I’ve been a film and TV actor for 20 years and I have boiled down the basic fundamentals I employ when approaching any new film and television scene. There are a series of basic questions that I use to better inform me as to how to approach the scene and it allows me to get my bearings. After doing this, I am able to work the scene with confidence which allows for interpretation from the director when on set. These are somewhat analytic but once I do this work I am then free to discover and explore my character’s emotional life.
My character:
  • When talking about my character in a scene I refer to the character as “I” or “Me” because I am the character. I develop the character by getting as much information from the writing as I can, or if it is a historical figure with background I do as much research as possible.
  • What is my upbringing, age, physical condition, history, living location, past traumas etc.
  • In the scene if other people are present, I find out what the relationship is. If no one is present then what is my relationship to this situation or circumstance or what is my relationship to myself in that moment?
  • When looking at others in the scene I ask: You are the one who <blank> me. You are my <blank>. You are to my character like <blank> was to me in my real life.
  • I have to <blank> you (This is your Action) in order to <blank> (This is your objective) and the consequence of failing is <blank> (These are the stakes). The underlying truth is <blank> (This is the subtext of the scene)
  • I want this person to <blank> (My character’s want) but I need to <blank> (My character’s need). *The want and the need will almost always be the source of the conflict in the scene.
Tactics and Choices:
How are you going to get your want while satisfying your need? There are many different ways to achieve this. Ie: Fight and force, seduce and charm, seek empathy, manipulate, be honest etc… These are referred to as your “choices”.
Make choices on how the character views things, opinions on things and how this character thinks. This will affect behavior if you are reacting truthfully in each moment.
Moment Before:
  • What just happened before the scene started?
  • What is the emotional state I am in before the scene starts? (Emotional Prep)
  • What are my intentions going into the scene? These should ALWAYS be positive or the scene will fall flat. Ie: “I want to leave” or “I don’t care about you” are negative. “I want you to love me” “I want you to respect me” are POSITIVE and ACTIVE and will produce a stronger scene.
  • Your moment before is the spring board that launches you into the scene and creates that “wave” actors describe that you can ride to take you to unexpected and exciting places during the scene. Emotional prep before starting a scene is so very important!
Understanding all of the above will flesh out where the conflict in the scene lies. Conflict occurs when two characters have opposing needs, or internal conflict can happen within one’s self. All well written scenes contain conflict.
Identify each transition in the scene by a tactic changing. This is indicated by a new thought, new direction the conversation takes, or a beat. (Most well written scenes have 3 transitions)
A well written scene starts with your character in a positive or negative and you will end at the opposite at the transition, then again flip to the opposite at the next transition. For example; I am in control of the situation, first transition the person in the scene undermines me and I end up at a negative, so I retaliate, next transition I’m back on top etc.
  • These shifts in the position of the character in the scene is the scene arch. EVERY scene has an arch, usually an emotional one for the character. If you don’t see one your scene is “Flat” and a weak scene.
  • Characters go through a journey (Hero’s Journey) or an arch through the entire story. They evolve or it is not worth watching and boring.
  • The entire story as a whole as well goes through an arch as well.
  • It’s often more effective to start a scene in a different emotional place than your character begins in. Sometimes you can work backwards; if you end the scene hostile, maybe try starting the scene in a positive or hopeful headspace and see what the scene then plays out like when prepping.
Of course this is the starting point to understanding the scene, you do this for all scenes in the script, and then are informed about why your character makes the decisions and uses the tactics they do. Take that and get to know your character to find out what isn’t on the page, make choices about why that character is the way it is. For example, find out what music they like, what quirks they have, what secret fears they have etc.