Play the Scene the Writer Meant to Write

I often hear actors complain that the writing in the shows or films they are auditioning for is clichéd or unnatural: “I would never say that” is a frequent comment. When I was a younger actor I remember making that same complaint myself. Well, if you start from that contention you are judging the material and will never do a good audition. And not only that, you are denying yourself a great opportunity to exercise your artistic imagination. Assuming you are not yet in a place in your career where you can demand rewrites (and even then I think there is more value in trying to make the actual script work), if you hate the writing in a given script you have two choices: one, don’t go on the audition, or two, play the scene the writer meant to write. And, in my experience it is so much more interesting to choose the latter. My acting teacher, the brilliant Roy London trained his students to always work to say the lines as written. Not only is this respectful to the efforts of the writer, but it opens up a world of artistic possibility. He used to say: “…don’t play the scene the writer wrote; play the scene they were trying to write.” And ironically, when I work this way, very often my least favorite line or section of a script becomes my favorite; I have made such specific acting choices that suddenly those particular words seem exactly right.

If I allow my imagination to supply me with the whys of the scene, if I play what is happening in the scene rather than what I am saying in the scene, the words become just another tool my character is using to try to achieve their goal. If you really know who you are as the character, and who the other characters are, and play the relationships between them—if you are playing what you want, rather than what you say, then you are only limited by the confines of your imagination. You can play aspects of Hamlet or Medea in the most mediocre TV script. I have played Lady Macbeth many times under the guise of this or that typical bad girl role, and not only do I believe it has made my work stronger, but it has always made playing the roles fascinating! I have done a lot of episodic television– a lot of really well-written shows and my share of not-so-hot ones, where let’s just say sometimes the writing was a bit “clunky.” My all-time favorite bad line was in a TV movie where after discovering that my habitually philandering husband was having an affair with a nubile young cheerleader, I had to, enraged, confront the girl and say : “Do you have any idea what it’s like to have your life torn apart by some teenage slut?” Honestly, I feel I should have received an award for saying that line with a straight face. In fact, I don’t think actors should receive awards for doing shows like Six Feet Under and The Sopranos; any halfway decent actor can do a good job on a well-written script! It’s those of us doing straight-to-cable movies, action shows on minor cable networks and daytime soap operas that should be winning those awards! “In the category of saying with absolute commitment the worst line ever written in a one-hour drama the award goes to….(your name here).” And incidentally, a “badly” written line is not necessarily untrue-to-life. I have often found myself saying the most clichéd things, like: “Let’s put on our thinking caps” or “Put your best foot forward.” Recently I was defending a student who at 22 years old is already an Iraq vet. His car was being towed and the towing service wanted $300 bucks to release it to him. I looked the slovenly young truck driver in the eye and said (in a very accusatory and imperious voice): “This young man went over there for you and for me.” It was as if I was suddenly living in a song by George M. Cohan.

Sometimes the problem isn’t with the lines per se but the fact that you are called on to say them in a particular scene—perhaps they seem dishonest for you in that moment. The documentary “Special Thanks to Roy London” has (finally) been released and in it there is a fascinating sequence in which Patricia Arquette discusses doing a scene from the film True Romance. In the scene, Christian Slater’s character Clarence has just killed someone and Patricia Arquette’s character, Alabama has to say the line: “I think what you did was so romantic.” Ms. Arquette was struggling with the scene because she felt false congratulating him on the murder—it went against her sense of morality. Roy suggested a way for her to do the scene as written and still maintain her sense of truth: he explained that after someone has committed murder they are changed, they are now capable of killing, so perhaps her character may be frightened, perhaps when she says her line she is not saying it because she necessarily believes it, but because she wants Clarence to believe she is on his side–now that he is a murderer he has become dangerous and she doesn’t want him to kill her! Roy said that if she plays the scene as a manipulation or a big lie to Clarence, it doesn’t matter. We as an audience don’t know what her inner truth is—what she is playing—but we definitely feel the truth of it—we know she means it—in fact, she is fighting for her life! It’s a great scene by the way, Patricia Arquette’s work is fantastic and in the documentary, the juxtaposition of Patricia’s discussion of her coaching session with Roy and the finished scene is an acting lesson in itself.

Remember, every audition is an opportunity to exercise your craft and to expand your creativity. Push your imagination to its utmost limits. You will find that the the only limits are the ones you impose on yourself. Open yourself to limitless possibility! Let go of your judgments and play the scene the writer meant to write!

All rights reserved. Jamie Rose 2007,2008.