This question was posed on Twitter last week: Do you think you are a better writer because you started out as an actor?
Hmmm. Well, I have spent many more years as an actor (or trying to be an actor) than I ever have writing. In fact, I’m headed out next week to be an actor again after my first audition for a film in over two years actually netted me the part and caused me clear the cobwebs and dust off my SAG card.
It’s not a big part by anyone’s definition, but a funny little part in what I think could be a very funny film. I made the camera operator laugh in the audition and I believe that helped because his laugh had to be heard in the background. Couldn’t have hurt.
And it’s a nice situation for me. No other responsibilities except learn my lines, hit my marks, and make it real. I know my limitations and this part doesn’t get near them, so I’m just gonna have some fun.
But switching back to actor mode, and believe me it is a switch, got me thinking about the question. How much has my acting experience helped me as a writer?
I'll tell you. A whole lot. Maybe more than a whole lot.
Has it helped me write better dialogue? You bet. You still have to maintain the character you’re trying to write, it just makes it easier putting the right words together in the right order if you look at it from an actor’s (who is still playing your character) standpoint.
No actor wants wooden dialogue. No actor wants dialogue that no human would say. Yet I see it all the time in spec scripts. Dialogue so unreal it’s like space aliens wrote it. I’ve auditioned in the past for independent films or TV where I got the sides, (actor’s audition lines in script form as scenes or parts of scenes), and I've cringed at having to say what was on the page. Sometimes you just can’t. There’s no way to make it come out right because of the way it’s written. How then, you ask, did such bad dialogue get as far as an audition? Beats the hell out of me. Tell me you haven’t seen films or TV with dialogue like this. You just don’t want to be the one who writes it.
Actors LOVE great words. It makes them happy. When I was on the set of the film Jeff Willis and I wrote, “The Right Girl”, it made my year when all three leads told me, unprompted, that they loved the dialogue in completely separate conversations. They didn’t have to do that. They could have just ignored me, but they didn’t. The female lead hugged me out of the blue when we met and thanked me for such a great script. (See what you missed Jeff?) And one of the male leads remembered when we worked together as actors on a TV series episode. That was cool, considering I had a flea sized part compared to his. But it was an acting, then a writing connection. We talked about my transition to writer and he had a lot of questions because he's trying to do it too.
Acting experience has also helped me with constructing character in my scripts. Knowing how to define my characters better on the page. Giving characters more of what I think a good actor might look for in the writing to help them understand who they are. I don’t change story for what an actor might like, I just think it helps me build more life into my characters an actor can relate to.
I’ve always thought that writers should take acting and improv classes anyway. I’ve encouraged my writing friends to do it on more than one occasion. There are community classes everywhere. In LA you can’t walk (sorry, it’s LA, I mean drive) by a strip mall without seeing someplace that has acting classes.
I’ve also encouraged writers to get their butts on a film set as an extra sometime. Extras are the lowest of the low on the film production food chain. The guy that waters the plants on the set is higher. You should do it anyway. You’re on a set. You’re watching how films get made. You watch the people in the director’s chairs looking at the monitors and you can see yourself there someday. I did that. I started as an extra on films and worked my ass off to network, to get an agent, to get auditions, to improve my craft as an actor, basically the same route I eventually took as a writer. But I learned what making a film really entailed. I learned what goes on. How sets work. How films get shot. How BIG ASS 100 million dollar films get shot.
And when as a writer I’ve gotten to sit in director’s chairs at the monitors for films I’ve written, it’s a feeling you cannot describe. It’s a place I dreamed about... It’s... Stop it Bob... get back on track.
I’ve worked with actors who devoted their craft to learning everything they could about their characters to get them right. To do them justice. Watched and learned from them as they searched out even the littlest thing in the script to help them with backstory to bring a little more reality to their character. I've put those things into action myself as an actor. You don’t think this helped me writing scripts? Think again.
Every writer is always looking for an edge. That one thing more that can take them to another level. I think going to some acting classes and taking them seriously is one of those things. And you may well stink. Lots of people do. Acting, or acting well, is a very hard thing to do. Acting in front of a camera with all those people standing around waiting for lunch is even harder. But I don’t know a writer who wouldn’t grow from the experience. Gain insight. It’s all part of investing in your career.
And who knows, maybe someday you’ll beat me out for a part or we’ll be acting on the same project. Stay away from the breakfast burritos at craft service though... not a good idea.
Follow me on Twitter. @bobsnz