Approach to ActingCreative projects sometimes take an inordinate amount of time to finish because you cannot force artistic expression. When director Paul Schrader presented Nick Nolte with the script for Affliction, the actor delayed shooting the film for five years. Although this undoubtedly frustrated those involved in production, the actor needed the extra time to ruminate on his character.

For him and for others, this development period is integral to a good performance. For Nick Nolte, the result was a spectacular performance that would have been different if not for that period of preparation. In a similar way, Sam Rockwell and Laura Dern spent years with their scripts (Box of Moonlight and Rambling Rose, respectively) before bringing them to life. Again, their ensuing performances were impressive because of the ease and freedom they conveyed in their portrayal. Although it is typical for actors to want to be focused on business, spending time thinking and daydreaming also has a purpose.

There’s Value in Downtime

When you consider the time invested in bringing characters to life, there’s a lot to be said for downtime. There is more to preparing for a role than just practicing. When it comes to playing an instrument, for example, part of the experience is freeing the mind of distractions. According to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, he spends the majority of time devoted to preparation letting his mind wander.

Though downtime is often rejected or considered fruitless, it is an important—albeit unacknowledged—factor of an artist’s work. Virginia Woolf acknowledges this in her collection of essays entitled A Room of One’s Own. It was her belief that individuals need a place to exist and to pursue what they are passionate about without being accosted by outside influences.

It is during this downtime—a leisurely drive, a soak in the bathtub, a walk in the park—that actors experience revelations about their characters. Thus, this time should not be considered as wasted or lost. Minimizing distractions is necessary to access the innermost thoughts that are just below the surface. It is important to set aside time in each day where television, the Internet, social gatherings, and work are ignored in pursuit of a greater purpose.

In an interview for Inside the Actors Studio, Paul Newman described his process for discovering a new role as a young actor. He would check into a hotel (alone) for several days with nothing but a script and beer, during which he would give free reign to his imagination. He reported that the majority of ideas cultivated during this time were useless. But a small percentage was worth more than gold to him. No doubt they could not have been developed without the solitude and freedom from distractions that his controlled environment offered.

When working with a script, an actor might alternately encounter frustration, boredom, and uncertainty.  When plagued with doubts or an obsession with the end result, you are challenged to follow these instructions: Spend time alone with the script in a quiet room. If no new ideas come to you after a few hours, read the script aloud multiple times.

When you get stuck on a creative project, it is best to engage in a period of daydreaming and to come at the project again with fresh eyes. Spending time to “just think” is a luxury—one that we do not acknowledge or appreciate until it is an impossibility.

A Challenge to Stay in the Moment

In order to be an effective actor, it is imperative to stay in the moment. But the phrase “in the moment” is repeated so often that it has begun to lose its meaning. In any case, this advice means that whatever you are doing in the moment should be more important than anything else.

It is tempting for actors to watch or analyze their movements and dialogue as they go along. But better acting techniques are developed when you give yourself permission to fail. After all, isn’t this where outtakes come from?  When actors are immersed in the present and are not worried about how they are perceived, performances become extraordinary. Audiences enjoy acting most when it is natural and spontaneous, when performances come across like actors genuinely do not know what is going to happen next.  If an actor pretends, his or her viewers will pick up on it—and not in a good way.

Thus, directors are challenged to make their actors feel this. A director who, when having a conversation with an actor, is already thinking about his next task is not nearly as effective as the one who channels all energy into the conversation at hand.

The Art of Listening

We are often told that listening and hearing are two different actions. Hearing simply means detecting sound, but listening means keying into the words being spoken. In our personal lives, being a good listener means putting the other person’s narrative ahead of our own. This principle also applies to actors.

Sanford Meisner, when advising acting students, told them that the other actor is more important. Although this is a radical idea, it is one that leads to better performances.

Two qualities that characterize a good actor are expressiveness and believability; both are achieved through listening to the other actor(s). For an actor’s emotions to appear authentic, the emotion should be generated from impulse rather than calculation. But you only have impulses when you are not intent on having them; it’s something you can’t control. On the contrary, impulses come naturally when you abandon self-consciousness and surrender to being in the moment.

An actor’s genuine performance is jeopardized when he or she is critically analyzing every move. If you’re worried about where to place your hands or about the expression on your face, the acting becomes stiff and unnatural. The “fix” for this is to channel this attention or concentration elsewhere. The best focal point for this energy is another person.

If actors don’t surrender themselves to the person opposite them, their attitudes become fixed. If one actor speaks with a different tone, the other—if he or she is listening—should detect this and change responses accordingly.

Listening to another actor is just as important as listening to unscripted conversations in one’s personal life. Tones, inflections, and meanings are inferred through effective dialogue; changes in any of these should provoke the listening actor to change his or her speech as well. This active listening is a technique that demands improvement of the other actor and oneself.