The last component you will learn about in this series on creating a character is how to go about finding out what is really going on in the scene. In other words, what is the scene really about? What is really happening that is important to my character? You may be asking yourself, isn’t that the same thing as the conflict? Not really. Conflict is about determining who is preventing you from getting what you want. And sometimes that person is yourself. What is really happening in the scene sometimes has nothing to do with the conflict. You must find out how the scene changes the story, or if doesn’t change the story, why it doesn’t change the story and how the fact that it doesn’t change the story changes you. It may seem confusing now, but it will become clearer the more you practice.
The thing to always remember is that you can’t just read the words that characters are saying and expect to figure out what’s going on. Think about real life. Have you ever heard a conversation going on around you that seemed to be in code? You understood exactly what the people were saying, but you just knew somehow you weren’t really getting the meaning. How many times have you had a conversation that was in code? Sometimes we have to communicate with other people without everybody else knowing what we’re really talking about. Well, guess what? That happens in movies and plays, too. You can’t just sit there, read the script, and unquestioningly accept that what the characters are talking about is what they really mean. An actor is many things. Sometimes he has to be a psychologist, digging deep down into his character’s hidden psyche to understand why he made the choices he made. Sometimes being an actor means being a codebreaker. You may look at the words that your character says and then the actions he takes and come to the conclusion that there’s no connection at all and he must be insane. That’s an easy way out. Never play a character as crazy, no matter how obviously insane he is. No matter how much of a gap there may be between what your character says and what he does, it’s part of your job to find the connection. When taking apart a scene, you must go beyond the words and find out what emotions are really taking place behind them. Part of that job often entails finding out exactly what is going on in the scene, no matter how hidden it may be.
Conflict makes great drama. And it makes for even better acting. But conflict isn’t necessarily what the story is about. Conflict drives the emotions, but a story that is about nothing but conflict would be unsatisfying. It would just be a series of emotional climaxes that never pays off. It might be exciting while it’s happening, but it would be hollow. Drama is about a story. It’s about events that take place and humas that learn and grow and change. It’s easy enough to explain the events of an entire play or movie, but your job as an actor is to find the events that take place within certain scenes. For a writer, conflict is about obstacles preventing an easy path from the beginning to the end of the story. For an actor, conflict is about determining what you really want and why you want. When an actor starts caring about the obstacles preventing an easy path from the beginning to the end of the story, what he’s looking for is what the scene is really about.
Sometimes it may seem quite easy to figure out what a scene is about. Usually, we get lulled into this misrecognition when the scene turns explosive and confrontational. When your character picks up a gun and shoots another character, we can readily assume that was the major event in the scene. But is that what the scene was really about? Well, actually, no. No, the shooting isn’t what the scene was about. At least not for you, the actor. No, what the scene is really about is why you picked up a gun and why you shot that person. A violent confrontation is what happened, but it’s the reason that violent confrontation took place at that particular time under those particular circumstances that is important to be understood. Except in incredibly rare instances, a scene is almost never about the action that takes place. Rather, it’s almost always about why that action took place. Confrontation and climax is the result of what the scene is really about, it’s not the reason.
All scenes involve a change from the beginning to the end. Something has to be different at the end of the scene than it was the beginning. If two people are sitting down to talk in a play or movie, there had better be a reason. Sometimes, as in scenes of confrontation, the new information presented in the scene and the change that takes place is obvious. But even when it’s not obvious, some kind of new information must be revealed. Don’t misunderstand me. Some of the most entertaining scenes in movie history have been conversations that didn’t forward the plot in any significant way. But not moving the plot forward isn’t the same thing as not changing. Often the change won’t affect the plot, but the relationships of the characters. Quite often you may find yourself acting in a scene in which nothing seems to have changed from the beginning to the end. This is especially true on the stage because plays tend to move at a slower pace than film and information can be doled out over time.
But whether the scene is in a movie or play, the importance of the new information may not be revealed to the audience until later on. Sometimes the importance is never realized by the audience. As an actor, however, you must register the importance. By register, I don’t mean physically so that the audience realizes it is important. Just as you shouldn’t telegraph conflict, you shouldn’t telegraph that you’ve learned something important. What I mean by register is that you must become psychologically aware of how things have changed over the course of the scene. Your character must process the information and realize that he knows more when the scene ends than he did when it began. Don’t worry about proving to the audience that your character is smart enough to realize he knows something has changed. Don’t ever show it. If you feel it, if you really feel the effects of learning something new, the audience will see it.
Let’s look at an example. Let’s imagine a conversation that appears to be rather mundane and trivial to the audience, but is in fact a scene in which your character undergoes a power shift. The information you receive in the scene may give you the upper hand over either the character you’re talking with or another character in the story. The audience may view this scene as being about your best friend getting something off his chest. They won’t learn for some time the true importance of what was said. For the audience, this scene may be funny and apparently meaningless. It may look like nothing more than the writer showing how clever he is. But for your character, that same silly, funny, overly clever scene is about gaining serious power over your friend. It is a scene about taking control over a relationship. And remember, relationships are always changing, even when they look completely solid and dependable and predictable.
A good actor not only learns, but struggles constantly to look beyond the obvious. Consider one of the good old standby plots that never goes out of the style. The love triangle. There is probably almost no plot device that is quite as predictable. For our triangle, let’s create a story where one woman truly loves two different men and she finally reaches a point where she has no choice but to decide between them. Our story has been a rollercoaster of emotions as we watch as the woman is revealed to genuinely be in love with both men. Just think of the conflict there! But just as she’s about to make her decision, one of the men makes it for her.
The whole story has been leading to this scene. The climax. You get to play a big emotional scene at the end of the movie or play, the kind of scene that actors love to sink their teeth into. And this scene is all about one man choosing to be noble. This is a scene all about his telling the woman that he knows deep in her heart it’s really the other guy who is the love of her life. He realizes it now and he’s accepted it. And so he tells her to go with the other man and not look back because this is really the way it’s supposed to be. Yep, what this scene is about is one guy stepping up to the plate and being bigger than the situation. Being above such petty things as fighting over love. He sends her on her way because he knows she’ll never completely get over the other guy. The guy she was with when he first met her. Those are the words he uses and that’s what the scene is about.
Or is it? That may the obvious take on the scene. That may be exactly what every word in the scene points to. But what if you looked beyond the obvious? What if you read between the lines of the script instead of just the lines? As an actor, your take on what happens in this scene could be completely different. It could be in complete opposition to what seems so patently obvious. You can take the exact same words and discover a whole other emotional motivation behind them. As long as there’s nothing in the script that offers undeniable proof that your interpretation is wrong, you have the freedom to go beyond the expected.
Your take on this scene could be that the man is engaged in a power play. And the motivation behind the power play could involve his coming not from a position of nobility, but from a position of fear and self-preservation. The way you play the scene, he knows the woman will never be completely his. He knows that a part of her will always be with the other guy. Instead of this scene being about a noble decision, you could turn it into a scene of a guy deathly afraid of being turned down. It could become a scene about a guy who decides to act first in order to protect himself from being hurt.
So think about it again. Is the final scene of Casablanca a scene about a man being noble or about a man being afraid? The words in the script are exacty the same, but you decide the emotions behind them. As the actor, it’s entirely up to you. Don’t automatically assume that what’s being said by the character is what he’s really feeling. Don’t assume that what we’re supposed to think is happening in the scene is what the scene is really all about. Push the envelope and dig deeper. Take chances. That’s what makes great acting. And that’s what makes a scene crackle with uncertainty and mystery and excitement.