Actors- Learn your words, not lines!

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Hello again and thanks for continuing to read In Mi Experience.

During the Acting On Camera 1-2-1 courses, I tend to go on about learning words, not lines. Now for some, there may not be a distinction, for me, it is the difference between your TV or film character being good or great.

Now, as a comprehensive school student, while I studied English to O-level I unfortunately only discovered the delights of Shakespeare later in life when I joined a theatre company. However, while I enjoy the bard as much as the next person, it is important to realise where his does, and does not, help you to get TV and film roles.

Let’s ignore for the moment, that Shakespeare’s dramas are based on a 5-act structure, (most feature films being based on three) and concentrate on the dialogue. In his plays and sonnets, Shakespeare writes in iambic pentameter, this gives a very poetic feel.  For our purposes, it means that collections of words and lines are important to each other. The words do not stand alone they are smaller (important) parts of a ‘whole’.

TV and film dialogue is not this way. Really accomplished actors know that emphasis or pace of individual words may change the feeling of line completely. Don’t believe me?? Here is a simple example: ” I really have to be going”.

  • Emphasis on “I” draws attention to one person’s decision to leave apart from anyone else
  • Emphasis on “really” insinuates that the person needs to leave now, and they should probably have left earlier
  • Delivered quickly, the line will work well to storm out of the scene
  • Delivered slowly, by a person in an intimate embrace, it says they want to stay
  • Said with a sarcastic smile, it’s as cutting as F*** you

Deliver this one line without thought, and you miss at least 5 opportunities to add a facet to your characters on-screen persona.

Now, some of this subtext may be in the writer’s description of the scene, but, and I mean this with the utmost respect, you shouldn’t expect the writer to do your job for you. As a writer and director, I will take a lot of time sculpting mi scene on paper, but I expect the actor doing the role, to bring it to life.

That’s why I always advise actors to:

  • Read the whole script, not just their lines
  • Build an in-depth character profile
  • Use that profile to the enliven the words (not lines) on the page
  • Then model an engaging 3-dimensional character

Once you follow these guidelines you’ll soon begin to identify ways you can make your characters unique and less two dimensional.

I hope this post will encourage you to go that extra step when prepping for your next role, or just shooting a piece for your showreel. Even with a small role in a short film, I hope you see that every word is an opportunity for you to do yourself and the production proud. You don’t have to give up on William S. just remember the skills you use to bring his work to life, are different to the ones you use on-screen.

Catch you next time, when I’ll be looking at Micro Expressions and as always, feel free to email me if you have any questions or comments.

Keep up to date with our new courses and sessions by checking here.


Written by Mark Alexander Todd – Writer/Director and Filmmaker

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