"We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training" - Archilochus
It's been a busy fall and winter working as a dialogue coach on a feature for Paramount and acting on NBC's 'Undercovers'. I haven't posted anything in a while, but being on set has been a great experience and it has given me a lot to talk about.
In acting again, as well as shadowing directors last year, I've noticed how hard it can be to do a guest star spot, particularly on procedural shows that have been on long enough to become a well-oiled machine. Veterans who have worked on scores of different shows still have to adjust to each new show the same as young actors - the pace of shooting, the amount (if any) of rehearsal, and the tone, among other things. Holding up the train in any way because you weren't prepared or aware is the last thing you need to add to your list of distractions. Again, this goes back to what you can control and what you can't, but it's all about your work, isn't it? In a way, it's the same argument for being a control freak in auditioning - you do what you need to do to get it right.
The other consideration is what you bring to the set in relation to what you did in the audition. How long has it been? I talked to someone the other day who worked several months after their audition, for example, and they couldn't remember what they'd done. The pace and timing of a half hour vs. an hour long drama are completely different, but they still both have to be tight. There isn't a lot of room for play in either the way there is in a feature, and your approach once you get on set should probably be to dance with the date that brought you. That's not to say that you have to completely duplicate what you did in the audition, but you take what you did and apply it to the real situation without losing what made it work in the first place. That sounds simple enough, but the variables are endless and in a lot of cases (again) preparation is your friend. When the audition is over - make notes on what worked, particularly for comedy. You never know when further callbacks will happen, or if you'll be hired directly and expected to show up with what they liked. Your approach may be more or less thorough than another actor needs, but all of this should become a part of your process, your methodology on set.
Take heels, for example. I was talking to a friend with a recurring role on an HBO show, who said she recently rehearsed an important scene twice without a hitch on set before shooting it. Then wardrobe gave her heels. Suddenly the timing of her movement and her mark were completely off from what she'd rehearsed, (the heels made her stride shorter) and she had to scramble to adjust. Everyone in this business becomes quick on their feet eventually, and this seems like a small detail but a quick minute of asking to rehearse the scene in those heels would have made a big difference to her performance. Forget that she missed her mark a couple of times, that happens to everyone. But she's the kind of actor who likes to be precise, and this threw her off.
In a completely different instance, another friend had to deliver one line in a show just as a helicopter came into view. The timing of the helicopter was different than what had been rehearsed and he just couldn't get it right. Five takes and two hours later, with ten minutes before twilight, you can imagine how this actor felt...
What could you do differently? Well, that should all stem from what you need as an actor. Most actors benefit from learning all the different component parts of a scene by getting it in their body and out of their head. That means doing it. Do it with the actual props you will be using, for example - and if they're not around, ask for them. Miming props in blocking or rehearsal is never going to be the same as the real thing. The same goes for wardrobe, and any technical details - points of focus, timing cues, frame awareness...but we'll talk about some of that later.
Sets now are all fast-moving trains when it's time to shoot, and sometimes you are hopping on and off without any time to settle into things. Actors have to pick up on all of those component parts and how they're going to come together, in addition to the politics of how each set works. The expectation, more often than not, is that you will nail it in the same way you did in the room. Every actor shows up hoping to do just that. But being prepared for each situation isn't always about lines and blocking - it's about being aware, and being as thorough with every single detail as possible. Once they're rolling, a prepared actor is a free actor.