Nicole Kidman arrives for “The Northman” Hollywood Premiere. Photo Credit: DFree /

Top acting coach Miranda Harcourt’s specialty is screen naturalism. The New Zealand native bases her approach on years of experience writing and performing verbatim theater, as well as her on-set coaching work with acclaimed actors and directors across the globe. Harcourt’s acting students include Nicole Kidman, Saoirse Ronan, Juliette Binoche, Dev Patel, Brooklynn Prince, and Ritu Arya. Her directing students include Peter Jackson, Jane Campion, Garth Davis, and Morten Tyldum.

“In my work with actors and directors,” Harcourt’s website states, “I aim to shift paradigms, empowering creatives to realize their own talent. I introduce simple but innovative ways of thinking about and achieving connection and character. I have developed a series of tools and exercises for use in rehearsal and on-set that get actors to where they need to be, fast.”

Harcourts passion is verbatim theater

Harcourt’s career as an acting coach is rooted in verbatim theater. “Verbatim means ‘as it was said,’” she explains. “So you’re recording exactly what was said by the interview subject and then, as a performer, you’re replicating as closely as you can, the real words—the poetry of the real words and how they were originally spoken. So it’s a kind of a hybrid of journalism and acting. And it still remains my favorite theater practice.”

The intriguing start of Harcourts verbatim journey

In the early 1990s, Harcourt returned to New Zealand after spending a year studying drama therapy. She recalls, “I worked in a [maximum-security] prison … I worked with children in a school for deaf children, I worked in a pre-release unit of a psychiatric ward, and I also worked in a home for profoundly disabled adults. So I had a lot of therapeutic practice to add to my work and experience as a performing artist.” 

In the prisons of New Zealand, she would interview men and women who had committed murder, and interview their family members. “In talking to the family of the offender, we knew that we could put together some verbatim material and take that into the prison system in a way that the people inside the prison system would want to listen to,” she explains. “They would want to listen to somebody’s mom talking about the impact of their child’s crime on the wider family. And that proved to be true.” Through this work, she fell in love with verbatim theater.

The essence of Harcourts approach

These experiences enabled Harcourt to appreciate the act of performing in a whole new light. She describes the lessons she learned about verbatim performances this way: “It’s about the outward flow where your primary concern is not necessarily about yourself as a practitioner, about what you have to say; but, your flow is reversed toward using theater practice and the performing arts practice to induce responses and experiences from other people. The idea of reversed flow has remained with me through the rest of my creative life, and I’d say that is the core of any success that I’ve had in a multitude of things that I’ve done with this area of work.”

One of Harcourts exercises for actors

When Harcourt leads a class, she asks her students to visit the website Humans of New York, instructing them to select a monologue from the site’s vast library that resonates with them. Students can learn the monologue in their own voice, or can use an accent if they choose. “Let’s work on that monologue using some performance tools on the basis of something that is real. It’s the poetry of the way real people, how they originally [told their stories]. What were the pictures in their mind? And so that is something that I learned a long time ago in the prison system, and I still use every single day today,” she shared with the SAG-AFTRA Foundation.

A sample of Harcourt’s tools include: 

  1. Objects

She suggests actors use an object to ground their performance. “Objects take the burden of the narrative away from the actor,” she explains. “Have you ever heard of a fidget spinner? Well, objects are fidget spinners for acting … Anything can be a precious object for an actor—nail polish, a feather, a stone, a dog, anything that can activate the great quality of unselfconsciousness.”

  1. Vista

Harcourt says of her vista tool, “It’s allowing yourself to be affected by everything outside the frame, achieving the great quality of unselfconsciousness.” She explains that anything outside of the frame can be embedded with something that gives the performer a more natural performance. It can be something as simple as the sound of rain outside the window, which allows the actor to acknowledge their character’s reality. “You can enhance the truth of the fictionalized world around you by letting the world outside the frame magnetize your gaze and your body,” Harcourt insists. To demonstrate this, she asks students to think of where their wallet is. By doing this, each person feels energized toward the direction of their wallet, perhaps with their eyes or in their body language.

  1. Connection

“Connection is a fundamental building block of acting, and kids’ games are an instant pathway to connection,” Harcourt asserts. Some such games include the use of hand games shared between students. “You’re turning the focus from yourself to the relationship between you and the other person. You’re reversing the flow. You’re pulling towards each other across the space; you’re not pushing away.” She likens it to switching a cell phone camera off selfie mode so the actor can place their energy on their scene partner.

  1. White Space

Even when no words are being spoken by a sole character or between people, there is a real, albeit silent, energy that occurs. “As long as you’re thinking and feeling it, the meaning is there for the camera to pick up,” she insists. “[Werner] Heisenberg, the great quantum physicist, said that there is no such thing as nothing. And even empty space can be thought of as fizzing with energy.” Taking a moment to breathe on screen, or appreciate one’s surroundings, can ground the character and still keep it interesting to the viewer.

Learn more about Harcourt’s approach by visiting her website, which offers 14 two-minute videos of quick tips, along with an assortment of games and exercises.