Recent projects include working with leading actors on the films:
The Lady, The Door, Berbarian Sound Studio, Sherlock Holmes, The Last Station, Control.
I’m delighted Mel has shared her extensive knowledge and experience in a guestpost for The Great Acting Blog, which is both practical and insightful, and with it’s use of video clips from classic movies, will prove to be, I’m sure, a wonderful resource for practitioners and enthusiasts.
Concealing and Revealing
(thoughts from Mel Churcher…)
Actors are often obsessed with sub-text and when they find it, they want to share it. But what is sub-text? Literally it is what lies beneath the words. But we deal in sub-text all the time, even when we are not telling lies or trying to hide. Every association, clutch at the heart, memory or link we make as we talk, look around or communicate is a form of sub-text. If I say, ‘I’ve got to go and pick up Johnnie from school’, there is a whole world within that line – a life with and caring for Johnnie, pictures of the journey, a happy excuse to go or a duty to be done and so on.
If I look around my room or out of my window, everything I see evokes associations, feelings, memories and needs.
In life, these connections are already there but for a role, you have to build them. You can use improvisations, research, psychological gesture, substitutions, sense memories and especially any physical imaginative or practical work that stores muscle memory. Always act out stories that you have to tell at home so that when you tell them on set, your body has real memories of what happened.
(You will find many ways to rehearse alone in ‘A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD’ published this year by Nick Hern or my earlier book, ‘Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second’ published by Virgin Books and also available on Kindle.)
But once these connections and deep feelings and thoughts are stored, they must be trusted and relied upon without you feeling any need to parade them. You must not show us your preparation or how hard you’ve worked. Just like life, we will see it when we’re meant to or it will seep out in spite of yourself. Just like life, you may have to work hard not to show it if you wouldn’t want others to see it. The difficult words may be simply statements thrown away or they may be pulled out like thorns to extricate you from the situation. It all depends on what you, in the role, want to do – to conceal or to reveal and whether that is easy or hard. You may even smile or laugh when you talk about the most painful things.
Watch any documentaries or newsreels when people talk about terrible things that have happened to them. They don’t lose their warmth, personality or even humour. They don’t stand back and comment on how the story should make you, the listener, feel. They are factual, practical, often laid-back and sometimes surprisingly funny. Their action is to share the pictures in their head with you, not to ‘feel’ it again. In fact, this is often the last thing they want to do.
‘Sub-text’, when used in acting training, is usually focused upon the want or need that lies beneath the surface of the actual words or action. The first thing to ask yourself is, do you want the listener to understand this need?
1. ‘Would you like a drink sometime?’ (I fancy you like mad but you mustn’t know that – I’ll play it cool.)
2. ‘Would you like a drink sometime?’ (I need you to know that I’m here for you whenever you want me.)
The speaker in example 1. will not give an inkling of the desires running underneath. He or she does not want the listener to read the subtext.
The speaker in example 2 will be trying to make contact and to see something back from the other person that shows the proposition has been understood. The speaker wants the listener to understand the subtext.
But we don’t even think about this in life as sub-text. We just know what the stakes are and whether we have to conceal or reveal our thoughts. And if we are alone, we just think. There is no-one to share it with, but we are not concealing anything either. In film, if you are alone, this is the same. You are not having to conceal anything from anyone else but there is no-one to explain those feelings to, either.
We are not trying to ‘show’ our thoughts – we are just having them. And reacting to them ourselves, if we need to.
If there are other people in the room who mustn’t understand those thoughts we will not give them away. If Kevin Spacey, in ‘The Usual Suspects’ gives the game away and we know his story is fiction, there is no film:
Of course, if we want the other person to guess our thoughts then we can share them, as Lauren Bacall does in this famous clip from ‘To Have and Have Not’:
Sometimes our eyes can show what we feel but our voices mustn’t give us away. Consider this superb moment from Colin Firth in ‘A Single Man’(He cleverly takes off his glasses. A natural move but it allows us to see his eyes. )There is no-one else in the room so he doesn’t need to hide his emotion in his face but his voice cannot give him away. This is also superb moment-to -moment work. He is always just dealing and computing each second as it comes.
A clever director will allow the actor a private, unobserved moment when the thoughts don’t need to be hidden and we , the viewer can see what the other roles must not. But there are other ways for us to observe subtext without the actor ‘showing’ us. In this famous clip, Marlon Brando cannot show Eve Marie Saint’s character how much he cares for her, but when he puts on her glove, we, the audience, understand the subtext through this (seemingly) unconscious move.
Here is another example of secondary activity explaining the actor’s feelings. Dorothy Tutin in ‘Savage Messiah’ prepares food. Notice her unexpected flashes of humour and the way she really meets the art student’s eyes.
In this clip from ‘North by Northwest’, Eve Marie Saint and Cary Grant play it cool but trust the other will know the subtext!
We think of James Dean playing haunted characters. But in this clip from ‘East of Eden’, the shadows have not yet descended and he and Julie Harris explore their attraction for each other. They are both superb actors and here Dean allows his warmth and charm to shine through and we see clearly how he feels about his brother’s girl.
Look how much we learn about the relationship between these two people and Lawrence’s background and feelings about his father from these short moments between Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’:
Jeanne Moreau in the classic ‘Jules et Jim’ sings a song with a deceptively upbeat tune. See the deeper meaning in her eyes and the way she looks differently at the two men.
Here in the Pinter screenplay, The Servant, there are dark undercurrents in this beautifully played scene between Dirk Bogarde and James Fox (Doesn’t Laurence look like him…). Notice how they hardly look at each other. Even at the height of the quarrel, there is no sign of the screwed up faces or histrionics you see all the time on daytime television!
In Mrs Brown, Judi Dench never indulges her pain. It is always about interaction with the other people. Her loneliness, confusion and sorrow leaks out of her, but her energy is always away from her, looking, listening, watching – never towards herself or trying to get a ‘feedback’. She is always communicating.
See all the things that are not said, but understood, in this scene from the Swedish series Wallander with Krister Henriksson, Ola Rapace and the late Johanna Sällström. The acting in this series was suberb – easy, truthful with enormous depth that is never ‘signalled’.
Subtext doesn’t always have to be serious. In this scene from the beginning of ‘The African Queen’, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and Robert Morley deal with an embarrassing social situation.
Clips from older films are easier to find on youtube and earlier Hollywood actors were superb at sitting back, letting their words fall out and allowing the subtext simply to happen. But I would have liked to have shared more wonderful examples from recent television dramas, The Killing’, ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ or ‘An Appropriate Adult’.
The moral of all this is: do your homework, but then trust it – sit back, relax, think, let pictures pop into your head and simply interact. Watch, listen, pursue what you want. It is YOU speaking, they are YOUR needs – it’s easy, like life. Don’t add anything. Don’t know what will happen next. Don’t try to make it interesting. Don’t show us…