I’ve worked with numerous actors (I use the term ‘actor’ to mean both male and female) over the years as an actor myself and, more importantly, as a director. One thing that I find common in nearly every conversation I have or every project I’ve worked on is at some point I hear the phrase “I don’t think my character would do that.”
Of all the tools an actor has at their disposal the ‘what if’ or in the terms I learned, given circumstances, are potentially the most powerful. Why? Well, play along with me for a moment.
Hopefully you’re familiar with the story of the father lost at sea, both his sons swept overboard and he has to make a choice of which to save.
So let’s say this is a scene you’re shooting. (Meryl Streep doesn’t get to come along though.) So, we set up the all the equipment. Everything’s ready. You and I step up to the deck of the boat to begin rehearsing while the crew makes last minute preparations.
Keep in mind, this entire conversation is based on two concrete facts: My job as a director is to guide THE FILM. Your job as an actor is to honesty portray your CHARACTER. Keep that in mind because it’s important. You need to fight for your character and I fight for the film. Together that creates magic.
So we rehearse the scene and I feel like the stakes aren’t high enough, there’s something missing that doesn’t make this one of those few rare moments in each persons life where a crossroads is truly met.
So I turn to you and say, “So, which son do you choose?” (We’re tossing aside the script for a moment here but trust me, I’m very protective of my screenwriters – that’s a topic for another post.)
And you respond, “The younger son.”
“Why,” I reply.
“My older son, who is 26 has lived longer, he’s experience more opportunities, our bond is stronger and he would want me to save the younger, who is only 19.”
And I say, “Let’s choose the younger son.”
“My character wouldn’t do that.”
Stop here for a moment and understand, this actor has obviously done a good deal of work for the character. Though slightly superficial answers (and that’s only true because I’m trying to keep this essay short), they are still quite nice. As the director though, and I read people very well, I can tell the actor thinks he’s jazzed by this but it’s not nearly far enough. Remember, my job is to guide the film.
“Okay, I say. What if your younger son, in his freshman year at MIT, where he’s majoring in Theoretical Chemistry, has just potentially cracked the code on curing Leukemia. He’s just received a grant for his next three years in school and with his advisors they’ve predicted an positive outcome in less than five years.”
Now that sentence in and of itself can be about ANYTHING. My job is to spark the actor’s imagination, to get it fired up so that I see that light flare in the eyes, the body tenses just a little bit more (in a good way), the wheels begin to churn.
Then, they nod slightly and say, “That’s great. That would make it a much tougher choice, I mean how many lives might he potentially save?”
I nod back. “Sure, but what if your older son, who works for a major financial corporation in downtown Manhattan, was recently subpoenaed for insider trading and he’s admitted to you that he did it and he’s afraid of the consequences?”
The actor frowns a bit, “Well, crap, if I choose the younger son then my oldest might not have a chance to redeem himself after accepting the consequences of his actions. He’d die guilty and I’d never give him a chance to do better.”
NOW we’re starting to go somewhere scary, exhilarating and potentially provocative enough to punch this into orbit.
I want to say again this was all pretty quick and mostly surface level stuff; you’d definitely want to dig deeper to truly stoke those fires but the point is made. The coolest thing of all, this isn’t a talent. It’s a tool. Anyone can learn to do it if you practice it. Yes, if you’ve got talent the application is going to be far more powerful, but even if you don’t the results are astounding.
Imagination. Cultivate it.
As an actor, the next time you’re on set, before you respond, ask yourself, “What if…?”