Being a great actor is about much more than just saying someone else’s line. You have to bring your own creativity to the parts you play to bring them to life for an audience. It’s up to you to make choices about how you take the words on the page and say them, the emotions you invest them with, and the physical actions you place around the words. All of these require creativity on the part of the actor.
In this sense, a script can be thought of like the blueprint for a building – it’s important, but it’s nothing without the people who actually turn it into something real and three-dimensional. Your job as an actor is to take that script blueprint and build a performance around it.
Without your own creativity this is impossible and will result in a weak, thin performance that never feels real or alive. Getting creative with your acting is about knowing how to stimulate and exploit your own creative instincts in order to turn a script into a fully-rounded performance. If you can do this, people will be fighting to work with you because you make their jobs easier. Get the hang of being creative as an actor and building an acting career will be much, much more achievable.
Always be prepared
It’s often said that “nothing is created in a vacuum” and this is just as true for acting as for any other field. Creativity needs to be fed and the way you do this is by carrying out extensive research. For actors, this usually takes two main forms.
First, you need to be able to place your characters in context. Say you are playing a police detective; if you can get into the mindset of a police detective, it will be easier to make believable choices about how to play that character. Getting into that mindset will usually involve research, such as reading books, watching documentaries and, if possible, talking to actual police detectives about their work, the problems they face, what it feels like to be them. The better you understand this, the more fuel you will have for your creativity when interpreting your character.
Secondly, you need to study the performances of other actors. If you need your character to be tough and intimidating, watch as many great actors as you can playing tough, intimidating characters. How do they hold themselves? How do they talk? What do they do with their hands? The idea here is not to simply plagiarise another actor’s performance, but to take elements of what various actors do, combine it with your own research and creative instincts and synthesise all of these to produce something new.
This is the essence of creativity. As the writer Mark Twain once wrote:
“All ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”
Actors are like magpies, taking ideas from everywhere they can and pulling them together to create a rich, layered whole. The more preparation you do, the easier this is.
Using your experiences
One of the core techniques of method acting is affective memory and it is an invaluable tool for informing an actor’s creative choices. Affective memory revolves around using your own past experiences to shape your performance, giving depth and veracity to your acting.
Using affective memory means recalling a past experience in as much detail as possible. By remembering the sights, sounds, smells and other sensory information associated with the memory you can retrigger the emotions you felt during that past experience. This can provide a valuable source of creative inspiration for your acting.
It’s important to understand that affective memory is not just about using memories that are closely related to what you are acting out. For example, in the film The Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken had to act out a game of Russian Roulette. Having no direct analogue in his own life to pull on, Walken identified that the feelings his character was experiencing were primarily abandonment, anger and loss. He then remembered an experience of being forced to go to summer camp as a child which had made him feel those same emotions. By recalling the summer camp experience, Walken was able to organically produce the relevant emotions even though he was acting out an entirely unfamiliar situation.
Being able to make this kind of connection between the experiences of your own life and those of your characters is an important part of being creative as an actor. It allows you to ground your choices in reality, meaning your creativity produces results which feel authentic and relatable.
Achieving a creative state
I’m sure we’ve all experienced the feeling of being more creative on some days than others. As professional actors, however, we are required to be creative on demand: when a director needs us to be, not when the mood takes us. Being able to get into a creative state when needed is a valuable skill and there are a number of exercises actors can use to do this.
One popular method is to take one of your favourite upbeat songs, put it on loud and then dance, sing, scream, jump up and down, clap your hands…basically just really let yourself go wild. The idea is that by letting go of your inhibitions and throwing yourself into the moment you loosen yourself up and energise yourself at the same time. By the end of the song, you should find that your creative juices are flowing and it’s much easier to start throwing out ideas.
When making creative choices as an actor, one of the most important things is to be willing to take risks. If you always stick to what seems safe, chances are you will end up producing a performance that feels safe – or, in other words, boring.
As Christian Bale puts it:
“It’s the actors who are prepared to make fools of themselves who are usually the ones who come to mean something to the audience.”
This is because you have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone, try things which might not work and see what happens. Trying new things is the only way to generate unexpected results and it is the unexpected which audiences find engaging.
Robert De Niro is a big believer in following your acting instincts. Speaking to Esquire, he said:
“I always tell actors when they go in for an audition: Don’t be afraid to do what your instincts tell you.”
As an actor, you need to learn to develop and trust your creative instincts and the only way you can do this is by taking risks. Finding out what doesn’t work can be just as valuable as finding out what does. The more risks you take, the quicker you can hone your creative sensibilities and be more confident about what will work in future.
And remember, the rehearsal process is all about finding what works, you don’t need to get it right every time. Fear of embarrassing yourself with a creative choice that doesn’t work is absolutely crippling for an actor. You need to get over it, learn to take risks and that way you can create performances that surprise and energise your co-stars and the audience.
Most great actors use improvisation to some extent. In fact, many of the most famous scenes from top films were the result of improvisation. Improvising allows you to try out different ideas and explore different aspects of your characters. Those improvisations may not end up being used in the final performance, but they can play an important role in informing the way you play your characters.
The more you practice improvising, the more comfortable you will be trying out different ideas. Coming up with ideas is also like any other skill, the more you practice it the better you get. Improv is a great way to practice idea generation and allows you to quickly get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
Not every director is a fan of improv, however, so you need to find out how comfortable they are with the technique before trying it out. Even if your director is not a fan of improvisation, you can still use it privately as an exercise to develop your character and creative instincts, so it is well worth getting to grips with some basic improvisation techniques.
Unless you are writing, directing and starring in your own one-person shows, you are going to have to work with other people as an actor. Being able to sync up your creativity with that of writers, directors and other actors is a really important skill which makes you much more attractive to work with.
According to Robert De Niro, the key is knowing how to listen:
“As an actor, it is important to be a good listener. You need to listen to what others have to say, the director, the producer, your co-actor… everyone. I try to listen to everyone and take their inputs on what I have to do.”
It is really important when starting any new acting project to really take in what the writer and director are trying to achieve. Understand their goals and you can then use your initiative to guide your creativity and help achieve those goals.
When you try things and offer suggestions, be open to feedback from your creative team and your fellow actors. It’s important to realise that it’s not all about what you think works for your character, but also what fits with what the other actors are doing and the broader themes and motifs of the project.
By listening to others, you can make sure your creative instincts are pulling in the same direction as everyone else. This produces cohesive productions and ensures you are someone people will want to work with again and again.
Learn how to be a more creative actor
When it comes to getting creative as an actor, method acting is unbeatable. Rather than just teaching you how to say other people’s lines, it gives you the tools to access and use your own creative instincts to create more real, engaging and compelling performances.
The Brian Timoney Actors’ Studio provides aspiring professional actors with world-leading method acting tuition in our 1-Year Ultimate Acting Programme. This course offers comprehensive and in-depth training in all aspects of method acting, turning you into a creative acting powerhouse.
We also have a strong focus on professional skills, teaching you about the business side of acting. This means you leave our course with all the knowledge you need to take your new-found acting prowess and start getting paid work right away.
If you are serious about becoming a professional actor, we can help make that happen. To find out more, including dates for our next round of auditions, please get in touch.