When I heard actors talking about how they didn’t like watching themselves on screen I felt like it was some pretence to humility. Why wouldn’t you want to see yourself the hero of a story where millions of pounds have been spent to tell a tale in which your emotional reality in the focus, the thing that makes all that money matter?
My attitude quickly changed when I transitioned from the stage to begin acting for film. I was, and to a large extent still am, shell-shocked by how bad my performances feel, and astounded that no one mentions it at the time.
The truth, I suppose, is that no one knows you better than you know yourself. What you see when you’re on screen may well be very different to what everyone else sees, coloured by the whirring of your mind at the time you committed to the performance, a performance you gave from the inside but now watch, clinically, from outside. Even if that is true, you still know you’re capable of so much more, and your own taste condemns your performance.
This truth gave me a simple understanding- I needed to gain a perspective of myself from the point of view of the camera. So, I signed up to a two-week screen active intensive at LAMDA to put myself through the critical wood chipper and sift through the remains with a fine-toothed comb.
In theatre, actors trust that if they ‘feel it’ and play their intentions with clarity and certainty, the audience will pick up on the performance without having to show anything. Working on Camera showed me that my clarity and certainty and feeling had very little bearing on how effective a performance was on screen.
The exercises we did on the course were varied and rebuilt our assumptions from the ground up. We began with simply doing basic tasks on camera- it helped those who had little experience relax into the concept of having a camera on them, and it helped people like me –those who had spent most of their time on stage- realise that nothing on camera requires acting. Simple ‘doings’ were compelling enough to watch. For my part, I was arranging books in alphabetical order.
We soon graduated to extensive improvisations based on observations out in the real world, in a series of imaginative formats. We took classes that dissected the screen-test as a format in itself for both fiction and advertising (the working actor’s bread and butter). We did extensive scene work on contemporary and classical pieces. In all cases, we watched back our own and each other’s’ work and looked into what worked and what didn’t. We looked at how an actor must prepare for a screen role, and Uta Hagen’s invaluable advice. Many times, we watched multiple takes to see the effect our learning had had just moments after absorbing the note for the first time.
This was to prove one of the most revelatory concepts for me- and one exercise stood out in particular. We were given a simple objective, to make a decision. In my case, I had to make a phonecall. It was our task as actors to use our real life experiences to create an imaginative framework that would make that decision as important as possible to us.
I remembered a time while living in Japan, when a routine sexual health test was badly reported thanks to the translation.
In England, we have a tick and a cross, and we have positive and negative. In japan, they have a circle and a cross, and they represent both. I was told my HIV test was ‘positive’. This understandably caused my life to flash before my eyes, before I inquired further with the doctor and discovered the ‘circle’ meant positive as in ‘good news’, as in ‘all is well’, not positive as in ‘you have HIV’. One can’t argue with the logic, but nevertheless the fear in that few minutes caused me to think about telling my parents. So that was the call I decided to make.
The first take was, internally, agonising. I felt the emotional memory return almost as strongly as it had been in the moment, and it crippled me. I wavered, wondering who to call- mum or dad, and whether this was the right time- decisions within decisions. I ended up not making the call.
The second take was agonising in a different way. Having gone on the emotional journey, I was spent, and was oddly blank and numb as I went through the same journey in half the time as instructed.
When we watched the takes back, the second was infinitely better, despite it feeling completely unreal. My natural state is one of unfilmic expressiveness, and the echo of the truth read more clearly and was more compelling than the ‘true’ journey I had gone on. The chaos of my internal state had crystallised into something ‘legible’ from the outside. This planted the concept of discipline in the art of acting forever in my approach.
When the final scene work was edited together and presented back to us, I was pleasantly surprised by how well my performance held up compared to my previous efforts, even though we had filmed it half way through the course. It gave me confidence to approach screen-tests moving forward knowing I could, in fact, do this.
The two things that stuck with me were ‘find your stillness’, an ongoing process for me in life as much as art, and ‘you are not responsible for making the scene work’- something that as a producer and writer it took quite some effort to digest and accept. Once I had, however, it was liberating.
Overall, the LAMDA experience taught me a valuable lesson in taking responsibility for my performances as an actor. In theatre, I have been used to a collaborative atmosphere in which my set of tools is used by the director to achieve their vision. In film, I’ve never found that to be the case. It was always somewhat bewildering to be without support and yes, without affirmation. When it comes to my character, I am completely responsible for my choices, for the work I do before I reach the set (which in theatre would be done collaboratively during rehearsals), and for the discipline with which I conduct myself and my actions in such a repetitive format. But I am not responsible for anything else.
It is these clear boundaries that finally sold me on screen acting as a noble pursuit and not a money spinner. It has the capacity to surprise and requires a state of both absolute readiness and absolute openness, for you may well have little to no idea what the actors sharing the scene will do at any moment, or what the director wants before you start filming, upon which time you must switch up your preparation to find a new medium.
With a fresh Diploma in my hand, I look forward to developing this skillset in new projects.