The magic act
It really isn’t that surprising that so many viewers tend to see a fantastic screen performance as something akin to magic.
This viewpoint catapults actors to a different level, when in reality, these performances are the result of intense preparation and coaching.
Just take a look at any of the truly great movie performances in the history of film. Behind every one of them is a hard-working actor and a team that gave them the tools they needed to succeed.
It’s about time we demystified what it takes for an actor to turn in a career-changing performance, whether in front of film cameras or on the stage.
Let’s talk about acting preparation techniques that young and experienced actors alike can use to inhabit their character more fully.
Our expert take on the subject comes from Elyssia Koulouris. Koulouris is a professional actor originally from Australia. She began acting at the age of 9 and has since appeared in numerous productions both on stage and on camera.
Born in Australia, Koulouris has taken many roles that highlight the intersection of cultural background and personal identity. Most recently, she served as the lead in the TV series Death Squad, which will be released in 2020.
Getting the part
Of course, preparation really starts when you secure a role, and that almost always means you’ll have to audition.
Auditions have been the subject of so many different guides, books, and acting classes through the years, and for good reason. It’s impossible to predict exactly what the casting director and the director are looking for, so how can anyone prepare?
Koulouris takes an intelligent approach: focusing on her own reading of the character and making that interpretation as genuine as possible.
“My main priorities while preparing for an audition are understanding the character’s motivations in the scene, their relationship with other characters, and to just be as honest and truthful as I possibly can. I also like to just be myself and play around with my interpretation of the character.”
Even if your interpretation of the character doesn’t align with the director’s original vision, there’s no harm in bringing your own ideas to the table. Remember, filmmaking is a collaborative art form. A good director can find ways to incorporate ideas that he or she didn’t originally have.
When you’re just starting out, it can feel like actors are just there to follow instructions, but all the best actors inform their characters and contribute to the creative process.
You’ve got the part, now what?
Once you’ve secured a part, it will be up to you to prepare for the part and assemble the character from whatever threads you’ve been given.
There’s a lot of variation here. Depending on the production and who’s in charge, you could have several months to prepare. Conversely, you may only have a few days. It all depends on the shooting schedule, the other actors involved, and how late in the process you were cast.
Unless it’s a big Hollywood production, you’ll have to take responsibility for your own prep.
Koulouris explained that, personally, she enjoys having very little time to prepare. For her, it becomes a much more collaborative experience.
“It’s usually dependant on the type of production. However, in my experience, I usually have limited time to prepare. This is an excellent challenge since it forces me to think on my feet and gives me the freedom to play around and discover my character’s motivations.”
That exploration can take place on set, with the help of the director, or it can happen long before the cameras roll. Don’t be afraid to spend some time with your character. Fill in the blank spaces with your own ideas.
Getting into character
Now we’re into the nitty-gritty of character preparation. Let’s say you’ve secured a part, you have a couple of weeks to prepare, and the director and writer didn’t give many notes about the character.
It may seem like a worst-case scenario where you’re completely on your own, but if the character is well written, then you already have everything you need to bring that character to life.
For Koulouris, defining the physical aspects of any given character is a step that she can’t skip. It signals to her brain that it’s time to become someone else.
“Physicality is a huge part of preparation for me. I like to get into the shoes of whoever I am playing, literally. I also like to go through the entire script and write down everything that my character says as it gives me some handy clues as to what the writer is trying to portray.”
Never discount the power of physical cues like costuming and makeup. The feeling and the visuals of dressing like someone else can go a long way towards portraying that person more honestly.
Try not to think of your character as fictional, but rather as a real person who has their own quirks, faults, fears, and strengths. As Jack Lemmon once said, “If you really do want to be an actor who can satisfy himself and his audience, you need to be vulnerable.”
The importance of rehearsal
For better or worse, you’re going to be working with other actors in just about any production. This can be a difficult space to navigate, as each actor brings their own ego and their own ideas about how they want the performances to turn out.
We’ve heard so many stories about productions where certain starring actors didn’t get along, or where an actor refused to cooperate with the director (we’re looking at you, Brando). But it doesn’t have to be this way.
During our discussion with Koulouris, it became clear that pre-production rehearsals with other actors serve multiple functions.
On the one hand, they help everyone learn lines and get into character, but these practice rounds are also about establishing a certain comfort level with the other cast members.
“For me, it’s vital to have at least one read-through with cast members prior to production. Table reads are incredibly handy at first but there is such an advantage in rehearsals and discussion prior to production as this establishes trust.”
As we already mentioned, vulnerability is often necessary for a successful performance, and to be vulnerable, you need to be able to trust your co-stars.
There’s often a lot of downtime during a film shoot, so use this time to get to know them, and their characters, a little bit better.
If you run into serious problems with other cast members or they’re just being disrespectful, tell someone. Acting is still a job, after all, and no one should be expected to work under hostile conditions.
Shooting out of sequence
A longstanding challenge for actors of all stripes is that films and TV shows are rarely shot in sequence.
As a result, actors are given very little time to dial in the correct emotion for a specific scene or shot.
Is there any way around this?
“Shooting out of sequence can be difficult, which is why I like to make notes on every scene my character is in and what they are thinking and feeling at that moment. Usually, this really helps bring me to the present emotion of my character, no matter the order.”
The specifics of each technique will depend on each person. If, for example, you like to quantify the emotion and energy of a scene, you might go through the script and mark each of your scenes with a number from one to ten. That way, you’ll start to associate each scene with its accompanying emotional state.
That said, the whole process takes practice. Don’t kick yourself too hard for making a mistake or losing track of your character in the shuffle.
The more roles you get, the more you’ll feel comfortable shooting out of sequence.
If you ever find yourself feeling lost before, during, or after a shoot, reach out to other actors, whether you’re currently working with them or not. Make actor friends who can sympathize with the challenges (and triumphs) of working this singularly strange job.
We asked Koulouris to share some of the most important lessons she’s learned since starting her acting career.
She shared her guiding principles, which have had a big impact on how she navigates the many ups and downs of a successful career.
“The importance of consistency and persistence is huge. Consistency is vital in preparation and training. Persistence is key, moving through all the rejection and negativity that the industry can hold. A positive attitude doesn’t hurt either!”
This may sound like something we’ve heard before, but the realities of working in entertainment necessitate this kind of confidence and inner direction.
Ultimately, you are the expert when it comes to your own acting. You know what you’re capable of, and when you exude that kind of confidence, all the other details become a little bit easier to handle.