The Actor’s Brain

In the world of filmmaking there are many difficult jobs and some of them are dangerous. Yet, I believe that the most difficult and most dangerous job is acting. Many will scoff at this concept citing the roles of the director, cinematographer, stunt persons, etc. as being far more difficult or dangerous. And in some ways they are right. But the task of acting has its own unique challenges and risks.

To fully understand, we need to take a journey inside the actor – inside the actor’s brain. We have to go into the ‘control center’ or ‘mission control’ if you will, to fully understand the complex internal process actors go through every time they engage in the creation of a character.

An actor reads a script. Within one reading there will be an idea, an impulse, a sense of the character. Ideas of how to play that character from scene to scene will rumble or race through the actor’s mind. And as the actor begins to prepare, there will be ideas of what research is needed, what self-exploration might be required or helpful. Depending on training or experience the actor might work with substitutions, ‘as ifs’, effective memory, sense memory, improvisation, journaling, etc. And this work will go on until the actor has constructed and discovered sufficient material needed to become comfortably grounded in the character and the circumstances. And, quite possibly all of this work will take place before there is any rehearsal with the director and other actors – if there is any rehearsal at all.

When the time comes to embody the character (in rehearsal or performance) the actor will draw upon this preparation in order to embody the character.

Now let’s look at what is actually going on inside the actor’s brain during this process.

The actor is in a process of transformation – consciously attempting to become the persona of another character as fully and completely as possible. And, in order to accomplish this transformation, the actor’s brain must split itself into two parts – the Actor and the Character.

Most of you know the basic difference between the Left Brain and the Right Brain. Stated simply – the left brain is where all the organizing, controlled thinking, logical reasoning goes on. The right brain is where all the spontaneous impulses, illogical and even irrational thinking goes on. The left is control and logic. The right is spontaneous and impulsive. This is overly simplified, I know, but it suits our purposes for this discussion.

Unconsciously the actor’s brain will divide into these two parts. On the left side is the Actor and on the right side is the Character. Now, let’s take a closer look at each side.

The Left side – the Actor’s side. The actor is knowledgeable, omniscient and in control. The actor is knowledgeable simply because he read the script. Which means that he knows everything that is going to happen (in the story). Which of course makes him omniscient, all knowing. God-like.

Are you aware that one of the actor’s biggest obstacles in the pursuit of becoming the character is the script itself? That’s true. Of course the script is necessary for the actor to learn as much as he can about the character. But now he has a lot of information that the character doesn’t have. And this is a problem. How do you portray a character’s naïveté and innocence when you (the actor) have all this information about the future? This may seem like a small matter, but it isn’t. An essential aspect of becoming the character is the necessity of forgetting what you already know. And this is why the actor’s brain has to split and create the “character’s brain” – the part of the brain that knows only what the character knows.

And before we look at the character’s side of the brain we need to look at the actor’s objectives and obstacles. As we have discussed in earlier articles and books (Directing Feature Films and The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks), objectives and obstacles are instrumental in defining a character moment-to-moment. So, what are some of the actor’s objectives? I’ll list a few common ones.

–       To create a credible character.

–       To please the director – or writer – or producer

–       To work closely with the scene partner

–       To be well-prepared for the shoot

–       To be on time

–       Etc.

And there are other objectives that have to do with the personal life of the actor. Such as their life at home, their various relationships, obligations and commitments outside of the acting profession, etc.

Now let’s look at some of the obstacles that actors might face.

–       The script is weak or unclear

–       The director is difficult and/or disconnected

–       The scene partner is unprepared, unprofessional, unskilled, disconnected or problematic

–       The wardrobe feels inappropriate, restrictive or too revealing

–       The weather is contrary to the weather required in the scene

–       Etc.

And then we have to add the whole list of obstacles that are impacting the actor’s personal life.

Take a moment and look at these lists of objectives and obstacles above. Then ask yourself: “How many of these objectives and obstacles (both professional and personal) and conflicts that they create have anything to do with the Character?”

Truthfully? None.

Okay, you could argue that maybe one or two relate to the character and you could bring out that old acting maxim, “just use it”. But once you start using one of them the rest are just going to tag along. The truth is, you don’t need any of them. None of them. And the sad truth is that if you drag that bag of training, research and preparation into your character, you’re going to bring all of those other actor objectives and obstacles with you – whether you want them or not. And now ask yourself: “How much room is there for the character’s own personal and private objectives and obstacles?”

Now let’s look at the character’s side of the brain.

The Right side of the brain – the Character’s Side.  By definition, the character is innocent, naïve and out of control. Let me explain. One important fact that we must remember about every character in every film (play, television, etc.) is this:

 The character does not know that he is in a movie.

This observation is so obvious that many directors easily ignore it. Yet it defines the enormous challenge of the actor – ‘how do I become naïve, innocent and in-the-moment?’

The character has no awareness or concept of what is going to happen (the actor knows everything). There is no ‘script’ in the character’s life (the actors has lines). Every character is innocent and naïve and they are all ‘living on the cusp’, that fine line between the past and the future – in the present, in-the-moment. Which means he is out of control.

Look at the two sides of the actor’s brain; the Actor’s side and the Character’s side and we have seen how dramatically different they are, and now ask yourself one more question:

“Who do you want to see on the screen?”

Of course you want the character, so then, why are you talking to the actor during those critical moments when the actor is so intently trying to disappear and assume the persona of the character? Why not just talk to the character? Why not direct the character? Why not simply stimulate the character while he’s ‘on the cusp’ and send him into the scene naïve, innocent and out of control?

The Actor’s Brain. The more we begin to understand it and truly appreciate the complexity of this process the sooner we will be able to effectively harness the raw power of the actor.

9 responses to “The Actor’s Brain”

  1. Patti

    Brilliant article! Gave me pause. I’m a screenwriter and am looking at acting in a totally different way now. Thanks for this!

  2. David O'Hara

    If the director is any good, he casts somebody who is already ‘close to home’ in the role. If I am doing Hamlet, I take on Hamlet’s problems – make them my problems. I am me in Hamlet’s situation. If I can live in the scene, I don’t have to act – (the best acting is when the audience gets caught up in the emotions of the scene and forget they are watching actors.

    I attended the Will Geer Shakespeare camp this summer and failed miserably. To the point where I couldn’t remember lines! Because they were more concerned with the way the words were spoken than the situation that prompted the words coming out of the person’s mouth. When I bring monologues into Alan Feinsteins’ class, I get actors grabbing me after class and telling me that that was the first time they really understood what the speech was about. I wasn’t doing it – I was in it.

  3. Rizo

    Very insightful, even for “outsiders” like me. The process reminds me of education, in general.

  4. Jim Pallett

    Hi Mark, If it isn’t Uta Haugen’s Respect for Acting, or a play, or material, I am often reluctant to read stuff least it affect my delicate actor’s internal balance as soon I’ll be in process doing exercises, character development, class. There is fear of adding too much, rather than striping away, and an underlying ‘know-it-all-itis’ to boot, so much crap to discard in each moment. But because I see your name Mark, and I trust you, I read every word, and end up safely in the character’s right brain, naive, and out of control, and in the moment, in a safe haven like no other, really alive, in process. Yes, please direct the character. And thank you. Jim.

  5. Rebekah

    By extension, if, say as in your Solo Autobiography On Your Feet experience, the actor is playing herself as a character, then she is discovering herself in the process. The feeling/reality of being out of control is magic. Mark, thank you for being in my play. Happy birthday and merry Christmas!

  6. Steve Overstreet

    Such a great piece for so many applications. I am currently producing some micro-budget shorts and the tenets of what you have stated here will definately follow me into all of my future endeavors. I knew your exemplary reputation but the more I read and talk with you the more it becomes my own personal knowledge that you are a person that lives the very essence of what many people need to have in their own life-works. Such insights are gems that I won’t soon forget. I hope that I will be able to work with you soon!

  7. Charlie Bury

    Fascinating article Mark. “The character does not know that he is in a movie.” – such a vital and simple thing to understand, yet so many people I know think the character is playing to the audience in film – much like they are in theatre. It seems there is still so much room for exploration into how an actors mind really works – ‘the actors brain’ is a concept I certainly look forward to reading further into.

    Directing the character definitely seems like a perfect way to overcome this obstacle. Yet, I wonder who would this person be in the characters life – another side of the brain giving them ideas to explore?

    Thanks Mark.

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