How to act so you don't look like you're acting

Lauren and I have been studying acting for almost two years together. No one asks Lauren how serious she is about her acting career. Everyone asks me.

I wrote a post about it on Medium, but here, I just wanted to share my process for preparing for a single scene. Like many budding actors, I’ve originally vastly underestimated the amount work required to appear like you are acting at all.

Here’s what I do today.

What’s the story?

  • Is this story contemporary or historical?

  • What can I learn about this period? How does it differ from today? I spend a lot of time on Wikipedia.

  • Is there a subject matter that relates to my character, their profession or what they’ve experienced in the script? I’ll watch documentaries, and if possible, talk to people who have the same profession.

  • What kind of characters does the writer usually create? Is there a common theme?

What do I know about my character?

  • Is this character like me? What are our similarities? Opposites? Are there things that I would never do that my character does? Am I a ‘normal’ person? I think about my character a lot, every day.

  • If the character is very dissimilar from me, is there anyone in my life that I know who is like that? If not in my life, another similar character? At this point I may watch some TV shows and movies to inform my ideas.

  • Does my character remind me of an animal or a bird? Does it have any of their traits?

  • What’s my social status? Upper class, middle class, white collar, blue collar, white trash? What did/do my parents do? Where do I stand economically today?

  • Did I have a happy childhood? What are the things that I remember? Were my parents good to me? Did I have friends? Best friend?

  • Mini biography. How old am I? Do I feel that age? Where was I born? Did I move a lot? What did my family look like? Siblings? Was I the favorite child? What did I want to be when I grew up, and did I achieve this goal? What do I do now? Where do I live now, and do I like it?

  • What am I like as a person towards other people? Friendly, dismissive, shy?

  • What role does sex play in my life? Love it, embrace it, not interested, detest it?

  • What makes me smile, and what do I like doing? Favorites: music, film, books, TV, artists.

  • How do I feel about myself at this particular moment? Do I have any regrets? Do I feel like my life should’ve been different? Am I living the dream?

  • What am I scared of?

  • What am I afraid that people could find out about me?

What drives my character?

  • What is my pain, my problem at this very moment? What do I need?

  • What is my obstacle for solving this problem?

  • What is my relationship to the other character in the scene? Are they here to help me or hamper my efforts? Can I use them?

  • What happened just before the scene? How does that make me feel? What’s the first thing that I need?

  • Do I discover anything in the scene that I wasn’t aware of before?

And then I’m breaking it down into tiny little pieces:

  • What does each of the lines really mean to me? What am I actually saying and thinking? I write it down on the right hand side of each sentence.

  • What action is associated with each of the lines? Do I patronize or encourage or mock or shock? I’ve recently discovered ‘Actions. The Actors’ Thesaurus’. It’s a life saver. I annotate each sentence with an action on the left hand side.

What will this scene look like in a physical world?

  • Where are we, what time of day it is?

  • What’s my current state? Am I awake? Sleepy? Drunk? Ill?

  • What actually happens in this scene? Can I describe it in a single sentence?

  • What’s in front of me? My imaginary wall. Does it inform the scene? Can it help with the scene?

  • What are my props? What’s my costume? How can I use them to strengthen my actions? What activities can I perform? I love referring back to Seth Barrish’s ‘An Actor’s Companion’ at this stage.

  • Will I need to use any substitutions, endowments, sense memory, emotional memory, imagination? All the good stuff that Uta Hagen covers so beautifully in her ‘Respect for Acting’.

  • Am I having any inner thoughts or inner monologues in this scene?

The lines, where do I get to the lines?

  • I read the script twice, sometimes three times.

  • I read my scene one or twice a day.

  • I write down my lines as I remember them and then I try to memorize them.

  • I never say my lines out loud unless it’s a monologue or they need to be delivered in a specific accent.

  • And I never say them in front of a mirror.

And then, I forget it all and do the scene. Next character — Nic from ‘The Kids are Alright’ played by the mighty Annette Bening.