Many of my clients, students and friends have asked me, “What, exactly, is an actor? And how is it that they seem to be worth SO much in the movie marketplace?”
These questions can be answered by going back to (a) the basic meaning of the word itself; and (b) looking at the history of the film medium, and the need to differentiate it from the associated, yet quite different, art form–theatre.
“Acting” is derived from the Latin word “agere,” which means “to do.” So, we can say that an “actor” is “one who does.” Yet it is the very nature of the “doing” that determines the actor’s success in film, or theatre, or both.
In fact, some people have success in only one or the other of these media. This suggests that there are some fundamental differences between them.
The first DIFFERENCE is something I call “the moment of creation.” This refers to the time period during which the actor is doing his/her primary work.
For a stage actor, the role is developed over a long period of rehearsal (often weeks, sometimes months). The part is memorized, and the motions on stage are “blocked” (organized, planned and rehearsed for a consistent flow throughout). Then, the performance takes place, lasting an hour or two or more, based on the length of the play.
So, the stage actor’s moment of creation could be said to be from rehearsal through performance, and that would usually take months. Or, it could be said that the most intense moment of creation for the stage actor is the length of the performance itself, in one continuous stretch.
The film actor has a very different situation. Rehearsal times for movies vary widely. There are questions of the actors’ schedules; if they are SAG members, there is the question of pay; and, perhaps the most important issue–when the rehearsal could be most important (just before filming begins), there are usually so many emergencies for the production staff that the necessary mental concentration isn’t really available.
My average rehearsal time for a feature film has been two days. I’ve worked on many movies where there is virtually NO rehearsal time–sometimes actors meeting director and cinematographer for the first time on the set. In fact, my father, Vincent Sherman (the last of the “golden age” directors) told me he met Bette Davis, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart on their first day of production!
This is by no means true of all movies, but, because of all these factors, and perhaps also because many directors and screen actors WANT spontaneity on the set, there really is no set pattern for movie rehearsal.
For these reasons, casting–the selection of the best actor for the job–becomes even more vitally important.
Now, it’s not that their role is set in stone, but, when writing my book DIRECTING THE FILM, I found that of the 85 directors interviewed, 90% of them asserted that casting was far and away the most important interaction between director and actor.
The next difference between stage and film acting would be “continuity of performance.” The continuity for a stage performance is created by the group of actors and director during the rehearsal. Then, they re-create it during the performance–for two or more straight hours. All in one fell swoop.
Therefore, the stage actor must conceive of the role as deliverable–and must deliver it–in one continuous streak. There are no “re-takes,” no tweaking, no “bits and pieces” approach.
On the other hand, the film actor must create an overall sense of the role. He can “embody” it at any moment. And he must be prepared to tap into the screenplay–any scene, any time.
On stage, during performances, the continuity can be adjusted by the live “fourth wall” of the audience, which can become almost interactive with the cast. Thus, the next performance might reflect a radical change in tone–but it still will have an internal integrity–FOR THAT PERFORMANCE.
The stage actor’s overall embodiment of the role may differ from performance to performance, but this will be okay, as long as it’s internally logical.
Again, this is very different from the screen actor’s challenge–which is to maintain integrity throughout any given moment; even if shots from the same scene are taken at wildly different times.