I was once an extra in the Ewan MacGregor film ‘Young Adam’. The location was Perth Sheriff Court and the setting was a scandalous murder trial in the 1950’s. I was one of about 200 extras in the public gallery.
In one of the scenes, when the accused, who was married, admits to having an very torrid affair with the deceased, the gallery was asked to quietly murmur to express their shock. However, when it came to the key moment, an element of the gallery, shouted out their disgust and dismay.
The 1st AD patiently asked the obviously outraged, if they could perhaps tone their shouts down to just whispers. The next take began and the same enthusiastic band dropped their level down to an animated discussion about how disgraceful the whole sordid affair was. So they were asked to perhaps not talk, just gasp. During the next take, the gasps were so loud, the rest of the gallery started to laugh.
To cut a long story short, after many takes, the gallery were eventually asked to make no sound at all. It turned out that the enthusiastic group, were in fact keen amateur actors from Perth Rep’s community group, doing what they do best, projecting to a big audience.
For me, this experience highlighted one of the main differences between acting for stage and acting for screen. When you act on stage, you act for an audience. You project your voice and, if necessary, exaggerate your movements so that all of the audience can see and hear what is going on. However, when you act for screen, you’re not acting for anyone, not even the camera. What is happening is real and you as a character are reacting naturally to what is happening about you.
This idea, that the world of the story is real, is very important. If the actors and the crew don’t take it seriously and don’t believe it is real, then your audience won’t believe it either. For actors, this means that as the characters, they are acting and reacting to stimuli – something they have seen, heard, touched, smelt, tasted or thought (the latter can be a memory, a decision, a phobia etc). It is the script-writer’s and director’s job to make sure that these stimuli exist.
For example, if a script has a character doing something, like opening a door, but there is no reason for the character to open the door, then the actor won’t know why he’s doing it and how to do it. Should he rush to the door and swing it open, or approach with caution? The scriptwriter must make sure there are no such hidden decision points in the script. If the information is missing, the actor will improvise and that’s when the story can start to go off track.
Equally, if a take isn’t quite right, the director should ask the characters what they are sensing at the time so that he can understand why the character isn’t acting ‘naturally’ in the given situation. The director can then change things so the character is reacting to the correct stimuli.
For example, if a character, Sue, is supposed to be frightened by another character Michael, but she isn’t looking very scared, what can the director do? On talking to Sue, the director discovers that she doesn’t actually feel threatened by Michael. He isn’t standing very close and his body language isn’t particularly threatening. So, the actor playing Sue has improvised and it doesn’t look real. What the director now needs to do is to talk to Michael, by himself and give him direction on how he can intimidate Sue more, by stepping into her personal body space and perhaps doing something like leaning very close in and sniffing her. In the next take, Sue would see Michael moving into her personal space, and she would instinctively feel uncomfortable. If she sees him move very close and sniff her, she will start to feel intimidated. She will be able to act naturally without having to pretend. By talking to the characters individually, the director prevents Sue knowing things what Michael is going to do. Note the director talks to the ‘characters’ not the actors and so he always keeps the world of the film real.