There’s this great article trending on Backstage at the moment called ‘4 Practical On-Camera Tips That Make Directors Want to Hire You’. Whilst the advice seems obvious to me now that wasn’t the case when I was fresh to the industry. When I read the article it brought back some horrible memories about when I first started out as an actor. Ah! I can’t believe I’m going to share this with you. Before you read their article, read on below to find out what strange and quirky things I did…
Here’s my interpretation of the 4 practical tips and a great exercise you can do:
1. Eye contact: if you have a reader standing opposite you it seems practical to use them for eye contact. However, I never assume anything in an audition. I always confirm whether my eye line should be looking at the reader. Usually the answer is yes. This way you have someone genuinely opposite you to work off. Albeit a reader and not an actor potentially but make the most of it nonetheless. It also prevents you from looking at the camera (unless directed to stare down the barrell). The more auditions you do the more practice and better you get. It’ll become second nature to you.
2. Take a stand: this is a classic one. As an acting coach myself I see it all the time. Actors, especially inexperienced ones, quite often stand in front of the camera how they would normally stand in every day life. That is standing tall with feet closed together, maybe your toes poke slightly outwards. This doesn’t really work for camera due to its sensitivity. It’s easy to sway and lose balance with feet together which means you may sway off camera and they haven’t captured your entire audition. Ah! Unprofessional. I always instruct my students to plant their feet hip width apart. Be like a tree. It gives you solid grounding and bizarrely improves your confidence (even if it’s only on the outside). This tells me that the actor knows what they’re doing. They’re very aware of the camera, particularly for close ups (or CUs).
3. Take stock of your habits: I really love this one. I’d totally forgotten my on-camera habits when I first started out until I read this article. I have an intense amount of energy. Generally a lot more than the average person and if I don’t release this energy productively it would somehow gather around my ‘third eye’ and cause my eyebrows to twitch. Weird, hey!? It wasn’t until a kind teacher said to me one day, “Evette your performance was great, but you’ve got to stop twitching!” I had no idea I was even doing that. So the first step is awareness of your habits and those cute little quirks and idiosyncrasies, because they’re not all going to work for every character you play. The next step is to focus your awareness on either getting rid of the habit or calming it so that you’re in control of when you want to use it for a character. Every day I would look at myself in the mirror and perform a scene and monologue until I settled that twitch down. No joke it took me around 2-3 months before I had it under control. I’ve never looked back since. Now if you’re unsure what your habits and quirks are, ask family and friends.
**BTW: that was only one of my strange quirks. My other one took me forever to get rid of. I used to clench my jaw when I was nervous. And that used to be basically every time I performed. The answer to that one was deep breathing and yawning exercises (similar to what NIDA do in their audition process). Thankfully I’ve progressed a long way since those days. I love acting coaching. It really fine tunes your observation and directing skills. I’ll probably become a director next!
Here’s a little exercise for you:
a) Get some on-lookers to sit down and watch you walk around the room. Walk how you normally walk every day. Don’t change a thing. Then ask your audience to make serious observations about your walk. E.g. what part of the body do you lead with? Head? Heart? Hips? Feet? Are you light or heavy on your feet? What size steps do you take? Are you fast or slow? Do you bounce or are you smooth? You’ll be surprised at the feedback you receive. To neutralize yourself before taking on a character I get my students to stand feet hip width apart, knees soft but not bent, hips slightly forward and coccyx tucked under, shoulders up to your ears, then pushed back and down, chest out, chin slightly tucked to chest, and the crown of your head pushed to the top. Imagine a piece of string running through the length of your body from your feet to your head and suddenly it’s pulled tight. Another fast trick is to stand against a wall and align your body that way. This is what I call the neutral position. Unless you naturally stand like this, it should feel slightly uncomfortable. This is good! You’re now ready to physically transform your body into another character.
b) The second part to this exercise is once you’re aware of how you walk then you become the observer. Sit at a cafe and observe people walking by. You’ll be amazed at how different everyone walks. You can even make up stories about people based on their walk. This is a fun exercise to do with other actors.
4. Don’t beat up on yourself: there’s no such thing as right or wrong. It all boils down to your own interpretation. But be aware of what habits of yourself you choose to display as part of your character. The essence of you will always be present in absolutely every character you play regardless of how much you transform yourself. Even the greatest character actors out there, like Cate Blanchett and Johnny Depp, still have the basic essence of themselves in all their characters.