Blame The Writer
Posted on: October 7, 2011 in category: Steve's BlogMy very unscientific poll suggests that four or so auditions out of ten involve scripts or sides that are horribly written. I mean, really bad. And at the first sign of bad writing we actors will cop attitude, avoid giving our all and not get a very gettable job.
I love writers. They're smart, socially awkward and often have a keen understanding of human behavior. But the term "writer", like the term "actor", is used quite liberally. Dude at the end of the bar whose cousin's roommate works at CAA is a writer. The girl doing community theatre in Boise who inherited a couple million and wrote a "vehicle" for herself is a writer. You're a writer if you write but not every writer has the skill required to write well. As a result, you, the actor, will deal with scripts written by a multitude of writers with varying levels of skill and it is your job to make each of them look brilliant. It is your job to speak their words truthfully and with an active point of view. No bullshit excuses. No eye rolling. No, "I'm so much better than this script" attitude.
I happen to love bad writing. A lot. When an actor shows up to my office to coach an audition with sides that are overwritten, illogical, inhuman and full of dramatic punctuation, I get really excited. Why, you ask? Because I'm madly in love the process of acting and bad writing forces you to really engage in the process. You have no choice but have to be more creative with your preparation, make stronger choices and be more focused on what you want from the other actor or actors in the scene or else you're sunk. With the right attitude an actor can become even more engaged in a scene from a lame script than a well written one.
In the Meisner tradition, I believe that the dialogue is a canoe that floats upon the ocean that is your truthful feelings, what you want from the other actor and how you're trying to get it. "Please, pass the salt" can mean, "I've always loved you, "I'm gonna kill you", "I need some salt for my eggs", or anything else for that matter. With all due respect to the writers, it's possible to create a wonderful, truthful, emotionally charged, high stakes scene by reciting the phone book back and forth. But only if you've done the creative work and some mental gymnastics to make the poorly written world of the play meaningful for you. That work is necessary, rewarding and our job.
Now of course sometimes when the writer is really talented, efficient, stylized, etc (Mamet, David E Kelley, etc), that canoe is a big ocean liner sitting on the ocean and the actor must rely more on the words. But in our world of mediocre films and TV, often times the canoe is more of a busted up raft. And that old raft requires you to connect even to it. It requires your heart. And doing the work- even when it's not Stephen Gaghan- will make you a better actor.
But I get that it's not easy to do. Because our work requires emotional investment and almost guarantees rejection, actors can adopt an "I don't give a shit" attitude about certain work. Insecurity and the fear of being bad in a movie that was written by moron, can lead you to not try or to overcompensate by acting like you're better than a project. This behavior is bad for a career.
Poorly written scripts often pay a lot of money (whether it's that straight to DVD, 5th installment of that once popular horror movie or Star Wars Episode I, II and III). You can put the kids through college on a string of bad TV movies shot in any of the former Communist Block countries. Plus, most actors with a long term career have a story or two about that crappy movie that, due to a chance meeting on set or a standout performance, lead to bigger and better things.
It's a poor craftsperson who blames her tools and it is a poor actor who blames the writer. If you can't connect to a line of dialogue, it's your fault. You need to do the creative work of figuring it out and making it meaningful to you. Ask for help if you need to. You need to muster up the guts to lean harder on your intention and have an active point of view.
It's not the writers fault.