Most people in Hollywood have no idea what actors actually do. Modern Hollywood sees the ideal actor for any given role as the person who most closely resembles that character’s “look,” and who projects a demeanor that most accurately parrots whatever performance the director and the producers might be imagining. In advertising, these are fundamentally essential performance techniques because portraying a product or service in a clear, specific tone is how you get people to invest time and money in crap they would otherwise never be willing to accept into their lives. In narrative performance, the same approach comes off as “basic” and amateur. You read me right. I said those things. Get good, Hollywood.
Three very bad habits that traditionally serve as unmistakable signs of amateur acting are being celebrated by today’s Hollywood as hallmarks of professionalism. Collectively, we call these habits “mugging.” When a director is working with child actors on a production, mugging is typically the thing directors will spend the most time struggling to train out of them. Playing the tone of a scene, instead of approaching the mission of the story with honesty and specificity, is one form of mugging. When you see an actor “playing intense” or “playing goofy,” they’re mugging the shit out of that script. Pushing emotions, like happiness or sadness, is the second type of mugging. Thirdly, actors will sometimes mug the work or the process of acting itself. When you see an actor deliberately pausing to find their motivation in the middle of an actual performance, that’s mugging. When an actor is criticized for “chewing scenery,” they’re usually being called out for egregious mugging.
If mugging has become an acceptable performance standard in television and film, that’s because most of today’s Hollywood leadership comes from an advertising background. Our characters are being “sold” to us, instead of being performed for us. To a person from advertising, that feels completely natural and right. Nobody in Hollywood’s current leadership roster actually knows that these are weak performance practices, so we’ve stopped catching them in the work. When today’s audiences see an actor present a deeply specific performance, even if that performance isn’t particularly challenging in terms of the content involved, the fawning and awe with which that performance is received can be overwhelming. What Johnny Depp achieved with Pirates of the Caribbean, for example, was a performance that many well-trained Vaudeville performers or clowns with plenty of scenework training can just as capably perform. Certainly, the performance was well-played. Personally, I loved it. Audiences and critics called it “genius.” Get comfortable, folks. Unpacking this one is going to take us a long minute.
What shocked audiences about the character of Jack Sparrow was that it was so clearly a creation of the actor, rather than of the director. Nothing about that character’s performance was about pushing the tone or the world of the film. Instead, the actor was free to deliver a performance in collaboration with the director, the other cast members, and everyone else who was working on Pirates of the Carribean. Rather than pulling his performance beats out of the director’s expectations, Johnny Depp was given permission to apply his own performance craft and his litany of creative impulses.
Walt Disney Pictures
Most directors don’t actually have a ton of acting experience. Even directors who are accomplished and celebrated actors probably don’t have the range and craft to play every single character in any given film with an equal level of excellence… so why would these directors ever make it their business to manage the performance of their actors? Why do they cast the actor who walks into an audition and gives the performance they’re expecting to see, instead of casting the actor who gives a performance they never had the craft to anticipate? Why are directors literally, even deliberately asking actors to mug their performances?
Dear reader, it’s because they don’t know any better. By calling that work “genius,” we excuse ourselves from having to achieve that level of excellence. Nothing about that performance was lucky. Outside of advertising, there’s no excuse for failing to deliver performances on that level.
To find a silver lining in the dark cloud of inadequacy hanging between Hollywood’s performance standards and the light of excellence, consider the fact that bringing even a competent level of performance craft to your productions will make you look like a fucking genius. Even my own colleagues have gawked at the “unbelievable luck” I seem to have with my performers. My performance craft isn’t a question of luck, dear reader. Let’s break my process down, here and now, so we can all be lucky geniuses and our actors can finally be free to fulfill their potential as performers.
In my article on “Spectacle in Filmmaking,” I develop the idea that audiences are impressed by seeing people do things we didn’t realize people could do. If we read a screenplay, and we can “see” every single performance beat in that script, then how amazing would an actor really need to be to perform that text? Not very amazing. Between ourselves and the writer, we have literally all the performance craft we need to imagine that film’s performance beats from start to finish. If nothing about that script is challenging our own, presumably limited performance craft… where’s the spectacle in seeing a trained actor perform that text? When a script is challenging to perform, the demands that script places on the performers will limit the casting process. In turn, those limitations can screw up the film’s packaging. Performance spectacle is a risk that writers are actively encouraged to avoid, so finding screenplays that provide those opportunities is harder than it used to be.
To find those screenplays, stop looking for the script we can “see.” Stop judging screenplays the way we read novels. Look for scripts that are entirely about how the protagonist is executing a plan to achieve an extraordinarily urgent, overwhelmingly difficult goal - regardless of whether that goal is challenging for objective or personal reasons. (Ideally, it’s both.)
To winnow our stack of screenplays further, get rid of all the scripts where the reasons driving our protagonist’s mission don’t quite feel real, honest, or believable. Don’t worry about whether you understand them completely. Just listen to whether or not they feel like a lie, on a personal level. Then, throw out all the scripts where the supporting characters aren’t written with that same attention to action and motivation.
If you’re a little bit lost, don’t worry. My article on “Why I Passed On That Screenplay” goes into detail on how active storytelling works on stage and screen. Having crisp, clean lines of action will help you keep your mugging to a minimum. Once we’ve thrown out all the passive screenplays, we can start separating the functional writing from the screenplays that actually invite spectacle.
What we’re looking for are scripts where the characters push one another to extremes, both emotionally and in terms of their decision-making, in the pursuit of their own goals and needs. When a character’s mission leads them so far out of their comfort zone that they literally have to start reinventing themselves just to go on, when a character’s “old self” needs to die because that person isn’t up to the challenge in front of them, then you’re giving your actors potent material to work with. Maybe these extremes are physical, maybe they’re emotional, and maybe they’re intellectual and maybe they’re spiritual… but we want to watch an actor destroy their old character and build a new one for the sake of the mission. Three act structure is about precisely that process, and nothing less will satisfy the potential of the story.
If that character’s transformation feels too extreme for you to clearly imagine how it will work, don’t sweat it. If the tone seems to fluctuate a little, relax. Remember that figuring out how the performances work won’t actually be your job, so long as you cast well. So long as the transformations feel earned and legitimate, you’re on strong footing.
Now that we’ve picked out a script that’s a little more demanding on its performers than the average advertising gig, it’s time to stop approaching our casting process in modeling industry terms. Focusing on the look of our character is inevitably going to edit out performers who have the skills we need from our performers, so “the look” is the first thing we need to let go of. Prepare to be surprised by what this character looks like, and let’s go into the audition process with an open mind. Now that we’ve made our peace with the fact that we don’t know how this character is going to look, the next step is accepting that we don’t know how they’re going to act. If our script is good enough to produce, then there are going to be plenty of beats that push the protagonist and supporting characters into beats that are too extreme or too specific for most people to 100% relate to before they’ve seen the movie. That’s good! That’s where the spectacle comes from.
Stop looking for the actor who “IS” the character. Anyone we cast because they have a natural disposition or manner that reminds us of their character will reveal the flaws in our casting process on the day we shoot those emotionally extreme, specific scenes. More than likely, what we’ll find is that our “big moments” don’t have the emotional stakes that we imagined they would. Our emotional leaps are too big, and we need a few more scenes sprinkled throughout the film to “ramp up” to those big moments. Our problem in cases like this isn’t that the script is too challenging. Our problem is that we didn’t cast an actor who can hold their performance together though the “tight corners.” When real-life circumstances demand that a person change their situation, their emotional state, or their perspective, some people rise to the challenge and some people fail. On the page, our character is someone who deals with that challenge in whatever way the script is demanding. Instead of casting an actor who can do that, we picked someone because her vocal cadences sounded good at the time. Our problems with the “natural casting” approach aren’t going to be limited to the “big” scenes. Our timing is going to be routinely off, our comic beats will be weak… and basically we can expect a problem anytime the script demands something from our performer that requires craft. My point is that actual, trained actors can change their vocal cadence. Trained actors can do a lot of things. In fact, finding out what specific actors can do for our film is precisely what the audition process is about.
When we audition our actors, we want to pick sides that address the most challenging elements of the role we’re auditioning for. Because acting is all about collaboration, we want to have an actor on hand to read who we already know and trust. In Hollywood, there’s a prevailing notion that letting an actor play off a dead room allows us to see if they can carry a film. Delete this wretchedly self-destructive idea from your brain forever. What we really want to see is whether the actors we’re auditioning can keep up with someone we already know can do the work. Bring in someone who wants the scene to be great, who will invest themselves in every single scene partner, and who will ride the beats of a scene as hard as they can.
Set our actors up to succeed in the audition. Having that scene partner on hand, we test our prospective actors for the specific skills we need to see. If there’s a scene with particularly high stakes, work that scene a few times and give our actors notes that establish the motivation behind the intensity. Feel out whether this actor is someone who can nail that beat, and we’ll know they can nail all the beats that are perhaps a little less strenuous. If the role demands some fast-talking or a specific vocal cadence, work on some text with the actor to see how they take vocal notes. If we need accent work, ask the actor in question to demonstrate two or three accents. If they can learn three accents, they can certainly learn one more. Take the audition to root around in an actor’s “toolbox,” and let’s find out what they can do.
One thing to warn you about right up front is the fact that most of these performance skills take years of practice to develop. Believe me, I know how alluring the Cinderella mythology around newly discovered talent can be… and if you’re someone who doesn’t have that much experience yourself, it makes a lot of sense to find actors you can develop your craft with. Personally, I don’t ever want to audition an actor with less than ten years of experience on stage and screen - and less than twenty years is highly suspicious to me. Right now, every one of the actors I’m working with under 30 is someone who started performing when they were 5 or 6 years old.
With regard to auditioning actors, I have two more specific notes that I think will help people coming into this process from film school or advertising:
When you find an actor with the skills you need, that’s the actor you cast. Let your costume designer tell you what the character looks like. Work with the actor to find a vocal cadence and “demeanor” that suits the film we’re making, and at the same time be sure to devote at least that much time to exploring the beats and developments of their character over the course of the script.
Very few performance concepts are as completely misunderstood by Hollywood as the rehearsal process. Obviously, working every little beat of every little scene until a performance becomes mechanical and emotionless will hurt our movie. If that’s how we’re using our rehearsal time, then we’re doing it wrong.
Working the basic mechanics, blocking, and timing of a scene into the bodies of our cast, and making sure the basic beats of a scene come as naturally as possible, frees up the minds of our performers to dig deeper into the specific details that make a scene good. If their brains aren’t reeling from the general demands and experience of playing a scene, then actors are free to be looking for opportunities to make any threats they make against other characters especially scary and hurtful, to make any help they offer another character especially meaningful and comforting, and so on. In the rehearsal process, as we start cherry-picking those moments, we program those beats into our “autopilot” as well and we start focusing on the scene with an even finer degree of “resolution.” Don’t spend your time in front of the camera counting hundred dollar bills. Spend it finding all the loose change.
Nobody in the audience will ever notice all those little, tiny performance beats our actors are empowered to find and deliver because we rehearsed our cast. Because our performances stand up to intense scrutiny and repeated viewings, however, the audience will start attaching to our characters as actual people. Despite knowing on an intellectual level that they are watching actors on a screen, our audience will start losing their ability to make that distinction emotionally. For my money, anything less than three weeks of rehearsal isn’t long enough for most features. If you rehearse properly, our performances will be just as alive and just as vital as they were on the first day of shooting as they were on the first day of rehearsal - and then some!
All the terror and excitement that comes from finding our way through a script is still very present in our performances, and all that energy will wind up on camera specifically because the actors are still experimenting and screwing with each other. Now that those experiments are happening on such a finely-tuned level, that nervous energy gets woven throughout a performance that’s already been built to make the most of every conflict and every beat our screenplay has to offer. All the chaos and surprise of “acting on the fly” turns into specificity, and it creates the spectacle for which our cast members will be hailed as geniuses.
For the most part, we’ve already covered the basics of directing actors. Remember not to give line readings, and remember not to tolerate (or request) mugging from your cast. Talk to your actors in their own language, and give them notes from a place of action and motivation. Give them information about the job you need them to do, rather than telling them how to do it. Trust their craft. From personal experience, I can tell you that your crew is not ready to see the performances you can get through a proper, professional level of preparation. Keeping the crew focused on their jobs instead of on the performances can be a challenge, on a set like this. If your crew is blown away, then you know you’ve got a show that audiences are most likely not expecting to see.
On any production, there’s going to be elements of chaos that disrupt the cadence of your shoot. Filmmaking is an enterprise with so many moving parts, at least some of the things you don’t think to prepare for are guaranteed to happen. By no means am I promising you an effortless shoot, here. What I can promise you is that the performances for which my actors and I are known did not come about because of some random blessing from the movie gods. Likewise, our performances are neither the product of my all-encompassing vision nor the unbridled talent of my cast. Our productions are blessed by the movie gods because we appeased them with the blood and sweat of our labor. From the writing, to the casting, to the work of building our performances, everything we do is meticulously engineered to leverage the craft of acting itself.
Funny enough, most of the actors I am closest to did not enter my life as people with whom I shared a particularly strong connection. Their trust was earned by the strength of my writing, and by the attention I put into weaving their craft into the fabric of my productions. In turn, my trust was earned by the power and the range of their work. Finding joy and success in our labor, and finding more and more work to do together, is the foundation of my relationship with everybody in my performance ensemble. By the strength of those bonds, we’ve become a family.
Outside that immediate circle, putting this kind of time, commitment, quality control into the performances of our films will literally shock people. Some of the things I’ve done with my actors seem literally impossible to folks who weren’t there, even when they know the craft behind it. When I talk about spectacle as the experience of seeing people do something you didn’t realize people could do, this is exactly what I mean. For all the love we show towards the filmmakers who built Hollywood into the legacy it is today, our community has forgotten the habits that made that legacy possible. If any of the work I’m describing in this article seems arcane or nonsensical to you, my suggestion is to start taking some acting classes. Specifically, focus on scenework study. Work with theater companies. Get back to the basics of how conflict works, and how opposing actions add up to a story. In other words, rehearse your own habits. Put them in your body, so you don’t have to think about them. Make these practices a simple matter of muscle memory, so the day-to-day focus that defines your work can be invested in finding and picking up the loose change.
Most of all, let’s all give the actors something compelling and specific to do. Our own community’s agents and managers have come to believe the actors in England and Australia all have better training, and that’s a ridiculous misinterpretation of an even more depressing problem. Because our industry is run by marketers and ad men, American-focused productions prefer to cast models - with the occasional rapper or stand-up comic thrown in to keep things diverse and interesting. Let’s start casting actors based on their craft, and let’s give them work that earns and keeps their trust. If none of this feels like the compelling motivation you need to leave behind our industry’s lazy casting practices, then let me ask you this: Do you want to be celebrated as a genius and an industry leader, just for doing your job with competence? Right now, our system is broken in exactly the right way to make that happen for you. Take my word for this, because it’s happening for me. Share my unbelievable luck with me. By stepping up and delivering the strongest performances our generation can provide, we use our cultural history as a foundation on which to build… instead of looking at our inheritance as a standard of excellence beyond our grasp. Our actors, our audience, and our legacy all deserve their chance at immortality, and it’s our job to give it to them.
Writer, director, and producer Tennyson E. Stead is an emerging leader in New Hollywood with a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development, and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 30 projects - recently including the upcoming Emagine Content sci-fi tentpole Atlas Uprising. His company, 8 Sided Films, leverages an ensemble of actors and film professionals who share Stead's craft and commitment, as well as the risk mitigation offered by those showbusiness practices built over centuries of the collective experience and passed down as tradition and dramaturgy, to bring creative and financial sustainability to Hollywood. Here is a list of the articles Stead has written for the Stage 32 community:
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