Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Acting 101: A tale of Two Entrances

People sometimes ask what, exactly, I do on set. By way of an answer, here's a story - and a little Acting 101 brush-up. Which everyone needs, sometimes.

DAY ONE of a new episode is always interesting. Everyone's shaking off the cobwebs of the previous episode (which we were working on 12 hours earlier), everyone's getting warmed into an entirely new story. As a result, we're often on the soundstage (the "Operations Center") on Day 1-- it's a controlled location, crews know their way around the space, and things can move quickly.

This new episode is bookended by two scenes between Callen, our lead, and Hetty, the wizened "boss" of the investigators. More, they're set in the same location, and the staging is almost identical in each. Since they're both relatively simple "gets" involving only two characters, we'll start day one with these two scenes.

But here's the thing: due to a number of logistical considerations, they'll be shot in reverse order. And since the story in the script covers a single day, that means that Callen's first entrance (a shot that will go off at 7:30AM, give or take) is meant to be at the tail end of a long, wearying day that ends the episode; as soon as that scene's done, we'll shoot the very first shot of the story, when none of the day's violent events will have yet occurred.

Same actor, same entrance, completely different emotional moments. Two hours apart. Think it's easy? Try it.

So we start with the wide. All looks good, except Callen is not quite entering with that heavy, "end-of-a-long-day" energy that the moment requires. In the focused momentum of getting that first shot, we've skipped a commonly overlooked part of an actor's prep:

The Moment Before

It's a concept borrowed from the theatre, to be sure: essentially, the actor must ensure that the energy of their entrance is in keeping with the circumstances of the moment-- or, more specifically, the moment just before one's entrance. Hence, "Moment Before." (Some of you may have learned this as "Given Circumstances", but it's the same concept. ) It's a simple idea-- but mastery of it is so, so much more critical to a film performance than theatre.

Why? Two reasons: first, we often shoot the place you're leaving days after the place you're going to, and without doing this work you will never maintain continuity. Second, often a film or TV scene is so short that the entrance IS the scene, or a big part of it. Think: how many entrances and exits does a character make in a play, and how many in a film? So call it what you want-- Given Circumstances, Moment Before, makes no difference. The key to mastering it is the same:

remember that every entrance is an exit, and every exit is an entrance.

Like so many things in acting, you can notice this in action in life: when you're entering your apartment, you're leaving the hall. When you're entering a restaurant, you're leaving the sidewalk. And if you pay attention to the entrances and exits of others, you'll notice just how much of the "Moment Before" they carry with them.

In this case, our work required no more than a 20-second conversation to shift Chris' emotional focus from where he was entering (the gymnasium) to where he was leaving (his office, at the end of a draining day). Since we'd already worked the scene itself, that "scene energy" would take over when it happened. There was no need to focus on the upcoming moment.

Which seems counter-intuitive to some actors, but: imagine walking out of your apartment, fresh off a phone call with a debt collector, and now you're late, and life just really really sucks.... when there's Megan Fox (or Johnny Depp), passed out naked in front of your door.

Suddenly, that crappy phone call doesn't seem so important.

So if that's your scene (and if it is, LUCKY YOU), you don't open the door with "here comes Megan/Johnny, can't wait!"; rather, you open it with "well, THAT sucked..." The sight of Megan/Johnny will then carry you into the present moment.

It is understandable that an actor with a long day might overlook this. It's even more understandable that the director, who's rightfully focused on not getting behind on Day 1, is not going to slow down because of an entrance on the wide that may or may not even be used. The truth? If the actor hits their marks, connects on their lines, and all of the technical land mines that can sabotage a shot are avoided, then everyone will be happy, and we'll move on.

Which is, on one level, as it should be: taken on its own, the specific energy of any single entrance a character makes is a minor thing, to be sure. But minor things add up. "So what," you say - "who will notice?"

You will. The audience will. And over the arc of a season you'll notice that the show is demanding just a little less of you.

But at 7:30AM on Day One, it's possible that everyone might miss it. Except the guy who's hired specifically to watch for these things.

And if you don't have one of those guys --and chances are you don't-- then it's your job to remember: context. On an entrance, remember where you're coming from. On an exit, think about where you're going to.

Because we'll notice.


  1. this is a great story for explaining this concept. Thanks! you just helped me develop my lesson plan on entrances and exits!