Actors learn lines. Actors speak lines. Actors remember their blocking. And they remember to always face downstage. But then, so do cartoon characters. True thespians, on the other hand, spend the first five minutes of their career doing that. The rest of the time is spent working on the details. It’s all about the details.
When I was a budding, young, high school thespian, a theater major from the local college came to our drama class to give a miniature seminar on acting.
We were all in high school and he was still in college. I remember thinking, What can he possibly know? He’s, what, five years older than us? What can he have learned in five short years of drama training that we don’t already know?
Yeah, like most high school students, I was an arrogant brat who figured I already knew it all. Here was this college “hippie” that was going to teach me how to act.
Actually, he taught me a lesson that I still remember 35 years later.
He had just completed his school’s production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. He played Snoopy. Oh, great, he knows how to play a dog. I, on the other hand, had just played the lead in Our Town. Top that, college boy!
I remember he talked a lot about the difficulty in playing a part that could talk to the audience, but could only communicate in gestures to the other cast members. That meant every gesture — every movement — had to have meaning. The audience was going to be noticing and interpreting everything he did. Everything.
I listened a little closer.
He spent ten minutes talking about one scene. No, he spent ten minutes talking about one part of one scene. He spent ten minutes talking about 30 seconds of acting. This was a guy that appreciated detail.
In this scene, he had to complete a “conversation” with Charlie Brown and then defiantly walk off stage. Stage left; I remember it well. And in the process, he had to direct the audience’s attention away from Charlie Brown, toward himself, and then toward his exit, and then across the stage and into the wings.
Everything he did had a purpose. His eye contact with Charlie Brown. How he raised his hand. How he literally threw his arm across his body in the other direction. How he twirled his head. How he directed his attention off-stage. Everything.
This was a guy that knew the importance of details. That short lesson affected the way I have evaluated theater ever since.
Many years later, I watched an interview of an actor from one of my favorite shows: Michael J. Fox from Family Ties. He talked about his favorite episode, a “coming-of-age” episode in which his 18-year-old character got into an argument with his mother, played by Meredith Baxter-Birney. It was a typical son-feels-trapped-by-his-parents, mom-can’t-let-her-baby-go script.
When Fox talked about filming the show, did he talk about how he got through it without missing any lines? Did he talk about how he could make his co-star giggle? Did he talk about blocking or camera angles or lighting or makeup?
No. He talked about electricity. The episode was filmed before a live audience, which always gives sit-coms a sense of “presence”, of “real-ness”. He talked about how he engaged the entire audience in the argument. He made everybody believe that this was a real son arguing with his real mother about real issues.
He created real electricity by paying attention to the details.
For a more current lesson in details, watch Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Elle in Legally Blonde. In one classic scene, she appears in a Playboy bunny suit at a party that she thought was supposed to be a costume party. She holds her head up high and gamely makes it through the evening. But then she has a confrontation with her boy friend and suddenly realizes that he cares much more about his friends than he does about her.
In a single camera shot, the color drains from her beautiful face. We see her go from happy to hurt in a few short seconds. Her smile disappears, her eyes sadden, her shoulders droop ever so slightly. She matures twenty years right in front of us.
No wonder many have proclaimed Reese to be the successor to Julia Roberts. She knows how to pay attention to the details.