The steps you take in the first stages of your acting career will have a huge impact on your entire acting future. One of the most important decisions you can make when embarking on your journey to becoming a professional performer is whether or not to go directly into movie acting.
Stage, television and movie acting will all require you to learn different techniques and adapt to the unique styles of each medium. From voice modulation and breathing techniques to learning how to work with cameras as opposed to audiences, there are several major differences in these different forms of acting.
The first thing to remember is that there are around 38,000 working actors in the UK. However on average, only one in 50 makes more than £20,000 per year. This is why it is so vital that you know exactly what part of the industry you want to join and that you hone and perfect the skills specific to your acting style.
Successful actors are few and far between because star quality is hard to come by. When an actor has star quality, audiences, directors and casting directors know it. If you do decide to go straight into movie acting, then you will need to know exactly how to work with cameras, set lighting and, most importantly, have the skill-set and ‘star quality’ to engage movie audiences, hold their attention and make them believe in the emotions you portray on screen.
What Makes Movie Acting Different?
If you were to start out by acting in theatre or on television, you would learn to develop your character through the rehearsal process. However, according to actor and director, Ben Miller, when acting in a film role, you must spend the entire process becoming your character. In an interview with The Guardian, Ben Miller describes the movie acting process as one in which you;
“live and breathe the character”.
He also says that filming a movie creates an atmosphere which makes this as easy to do as possible.
Movie actors are often required to prepare for a role more thoroughly than actors preparing for smaller roles. This means that as well as reading scripts and memorising lines, you will have to look at your character in-depth and really try to work out the basis of their behaviour and create a fully rounded personality. For example, if you were to play a character from history, you would start by reading up about that person and learn about them in as much detail as possible. If you were cast in the role of an evil antagonist, you might want to think about why this person behaves the way they do- no matter how unsympathetic they might seem at first glance. If you don’t put this sort of research into your role, you might find that the final result ends up quite flat and not believable to the audiences watching the movie.
In his 1990 book, Acting in Film: An Actor’s Take on Moviemaking, the iconic British movie star Michael Caine goes into great detail about the aspects of movie acting that make it different to other styles of performance. He explains how the technology used in film, which allows viewers to see an actor’s face in extreme close-up and hear even the slightest sounds they make, means that movie acting can be portrayed much more subtly. He describes how it is much more truthful and potent for a big screen actor to downplay their emotions.
Michael Caine isn’t the only person to note the difference sort of acting that movie roles requires. In the 1952 thesis; Theory of the Film, Bela Balazs attribrutes the power of movie acting to the close up. He says that the close up causes a subtle style of performance, the likes of which had not been seen before in theatre acting. Balasz calls this the ‘polyphonic play of features’. Similarly, Walter Benjamin also points out the uniqueness of movie acting in his famous 1936 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin believes that the difference lies in the fact that the performance in a movie is not happening live. This means that the actor cannot adjust their performance to suit the audience.
Both of these are examples of very early acting theory, which goes to show that even in the earliest days of cinema, experts were making note of the difference in stage and screen acting- particularly the fact that the technology, production and editing techniques used in film production play a big part in the way stars act.
The Art of Movie Acting
If you decide to dive straight into movie acting, there are a few things you need to know first. For example, you will film scenes individually and separately from the other actors. This means that you won’t get a chance to watch the entire story unfold like you would in a play. Because of this, some actors may need help from the director to see how their character fits within the wider story as a whole. Taking the time to do this can make a big difference to your performance, even if you only have a small part.
Movie acting is all about ‘hitting the mark’. Film sets are organised very carefully. The lights, cameras and all objects in the scene will be positioned very precisely. This means your movements will be carefully constricted. You will need to stand and move in exactly the way that the director tells you to. Usually, the floor of a movie set will be marked with tape to show actors where to go. This is where the term ‘hitting your mark’ originates.
Movie actors also need to know how to work with cameras. Every time you act in a film scene you should be aware of the type of shot a director wants. A few kinds of shots you’ll work with include extreme close ups, close ups, long shots, over-the-shoulder shots, high angle shots and dolly zooms.
Movie Acting – Should You Go Straight Into It Or Not?
Every person wants to start their career as they mean to go on, and with an acting career it’s no different. However, the question of whether or not to go straight into movie acting is one that you will need to think about. The movie industry is a sector that the majority of actors dream of being in, due to the fame, glamour and the fact that they expect the pay to be significantly higher. However, in reality, if you go straight into movie acting you should be prepared for smaller parts and low paying roles. In the early stages of your career you will need to focus on building up experience by accepting smaller parts. This might seem disheartening at first if you have dreamt your whole life of being a film star, but it will make you a better-rounded performer and build a foundation for your career in the long term.
Some new actors believe that they have to get stage acting experience before they are able to make the switch to performing on the big screen – but this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. You will need to work your way up through the ranks of the film industry before ever landing a larger role, but it is very possible to begin your career in movies. If you were to pursue a career in film after working on stage for some time, you would be close to starting all over again from scratch. This is because the two mediums are so very different- as are the skills they respectively require.
Many actors prefer to accept as many acting jobs as possible, on stage or on screen, in the early stages of their career, while others prefer to stick steadfastly to their chosen forum. To decide what’s right for you, you will need to spend some time working out which areas of acting excite you most and which you excel in. You might want to speak to your agent or acting coach about this. Some questions that frequently pop up about whether or not it’s best to go straight into movie acting include:
- What type of training are you going to undertake?
- How much do you understand about the entertainment business and how it works?
- How will you go about finding auditions and applying for them?
- Which kind of acting appeals to you most- film, theatre, television etc?
When you’ve really researched these questions, you can make an informed decision about which acting route is right for you. You will then be able to create serious goals for yourself.
Start Your Acting Career
Whether or not you go straight into movie acting is a decision that only you can make and the decision will be totally personal to you. Whichever you decide, it is important to remember that there is no easy route or fast track to becoming a successful star.
When you apply to join one of Brian Timoney’s acting courses, such as the Ultimate Acting Programme or the Introduction to Method Acting Bootcamp will provide you with enough tools and insider information to get your career off to the best possible start.
Brian will teach you not just about the techniques of method acting, and how to draw upon them to enhance your performance, but he’ll also teach you about the business of acting too. This is an absolutely fundamental aspect for any aspiring actor who is serious about making it in this highly competitive industry – particularly when it comes to movie acting.
Today marks the first anniversary of the tragic and premature death from a drug overdose of master of the Method, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
If it is true, as Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker, that:
“Work that’s only good is limited to its technique; when it’s great, a work is virtually inseparable from the artist’s life because it gives the sense of being the product of a whole life and being the absolute and total focus of that life at the time of its creation.”
Then Hoffman was a true great. He clearly summoned memory and experience into his roles with spine-tingling authenticity. He was a character actor who eschewed the vanities of the leading man in favour of authentic and challenging parts. The humanity with which he portrayed literary icons, oddballs or ‘belligerent assholes‘, ‘snivelling wretches, insufferable prigs, braggarts and outright bullies’ was transformative.
“he could nail a part in one punch, summoning the richness of an entire life in the smallest gesture.”
Of his 63 screen credits, we have chosen his five most powerful performances:
Freddie Miles, The Talented Mr Ripley (1999)
As pompous Freddie Miles in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley, Hoffman employed the full bluntness of his physical instrument to become the unwelcome intruder to Matt Damon’s schemes. His entrance to the film is one of the great arrivals in cinematic history – the way he leapt from his Alpha Romeo, kissed Jude Law’s character and threw back a glass of wine set the bar for the rest of the film. In a role that Meryl Streep described as ‘fearless’, Hoffman’s technical ease and nuance made even the most cruel and awful character fascinating and compelling.
Truman Capote, Capote (2005)
“Hoffman relinquished himself to his characters”
In the role that won him his Best Actor Academy Award, Hoffman was exemplary as author Truman Capote during his In Cold Blood era. His physical fit was not a natural choice for the part, but true to his method style, he transformed himself to inhabit the wry and high-pitched wit of the author in body and voice.
Caden Cotard, Synedoche, New York (2008)
Philip Seymour Hoffman dominated Synedoche, New York with what Ryan Gilbey described as his “towering accomplishment.” Hoffman plays a theatre director who attempts to stage a detailed version of his own life in a warehouse in New York. In the way that a model of reality eventually becomes reality in the film, many have found a metaphor for the blurred lines between the tragedies of Hoffman’s life and his obsessively method approach to acting.
Lancaster Todd, The Master (2012)
Described by Richard Brody as ‘one of the greatest onscreen performances that anyone ever gave’, Hoffman’s work in The Master marked the climactic end of a long-term collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. They worked together a total of six times since their first collaboration on Punch Drunk Love in 1996, on all but one of Anderson’s films, and enjoyed an extremely creative and fruitful partnership. Anderson recognised Hoffman’s talent from the off, commenting that when they first worked together:
“Phil maybe had a long list of not-so-great movies [at that point] but he was always the best thing in them.”
In The Master, Hoffman plays Lancaster Todd, the charismatic leader of scientology-like cult The Cause. The character himself is a self-conscious and self-transforming performer, which allowed Hoffman to use his unique theatrical style to the full. The role was made for a method performer like him.
“who he is and the way he is, the internal life of the guy, is something I had to think a lot about by myself. It’s not that I wanted to avoid reference points; it’s just the way I tend to do things.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, talking to Little White Lies about Lancaster Todd
Günther Bachmann, A Most Wanted Man (2014)
His Director on his last film A Most Wanted Man, Anton Corbijn, told the Guardian that Hoffman has Brando-like quality to his work, and that:
“He is better than you think you are going to be able to see. He becomes the character so totally that he inhabits the person, with every waking movement, with everything.”
These are but five of many unforgettable performances in a career dedicated to creating believable characters with authenticity and flair. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a master of the method, both on stage and on Broadway, inhabiting every character he played with a haunting truth. Many have tried to find answers to the questions surrounding his premature death in his roles. We would just like to pay tribute to a great method actor who is a great loss to the craft.
Which was your favourite performance?
Happy New Year!
We hope that you all had a festive and relaxing Christmas, and are raring to go for 2015!
The arrival of January can mean only one thing for the cream of the acting crop – awards season! With the Golden Globes just around the corner (11th January) and the Screen Actors Guild Awards (25th January), BAFTAs (8th February) and Oscars (February 22nd) following soon after, we thought we would share with you our picks for the top acting awards this year.
Method actors have won 80% of Best Actor Oscars since the year 2000. Could we see another master of the method prevail this year?
Battle of the Brits – Awards Season 2015
In 2012, Ian McKellen declared that “there will be no more British acting greats.” The healthy British contingent in this year’s awards fields suggests otherwise. We are very proud to see the acting categories both at home and across the pond well populated with some great British acting talent.
The Best Actor award at all three major ceremonies could turn into a battle of the Brits, with Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch, Timothy Spall and David Oyelowo all likely to be nominated for their unforgettable performances as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, JMW Turner in Mr Turner and Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, respectively. Not to mention young British talent Jack O’Connell’s breakthrough performances this year in Unbroken and ’71.
This could be the first time that Brit actors have dominated the Best Actor Oscar field.
Our Pick: On a par with Daniel Day-Lewis’s transformation as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, Eddie Redmayne’s very method approach to portraying Stephen Hawking meant that he was able to inhabit the physicality and character of a well-known figure with complete authenticity. He has already taken home the Golden Globe & SAG Awards, he is our tip to sweep the board!
“Should Redmayne prevail on the night, no one will be surprised except the man himself”
There could be a strong British showing in the Best Actress field, too. Felicity Jones’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking’s wife, Jane, in The Theory of Everything has made people sit up and take notice and marks the pinnacle of a steady rise from child-star. Backstage wrote that her meticulous preparation facilitated a performance that “captures both a raw vulnerability and a reticent but indelible strength.”
There is also a lot of buzz around Rosamund Pike’s career-catapulting role in Gone Girl. Keira Knightley’s top form opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game gives her a strong chance of joining the field this season, too. Veteran of awards success Dame Helen Mirren and newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw are outsiders with their films The Hundred-Foot Journey and Belle.
Our Pick: If it’s going to be a British actress that takes away the big prizes, we would put our money on Rosamund Pike for “Gone Girl”. All odds at the moment, though, are on Julianne Moore to steal the show, considering the deafening awards buzz around her role as a renowned linguistics professor struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.”
What have been your memorable acting performances of 2014? Who should be acknowledge in Awards Season 2015? Is there a lesser-known actor that you deem worthy of an award?
UPDATE Monday 9th January 2015:
BAFTA AWARDS 2015 Winners (2.8.2015): The acting nods were handed out as most of us expected, with our Brit pick Eddie Redmayne triumphing again in the Best Actor category, and Julianne Moore (Still Alice), J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) and Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) taking home the other three top prizes. Emerging British talent Jack O’Connell was honoured by the public with the the EE Rising Star Award. Only the Oscars to go now. Will Eddie Redmayne complete the set?
SAG AWARDS 2015 Winners: Brit Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) became the favourite for an Oscar by taking home the award for Best Actor in a leading role. In an emotional acceptance speech, he paid tribute to his fellow nominees, as well as overlooked British actors David Oyelowo and Timothy Spall. He dedicated the award to sufferers of ALS and those that helped him find truth in his performance as Stephen Hawking. Eddie is on the march! British period drama Downton Abbey proved its acting clout across the pond by taking home the award for best ensemble cast in a television drama.
OSCARS 2015 Nominations (1.15.2015): Some surprises as usual, but a very strong British showing in the Oscars nominations! Felicity Jones and Rosamund Pike both secured nominations for Best Actress for their performances in The Theory of Everything and Gone Girl, respectively. They go head-to-head with powerful method actors Julianne Moore (Still Alice) and Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night). Keira Knightley was nominated for her role in The Imitation Game in the Best Supporting Actress category. It wasn’t surprising to see Golden Globe winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) nominated in the Best Actor category, and it looks like only Michael Keaton (Birdman) stands in the way of him securing the double. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) joins him, but unfortunately Brits David Oyelowo (Selma) and Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner) were once again overlooked in a very competitive field. For the full list of nominations, click here.
GOLDEN GLOBES 2015 Winners (1.11.2015): We were delighted to see Eddie Redmayne take home the Best Actor in a Drama at the Golden Globes last night for his role in Theory of Everything. Well deserved! It was also great to see British Actresses Joanne Froggatt and Ruth Wilson have their great work in television recognised across the pond. For a full list of winners, click here.
EE BAFTA AWARDS 2015 Nominations (1.9.2015): There were a few surprises here, as British actors Timothy Spall (Mr Turner) and David Oyelowo (Selma) were both snubbed on home turf in the major acting categories, while Ralph Fiennes (Grand Budapest Hotel) bagged an unexpected Best Actor nomination. Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything) and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) join him, as expected, and Felicity Jones (Theory of Everything) and Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) secured another nomination each in the Best Actress field. There is a strong British presence in the Best Supporting Actress field, too, with Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game) and Imelda Staunton (Pride) both nominated. Emerging British talents Jack O’Connell (Unbroken, ’71) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) are in the running for the EE Rising Star award, voted for by the public. For a full list of the nominations, click here.
“At times I thought he was me”
When talking about his portrayal of renowned scientist Stephen Hawking in the upcoming Oscar contender The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne encapsulates the essence of a tried and tested method acting technique – saturation.
While he had some documentary evidence and a short audience with Hawking himself to work with, the task of characterising our most famous scientist’s steady physical transformation and filling in the blanks with authenticity fell to Eddie Redmayne.
His total immersion in the character allowed him to use his unconscious to leave himself behind and became Stephen Hawking. Saturation is at the heart of his transformative and brilliant performance, and is why he is being tipped for the Best Actor Oscar in February.
“What you are looking to do is immerse yourself in the role and feed your unconscious with as much information, detail and creativity as possible, so that the mind can fantasise and make imaginary leaps when you are performing.”
“Imaginary leaps” can be the difference between a good performance and a great one. If you can make these leaps, you’ll find that you can deliver a performance that is authentic, believable and unconscious.
Russian theatre director Yevgeny Vakhtangov was a great advocate for allowing the unconscious to do most of the hard work. He wrote that if you can feel the role, dream and fantasise about it, an authentic performance will appear on stage unconsciously.
It is important to allow your unconscious to play with the development of a character. You can saturate yourself in character in a number of ways.
Start by collecting paintings or photographs of what you think your character looks like, where they live, clothing you think they would wear, objects they would own. Obviously, this was easier for Eddie Redmayne, as he was able to meet the man he was playing, and watch videos and news reports. He still had to imagine how Hawking would have been prior to his decline to MND, though.
Next, imagine and listen to what music you think they would like, wear the perfume they wear, spend a day as your character, visiting places they would like, meeting people that work in their occupation. All of these things will help your unconscious assimilate with the character, and when you come to performing, it will be less like you are pretending, rather that you are living the role.
What other ways can you think of to saturate yourself with your character?
The Theory of Everything will be released in UK cinemas on New Year’s Day.
“Actors should…wear a costume, adjust the volume of their voice, achieve physical transformation into the character they portray, allocate their muscular energy efficiently, and model themselves into anything in gesture, voice or musical speech.”
Movement and, unlike our mime artist friend, voice, are important parts of an actor’s training. The body and voice are two parts of the instrument that can be harnessed effectively using tried and tested method acting techniques.
“How you move your body as an actor is one of the most important aspects of the whole job. I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy over the years to exploring all of the tools available to me, whether it’s my voice or body.”
Actor Karl Urban
Does your body express your dramatic intention?
“When you free the body and it starts to work in conjunction with the mind, your whole instrument becomes extremely powerful.”
We, as actors, place far too much emphasis on what is being said, and not what the body is doing in a scene. I firmly believe that effective control and expression of the body is fundamental to outstanding acting.
“The body can tell a story without any dialogue at all.”
The mind and the body are inextricably linked, and many believe that it is the mind that leads the body. Everything that has ever happened to you, your history, all of your experiences, emotions and traumas are stored in the bones, muscles and cells of your body. This affects the way you walk, move, your posture and your gestures.
To authentically play a character, therefore, you must change your physicality by identifying your physical habits and neutralising them. In my studio, I ask my students to observe each other as they walk across a room, and comment on their physical traits.
“Tension closes the instrument down”
To find character, and accurately portray them, you must find their history. Getting in tune with the body, and freeing your instrument allows you to find that history, and authentically portray it.
“An actor’s voice should be a versatile and imaginative instrument capable of underpinning any performance”
Do you realise that you probably only use 10% of your vocal range and quality on a daily basis? To progress as an actor, you need to learn to expand your voice beyond day-to-day use.
Many aspiring actors aren’t interested in stagecraft. Most are focused entirely on the screen – big or small. But most, if not all outstanding screen actors of the day started on stage, and that is where they learnt to harness their voice. Your acting will ultimately suffer if you bypass an apprenticeship on the stage.
Having said that, voice work is not just about projection. It is about learning to express yourself through your voice.
“Can you say the word ‘love’ and fill it with the sound of love? Can you say the word ‘angry’ and fill it with rage?”
Once again, you must learn to ‘free’ your voice. Think of it like an instrument, with a variety of sounds and notes, and try to make music!
Want to know more about using your body and voice in your acting? Why not pick up one of my teaching materials?
“It’s your own self-serving stuff that gets in the way. You get out of the way of yourself to be able to express what it really is. It’s all about getting back to being free of yourself.”
Where a painter has a paintbrush, a violinist has a violin, you, as an actor, have yourself – your instrument.
Do you remember how free you were as a child? You would let your body, mind and mouth run free without concern for how you were perceived, without reserve or inhibition. Your body, your instrument, was free.
Locking It Up
Children have no problem expressing themselves. They have no trouble letting you know how they feel or using their imagination, and they do both with enviable gusto.
At some point in our lives, as we make the transition from child to teenager, teenager to adult, we lose this precious ability. First, our parents start to tell us not to be ‘silly’, school-friends and peers mock us for believing in Santa Claus, and self-consciousness sets in with a vengeance.
Unwittingly, we start to impose shackles on our acting instrument. Freeing that instrument when you reach adulthood and embark on an acting career is one of the greatest challenges for any aspiring actor. An actor must go through a reconditioning process, to rekindle their imagination and learn how to express a full spectrum of emotions all over again.
It may seem like a contradiction, but before you can master your instrument, you must first set it free. Method acting techniques are your best tools.
Freeing Your Instrument
“You must allow yourself to feel free and express ALL the time. If you don’t, your bad habits will run riot and destroy your performance when you go on stage or set.”
To start the reconditioning process, you must ask yourself 3 questions on a daily basis:
- How do I feel right now?
- How am I expressing myself?
- Could I express myself more?
Just as few of us use the full breathing capacity of our lungs, most of us use only a fraction of our expressive ability. Asking yourself these questions, and adopting a more conscious approach to self expression will help your reach the outer edges of your expressive spectrum. It’s all about learning to express yourself to the full in a variety of situations.
Scream, shout, cry, laugh, punch, kick – Let it out!
As you begin to express yourself to the full, you will begin to realise how much you have suppressed, and you’ll probably feel happier, too.
There are a series of method acting exercises that can help you free your instrument even further. Some of these have been covered in my blog, but if you would like to read more about freeing your instrument, or any other aspect of training in method acting, pick up a copy of my new book, the first ultimate guide to method acting.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Richard Brody asked whether method acting is destroying actors, citing the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Shia LeBeouf (pictured) as examples.
Brody argued that the act of linking experiences and emotions from our own lives with those of a character, and playing a character by imagining a filled-out life and becoming the part “asks too much of performers”.
We wanted to address this issue with our readers and students, and ask; is the depth and authenticity of Strasberg’s school of method acting too much for actors?
The Method in Extremes
The Method has produced some of the greatest performances on stage and screen living memory. The act of delving into our deepest emotions of a character, to live and breathe their backstory and persona, and feel what they feel has produced authentic, powerful and hard-hitting performances.
80% of Best Actor Oscars have been awarded to method actors.
Method acting has become defined, therefore, by the high profile, well-publicised interpretations of some Hollywood actors.
We are familiar with how Adrien Brody prepared for The Pianist by practicing piano for four hours a day, how Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci lived and trained together for three months in the lead up to Raging Bull or Daniel Day Lewis’s unique approach to role preparation.
In the premature deaths of celebrated method actors like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger, and the bizarre or unusual behaviour in public and private of the likes of Shia LeBeouf and Joaquin Phoenix, critics have found reason to criticise the Method. They have said that excavating painful memories or experiences from their past to fill out a character is damaging to actors, and had a part to play in their downfalls.
“Heath refused to talk to anyone out of character. If you tried to communicate with him normally instead of The Joker, he would just ignore you”
Becoming The Part
“Brando’s performances revolutionized American acting precisely because he didn’t seem to be “performing”, in the sense that he wasn’t putting something on, as much as being”
The Method is a set of tools, which accomplished actors must learn to master. It allows you to, for a brief time, become the character. As long as you can compartmentalise, and affectively harness the tools of the Method, there is clear value in disappearing into a role. There is a danger, though, in taking it to extremes.
If you would like to know more about Method acting, why not read my book? It is the first step-by-step guide to method acting.
“An actor’s job is to “feel on cue.””
Every great actor uses their own lives to the full, and constantly exercises their emotional muscles.
One of the most daunting and challenging parts of being an actor is portraying extreme emotions on cue. In auditions, on stage and on screen we are called upon to cry for imaginary relatives, grieve the breakdown of imaginary relationships or get angry at imaginary betrayals.
Most of us use emotional recall from our own lives to achieve as close as possible to how our character might behave. We recollect in our minds heartbreaks, losses or betrayals in our own past lives, and try to conjure the emotions in our performances.
Using memories in this way does not always produce authentic performances, though. It is very difficult to recreate a memory. Effective and believable emotional recall in performance is only achieved through one of the core elements of the Method, Sense Memory.
What is Sense Memory?
“Everything we perceive, interpret, and ultimately feel in life is filtered through our five senses”
Everything we experience in our day to day lives – sounds, smells, feelings, sensations, tastes – is stored in our subconscious using sense memory. These dormant sensual memories, when exercised effectively by the Method actor, can act as triggers to effectively recall emotions.
Sense memory can help to release certain emotions that are locked away. It is the act of revisiting a single image or sense memory to unlock the emotions that surrounded it.
For example – imagine your character is holding vigil at the bedside of a dying relative. You might want to use your own experiences of hospitals, death and grief to inform your performance. Rather than trying to conjure directly the emotional journey that you went on, try to focus on a single sense memory – a ticking clock in the hospital for example, or the sound of the life support machine.
Or maybe your character is engaged in a bitter argument with their partner over a betrayal. Have you ever has a similar argument? What do you remember of the scene? A television in the background? The smell of a meal cooking? A particular song?
Sense memory is at the core of acting. If you can master it, you will be able to create much more authentic, wide and powerful performances. Practice conjuring emotions through sense memory, you will be surprised by the results!
It is important to relax mentally and physically before starting any sense memory exercise. You must clear the space necessary for a response to a sense memory before you begin with the exercise.
Start with a simple sense memory, and with each exercise build on the complexity until you have a spectrum of emotions in the bank. Soon, it will become second nature to use sense memory in your acting.
Sense memory, when mastered, is one of the most powerful tools in the method actor’s arsenal.
“films don’t begin only when the camera starts rolling”
Most headlines you read about Daniel Day-Lewis, will talk about the “madness” of his method. Is it “madness” or a unique and brilliant brand of method acting that has brought his widespread and universal acclaim?
Despite only having made a dozen films in his career, he remains the only actor ever to win 3 Best Actor Academy Awards. There may be madness in his method, but it sure is working for him!
Daniel Day Lewis’s Unique Method
Day Lewis famously spent the entire shoot of Oscar-winning My Left Foot (1989) in a wheelchair to get into character as cerebral palsy-sufferer Christy Brown. For Last Of The Mohicans (1992), he lived in the woods and learned how to track, kill and skin wild animals. To prepare for In the Name Of The Father (1993), in which he played Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, he had himself incarcerated over night and mistreated by the guards. For The Unbearable Likeness Of Being (1988)he took it upon himself to learn Czech, despite the script being in English.
The stories of Daniel Day Lewis’ unique method are well known and very well documented. The man only makes a film every couple of years, and so the story of his preparation for a role is often as talked about as the role itself!
He shuns the spotlight, and is visibly uncomfortable discussing his roles. His reclusiveness creates a level of mystique and intrigue around his process.
“You move very quickly from self-consciousness to a place where you are no longer aware of the decisions you are making, of the life that is taking shape. And that’s how it has to be, because self-consciousness is death in front of the camera.”
While Day Lewis’s method acting has earned him multiple gongs, his real achievement is creating characters that are completely believable and authentic. Daniel Day Lewis doesn’t play the character. He is the character.
“He believes so fervently that he is the character he is playing that audiences are swept along with him.”
In Lincoln (2012)for example, Day-Lewis created a voice and persona for a real historical figure. Given that Abraham Lincoln died in 1865, there are no audio or video recordings of the Civil War-era President. Day-Lewis employed the best of his method techniques to get inside the head of a character he knew little about, to create the voice and character was saw on the screen.
The result won him his third Best Actor Oscar.
While the method that we teach is less about extreme measures, and more effective techniques to channel the character you are playing, Daniel Day Lewis is certainly a fine example of the proven success of the method.
When someone watches you, you change.
Research conducted in the personal training industry has discovered that when someone is simply watched while they work out, they greatly increase their efforts.
This is bad news for actors.
How to Avoid ‘Overacting’
I say ‘bad news’ because an unjustified increase in effort leads an actor to FORCE their performance.
This is also called overacting. It doesn’t have to be real ham acting to be considered ‘overacting’. It can simply mean giving too much energy to the task in hand.
In The Method, we have a special exercise to combat this.
It’s called ‘A Private Moment’. In this exercise the actor carries out an activity he/she normally does in private but would stop doing if someone walked into the room.
This activity can vary depending on your personality and interests. It could be writing a letter, dancing to music, reading a book or even…playing an instrument.
The idea is that the actor does something they do in private in exactly the same way – but this time they will be watched.
Recently, my one-year Ultimate Acting Students were doing this exercise and one of my student’s (Victoria) private moment was playing the piano.
Now, you may think, ‘No big deal.’
Well, as you have to bring in the objects that you use in the private moment, this was a big deal.
She actually brought a piano into the studio.
Victoria carrying out her piano private moment.
Now, that is dedication for you!
I’m not entirely surprised as I handpick and audition heavily to find the right students for my method acting course and they are all dedicated and committed individuals.
The reason we use this exercise is to develop stage presence. Stage presence is not something that you are born with; it’s something you develop. Sure, some actors have a natural inclination towards it, but most have to work on it. Many actors are not even aware that you can develop stage presence through such exercises.
Part of developing stage presence is allowing the actor to let go of the outcome; they need to stop worrying what the audience may be thinking about them during their performance. If the actor starts to concentrate on how their performance is coming across, he/she will start to overdo it. If they push and force they will deliver a distorted performance. This happens a lot in professional sport. Athletes are trained to relax, to reduce anxiety in order to achieve peak performance.
Another aspect of achieving stage presence is relaxation. When an actor is tense, he/she can’t think or feel properly and will often overcompensate by forcing the performance.
In order to avoid this, you need to carry out basic relaxation, which allows you to mentally and physically relax in order to carry out the tasks in hand.
Here is a short impromptu video we shot at the studio after completing a Private Moment session.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can’t develop stage presence. Work hard at these exercises and you will improve.