When I do castings, a lot of times I can tell right off the bat who’s had some type of training and who’s just kinda winging it. Or just needs to go take acting classes plain and simple. It’s amazing sometimes how many actors will actually not really understand what the story is about before trying out for a role and that shows in their performance. Now when they come in and nail it — they nail it. It’s truly an exciting feeling you get when that man, woman or child makes the words come alive from the script and it’s as if the part was made for them. Most of the time you have to go through a lot of auditions to get that feeling….a lot of auditions.
So what is bad acting?
Sometimes it can just be the actor or actress has been miscast. Other times that actor got cold feet. Or didn’t understand the role. Or just weren’t cut out for acting at all — but that’s another story.
Take a look at this clip below of a short scene from some random movie with some no name actors in it. Try not to laugh and pay attention to it. Basically it’s a scene of a guy getting killed and dying.
Now wipe the grin off your face and realize what just happened. Besides the bad make up, editing and basically everything else…the actor was flailing all over the place and yelling like he was being tortured in Guantanamo Bay for secret information on the president’s failed assassination attempt.
Now check out the final scene from Gladiator and pay attention to his acting. Yes it was a great script with great directing and supporting cast….but pay attention to how Russell Crowe actually dies.
It’s a drastic comparison, but you get the point. And if you don’t, the point is…I actually see acting like in the first video on a regular basis. Seriously. Here’s a few tips from my perspective on things I notice from the actors who do it really well.
“To a man with only a hammer every problem looks like a nail.” In other words, you can’t approach every scene the same way. I worked with an actor who had a theater background. He was used to being on stage and always had to project himself and exaggerate his movements — because in theater, people sitting in the cheap seats need to be able to see your body language and hear what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. This actor had a hard time being “subtle”. In a scene where he was supposed to be speaking discretely to a hostage because the bad guys were just outside the door with machine guns, he would talk louder than the scene required. A love interest would tell him she’s leaving him and going back to her husband, instead of digesting what she said and replying back with his heart, he would project his voice louder than necessary and blurt the words on the page to her. No feelings. No real reaction to what she had just told him. Just spitting lines back at her in a monotone manner.
There’s a scene in American Gangster where Denzel Washington (playing gangster Frank Lucas) is making a deal with Russell Crowe (playing detective Richie Roberts). In the scene, Frank Lucas and Richie are going back and forth. Frank is facing more years than he can count in prison and Richie is offering him a deal to cop a plea. Frank is trying to intimidate Richie. Richie is letting Frank know he won’t be rattled. As they exchange lines, you will notice they push a coffee cup toward the other once they’ve finished making their statement, almost as if to say “You’re move.” Sometimes this type of thing is written in a good script for the actor to do. Other times you have great actors who’re creative enough to bring more value to a scene by adding little subtleties that make all the difference in the world. Check it out:
Listen to yourself.
Sounds like a no brainer, but when you’re actually doing a scene sometimes you can go on auto pilot. Listening to yourself either by watching a video of yourself or recording yourself on your cellphone with just the audio is a great way to catch flaws and evaluate yourself. Not knowing how you really sound is like waking up in the morning for a job interview, throwing on your clothes and just showing up without looking in the mirror to see that you haven’t combed your hair, brushed the lint off your suit or even that you should probably go to the dentist and have your teeth cleaned 🙂
Listen to the other actors in the scene.
Have you ever talked to someone about something where your conversation ends with you asking them a question only to have them reply back “….yep, that’s right.” In other words, when you were talking, at some point they tuned the hell out and just responded once they noticed you finished your story. That’s what it sounds like when two actors are just “trading lines” or just saying what’s on the page without actually listening to each other.
If actor A says to actor B:[blockquote align=”center”]I could kill you right now…[/blockquote]
…depending on how they said it and in what context it’s being used the actor could literally be threatening his life or that might be his way of saying he’s pissed off and disappointed at him. If you’re not listening to how the actor is saying it and why, then you just end up saying whatever’s on the page and the result to the audience is bad acting.
Pay attention to your surroundings.
Sometimes things happen that aren’t supposed to within your surroundings. I remember a scene I filmed outside where one actor was threatening another actor, but there was an airplane flying above us that was pretty loud. The actor being threatened started ad libbing and said something to the effect of “I can’t hear you…can you repeat that?!”. This wasn’t in the script, so the other actor played along and repeated himself, but did so forcefully and added something along the lines of “…did you get that? Because I ain’t saying it again.”
The actors understood the scene and the characters that they were playing so it allowed them to be a little loose with it. Rather than just say what was on the page and pretend like there was no airplane in the background while their voices got flooded out.
There’s plenty of other things you can do as an actor to be good at the craft, but these are the things I notice the most when an actor seems to miss the mark.