We’ve been consuming a lot of live Q&A’s with casting directors, and by far the most common question actors ask CDs: How do I make my audition stand out? What makes you call an actor in for a call back? The first part of that answer is technicaI: have clear video quality and audio quality. So once you’ve achieved your ideal #selftape set up, how do you as an actor stand out in the pile of submissions? The answer may seem simple, but the execution is a lot trickier to implement: Make Bold choices. Risk Big. Commit fully. Don’t play it safe.
So where do we start? How do we make deeply grounded and connected choices that dare to risk? How do we fuel ourselves up as actors, so we can attack a scene with full energy and life that is rich, complex, and daring?
Oftentimes, even when we totally agree with the critique, we don’t always quite know how or where to begin with implementing the note. We think a bold choice equates to making a large choice, and we end up playing the buffoon: we start trying on funny voices and bizarrely large gestures. And it ends up being less grounded, and not at all what we had hoped.
Instead, start here:
Dream Big Baby!
As you unpack your text, start looking for clues—a character's dream runs deeper beyond their scene objective. While your scene objective is an immediate need, your dream hints at a deeper, specific long term longing.
Our characters, always, always have big dreams. Their inner fantasy life is rich and they—get this—actually believe their dreams are achievable. Even in a drama or a tragedy (we’d argue, actually more so), characters believe with 100% of their being in the possibility of their wildest dreams coming true.
Your deepest fantasy will unveil an entirely new trajectory your life will take if you succeed in this particular objective.
Pretty heavy stuff right? If you get the note to raise the stakes, think more and more about what it means to this character to get what they want.
For example, If your objective is that you want your mom to give you the down payment of a house, your deeper dream might be to quit your construction job and open your own photography studio. But right now you and your wife need to get out from under your debt, and getting a co-signer and that down payment locked in means you are one step closer to that dream.
Flesh out those dreams; journal; day dream; do whatever you can to get specific on what you fantasize your life could be like... Allow it to be something that truly excites and inspires you and drives you forward.
Get Clear on What’s to Lose
Here’s the flip side of the coin: Get clear on what is at stake. What do you have to lose? What is the cost?
As essential to knowing what you want in a scene, is understanding what will happen if you fail. As with anything in acting, the more specific you are, the better fuel you’ll have to drive your scene forward.
Before every human interaction, we make a risk analysis. We look at our odds of a good outcome, and choose whether or not to engage. But, while we believe we’ve got a shot at winning here, we have to have some skin in the game. We have to know that choosing to engage here will cost us something. Our emotional currency could be time – it could be our social status – or it could be our livelihood – or our identity – even our life... but losing this objective should come at a high price.
If you’ve gotten the feedback to raise the stakes, it is a good indication that your cost is just too low—too pedestrian to motivate you to fight harder.
If you get specific on the price you pay for failure, it makes it much, much harder to fail. Each moment you don’t succeed fuels you to work harder and try something new. (Hint: accepting defeat, is not an option.)
Let’s consider our imaginary scene where you are asking your mother for a down payment on a mortgage. Your price/cost for losing might initially have been that you don’t get to buy a house. If you’d like to raise the stakes, we would seek to make those circumstances worse:
What if you’ve already told your wife you bought the house?
What if you’ve already sold your old house and the entire house is in boxes?
What if not getting this down payment means you have to become homeless and lose your family because of it?
Sounds worse right? Awesome. Betcha bottom dollar that raises the stakes and leads to some riskier choices.
Play the Relationship in the Room
Look at relationship. Spend some time really fleshing out who your scene partner is to you. Generic is no good. Many of us assume “Ah she’s my mom, got it” and figure we know just how to play the interaction... but we aren’t quite there.
We haven’t personalized the relationship. We are playing the relationship on paper, rather than the relationship in the room. On paper, your mom might be 54, from the Midwest, never got divorced. Raised you and your 3 brothers. These might all be facts you’ve collected from the script. And they are good to know.
But our relationships in the room are far more complex. Humans might know that ‘on paper’ someone is older or in a higher social status, or labeled with a familial or relational ‘title.’ But who that person actually is to you, is so so much more evolved and complex.
Here are a few examples of how to take the information provided for you in the script and evolve your relationship:
On paper, your mom might have seemed like an independent modern mom, on the outside – who encouraged you to be independent and follow your own path.
But your relationship might have actually felt like years of being ignored and feeling ashamed to ever ask for anything because your dependency on anyone, even her, was shameful.
Or it might be that your mom was an alcoholic, and you spent most of your childhood cleaning up after her—and as a result, you’ve actually felt resentful for missing out on a childhood. This relationship feels more like she’s the child, and you are a caretaker/ parent.
Maybe, your mom’s been your best friend, since your father seemed to never be home and you two always told each other everything.
Any of these relational dynamics could be at play during your scene, but only you can know which one will feel right for the scene, and fuel you the most. Choose the dynamic that will make it interesting for you, that you find resonates with the character you’ve been exploring. And watch what new tactics come out when you start to realize that who they are in your eyes has crystalized into a multi-dimensional human in the room.
Choose to Care:
This, at its core, requires we bring our deepest vulnerability, and our most open-hearted selves to the work. If you find yourself often getting notes about raising the stakes, about finding your performance to be dull, unengaging, or otherwise ‘safe,’ do a quick check-in about your focus and interest level in the scene.
The most captivating part of our scene should be our scene partner.
We want to watch you engage, care, and fight for your relationship with your scene partner. That is the most human, connected, believable path we can follow as actors. Start refocusing on relationship and choose to let this person in. Choose to care about what they think of you and what they say and do next. Allow it to mean everything; hinge on their every word.
When we are first starting out, we often play a comfortable low risk game. For instance, I’ll ask my student to tell me about their relationship with their scene partner. And maybe they will say something indecisive about being friends. And I’ll ask them to elaborate. And oftentimes, the default choice is “Oh we are friends, but you know we aren’t that close. We haven’t known each other that long so we kinda don’t care if it fizzles out”. And all of that translates into a missed opportunity; a bummer, vague, ‘safe’ scene that won’t keep our interest for 10 seconds. Woof. Try this instead:
When faced with a choice between ambivalence and investment: choose investment. Choose to care.
Be a scientist with your choices and feelings here. Keep score. How many times do we, in life, choose to say “it’s no big deal” or “it doesn’t really matter” and really mean it? Pretty much never! Why? Because it’s a BS defense mechanism. It is a barrier we put up to keep ourselves emotionally safe. We think, somehow, our failure will hurt less.
Go through your script and call yourself out on your own BS detector. Even if the character is lying (which they often do) about their investment, see how many times you, the actor, have chosen ‘not to care’ as an acting choice. Notice each failure in the scene. Take it personally. And rather than letting it make you feel defeated, notice how much being affected means that you do, in fact, care.
Allowing yourself to feel affected, to care about their opinion of you—to love them (even when you are furious with them) will unlock so many new tactics and responses that you previously felt too dangerous to try.
The Bottom Line:
Boldness requires vulnerability. Not playing it safe demands we take risks, right? We must risk losing everything. Standout performances call us to bring our fullest selves - and choose to care.
If you grant your characters big dreams; if you put real skin in the game; if you invest fully in your relationship, and choose to care and be affected -- you will let go of performing and allow yourself to be a human. Just a real person, fighting hard for something who is willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want.
What could be bolder than that?
Clare Lopez is an Actress and Director of Education and Outreach at Book From Tape Acting Studios in Orlando, FL. She is deeply passionate about supporting fellow actors in their craft, and loves using storytelling to educate, elevate, and empower others. Email Clare