Tips to Analyze Scripts

November 11, 2016

The skill set of script analysis is a powerful, if not vital, tool for actors. This applies to small parts, starring roles, and anything in between. To understand, move, breathe, and speak for another person, actors must dig into the internal life of the character. And how much time and effort an actor invests in their character shows. Indeed, preparation can be the key to unlocking a truly moving performance.

New York acting coach, John Windsor-Cunningham tells a story of Anthony Hopkins who once answered questions before a reading, saying sometimes there are actors who read a play 20 times to prepare. Continuing, he’s quoted to say, “I don’t understand that…everyone’s welcome to work in their own way, but it wouldn’t enter my head…To read a script in advance 20 times. Because it wouldn’t enter my head to turn up at a first rehearsal of a play or a film without having read it at least a hundred and twenty times.”

While that might sound extreme, properly analyzing a script can indeed take several reads. The journey of exploring the material starts with getting acquainted with the storyline and characters, but soon moves on to interpretation. Actors can notice similarities with their own experiences, or what they’ve observed in others. Interpreting the material also requires a curious mind to ask questions like “Why?” and “How?”

Kimberly Jentzen, the author of Acting with Impact urges actors to, “Remember that history justifies behavior. So if you don’t understand why a character does what they do, the best thing to do is to read the whole script or the whole play, and you’ll really get some clues. A script is laden with clues and dynamic, interesting thoughts and ideas and metaphors that give us the meaning and the understanding and lead us to our interpretation.” Jentzen strongly believes that any time actors sense they are being general about something, then that is not good. When it comes to matters like a character’s history, intentions, or personality, she insists, “Everything must be specific.” 

Also in pursuit of interpreting a script, many performers make a point to experiment with which word to emphasize in each sentence. Robin Wright, for example, chooses a word that she loves in each sentence, and one she hates–as well as the reasons why her character feels this way. For practical purposes, once actors have decided on which word to emphasize, they can pencil mark their decision onto the page before continuing with the script. Also, many actors find it advantageous to pencil mark their script where changes in emotion occur. For example, if a portion of a particular sentence starts off tearful, an actor can mark precisely where those tears shift to outright anger. For this reason, a script can get messy with markings and notations. Pencils are always handy because they allow for changes later on.

Script interpretation comes in many shapes and forms though. Christopher Walken, for example, has described breaking down his scripts in a unique way. He describes his process saying, “I cross out all the stage directions, I cross out all the places where it says, you know, ‘He says this angrily;’ I cross out all the punctuation. And I just speak without punctuation. I mean, except the way it happens…No periods, no commas, no nothing. Really. A period comes when it comes. But it’s a good thing really. If you, next time you take a script, take all of that out and read it. Because the other actors are going to tell you what their talking about anyway. And it’s better to hear it from them.”

Regardless of your personal approach, it’s vital to come to understand your character without passing judgement on him or her. Uncovering the character’s true nature along with his or her vulnerabilities and flaws is much more important than if you personally like the person he or she is. And really getting to know your character frees you up to be spontaneous when new approaches to the material are thrown at you. After all, many people on set might be involved with the details of your character including wardrobe specialists or, of course, the project’s director. Directors likely have their own vision, and have a say about creative decisions for your character. Whether the director gives suggestions or specific directions, actors need to be ready to adapt, while maintaining a firm understanding of their character. Often times, the collaboration between a well-prepared actor and the director takes the depth of a character to the next level.

Playing Roles Opposite of Yourself

June 14, 2013

Christopher Walken in A Late Quartet

When you think of Christopher Walken‘s repertoire of characters do visions of quirky, haunted, or psychotic miscreants come to mind? With such a prolific career portraying such convincing characters, one might jump to the conclusion that Christopher Walken, the man, shares some of these attributes. Ironically, according to Walken himself, he is not like the madman roles he plays. “Well, my life is really quite conservative. I’ve been married nearly 50 years. I don’t have hobbies or children. I don’t much care to travel. I’ve never had a big social life. I really just stay home, except when I go to work. So in that sense, I suppose I’m a regular guy,” Walken reflects. When asked why he believes he was consistently asked to portray roles so unlike himself, Walken explains, “Well, movies are so expensive to make that if something works you get asked to do it again. And when I started, I did well with these eccentric people. Troubled. Often villains. And that’s fine.” Walken expresses gratitude for this acting career which started in early childhood. “I can’t imagine anything else I could have done that would have given me such a nice life.” Breaking the pattern of his type-cast past, Walken was glad to be given the opportunity to star in A Late Quartet in which he portrays a gentle cellist with Parkinson’s disease. “Yes, it was different for me,” he says. “I don’t usually get to play fathers or grandfathers or uncles. Now that I’m older, maybe I can play people closer to myself. I’d like that.”

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Similarly, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest actress, Louise Fletcher–who so convincingly played the merciless Nurse Ratched character–is now 78 years old. With the passing of time, she finds she can no longer bear to watch this performance anymore as she finds the character too cruel–even though she won an Academy Award for Best Actress for the performance back in the 1970s. Indeed, Nurse Ratched has become the stereotype of a formidably aggressive woman, as well as a metaphor for the corrupting influence of power and authority that can occur in various institutions–mental and otherwise. But the superintendent of the hospital used on the set, Dr. Dean Brooks, has described Louise Fletcher as being nothing like Nurse Ratched in real life. In fact, Brooks insists, “I have found her to be angelic.” According to Brooks, Fletcher, whose parents are deaf, took time out from filming to visit students at the Oregon School for the Deaf. Also, she was devoted to her parents, tending to them lovingly as they aged, and when her friend was dying in London, Fletcher dropped everything to be there for this friend. Not exactly the ruthless qualities we immediately associate with Fletcher’s performance!

One might argue that actors should be able to portray characters unlike their true selves; that’s what acting is, after all. But, to pull them off so convincingly especially when you’re so unlike the characters is a true feat! Have you ever been asked to perform a role completely unlike yourself? If so, was it more difficult or was it liberating perhaps to be released of your true nature?


Christopher Walken and a Note on Inflection

October 11, 2011

There’s no one quite like Christopher Walken. With his unusual speaking manner and fresh take on body language, his command over his characters keeps audiences captured whether they’re disturbed, frightened or laughing.

How does he do it? He has often spoken about habitually taking liberties with the punctuation on scripts he receives:

“I use punctuation, but I finish the sentence and put [in] a period but it’s not necessarily where somebody else would. I think everybody should talk the way they want. You go to school and you all sit there and all learn to do the same thing. I guess it’s necessary, but it’s too bad also in a way. Kids, you know, get kind of restrained in a lot of ways. I probably wouldn’t get a job as an English teacher.”

“I have this theory about words. There’s a thousand ways to say ‘Pass the salt.’ It could mean, you know, ‘Can I have some salt?’ or it could mean, ‘I love you.’ It could mean, ‘I’m very annoyed with you.’ Really, the list could go on and on. Words are little bombs, and they have a lot of energy inside them.”

Whether you’re reading from a cue card at a commercial audition, or memorizing your lines from a script, consider Walken’s advice: “… Start to say your lines and if it sounds right, usually I stick with that. If it sounds right, it probably is right.”