Story SubtextSubtext

Playing from the subtext allows actors, writers, and directors to trust their subconscious during scenes; that is, to respond to a scene reflectively. Being able to do this allows all parties to work most effectively to arrive at the overall story truly being told in the script. There are two kinds of subtext: story and character.

Story subtext can be thought of as the real story being told in a script. Rather than just individual events in the plot or dialogue, it is the emotional core; essentially, it is the human, emotional, and historical events in the world of the script and how they influence the characters form the story subtext. Character subtext is the direct subtext of a character. It is all the information a character may not expose, or even know, about himself, such as emotional and physical history, past relationships, and certain needs, memories, dreams, or fears. Directors act as liaisons between writers and actors concerning subtext, but they should let actors find the subtext of their characters.

Story Subtext

Overall, the story is the responsibility of the directors because it touches all directing decisions. Directors can help bring all motivations, secrets, and unsaid thoughts not explained or revealed in the writing to life. In fact, much of what a writer puts down on the page will arrive from his subconscious thoughts. This helps the actors to expand beyond the writer’s “intention,” leaving it to directors and actors to analyze and interpret the script’s subtext. The writer from American Beauty commented that the director helped see shades and meanings that he had not seen while writing the script.

So when it’s said that something is “all on the page,” it is not meant that all feelings, thoughts, and history are found in directions or dialogue. Rather, it means that the directors and actors can analyze and interpret subtext from the given script. From there, they can bring the characters and their actions to life in the scenes and the film as a whole.

Character Subtext

Actors engage character subtext in two ways: by acting “in the moment” through their subconscious responses, and by “choice” through connection or insight they extract from the subtext of the script.

When they are acting in the moment, actors can transparently show how their thoughts and feelings happen beneath the surface when they speak or portray actions. Actors portray believability, making it seem that they actually are the characters they portray in a particular fictitious world. They show that their character has meaning below the surface of what the audience sees, rather than simply being a shallow recitation of lines.

In addition to acting on thoughts and feelings, actors also make choices based on sub-textual insights and associations. This is essentially the unknown aspects of a character’s personality; it stems from the character’s unconscious needs and impulses. Generally, these needs or desires are not something the character, or actor, is consciously aware of. It is not something the audience will “get” or “see” since it is not based on plot or dialogue. It is based solely on the actors’ choices of how the characters act as a whole, in both conscious and unconscious ways.

In this way, when a role is described as being “too on the nose,” it means the actors’ choices are being too literal – they are not taking subtext into account. A reading that is too literal has no overall connection to the character. It is, in fact, just a reading, which may be done without feeling and seem artificial. Therefore, circumstances and relationships with other characters should also be examined to come to allow them to go beyond just playing the lines, where the actors must focus too much on trying to convince the audience that the lines are true. The actors need to be able to play within the context of their character through relationships with other characters, or to find what objectives and needs their character has.

When actors are considered “committed,” it means that they have realized a direction for their character’s subtext. Rather than just reading the lines or focusing on exposition, they have chosen to make the characters have psychological subtext where a concept such as “catching the bad guys” takes on a deeper meaning, like “saving my family” or “making dad regain faith in his son.”

Even scenes that serve mostly as exposition can have underpinnings of much more for the characters when actors play off their characters’ subtext. All characters have histories, feelings, and reasons for being where they are. This is true especially in scenes where dialogue is sparse or terse – the actors can portray their characters as having feelings and emotions they do not expose. In the case of long monologues, actors can use the way they speak to show how their characters feel; otherwise all the audience may experience is a long recitation of script.

Choices in Interpreting Subtext

Actors need to decide how much they want to involve themselves in their role. Tom Hanks has said that when acting, “You get to that point…where you realize you’re examining an aspect of the human condition as opposed to just a story that starts on page one.” Hanks is talking about the subtext, or the true feelings of the characters and all the stories and feelings that are part of the character that are not included in the script. Actors who just make up an attitude and roll with it seem to either do it for their own sake, or because they put on affectations trying to give a role a lot of depth.

Directors should choose actors who will make compelling analyses and interpretations of the characters. It’s far more important for a film to have actors who can make these decisions rather than to simply do as the directors tell them. While they may disagree on some things, both directors and actors will move the story along naturally with their ability access the story on a deeper level by delving into each of the characters’ lives.

For example, in the film Slap Shot (1979), Paul Newman and Michael Ontkean’s characters bet on the recipient of a male game show contestant’s greeting. Ontkean bet on the man’s coworkers while Newman said, “Naw, wife and kids.” It seems like a quick, cast-off line, but it actually shows depth into Newman’s character. This single line poses questions such as: Who is the focus of Newman’s response? The contestant? Ontkean? Why does he say it? Does he enjoy family life? Does he think the man is a foolish pushover? Or does he think he’s better than a guy who would give a shout-out to his male friends rather than to his kids? Does Newman respect that?

Given the histories of Ontkean’s and Newman’s characters, we can draw conclusions about why they may say what they did; both characters’ wives have left them and both men are relatively miserable in their lives in general. In any case, the actors were able to make decisions based on subtext for their characters. And, importantly, the director chose to respect, and advance, those interpretations.

Complex writing leads to complex characters. Often, these characters don’t fully understand their thoughts or feelings, largely because they are derived from the subconscious chaos of desire and paradox humans often face. Sometimes random, arbitrary, almost non-sequitur choices for acting on subtext work well likely because human beings are not always, if seldom, logical. By nature, humans often free-associate, riff, jump from one thought to the next, start and stop speaking, and interrupt each other.

This, rather than contrived plot device, is where actors can hone their character depth. Therefore, sometimes when actors make weird, illogical choices, they can end up delivering the best insights into a complex character’s wants, needs, or desires. Absurd and satirical film requires complex writing and interpretation. As such, absurdist film is not beyond finding proper subtext, though there may be little apparent logic. Myriad choices can be made when actors choose to follow subtext of a scene to gain the proper insights and intuitive portrayals of their characters.

All actors’ choices about subtext free creativity for them to find the best ways to portray scenes and characterizations. By definition, subtext is invisible; it is composed of thoughts, history, emotions, and it can only be “seen” in the way the actors make characters speak, move, or emote with expressions or body language. If scenes seem too easy, or not complex enough, then perhaps the actors and directors have done their job well.