THE UNIQUE QUALITIES OF AN ACTOR
You are going into rehearsal. You’ve done a great deal of homework, and have figured out the character and the piece. If you’ve done your homework with the script, you will probably understand the piece as well as anyone in the room, and better than most. What, besides your understanding and technique, do you bring to the first rehearsal?
An actor is composed of many aspects. The actor has a body. This is the part of the actor which the audience will see. They will see how the body is constructed, how it moves, what it looks like. These things will contribute to the audience’s idea of not only the actor, but of the character he or she is playing. Because when you’re on stage or in front of the camera, that body of yours is shared with the character. As far as many in the audience will be concerned, your body and what it does will largely BE the character.
You’ve been you for a very long time. That body of yours has developed many interesting habits. You don’t walk the same way other people walk. You don’t sit down or stand up like anyone else. You have funny little habits, most likely. Your hands do what YOUR hands do, your head tosses in a certain manner. Your appearance and bodily habits are a part of what sets you apart and makes you unique. These things may help you get or play certain roles. They also limit you severely.
If you’re a short, white male, you’ll have a hard time playing the tall, muscular leading man, especially if you’re the “nerd” type. And, I guess it goes without saying, you won’t be playing the leading lady’s role. You will, however, be “typed in” for roles that are physically right for you. This is especially true in film and TV, where the closeness of the camera makes it very hard to hide one’s actual, physical nature. The distance of an audience from the stage allows more latitude in casting, in theatre.
I know, you’re moaning “I’m an actor! I can play anything!” That may be true. But you won’t be cast in anything, not professionally. You may be the greatest talent since Olivier, but producers and directors of cinematic projects are looking for the easiest way, and they will almost always cast an actor who IS the type, not just one who could PLAY the type.
What can you do to increase the odds of getting cast, and to place limits on the limits imposed upon you by your appearance? Well, we’ll discuss the casting part in the chapter about auditioning. Right now, our concern is what you walk into rehearsal with.
You should work your body to keep it healthy, strong and elastic. Regardless of your “type”, theatre and film are very hard work. You’re going to want to be strong and healthy. You’ll want your body to be as responsive to your demands as possible. Actors are called upon to do all sorts of odd things “normal” people just don’t need to do, including completely alter their appearance on occasion. There are many disciplines one could involve one’s self in to gain greater control over the body’s movements. One is certainly dance. I’ve always felt that actors should study dance, whether they’re going to do musicals, dance professionally, or not. An actor should study dance to gain additional degrees of control over the body. You’ll need that control for your bib sword fight scene where you have to leap over a ten foot crevice.
One thing that dance classes tend to focus on is “isolation” type of movement…controlling and moving only selected parts of the body, and in controlled and selected ways. This practice can only aid an actor in making his body do precisely the actions selected for it by the actor, on stage or in front of the camera. These are a must.
Depending on your type, you’ll need to develop your body along different lines. If you’re the big, muscular type, and you’ll be using that physique to get roles, you’ll want to build up your muscles (within reason). If you’re a blonde bombshell, you’ll want the curves that go with the title. If you’re the friendly, weight-challenged “best friend”, eat away, I guess.
YOU WILL BE MARKETING YOU. Know your product. (But dance, regardless, because control over the body is a must, regardless of type.)
The most expressive part of your body is almost always your face. Many schools of acting are opposed to working a mirror. This would be getting in front of a mirror and really working the control of the musculature of the face. Working a smile, a frown, the raising of one side of the lips, then the other, etc. I think an actor should do anything and everything to gain control over his body, particularly the face. That said, I wouldn’t do this sort of work in front of others, as they’ll think you’re very odd. And I wouldn’t work a mirror very long, only until I felt I KNEW what my face was doing, and could make it do what I wanted it to do.
EXERCISE: Work a mirror for 30 minutes. See if you can a) Smile on demand. b) Frown on demand. c) Open your eyes wide on demand. d) Squint on demand. e) Raise only the left side of your lips on demand, and lower it, rapidly. f) Do the same with the right side of your lips. g) Curl your lips on demand. h) Raise one eyebrow on demand, while leaving the other down. i) Raise the other eyebrow while leaving the other down. j) Raise and lower both eyebrows rapidly, Groucho Marx style. k) Curl your nose. l) Any combination of the above, so long as it’s on demand.
The idea of this exercise is to gain increasing degrees of control over what your face is doing. If you encounter a movement you cannot control, such as a twitch, one you don’t want, then try exaggerating it. Do that movement on purpose and really go for it, until you feel you have real control over it. Don’t do more than 30 minutes of this in a day, please. You can repeat this the next day, and the next, until your control is sufficient.