Ask an actor for the most frequent adjustment they hear when going in for your average film or television audition (but particularly the latter), and there’s a good chance you’ll hear that the casting person told them, “Do less.” Some thoughts on this:
1. Coffee-shop naturalism rules the day. I’m not advocating for it, and it’s probably not the kind of acting which stirred our youthful dreams of art and performance. But for the most part that’s what’s happening on television, particularly in the drama category. Procedurals dominate – and acting isn’t what moves procedurals, it’s, well… the procedure. At around 45 minutes into every episode of House (so sorry to see this one retire….), the B-storyline would feed Dr. House an idea that leads him to solve the A-story medical mystery. That doesn’t mean Hugh Laurie didn’t kick the shit out of it – but you generally are looking at a lead performance that can be fun to watch, but these days is often still pretty restrained in the acting. Surround the lead with a gang of other generally less vivid characters, and add in a plot structure that’s rigid as a rock. All the CSI and Criminal Minds and Law and Order franchises operate the same way – and it’s not the acting that is particularly special about any of it. (Serials offer more opportunity for interesting acting choices – my personal favorite is currently Southland, where I feel they give the actors far more latitude than you find in procedurals.) So this fits in with my entry on “Name That Tone” – you have to know the tone of the show, the style of the acting, and place your acting and the choices accordingly with the project. I would say most actors who have ended up seeing the episode of the show they were up for probably looked at the performance as cast and muttered, “That’s it? That’s what they wanted?”
2. There’s a lot going on other than you and your performance. For TV, you’re walking into a situation where you’ve got a show-runner and/or writer-producer whose job it is to maintain the world of the story, the characters, the overall tone, in addition to all the logistics of budget of a big production. Then you have a gaggle of writers working on each script, they’re managing a bunch of characters who show up each week as leads and supporting leads, and then you have the actors in those roles and all those personalities and egos, and then different directors for each episode. They have 100+ people at work on a series every week in and out, and then there’s you. You feel perhaps as if you’re on the outside looking in, but you’ve got this opportunity to go in to read for your scene or your guest star or what-have-you. We have to ensure that despite the fact that this audition was one of three you had this month, or this quarter, or this year – you don’t corrupt your instrument and psychology so that you feel you need to burst upon the scene with this particular sucker and damnit, they’re finally gonna see you for the talent that you truly are. I have an inkling that actors sometimes do about five auditions’ worth of acting in a single audition, and so the choices get perhaps unintentionally amplified given the overall picture of what’s happening in the lives of those doing the casting, not to mention the story and what’s required for it.
3. Actors are unaware of what energy they bring into a room just as themselves. Take an empty room with a chair in it. Got it? Now someone walks in and sits down in the chair. The room is already different. The actor needs to be aware of this, or at least aware enough that they don’t blithely go past the change in energy that has already occurred and double-down on it with a big choice. The result can be it seems ‘too big.’ If Ethel Merman comes in the room, that’s a presence. Now if she doubles down on it with a huge choice – she may not get that part on CSI: Boise. Not these days. Some actors have a strong physicality, some bring a shyness, some bring a sharp wit – I won’t pretend to be the arbiter on what quality you’re bringing, nor do I mean to introvert everyone into deep analysis of how they change an empty room. What I do want is to call attention to the fact that, particularly for the naturalistic style of most current television, simply being in the room and knowing the story, the tone, and being truthful to that – that’s oftentimes as much as you need. What’s needed to tell the story correctly will rarely require all the talent you have.
4. With 1-3 in mind, they said do less, not be less. I think after a while, this cascade of ‘do less’ feedback leads actors to be afraid of choices, afraid of evaluation, afraid of their shadow. Milton wrote that he didn’t believe there was a difference between film acting and stage acting because historically the best film actors have come from a stage background, and also because while choices or physicality may be modulated for film and television, the choice is still there, the story is still there, and the actor needs to be a participant in advancing the story, not just some inert face on whom someone turns a camera. In television and film, yes, they have all these other means of amplifying and controlling a performance – camera movement, the lens, the editing, the music… These elements can do a lot of work in the storytelling, and knowing how your acting works in concert with those elements is part of the modulation between stage and tv/film work. But don’t actually become less of who you are. It may simply be a matter of learning to do less with that evaluation you’ve already got. That’s why I sometimes try to use the word placement – like in tennis. You want the ball to go right there in the corner, but that doesn’t mean you have zero intention, just standing inert on the tennis court for fear of overhitting it. There’s still energy, focus, intention – all of it… but in the service of a particular shot, or this particular story.
5. Don’t resent the correction. They’re not wrong for saying, “Do Less,” even if to you the note seems frustrating. They may actually want a little less. Maybe they’re just repeating what the Casting Fairy told them to instruct actors. Maybe they’re checking that you can be compliant with a request. Or perhaps, mirabile dictu, they in fact know more than you about the style of the show, what the director that week likes or dislikes, or what the writer-producer wants for the style they’re after. So – no chip on the shoulder, no resentment, no subconscious urge to wring their necks while launching into a five-paragraph soliloquy of intense emotional revelation. Just easy-going compliance. That easy-going nature is in and of itself a highly attractive element in casting a role, because they’ll get from you that you’re going to be okay in the middle of a stressful environment.
6. Lighten up. You simply cannot take any of this too seriously, nor at all personally. There are a number of ‘overall type’ factors that may keep you from the part despite even the most brilliant acting – they want the role taller, shorter, greener, pinker, deeper voice, more innocent look, a touch older, a bit frailer, a bit less like the lead actor, not quite as funny as the funny supporting actor we’ve got…. It’s so subjective and while I do believe that any actor is capable of changing any preconception about what the role should be – each actor for their own sanity has to have the long view in mind and not allow the maddening “do less” aesthetic of some film and dramatic television affect their morale one way or the other.