It’s been said that cinema is all about creating conflict. Whether it be drama or comedy, conflict leads to challenges and obstacles which leads to a journey to inevitably resolve the issues at hand. When people drink, conflict is oftentimes close at hand. Folks get lit up with a few cocktails and the inhibitions begin to melt away, truth becomes more palatable, and deep-seated feelings, resentments, longings, and fears are wont to come to light. As well, we live in a culture that accepts alcohol as a social lubricant—a way to empower industry and a means to oblivion.
Consequently, the film and television arts often use alcohol to create engagement, disagreement, strife, contention, blood feud, and even joy and humor.
So, it’s not uncommon and indeed it’s virtually inevitable, in the course of a thespian’s journey, he or she will be asked to act drunk. This is no easy task as anyone who’s had to plausibly affect inebriation will tell you. And there are different stages of drunkenness. There’s the light high, the feelin’-fine groove, the “I just said way too much” buzz, and the rip-roarin’-stinker-all-bets-off drunk; and there are many different shades and levels in between. That’s why it’s very important to understand the specific character you are attempting to portray and the relevance of alcohol within that context.
The quality of verisimilitude in all aspects of acting is critical. The scene, the moment, the experience needs to feel real and true and genuine; if not, the audience will sense it a mile away. This is especially true with acting drunk, because there’s nothing more cringeworthy than a performer acting boozed up and not pulling it off. Awkward!
One of the most celebrated depictions of an alcoholic’s odyssey is, of course, Nicolas Cage’s searing rendition of the suicidal boozer and failed Hollywood scribe Ben Sanderson in the 1995 film Leaving Las Vegas. Indeed, Cage won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award among many other trophies for his unforgettable performance.
Apparently, old Nic went full method and was “completely hammered” in a number of scenes. He also went as far as hiring a “drinking coach.” Must be nice, huh?
Cage told GQ magazine: “My cousin, Roman Coppola, said, ‘You should go, hire Tony Dingman’—who was at that time, very drunk and also a poet—Hire him to be your drinking coach.’ 
“So I had him on the set with me all the time, the poor guy, curled up in a fetal position in my trailer while I played bongos, I was trying to get some rhythm for the character. But I would watch him and he’d say the most poetic things, like, ‘You do not kick the bar, you lean into the bar because it’s not ‘Vino Veritas, it’s In Vino Veritas’, he’d just spout all these things out and I put them in the movie.”
The actor who would be cast as Tiger King went on to say, “It was a four-week shoot—thank God it was only a four-week shoot—because there were a few scenes where I wanted to be hammered. Because I wanted to be out of control and have them photograph that so I could reach that credibility, that authenticity. The scene that comes to mind is the casino scene where I flipped the table and had a blackout because I didn’t know I was going to go there, I just wanted something extraordinary to happen and they kept it in the movie.”
So, that’s one way of going about it: Get utterly pie-eyed, stupid plastered, commit to the role and to the material, and hope you catch lightning in a bottle. And yet another way to go about it is to do your job and … act.
Concerning the notorious British cult film Withnail & I, IMDb Trivia had this to say: “Withnail is a ferocious drunk, but he was played by the teetotaler Richard E. Grant. Finally convinced that he needed to get drunk at least once to have the proper insight into the character, Grant filled a tumbler with vodka and topped it off with a bit of Pepsi, then swilled the whole thing down. He was teased the next day by co-star Paul McGann and director Bruce Robinson, who assured him that he would never be so funny on film again.”
The fact that Richard E. didn’t drink a drop on the set of Withnail & I is really quite astonishing. Most fans of the 60’s-era dramedy just assume Grant was under the influence the entire shoot. That is how convincing he is as the no-holds-barred, preening, ridiculous, falling-down drunk, Shakespeare-spouting inebriate. His performance is every bit as natural and legitimate as Nicolas Cage’s in Leaving Las Vegas, if not more so.
So, it is not necessary to be drunk to play drunk. And although there are no real rules when it comes to such things, here are a few pointers.
1. Oftentimes imbibers or alcoholics do not want to be seen or perceived as drunk. Indeed, they routinely try to hide the fact that they’re besotted. Attempting to conceal your level of intoxication might work better than “Acting drunk.”
2. Especially in film, less is more. People who go over the top with gesticulations, machinations, and grand gestures might not seem credible or genuine playing a bonafide lush.
3. It’s important to keep in mind what the screenplay and director have in mind for the level of intoxication and the nuance of intemperance.
4. When you’re intoxicated, your consciousness is altered, so things like self-reflection, spatial awareness, reasoned thinking, and judgment all warp and skew without your awareness. As an actor, one must understand this lack of sober reasoning.
5. And perhaps most importantly, you need to practice. Take one of your favorites monologues and perform it at various levels of presumed drunkenness. Or go to a party and refrain from alcohol, yet act drunk.
It should be noted that drinking alcohol can be bad for your health. And drinking for a part is wholly unnecessary. With a measure of discipline, practice, and training any actor or actress can master the art of dipsomania.
How about you? Ever have a few beers on set to loosen up or to play drunk? Please share!