KNOW YOUR CRAYOLA
... AND THEN THROW IT ALL AWAY
By: Jess Canty
I found myself thinking this week about something from that NY Times article a few weeks back about self-tapes. If you haven't read it yet - I highly recommend you do.
A casting director interviewed in this article mentions that they RARELY see "bad acting" in the tapes that are submitted to them - it is just about who is more right for the role.
And I would say that has been my experience on the whole when watching your tapes that we are submitting for you, or the ones submitted to your agents. And as you know, if we or your agents don't think you can compete - we WILL tell you and have you do it again.
Most of the time, even the people who are submitting to us are really very good.
So... what are you supposed to do?
If you know that everyone you are going in those rooms against, and most of the tapes that are being submitted against yours are good if not great - how do you stand out?
Which brings me to the title of this post.
One thing that I remember from my UCLA days - the thing that I never really mastered (because mastering it takes more time than I spent training) but I definitely touched a few times, was this concept: that after all the preparation, all the training, all the rehearsal, all the "applying the technique" to the material - you then have to THROW IT ALL AWAY.
Interestingly enough - the same is true in writing - you do all the outlining, notecards, character research - but then when you sit down to write, these things are supposed to be in a box somewhere. You are supposed to "just write." To trust that all that preparation, has in fact, prepared you. And allow for the story to reveal itself on the page.
Same thing with your performance. Yes, memorize the sides. Yes, work on the character. Yes, read the script if it is available. Yes, do your omitting of punctuation and underlining of operatives.
AND THEN THROW IT ALL AWAY
This, I have come to believe, is the difference.
Because the issue is - all of those things I just listed above? They are mechanical. They are a means to get you to where you need to be. Just like with the notecards and the outlining if you are writing. They are building blocks. But at some point you have to just sit down and write.
And at some point you have to just get up there, go in that room, or turn on that camera - and act.
The issue here is that you are starting with essentially a blank page. You have the dialogue in the scenes - that is usually ALL you have - to make some guesses about who this person is. But that is it.
Think of it as an adult coloring book.
The dialogue in your sides is the front cover of the adult coloring book - let's say it is called "magical rainforest." So in your head you know there are going to be trees, frogs, water, maybe a monkey or two. You watch some Planet Earth and discover that there are also fantastical fungus and lemurs and a plant that eats crickets. Great!
And then you open this coloring book with the awesome cover... and the pages are all blank. Oh Shit. YOU have to draw the lines within which to color before you can fill them in.
Go back to the beginning... you know this is magical rainforest - so you're not going to draw a desert or an ocean or clouds. So you start working on drawing the lines (memorizing, finding the hair, makeup, clothes for the self-tape, researching the show, the director or producers, reading the script) of this magical forest.
The reason why you have to throw all of this out? Is that it is not acting.
Let me repeat that.
It is not acting.
Hitting an operative in a sentence is a TRICK FOR A DIRECTOR - it is not acting. It is a short-hand way of saying "I think the character means this, not that." Or "try this sentence this way" (without giving a line reading). Memorizing and then delivering lines is not acting. Writing 10 pages of backstory for a 2-line co-star is not acting.
Acting is being so present as the character that when you are listening to another person in that scene, you can believably react as your character would.
The reason you do all of this prep? Is so you CAN throw it all away.
You have outlined an awesome scene with your sharpie - tall lush trees, frogs, fungus, lemurs, monkeys (preparation). Now it is time to bust out those Crayolas and start coloring in the lines.
Your trusty Crayolas - you know every color in this box at your disposal (hint: know thyself). You know that you always use Periwinkle when you can, because you just love it. It is pretty worn down. You trust that you do, in fact, know the character. That you have done enough work, enough prep, that whatever comes out of your performance is CORRECT.
You are in a relationship between yourself and the character, and now you have to trust that whatever colors the character wants to color with out of that box are CORRECT.
Which is why you have to throw everything you have prepared away.
You have to give yourself the freedom to, at the very last moment, decide to make the leaves of the tree you drew in the magical rainforest coloring book Cerulean instead of Tropical Rain Forest. It is a MAGICAL rainforest after all. Everyone is going to use the Tropical Rain Forest crayon. And they wouldn't be wrong. But they also wouldn't be interesting.
But a Cornflower, or Robin's Egg leaf in a magical rainforest? Yeah, that isn't THAT far out of the realm of possibility. It isn't as if you are using Burnt Sienna, or Brick #knowyourcrayola for the leaves of this tree. But you also don't end up choosing Cornflower or Robin's Egg.
The analogy here is that your performance still has to make sense. In this world, in the tone. This world is a Cerulean world. And YOU didn't know that - your character did.
You can't throw it ALL away - meaning throwing out the prep too. You can't just start making up new lines or deciding that this isn't a magical rainforest coloring book after all, but instead its a "desert sands" coloring book. You can't just be random and weird for the sake of being "interesting." People don't behave that way in life.
You still (usually) have to be human (and side-note, if you are playing a robot or an alien, they typically are there to be 'more human' than the humans in the story #Interstellar).
But when you "throw it all away" correctly, you allow for a lot of amazing things to happen.
You allow for listening. Listening to the reader's lines as if it is the first time you've ever heard them.
You allow your character the freedom to react - in the moment.
You allow yourself the element of surprise. You should surprise even yourself.
You allow yourself to laugh when you thought you would cry.
To whisper when you thought you would yell.
To pause somewhere in a line you weren't planning a pause.
Because the character is in charge now.
THAT I think is the difference.
THAT is the thing that separates you from the person that booked the role. THAT is what we come to watch. That tension. Is this actor/character dichotomy going to go off the rails? Can they control it? Can they hold onto it?
Or are they going right up to the line of what is believable for this world, story and character? Never crossing it - but pushing, right up to the line. This is what Streep and Oldman do every single time.
They make us BELIEVE that in a magical rainforest a tree's leaves CAN be Cerulean blue, instead of Tropical Rain Forest green. And they also know that Robin's Egg wouldn't quite have been right, because they let their character tell them so.