for them to arrive on the set. the affair is a cheerless manifestation of the eternal return. only with improvisation are actors able to experience the present in unanticipated ways.
three additional caveats make it difficult for an actor to be “in the moment”. first, as uta hagen once acknowledged, to be fully present as the character is almost an impossible feat to achieve. one always remains aware of how well a sentence came out, whether it was convincing or not, etc. should we then say that performers are doubly conscious, shifting back and forth between their character and themselves? if the case, where is the “there” of an actor? second, since method actors are urged to ground their performance in a personal memory that helps them come up with the right portrayal in the play’s own circumstances, they appear to be fully “in the moment” when they are in fact farthest away from it. third, when one asks of actors to be “there”, one is in fact encouraging them to put on an act, that is to say, to dramatize the situation for effect’s sake. this is tricky. on the one hand the actor needs to be impressive. on the other hand, one does not want to turn the character into a commodity the actor uses in order to ensnare the audience.
in the end, the emotional gush we respond to when watching an actor perform stems from a ghost that has only temporarily lodged itself in a human being’s body. the offshoot is a mere figure of our imagination. far from being truly “there”, that figure keeps eluding us, always slipping further out of reach the instant we believe we are getting hold of it.
in iran, actors cannot touch, kiss, or engage in foreplay with their fellow thespians. in the west, we are lucky to live without such censorship. sex scenes however are rarely convincing. think about it: always the same blue moonlight that illuminates the bed, the intense kissing that starts the lovemaking, the head that explores the other’s body, the hand that caresses a breast or a hip, etc. far from being in character in these moments, actors are performing generic moves. worse, such scenes are fundamentally fraudulent: there is never a misstep, the synchronization between the partners is flawless throughout, and everyone is always so good at it. sex in other words is given a hagiographic treatment. what will it take for actors to say “no”? even a feeble rebuff might force directors to reconsider and become more creative. hasn’t the history of the medium made clear that to evoke desire is a lot more effective than showing its explicit gratification?
to sum up: actors are multifaceted beings, capable of juggling their own temperament as well as the personality of their character, the circumstances of the play as well as real life events, the ideology that infused the writing of the play as well as that impacting the current times. in this way actors are truly thaumaturges who manage simultaneously not only what is immediately present but also that which, though absent, nevertheless makes the here and now what it is.