Updated: May 17
I'm just going to go ahead and state the obvious... you need to breathe. Right? Obvious. It's subconscious and automatic, even. But would you believe that "acting" seems to somehow rewire how we breathe? Because it does.
At least once a day, I point out to a person that they are wasting their breath. And, by that, I mean that little puff of air that exists before we share a thought. Or that little expulsion that happens during a phrase to suggest a deeper understanding of the text. But, as a coach, that breath is my first clue that the actor actually has no idea what they're saying. If we were playing poker, that breath would be my tell that you are bluffing about having a good hand.
I was working with a wonderful actress, we'll call her Natalie. Natalie had a callback for a new show and was running the scene with me over a video call to make sure she was on the right path. Now, I trust Natalie's impulses intrinsically. She can bring any script to life in a grounded, heartfelt way.
This text was no different. Everything was connected, thoughtful, true, spontaneous, and simple. There was only one time ...one line... through the entire scene that she let some breath escape as she was delivering some the text. So, I told her, let's look over that section. After closer examination of just that one set of lines, we unlocked some key components that rippled throughout the rest of the scene. She discovered a deeper layer that served the text and not because she was looking for it but, simply, because we listened to the breath.
Here's why we improperly use our breath in a scene. The actor brain knows there is supposed to be something more important on this line, we just don't know what it is yet. So the brain works to fill the moment with a little breath. A little exhale. A little ironic puff of air that implies that we know what is going on but we don't want to say it. Because that's how people talk... right?
But here's the thing. When people (not actors) are searching for a thought, they hold their breath. They save their breath. It remains in the lungs until it can serve as a vehicle for the thought; for the text.
Let's try it... Take just a moment from reading and actively work to remember the name of your 3rd Grade teacher.
You inhaled, your eyes found a place to land to the lower right of your vision, and your breath held until you darted your eyes through your memories enough to uncover the name of your 3rd Grade teacher.
As people, we only exhale in an audible way when we want the other person to know that we are frustrated or that we are searching for a thought. It is a social concept. Audibly releasing your breath is a social tool to ask for a little more time as we figure out what we want to say.
So, to put this back into context for the actor, each time you release your breath you are asking for more time. To gather your thoughts and to find the words.
So take the time. The camera will allow it. The camera craves it. The camera flourishes on the moments of thought that lead to the text. Save your breath and don't share the text until the thought is there.
Don't exhale. Save the breath. Find the thought. Then use the breath as a vehicle to share the text on that thought. And you will be more human for it.
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