Adventures on the wrong side of the camera – Part 2 (script analysis for actors)

6 years ago 0
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Script Analysis for actors (‘What is said about your character’)

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been learning about script analysis for actors.  If you’ve not read the previous post in this series – shame on you – I’m taking some acting classes at ITV West, with the aim that a better understanding of acting will make me a better director. Each week I’m learning plenty that then feeds into my approach when working with actors. It’s also proving very useful when it comes to writing my own scripts. Whether you’re an actor, writer or director, there should be something here for you.


Right, back to it. A script for a professional actor doesn’t arrive in the same way, same context every time. If you go for an audition, you might get a paragraph or two of background info about your character and some dialogue to read. If you’re in a play or a film you might have some directors notes and the whole text. Or part of it. Or you might not get any notes at all… Or, or, or….

I had my first audition recently – for a low-budget British film. I got some notes on the character (background, basic relationships etc.) and a couple of pages of dialogue. I then went and sat in a corridor opposite a young woman with a video camera (a casting agent) who was playing my brother in the scene.

I’d like to think I didn’t get a call back because I was the wrong age.

In truth, I didn’t have a clue about approaching a script and breaking it down – not as an actor anyway, and especially not at such short notice. I’m still no expert, but I’ve learned quite a bit since.

We’ve all heard about actors who do enormous amounts of background research to really bring a character to life, or who put themselves physically through processes that imitate (or – if ‘imitate’ offends, ‘re-live’) a character’s experiences. This certainly has the potential to bring interesting depths and textures to a role, but first and foremost an actor needs to know how to get the most out the script itself (and any notes that may accompany it). With quality writing, the script will be full of potential – power-shifts, double-meanings and subtext, juicy dialogue and the space to bring thoughts to life.

There are a few simple ways to start wrangling useful character information out of the script. This time round, I’m focusing on what characters say about each other.


1. What does your character say about themselves?

‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’.

When a character describes themselves (their own tastes, memories, fears, loves, personality…) you’ve always got a foundation for an actor to build on. One useful exercise (taken from the ITV West workshops) is to try playing the character as if everything they say about themselves is absolutely true. Equally, you can spin this on its head and play the reverse. Both will bring to light interesting beats in the script – unexpected tensions and reversals of power.

But you don’t stop there. Characters are (or should be) like real people – unreliable, conceited, deceitful, insecure, egotistic.  If someone tells you ‘I’m the cleverest person you’ll ever meet’, do you believe them immediately? You ask, ‘why are they saying that? – what does it mean in this context?’. Are they trying to impress, to put a confident face on insecurity, to intimidate?

From this one simple approach you’ve already got interesting questions flowing about your character. The next stage is to add more depth to your understanding by bringing in other aspects of the script, such as :


2. What do other characters say about your character?

He was one of those guys that had that weird light around him. You just knew he wasn’t going to get so much as a scratch here’.

Plenty to go on here. Again, it’s useful to start from a perspective of ‘this is absolutely true’, assume the reverse, then bring a little in-depth contextual analysis into things – who is saying these things? Why? Where are they? Does it conflict with what the character says about themselves?

Playing it as true, the character who’s being described here is one that stands out among other men – he’s got an aura, a presence that marks him out as different. If everyone else is ducking for cover, this guy walks through the middle of things with his head up and not even a flinch…

Of course, my analysis here might be slightly skewed by the fact that I’ve seen the film (Apocalypse Now) and the character (Colonel Kilgore) – who definitely seems to be played as if everything said about him (by others, and himself) is 100% true. This is a man who really does love the smell of napalm in the morning.

It’s your job as an actor (guided, of course, by a collaborative director) to work on elements like these, navigating your way between the different possible outlooks to really bring the character to life.

For a director, these two pointers are a great way to get into some useful discussions with an actor. As a writer, this approach is helping me become more conscious of giving actors something to get their teeth into – simple things that will let them bring their own creativity into the process – rather than spoon-feeding everything. It’s always useful to question – what do my characters actually say about each other? Do they really say anything at all…???

More next time, where we’ll look at context, action, subtext…


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