Updated: May 17
Curse words can be an extremely valuable tool for any actor. But actors usually don't use them in a helpful way. Adult actors will find a curse word in a text and treat it as any other word (or overly emphasize it), which ultimately negates the need for the curse word in the first place. Young actors aren't afforded that luxury of having a curse word in their text yet are very often telling the same emotionally-charged scenes as their adult co-stars, so it's even more important that they know how to utilize curse words as a tool. (And yes, parents, keep reading.)
Curse words are socially taboo because they are too heightened for every-day-life situations. It is not socially acceptable in day-to-day life to curse while talking to the cashier at your local grocery store or when discussing a project with a teacher.
But scenes, by their very nature, are heightened. They are extreme situations that would be out of the ordinary for you or me on a typical day. Each scene offers a moment for the character to learn about how they exist within the world, to win or lose a major argument, to face or overcome a difficult obstacle, or any number of other life-changing scenarios. (If you encounter a scene that isn't heightened from day-to-day life for one of the characters in some way, it is poorly-written, going to be cut from the project, or you have missed something big.) In these scenes, the world is heightened, our bodies are at the ready, our minds are focused, and sometimes a curse word is exactly what you need as subtext in order to honor the text.
Let's explore all of this through an example. I've worked on a scene with several of my young actors in which two girls have locked themselves in a bedroom as their stepfather is pounding on the door. He is drunk, he is screaming, and they know from previous experience that, if he gets through that door, he will beat them. (This is not, for most people, an every-day-life experience or, hopefully, something that anyone ever has to encounter. It is a heightened experience beyond what most of us can imagine.)
In the script, the text that is written is "Go away!" One of the young girls is meant to scream this with such ferocity that the audience inherently understands her fear of death and, simultaneously, her primal instinct to save her younger sister. These two words are meant to express a thought just as powerful, if not more powerful, as the grown man bending and cracking the door of their bedroom with his fists. These two words are literally her being caught in the crossroads of Fight vs Flight and we do not yet know which path she will choose.
While working on this script, I have seen young actors attempt to deliver this line and fall short. Their minds get in the way: they are pretending to be scared; their bodies do not drop down into the severity of the situation. But curse words do not live in the mind, they live in the body. They are verbal attempts to turn physical actions into words. Stab, punch, claw... survive. So there is a big difference when a young actress screams "Go away!" and when that same actress screams "Go the f**k away!" The body changes, the breath changes, the focus changes... They have now transformed from an actress in a room attempting to bring a scene to life, into a person convincing their body that they are in an extreme situation. The word is more dire, thus the body believes it.
This is where the tool lies. We are not using these words as a trick to convince the viewer that we're serious; actually quite the opposite. These heightened words are reserved for extreme circumstances: moments of stress and surprise and joy and loss and primal need. Just like the brain can't decipher between dreams and reality (why you wake up clammy and angry at your sibling after they've stolen your house made entirely of peanut butter cookies), it's also true that these words trick the brain into feeling these extreme emotions. The brain then sends the necessary chemicals into the body (adrenaline, serotonin, etc...) and now the body is receiving exactly what it needs to continue the scene in a heightened, grounded, natural state and the cycle can continue. There is no need to add on to the scene, because your body is now in the exact physical state it would be in these heightened situations.
In other words, if you're carrying 100 pounds, no need to play 110.
To be clear, I'm not saying to change the text of the scene. The curse word can exist in preparation of the scene, in your own words, and then as the thought that fuels the written text. And even as the impulse that *almost* makes its way out of your mouth. But don't go dropping any F-Bombs in a CW audition. I don't think it would help you.
Jordan Woods-Robinson is an Actor and Head Honcho at Book From Tape Acting Studios in Orlando, FL. He challenges his actors to harness impulse as a tool, to trust their guts, to work on their feet, to break rules, and, overall, to make bold choices that make a lasting impression through tape. Email Jordan