In light of master thespian, Jessica Alba’s recent comment that good actors don’t follow scripts and instead just say whatever they want, I’ve had a number of readers ask if that is true.
For the most part, no. Some improvisation does go on in features if the director embraces it. Mike Leigh uses this approach (although I’d be surprised if Jessica Alba even knows who Mike Leigh is). Many directors will allow actors to improvise during rehearsals as a way to help them lock into the characters but when the camera is rolling they go back to that pesky script.
Actors in CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM work off a detailed outline but rehearse and refine scenes until they might as well be scripted. Plus, Larry David uses actors who are well-skilled in working off-the-cuff.
I would love to see Jessica Alba join the improv workshop I attend. She might find that creating a character, moving a story forward, and holding her own with other gifted actors without a script requires more than nice breasts.
In the theater, actors must perform the script verbatim. But this doesn’t apply to Jessica Alaba since I can’t imagine her ever doing theater… except maybe a one-woman show as the Statue of Liberty.
By the way, I always find it curious that actors will claim, “I can’t say this” but in a play where they’re legally not allowed to change anything they somehow manage to deliver the lines as written.
In sitcoms, especially multi-camera sitcoms, it is imperative the actors don’t stray from the script because, among other reasons, cameras move on line cues. A hint to the studio audience that an actor is ad libbing is when three cameras crash into each other.
I wish those actors who dismiss scripts, like Jessica, could sit in a writers’ room. They’d be amazed at how much thought and time and effort goes into crafting each line. Debates over whether a certain word in a set-up needs to be in the middle or the end of the line. Long discussions on ways to make the lines sound more natural. The Jessicas would be surprised by how concerned we are with making the dialogue easy for actors to perform. If something is a tongue-twister or clunky we change it so they don’t have to struggle with it. On MASH, before we sent a script down to the stage, we read it aloud ourselves and tweaked any lines we felt the actors might stumble over. You're welcome, Jessica.
Bottom line: I think actors who share Jessica Alba’s disdain for scripts are in the vast minority. Yes, there may be tension between writers and actors, but (if forced to take truth serum) I believe you’d find that most actors do have respect for writers and writers do appreciate the skill and discipline that actors exhibit to fully realize their characters.
Jessica, I just think you need to spend more time with writers (or any time at all) to really understand how they work. Fortunately, there are ten thousand of them who have personally volunteered to meet with you. That’s the kind of pride and dedication we take in our craft.