Daily Dojo

Writing Advice - Ask An Actor

I’m busting on a script, working hard to get a rough draft done, but I don’t want to neglect you, my dojo readers, so I will strive to keep the posts active and helpful in the weeks to come …

I thought it might be good to share little tidbits of writing advice I’ve discovered or been given over the years. Here’s one.

I’ve got an extensive background in acting, it’s what I originally thought I’d be doing … I discovered writing late and found I love that even more.

But the actor training has helped me extensively when it comes to the craft of writing (not to mention, in grad school we were required to take grad level classes on dramaturgy, which we all (grad actors) bitched about at the time, but have since become incredibly valuable) in terms of building and create characters that speak and feel real.

In fact, the Meisner training, more than anything else, has informed my work to a degree that cannot be described (fun fact, David Mamet also trained in Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, but found he wasn’t really much of an actor … but the training can be seen in his work).

If you write and have never taken an acting or performance class of some kind, I highly, highly recommend it.

You learn how to build a character, from the ground up, and what it’s like to let it fly.

That being said, it’s a process, building a character, not only for the actor but also the writer … the writer isn’t just building ONE character, either, but all of them within the universe he’s creating. It’s a load.

So sometimes, what I’ll do if I’m at a logjam with a character I’m creating, I’ll call up an actor I know and chat about it. I did it just recently and it really opened doors for me.

I discuss the character with him (or her) and ask their thoughts on how they’d handle the situation (because the characters are almost always dealing with a situation … if they’re not, you have a different problem, one the actor may not be able to help you with) and anything at all regarding the person’s life.

Because building a character is a process, one of of discovery, and if I ask someone who does this for a living and who specializes in that type of character, the opportunity exists to gain great insight.

Here’s what I’ve found works …

- I don’t give the actor anything to read (because reading is a different thing), I call them up (or buy them coffee in person) and I describe the character and the conflict they have.

- I ask actors who are smart and talented (if you can’t yet tell the difference, you should wait before trying this) and also, if it’s a character that’s in their wheelhouse (ie, someone they could play).

- I listen to what they have to say, and ask questions. I don’t say no (except for the context or parameters of the character’s situation / what they’re dealing with … some things are set) when it comes to the actor’s view of the character’s emotional life. I listen, I don’t talk, I listen. Very important.

That’s it. I just did the above with a good friend, and it was immensely helpful.

Couple caveats … I’ve done this more than a few times, sometimes said actor may suggest something completely at odds with what you’re trying to achieve … or completely wrong … it happens, but having that conversation will often open another door to the right thing … you cannot find the right answer without being willing to step on a few wrong ones along the way.

You need to be thankful to the actors who give you time like this, show gratitude, please.

And again, we have to acknowledge, the people you choose talk to have to be good at this, good at sharing and articulating emotional life … actors are very good at that (the ones I know) but they’re not the only ones.

Sometimes I’ll discuss it with non-actors who have a close proximity to the character (talking to a doctor about a doctor’s life, for example) but I know a lot of good actors, so it’s handy to pick up the phone and ask.

Lastly, some actors can just immediately understand certain types of characters (Bill Goldman writes that nobody plays a flawed American male better than Micheal Douglas) and can step into them and pull it off without much prep, other types of characters require more work to flesh out (it’s why actors like Shakespeare, it’s a challenge for them) … so ask an actor who can play that part easily. Don’t ask someone who’ll have to really, really work at it … we all have strengths, play to theirs, if you can. It’s for the script, after all.

Writers are not necessarily different, there are some characters we implicitly understand from the get-go, for whatever reason, we write them and they appear full realized, and others we need to work hard and chip away at in order to fully come to life on the page … the trick is to understand that about yourself, and use the process, not fight it.

If you’re struggling with a character in your script who you don’t always understand, call someone who might immediately identify with them.

Asking an actor who may understand the character and offer insight is but a tool in the box. Try it.

Just my opinion, no more or less …

Leave a Reply