An actor wanting to work in both film and stage needs to be aware of this difference and make the necessary adjustments.
There is a wonderful story about Sir Lawrence Olivier who was known primarily as a theater actor in London being cast as Heathcliff in one of the film versions of Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler in 1939. Evidently, he was so incredibly over the top that he nearly got fired. The outtakes from this film are truly unbelievable. His eyebrows could have received their own credit!
Other noticeable differences between stage and film acting derives from the material itself. A stage play, in most instances, has a handful of set changes. Thus, if a play is bad, the audience can’t even be distracted by a change in scenery, whereas a screenplay changes locations and sets, constantly.
In addition, as I often point out to my students, there is a discernible difference in how the characters are drawn in books compared to stage plays, and compared to screenplays. In a book, it is all about what the character is thinking and feeling. The writer has the freedom to write page upon page about the character’s thoughts or feelings about wallpaper or the garden or a lover, or whatever else might engage the reader.
In a stage play, it is about what they are saying. This is why some of the longest monologues we come across are from plays. Scenes from plays, in general, also tend to be extremely lengthy. In film, there are scenes that are literally a few seconds long with only a few words or lines.
In film and tv it is all about what the character is “doing.” There is a reason it is called “Motion Pictures.” Steven Spielberg once said he knew a movie was working if he could turn down the sound and still know what was happening. I say this to my actors often.
One of the tools we use at the studio which also lends itself more to film acting than to stage work is “Place and Fourth Wall.” This tool asks the actor to imagine a place from their actual life that will connect them more to the scene, this connection is mostly emotional and also ties the actor to another tool they should already have in place, which is the “Substitution.” They are required to know what each wall looks like and then, most importantly, the fourth wall, which puts a barrier between them and the audience. This is all in their imagination, of course. The reason for this is that all of us behave differently when we know we are being watched and thus, display more truthful behavior. The fourth wall helps the actor forget they have an audience. Just as important, it allows for emotional intimacy between the actors in the scene.
In theater, the actor must be aware of their audience and most of the work done on stage is for the audience.
It’s important to remember that the camera exaggerates everything. So, if an actor is overdoing it a little, the camera will see it as a lot. In addition, when an actor consciously decides to perform for an audience, that is literally dozens of feet away, much of the emotion in the scene must also be exaggerated. This doesn’t make it bad or wrong, it is absolutely necessary but simply will not work for film.
Sir Michael Caine, the incredible British actor, when asked if he thought there was a difference between film and stage acting said, and I am paraphrasing… “Absolutely, when I am doing a film, I must be 100% present, when on stage, I can be making my grocery list and no one will know the difference.” The point is, when the camera is not right in actor’s face, the audience is not going to discern how truthful or believable the performance is.
Film actors also do not enjoy the luxury of instant gratification that a stage actor receives when they are having a great night. Conversely, the benefit that film actors have over stage actors is that they will often be allowed to do multiple takes. Thus, if they are doing poorly, they always have another chance to get it right. That being said, a stage actor will have weeks or months to deliver a perfect performance.
If you are interested in learning more about acting or auditions observe a class at our studio today!