Eric Sherman on Acting

And here’s another great article by my good friend Eric Sherman, On Acting.

This is a very good distinction between Stage and Film actors, but also a reflection on the importance of actors, without whom, even animations would be lackluster (i.e. voice actors).

If you’re a brand new actor reading this, you may also want to keep in mind a vital difference between Stage and Film actors, which resides in the fact that in the Theatre, you have to play to (or reach) the last row in the house, which can be quite far, but on the film set, your last row is the camera, which is often a few inches away. Therefore, when playing to the camera, everything must be toned down dramatically as compared to the Theatre.

If we’re a few yards away, a tiny head motion won’t be visible, so a good wobble is necessary. However, for the camera, sitting a couple of feet away, the good wobble will throw you out of frame. And when your face fills the whole frame, everything you do is amplified, and hence the saying that less is more.

But enough about my thoughts… let’s hear from Eric Sherman who is much more knowledgeable and wise in these matters, and the real reason you’re reading this post:


Many of my clients, students and friends have asked me, “What, exactly, is an actor? And how is it that they seem to be worth SO much in the movie marketplace?”

These questions can be answered by going back to (a) the basic meaning of the word itself; and (b) looking at the history of the film medium, and the need to differentiate it from the associated, yet quite different, art form–theatre.

“Acting” is derived from the Latin word “agere,” which means “to do.” So, we can say that an “actor” is “one who does.” Yet it is the very nature of the “doing” that determines the actor’s success in film, or theatre, or both.

In fact, some people have success in only one or the other of these media. This suggests that there are some fundamental differences between them.

The first DIFFERENCE is something I call “the moment of creation.” This refers to the time period during which the actor is doing his/her primary work.

For a stage actor, the role is developed over a long period of rehearsal (often weeks, sometimes months). The part is memorized, and the motions on stage are “blocked” (organized, planned and rehearsed for a consistent flow throughout). Then, the performance takes place, lasting an hour or two or more, based on the length of the play. So, the stage actor’s moment of creation could be said to be from rehearsal through performance, and that would usually take months. Or, it could be said that the most intense moment of creation for the stage actor is the length of the performance itself, in one continuous stretch.

The film actor has a very different situation. Rehearsal times for movies vary widely. There are questions of the actors’ schedules; if they are SAG members, there is the question of pay; and, perhaps the most important issue–when the rehearsal could be most important (just before filming begins), there are usually so many emergencies for the production staff that the necessary mental concentration isn’t really available.

My average rehearsal time for a feature film has been two days. I’ve worked on many movies where there is virtually NO rehearsal time–sometimes actors meeting director and cinematographer for the first time on the set. In fact, my father, Vincent Sherman (the last of the “golden age” directors) told me he met Bette Davis, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart on their first day of production!

This is by no means true of all movies, but, because of all these factors, and perhaps also because many directors and screen actors WANT spontaneity on the set, there really is no set pattern for movie rehearsal.

For these reasons, casting–the selection of the best actor for the job–becomes even more vitally important. Now, it’s not that their role is set in stone, but, when writing my book DIRECTING THE FILM, I found that of the 85 directors interviewed, 90% of them asserted that casting was far and away the most important interaction between director and actor.

The next difference between stage and film acting would be “continuity of performance.” The continuity for a stage performance is created by the group of actors and director during the rehearsal. Then, they re-create it during the performance–for two or more straight hours. All in one fell swoop.

Therefore, the stage actor must conceive of the role as deliverable–and must deliver it–in one continuous streak. There are no “re-takes,” no tweaking, no “bits and pieces” approach.

On the other hand, the film actor must create an overall sense of the role. He can “embody” it at any moment. And he must be prepared to tap into the screenplay–any scene, any time.

On stage, during performances, the continuity can be adjusted by the live “fourth wall” of the audience, which can become almost interactive with the cast. Thus, the next performance might reflect a radical change in tone–but it still will have an internal integrity–FOR THAT PERFORMANCE.

The stage actor’s overall embodiment of the role may differ from performance to performance, but this will be okay, as long as it’s internally logical. Again, this is very different from the screen actor’s challenge–which is to maintain integrity throughout any given moment; even if shots from the same scene are taken at wildly different times.

The tone and mood of any particular stage performance can be affected by events ranging from politics to the weather to the local sports teams results to the stock market that day. Again, this can be all right, as long as it’s recognized by the actors, his fellow cast members, the director and so on.

Compare that to the film actor experience, where the shots are usually made completely out of sequence, in order to accomodate lighting needs, actor convenience, etc. A high premium is placed on the film actor’s exact duplication of his/her body position, voice inflection, etc., so that different parts from each “take” of the shot can be intercut. And there is no audience there responding to the actor’s effort. This ability to duplicate is a reason why athletes and dancers often make excellent transitions to film actors. They are excellent as athletes because they can and do duplicate their body positions as well as their intent from moment to moment. This is a highly valuable skill, and really pays off when they’re performing on screen.

Therefore, overall, the stage actor conceives of a role to be delivered in one continuous moment, and the exact elements of that delivery may vary from performance to performance, but must remain integrated internally. The screen actor must conceive of an oveall embodiment, which must not vary, lest it drive directors, editors, sound recordists, and the like nuts–and they must be able to plug into this concept at a moment’s notice, and in any part of the script.

Now, why IS so much “value” placed on the film actor? The medium of film is VERY expensive to produce. Investors like to have SOMEthing of predictable value to assure that at least some of their money will come back. Actors are the most recognized individuals involved in making a film. And many actors build up a following–these are known as actors that can “open” a film (meaning, audiences will attend just to see that person perform). Occasionally, a director may achieve that status (Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, and a handful of others), but the most commonly asked question by investors AND audiences is: who’s in it? So, an actor can have an economic value which can allow a film to get made, or permit it to succeed financially.

My purpose in pointing out these variables is to assist you with realizing that when you’re auditioning for a stage role, you must be quite aware of the “through-line” of the character and prepare for that. However, when you’re auditioning for a film role, more than the continuity of performance is the overall “presence” or “beingness” that you’re presenting. Though these skills have some relationship, one to the other, they have significant differences. I hope the tips provided will enable you to be excellent, whether on stage or screen.

Each is driven by the end result for which you’re going–the embodiment (making visible) of roles. That is the contribution of that most unique being–the ACTOR.

It is the actor who brings alive the persona/character/role envisioned by the writer and interpreted by the director with his lighting, camera moves and editing.

Movie-goers seek to know why a person reacts the way he does, and what the consequences are of his choices.

Actors, for theatre and film, are the most visible creative contributors. Their willingness to create roles from which we can be educated, entertained and enlightened is invaluable. I hope the comments above increase understanding of their unique form of work.”

Thanks again to Eric Sherman, and if you haven’t checked out the rest of his blog, I highly recommend you do. And if you haven’t read any of his books, that too I heartily recommend; or buy one of his DVDs. You won’t regret it! And, of course, you can follow him on Twitter, or friend him on Facebook.