You don’t have to give it anything.
Most of us come to acting through the stage. From school drama classes and reading out loud in lessons, we progress to performing in assemblies and plays. As we become more socially skilled we get better at telling jokes and stories to our friends to make them laugh or sympathise with us.
There’s one consistent element in all this: a live audience. We learn, little by little, to sense people’s reaction and to adapt what we do in response. When it comes to working on screen, many experienced stage actors are lost because this feedback loop doesn’t exist and because the working conditions of filming are so very different to the theatre.
The fundamentals of acting – living truthfully in imaginary circumstances – are the same regardless of the medium. But whereas theatre requires actors consciously to shape the audience's experience, the scrutiny of the camera means anything that hints at 'performance' will read as fake. As de Niro says: "Actors tend at times to feel they have to give it something. And you don’t have to give it anything.”
Letting go of what Stanislavski called 'the obligation to entertain', and trust that the camera can see your thoughts, can be harder than it sounds. And with drama schools being overwhelmingly geared towards the stage, most actors find themselves learning how to work in this unfamiliar medium in the intimidating environment of a professional set.
So the smart actor learns the ropes by repeatedly self-taping and watching it back. It’s true there are technical things you are required to do in order to make the shot work. But the most important thing to discover is how to stop ACTING. Let go of any desire to tell the audience what is happening for you. As long as you have a vivid inner world, and connect to the truth of the situation when the director calls ‘action’, they will see it.
Bill Britten - Screen Acting Coach and Tutor at the Actors Centre
Bill's book From Stage to Screen is on sale now, check it out here.