Diary • Sally Potter
Audiences enter the word of a film through its complex surfaces and structures, whether they are elaborate or minimal, realistic or fantastic. But invariably it is the human in the frame who guides us through the labyrinth of feeling and visual information; it is because of him or her we want to know what happens next. The intimate, powerful relationship between audience and actor may feel natural, but it is a construction, the end result of many working processes. This is an attempt to strip away the mystique and look at how we come to feel we know actors intimately and what it is that they and the director have to do to arrive at an apparently seamless and effortless result that feels true: believing that transparency—a willingness to reveal what you know—not only strenghtens your own practice but also curiously evokes further mysteries beyond language.
Often finding a character is not so much a matter of building something up as trying to strip parts of the apparent self of the actor away. What we call character (or sometimes personality or identity) in daily life is often a series of habitual constructions, ways of behaving or appearing. A persona is a creation, not a state of being.
The character you are searching for in a film really needs to be more like a transmitter of experience. This is why people often confuse good cinema actors with their roles: it looks as if they are being themselves. Nevertheless, in the process of arriving at this pure state of presence, the actor and director look for many external clues, which become signposts on the journey. Part of the shorthand used in the process is the concept of character. The actor is playing someone who has lived a different life, with specific—albeit imaginary—memories, desires, and habitual ways of behaving.
Each actor has a specific way of approaching a role, empathizing with this person who is not them, imagining themselves into their (fictitious) skin. For one actor, the clues to the identity of the character may be found via physical detail and appearance. What clothes do they wear? What kind of shoes? lf the actor lights up when you discuss hair or some other physical detail then you know working from the outside in is going to be the secret key.
Another actor might need to know the entire back-story of their character to be able to walk through the door of a room with conviction. They might want to know where this fictitious character was born, who their mother was, what their father did, what they ate for dinner the previous night. (I have generally written lots of background notes about the characters as they evolve during the development and the script. These notes don’t appear in the finished script, but they are useful in these conversations.)
Another actor may be impatient with this process. He or she may find it too literal, an unnecessary amount of detailed information that will never find its way onto the screen. For this actor, there may be something more abstract and overarching that needs to be explored: perhaps an idea in the script they don’t understand, or have doubts about. Or they may need to be reassured about what your attitude really is in relation to the core subject-matter. They may be wondering about your political views, or even whether you intend to mock or satirize their character in some way. In this situation you have to find out if there’s an issue that you must deal with, for them to be able to trust you and fly. Whatever it is, it’s better out in the open, even if it’s uncomfortable for you both. It can become a brilliantly constructive analytical conversation about the deeper intentions of the film.
With another actor you might notice that once you start talking about and analyzing the character—or talking about any other aspect of the film—they start glazing over. In this instance verbal communication is useless. For this actor you probably need to get physical. The best strategy may be to invite the actor to find a tone of voice, a way of moving, or discover how the character sits or walks, in order to enter into a feeling-state and activate his or her senses. This most obviously applies to ex-dancers or other performers who started out with a physical discipline. They have to get busy and root themselves in the body. Clues may also come via the ears: by listening to the music their character might enjoy. Whatever it is, the process has to be primarily nonverbal.
For another actor (and for some directors), the notion of character is itself a red herring. It’s not so much a matter of finding a fictitious self, but rather locating how to inhabit a space with presence. Presence is a mysterious concept, but when you see it you recognize it. Some actors can just stand in a room, on a stage, or on a film set, and seem to fill it with their being without apparently doing anything. It takes confidence to inhabit situations and spaces in this way, and it begins by finding an ease with the physical body.
Someone who has designated themselves a character actor (as opposed to a leading man or woman) may discover a great deal by abandoning the idea of character altogether. I have worked with actors where all I do as preparation is spend time looking at them, perhaps taking photographs of them. Moving through the discomfort of being looked at, finding that doing nothing is enough—or more commonly, is excruciatingly uncomfortable—will open a new vein of awareness. A screen actor needs to be able to tolerate enormous amounts of scrutiny. The camera itself can be experienced as a cold, relentless stare. Learning to welcome this without any posture of defensiveness—including overacting a character—will prove liberating and relaxing. A character, for this kind of actor, may have become a hiding place from the discomfort of being looked at (for paradoxically, some actors are shy). Abandoning the idea of character for them is like stepping out into the light. They are still playing a role, inhabiting a life-story or situation that is different from their own daily lived experience, but surrendering to being looked at means that their own core will also remain visible, instead of being in a state of retreat. This way of becoming centered will root and illuminate their portrait of someone other. The portrayal they are seeking must manifest in their own body and will be animated by their own face. This state of acceptance—of both being and not being the role being played will enrich it and add depth to the notion of character.
Very occasionally it may help an actor who is having trouble finding who they are playing—what they sound like, how they move—if you demonstrate something, even if you do it badly. In fact as a general principle it’s often useful for a director to be prepared to look like a fool. If you are prepared to jettison your dignity, the actor may feel encouraged to take more risks him- or herself. Unexpressed embarrassment is an impediment to everyone. In these circumstances a good laugh at your own expense is extremely useful for both of you.
Sometimes, in the search for whom they are really playing, what the actor really wants is something very simple, but often rare: some private time with you. This actor needs to get to know you as a person and can’t figure out how to really connect empathetically with the role—their character—until that happens. The state of connectedness itself has to start with you, or in the space between you. Some actors who get no time with the director may feel chronically alienated from the film and from themselves. If you make the time you will both reap the reward.
You observe what works for each individual actor, and take it from there. That means knowing that there are no hard and fast rules. But there is a chain of cause and effect in the development of a role, a character, or simply an actor’s presence, and you, as the director, are part of that chain. You are helping the actor to dive into an unknown zone and find the mysterious, transitory, and ephemeral otherness of the self they are temporarily occupying.
Plays rely primarily on the spoken word, but film—an intensely visual medium— also relies on what you see: action and imagery, spaces and places. These elements of the screenplay must be written and described, equally precisely, in order for the crew to understand what needs to be built, found, lit and filmed. For the actors, whilst their lines are crucial, what is not said must also be understood and, paradoxically, needs to be implied through what is said. So a good screenplay works on many levels: the spoken word, the unspoken subtext, silent gesture, situation, environment, and action. It must evoke the finished film in its entirety: not by describing camera angles (which robs the director and cinematographer of their interpretive imagination) but by vividly and economically evoking a world—the world of the story being told.
The work you do with the actor on the text—the things they are going to do and, vitally, the words they are going to say, is one of the most important aspects of your process together. For this reason you must know the script— every word of it—extremely well. In fact, as a general principle, the director needs to know the script much better than everyone else working on the film, for it will become your collective bible and be constantly referred to. As you go through it, again and again, with each head of department and then with each actor, you will discover that each person sees it differently. People necessarily interpret the needs of the script from their own perspective, whether this is camera, design, costume, sound, or performance. Hearing these varying viewpoints will, in turn, clarify your own understanding of what you wrote (if you are a writer-director) or will help illuminate the script someone else wrote and you are now bringing to life. Each meeting with a member of the crew or actor will force you to clarify what you are trying to do.
For the actors to speak lines convincingly and do things authentically, they have to know why they are saying and doing them. This may seem to be stating the obvious, but often enough the actor may find he or she is doing or saying something because it says so in the script, whether or not it seems logical or necessary. Understanding the text may not always be arrived at analytically. It may just feel right. But if it doesn’t feel right then the performance is likely to be stiff, awkward, forced, or artificial.
If you are lucky enough (or determined enough) to have a rehearsal period and have decided it is appropriate for the actors you have chosen—then there may be time to unravel every scene, every line, even every word, in order to find its necessity, understand where it is coming from, and anchor the words in the actor’s own experience. There will be time to talk about motivation, back-story (where the character is coming from in the fictitious story before the film began), and any other issues arising. But whether or not you do this layered work on the text with the actor, when they are learning the lines they will automatically be doing some version of it for themselves.
Every actor knows that some sections of dialogue are harder to learn than others. This is usually when they stumble across a hole in the script. A hole, or gap, is when the writing tries to disguise an inconsistency in the story or character, or perhaps a cut in a speech, and the actor has to leap across it, trying to make sense of something that does not flow with natural logic. If you don’t go through this process with the actor in detail before the shoot it may well arise as a problem on set. The actor suddenly finds, when it’s all happening for real, that they just can’t make it work. If you gloss over it on set and ask the actor to just do it the problem will then emerge again in the cutting room when you edit the material together. So it is in your interests to identify the problem at the earliest opportunity, when there is still time to fix it. I now relish these awkward moments of realization.
Or perhaps there will not be any problems, holes, or gaps in the script, but going through it with an actor in a rehearsal or private meeting will deepen your own understanding of the character or the themes in your story by exposing them to the light with the person whose task it is to embody them.
Whereas most people watching a film assume that the bulk of the writing consists of the dialogue—and every screenwriter knows that story structure, character, and evocation of imagery make up the real backbone of a script— every actor knows that subtext is what will make their part interesting. Subtext is what is not said, but we feel to be true. The character’s thoughts and intentions may even run counter to what is being said. A good writer will structure these unbearable threads every bit as carefully as the spoken word.
You will often find the substance of the character (and the most subtle work of the actor) in this gap between what is being said and what is being thought or felt, but not said. You may find it in the gap between what the character is saying and what they are doing; in the delusions they carry about themselves. In effect this gap is an exploration of the unconscious. The written dialogue will, at its best, imply the thought process of the character, but can rarely spell it out in detail on the page—it would be a very long script if it did.
Secrets—and the powerful silences that contain them—can be evoked very strongly if the actors know what it is that they are feeling or thinking but cannot say. Understanding the undertow, the unspoken feeling, will give depth to a performance even without the actor trying to show any of it.
If you listen carefully you will learn a lot about any problems or inconsistencies in the script at the very first read-through of a scene. Notice where the actor stumbles or hesitates, or where things seem to flow. Notice where you or the actor might feel too much pleasure in a literary turn of phrase (if it is not relevant to the character), or too little. You will suddenly hear repetitions that had previously passed unnoticed. You may recognize a phrase or theme that really belongs to another character. Beware of such overlaps, because one or the other will end up on the cutting-room floor. (But do not expect the actor to arrive at a fully rounded performance of the text at the first go. In fact I often suggest doing it wrong in order to diffuse tension about getting it right.)
On the second read-through you will start to learn what kind of direction works for the actor. For one actor it may be a great deal of analytical conversation about why the character is saying this or doing that. You may be expected to answer many questions, or discuss in detail the motivation, the reason for each word, each hesitation, or each silence. You may need to clarify the arc of change within the scene, explore how the character is different by the end of the scene compared to the beginning. You will find out—by how the performance is changing—which of your answers to the actor’s questions are helpful or unhelpful, which verbal suggestions ignite a spark or seem to close things down.
For another actor this kind of verbal analysis may feel deadening. Too much reasoning, too much verbalizing, may feel as if it is killing the life in the scene, obliterating the actor’s instinct. The actor may still wish to read it aloud (or you may want them to, for your own reasons), but may not want or need to talk about it. In this instance your silent attentiveness will be far more useful than any phony or superfluous direction. Your careful listening will start to create the invisible space in which the actor can work, and you will also privately discover vital information about the script itself.
For an actor to connect with the inner life of a character, or the deeper themes of a scene, it can be useful—or even essential—to find a way of directly relating the character’s experience to a memory of a similar experience in the actor’s own life (loosely speaking, this is the famous method approach to acting). Most actors do some version of this, consciously or unconsciously. The memory—which may be different to the substance of the script, but with a relevant emotional tone—will then anchor the scene in the inner life of the actor. An example might be a scene where the character faces a terrible loss, perhaps the death of a child. The actor may not have children or may not yet have faced the death of a loved one. But everyone has faced loss of some kind. By contacting a memory, empathetically grafting the memory onto the experience of the character, it will become easier to locate an authentic, more personal and less stereotyped expression of emotion. Or it may be that the emotion can be felt by the actor but not expressed. Emotional repression might turn out to be the most interesting way to play the scene.
A string of such moments, rooted in the actor’s memory-bank, becomes one of the lines in a kind of inner score to which the actor can refer: the equivalent of the musical score a conductor uses to track every instrument in the orchestra and how their parts relate to each other. (This is also a metaphor that applies to the director’s work on a film, which is often compared to that of a conductor.) By the time of shooting, this private score will have become quite elaborate, and the actor is, consciously or unconsciously, constructing a complex inner life.
The actor will, on the top line of the score, be holding the lines—the spoken words—somewhere in his or her head. The second line will involve physical actions, sometimes predetermined instructions, such as walking to a certain spot (hitting the mark, which may be necessary if the camera moves are fixed), or timing a move or turn of the head, an entrance or an exit: the blocking of the scene, its choreography. The third line may involve holding an awareness of the arc of the scene—its overall pace and emotional development, a process that may have been clarified and absorbed in rehearsal. The fourth line may be locating or anchoring a moment in the actor’s own memory or experience, which will trigger authentic feeling, causing tears to flow, or joy to radiate from the actor’s face. The fifth line may be the subtext: what the character is not saying but may be thinking. Keeping awareness of these parallel lines requires extraordinary focus and mental and emotional agility on the actor’s part: a blend of total engagement with and surrender to the present moment with, at the same time, a necessary degree of partial detachment, in which part of the actor’s awareness is anchored in the crafting of the scene.
Drawing attention to these threads of awareness will not, however, be appropriate for all actors, which is the danger of systematizing any method. For some actors it might feel too mental and analytical a process consciously to engage with, even if unconsciously they are doing something very similar. This kind of actor may bring the text to life by unlocking a physical detail in the character’s body: a posture, a way of walking, an accent, a turn of the head, or something as apparently simple as anchoring their awareness in their breathing. In the moment of enactment this kind of actor may feel that too much verbal analysis of what they are doing is getting in the way of working instinctively. By forgetting everything else in the moment of shooting, when it eventually arrives, and entering into a state of suspended disbelief or even pure being, every word and gesture seems to arrive spontaneously and unbidden. Once again, therefore, the director’s job is to observe what works for the individual during preparation rather than impose any particular, preconceived way of doing things.
An actor may sometimes try to do too much with the text. Ideally, once the actor knows the lines well—knows why something is being said and has found an impulse from within to speak, a kind of necessity—then a quality starts to emerge that feels somewhat metaphysical: letting the text speak you, not speaking the text. This becomes a kind of transmission, words flowing through the actor, rather than being pushed, shaped, or forced in any way. (This is also why rehearsal needs to be about the why of a scene rather than the how.)
Needless to say, this feeling of necessity relies on good writing. It’s worth spelling out: again and again, at every stage of preproduction, the shoot, the edit, and at every showing of the film, you learn about the primacy of the script. The writing—especially its deep structure—really is the key to the film working, which is why most actors will initially respond to the script above all. But it is also, paradoxically, ultimately only a blueprint. Or perhaps a better metaphor is that of a skin that must be inhabited and then shed. A script is also mutable. It can be changed. A director needs to be alert to when the lines need to be respected—spoken as written—and when a degree of irreverence and flexibility is called for.
Changing more fundamental aspects of the script during rehearsal (and especially during the shoot) can be dangerous. A good screenplay consists of more than spoken words. It is the structure, the emotional and narrative architecture that holds everything together.
The writing of this deep structure will have taken place over a long period of time, under solitary, contemplative conditions. Everything in a worked- through screenplay will be there for a reason. If you tinker with that under the turbulent conditions of the shoot, when you may forget why a particular fragment is a necessary part of the whole, you will probably live to regret it in the cutting room. Nevertheless, sometimes you realize, with dawning clarity, that something is wrong and must be changed. The earlier you spot this, the better. And when an actor finds, instinctively, that there is no genuine or necessary impulse from which to speak—or to play a scene at all—this can be as useful to you as a canary who senses problems deep underground before the miners know they are in danger.
Sally Potter has written and directed numerous films, including The Gold Diggers, Orlando, The Tango Lesson, Yes, and Ginger & Rosa. She lives in England, where she was made an OBE in 2012 for her services to cinema.
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