Saturday, August 23, 2008

What actors hate (besides other actors)

As mentioned in this space before, writers need to remember that actors perform their material. And there are certain things actors hate. As a public service, when writing your script, here are some of those traps that will make for unhappy actors and by extension, an unhappy you.

Actors hate having to give exposition. It’s dry, it’s informational, it’s not fun. Unfortunately, SOMEONE has deliver the exposition. The trick is to spread it around, find ways to hide it, and make it entertaining. Necessary information woven into a joke is a great solution. Exposition itself is a great topic for a later post.

Actors don’t like just asking questions in a scene. They didn’t spend four years finding their “inner center”, “emotional truth triggers” and portraying ice cream cones just to ask questions. But sometimes there is a great temptation to do that. Actor “A” knows all this information, Actor “B” needs to know it. In real life, it’s a simple conversation of Q&A. Not in actor-life. Massage the scene so that Actor “B” has some jokes or comments, or Actor “A” shares information without being prompted.

Similarly, actors don’t like just doing set-ups for other actors’ jokes. Bud Abbott is dead. Spread around the wealth. The tough thing here is knowing Actor “A” is funny and Actor “B” is a lox. Still, you have to throw him a bone or two. Or work in some jokes in the set ups themselves. Or re-cast.

Here’s a common rookie mistake: Having an actor in a scene and not giving him a line for a page or two…or four. If he’s in the scene he needs to have a purpose and needs to be a participant. If he has no purpose, find a way to get his ass out of there. You’d think actors want as much screen time as possible but they would MUCH rather be out of a scene than be a piece of furniture in it.

Here’s a biggie: parentheticals – those little bracketed indicators that suggest the intent of the line. Most actors are irritated, even offended by them. They feel it’s their job to discover the intent. And they like the freedom to interpret the lines as they choose. That’s fine to a point. I still use this device, albeit sparingly (same with underlining specific words I want stressed) because first and foremost I want my scene to be interpreted correctly. But like I said, I am very judicious. I never indicate (angry), (sad), or (jaundiced but insouciant).

That said, you’re probably writing your script to be READ not PERFORMED (actors hate capitol letters too.) So in the interest of having a reader better understand your script and maybe buying it, you can sprinkle in a few more parentheticals. (warning) But don’t go crazy.

Actors balk at thankless roles. The best friend, the harpy-wet blanket (see any ABC comedy wife except Rosanne), the “Ralph Bellamy” boring third guy in a triangle soon to be dumped (Ralph Bellamy -- pictured above -- played this role in HIS GIRL FRIDAY and 297 other movies), and any role played by Emily Mortimer. Find a way to make these characters interesting, complex, or maybe let Ralph Bellamy get the girl.

Long speeches: Actors like ‘em and hate ‘em. They like having a big juicy emotional speech and they hate having to memorize them. Forget that human beings don’t normally speak in long speeches, if you want to give a character a big speech, fine. Don’t give him six. And give him spots to breathe.

Actors protect their characters, as well they should. Writers sometimes have the tendency to sacrifice their characters’ integrity for the sake of a big joke. I gotta side with actors on this one. Once you’ve sacrificed a character you can’t go back. Find another joke.

And finally, most actors don’t want to be seen in an unflattering light. They may voice their objections in gobs of Byzantine actor-speech, but trust me, the real issue is they don’t want to look weak, or mean, or playing the girlfriend of the Elephant Man. They can have flaws but within reason. What you need to do here is either give the characters interesting shadings, multi-dimensions (not always weak, not always giving dogs caramels to eat) or make the parts so meaty that actors suddenly would kill to play them. Villains, in particular, can be delicious, despite how hateful and cruel they are. Is there a more fun character than J.R. Ewing? Or Simon Cowell? Or my favorite champagne villain, Alan Rickman in DIE HARD?

By making a concerted effort to accommodate the actors’ needs (and most of these are just good general writing tips) you stand a much better chance that the actors will embrace your script and even add to it. Their wardrobe and make up issues? That’s someone else’s problem.


Pseudonym said...

I have a question about parentheticals.

Would you say that actors prefer a certain type of parenthetical to another? I would imagine that if I were an actor, I'd prefer subtext than action or mood.

Here are two examples from American Beauty. #1:

   Well, what do you expect? You can't all
   of a sudden be my best friend, just
   because you had a bad day.

And #2:

       (you freak)
   Dad. Mom's waiting for you.

Putting myself in an actor's frame of mind, I'd consider the parenthetical in #1 too much like micromanagement. I'd really love #2, it gives me the intent, plus room to move.

Anonymous said...

I have a question about why you think using American Beauty to illustrate your point is a good idea.

Pseudonym said...

It was the only script I had that was within reach.

In many respects it's a poor choice. A lot of American Beauty was improvised. Also, an actor is more likely to do whatever Alan Ball says just so they can say they've been in an Alan Ball show.

Anonymous said...

And Ken, it's Alan RICKMAN.

Anonymous said...

Totally off topic, but a fun picture to look at of two of Ken's former co-workers at MASH...on Mark Evanier's blog (

Gail Renard said...

I agree with Anonymous, if one can do that. When writing stage directions, know your actor, especially in a long runner. In one series, unless I gave one actor something to do every second, he picked his nose. He always claimed it got a laff; I claimed I didn't want it. Yet in another long-running comedy series I did, I ended up giving the two stars NO stage directions at all for performance. They were so both brilliant that I didn't need to teach them how to do comedy; quite the contrary. Rare and bliss!

Charles Jurries said...

Taking an Intro to Acting class in college is one of the best decisions I have ever made. While I don't want to act for a living, exploring that process and starting to see how it works was extremely beneficial to me. (And beneficial for me when I filmed scenes as a movie extra.) If I ever became a TV writer, I would definitely keep in mind all I learned from that class, AND this blog post.

qrter said...

I'd much rather have a "regular" stage direction than one telling you the subtext.

To me the regular direction gives much more room to move, the second is actually explaining the line.

In pseudonym's second example it's practically saying "this is what this line means", which seems very restricting.

The first example gives a general direction - why is Jane uncomfortable? There are a myriad ways of playing that uncomfortableness, all based on the context of the line and the possible subtext.

Just as half the fun for an audience watching a film/play/TV show is trying to catch and decipher the subtext, it's also a lot of what's interesting for the actors and director.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the thing actors hate most of all, and I was an actor for 3 decades so I know whereof I speak, is unemployment. They'd rather be onstage for pages with no dialogue, or delivering four-page-long speeches of nothing but exposition written in Star Trek-fake-techno-speak, than sitting home watching someone else do it.

Ironically, the the second most-hated thing by actors is auditions.

Give an actor a script that says:

(In a jejune manner)
The dilethium (pause for precisely 3 secondsn not 2, not 4, 3) crystals are statistically hypoecsatically melanamius (look left for 5 seconds) owing to the hypertropic inter-nuclaic (Smirk to express irony) grapplefingers being nano-extended for Andorean grappledongers, and there's not a thing I can do about it. (Roll eyes)

And tell him to do it as written, no changes, and like it, or go home and we'll let Alan Cummings do it, and they'll do it and like it.

John Trumbull said...

Actors protect their characters, as well they should. Writers sometimes have the tendency to sacrifice their characters’ integrity for the sake of a big joke. I gotta side with actors on this one. Once you’ve sacrificed a character you can’t go back.

This passage immediately reminded me of one character in particular: Rebecca Howe.

After the Cheers 2-parter where it was revealed that Robin Colcord had other girlfriends, Rebecca changed from a driven woman who constantly picked the wrong men into a golddigger who didn't want to work for anything. I'd pinpoint the shift down to Rebecca's final (admittedly great) joke of that 2-parter. When Robin comments that Rebecca is now "in the lead" among his girlfriends, Rebecca responded: "Did you hear that? I am WINNING!"

From then on, Rebecca was still funny, but she became a LOT tougher to sympathize with.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Darlings, I have been a movie goddess since 1915, and I can tell you categorically what the things are the actors hate the most:

1. No wet bar on the set.

2. Doing my own stunts, like "walking".

3. Having to have sex with overweight film editors to make sure my most-flattering shots are used, and that only the least-flattering shots of that BITCH Delores Delgado are used.

4. No vodka on the crafts services table.

6. Gay leading men. They won't "Rehearse" with me in my trailer.

7. Domestic wines in my dressing room.

8. Memorization.

9. Gay leading men who don't tell you they're gay until after they marry you.

10. Acting wet.

11. Otto Preminger.

12. Acting sober.

Cheers darlings.

Tallulah Morehead said...

I left one out:

5. Math.

Wil Wheaton said...

Speaking as a veteran actor and journeyman writer, I can affirm everything Ken has said in this post.

Parentheticals are complicated. You write your script with the studio or network in mind, and the sad truth is that most of the people reading it don't have the time (or interest) to look for the deeper meanings and truths in the scene like actors do. Because those people need to approve the script before it ever gets into an actor's hands, you have to use parentheticals so they know what's going on in the scene.

Every experienced actor I've ever known understands this, isn't offended by it, and just uses a black sharpie to strike it from their script as part of their preparation.

Ken's being very kind to actors, but speaking as one I can also say that lots of actors -- especially actors who are enjoying several seasons of financial security and steady employment on a series -- look for things to complain about and reasons to be unhappy. Parentheticals are just one easy target.

Velocity DeWitt said...

Robert Llewellyn, who played Kryten (the robot) on Red Dwarf, has been known to complain about the fact that he frequently had two-page speeches full of incomprehensible exposition, after which some other actor would get a huge laugh by saying "Sorry, I wasn't listening".

Anonymous said...

Yes, well Robert Llewellyn got to play one of the funniest characters ever created for 6 seasons, and he knew damn well that the real laugh came from his reaction to "Sorry, I wasn't listening".

And who else ever got to play the tender, romantic parting-at-the-airport-forever scene from CASABLANCA with a one-eyed green blob that looked like a diseased penis sticking out of a huge booger? (For those of you who haven't seen RED DWARF, that description contains no hyperbole. And if you haven't seen RED DWARF, so so. One if the best sit-coms ever.)

Kryten was a great role, and he knew it.

Anonymous said...

That should read "If you haven't seen RED DWARF, do so." RED DWARF was anything BUT so-so.

Mary Stella said...

Ken, do you have names for types of scenes when you have to work in things like exposition? At a recent conference a screenwriter named Blake Snyder gave a two hour presentation. Very entertaining. He called the exposition scenes the "pope in the pool" scenes from some movie.

Anonymous said...

Wil Wheaton,

Had I known you would be the next poster, I would have used Star Wars gobbledygook rather than Star Trek gobbledygook. No slight was intended. Frankly, Patrick Stewart's ability to rattle off ST-Techno-babble with the same authority that he uses when thundering out KING LEAR's big arias is genuinely awesome in it's original meaning, and shows what a real actor can be.

Brian Scully said...

One thing I have always been in awe of is the way actor's who ad-lib a line of their own during a run-thru that is actually funny and is put in the script... well, the part I'm in awe of is how they NEVER screw up that line that THEY came up with. No problem remembering it, no problem doing it the same way 10 times... it's just amazing how that will be the ONE line in the script that they will never forget or suggest cutting.

John Eje Thelin said...

Yes, Red Dwarf was anything but so-so. It was frankly terrible. Over-acting, mugging, a bad laugh track and "jokes" you can see coming a mile off - I fail to see why it is so revered when there are easily a hundred British sitcoms that are better.

Anonymous said...

OK, here's a question -- M*A*S*H from Season 7 to Season 8 seemed to take, if not an abrupt shift, did lurch noticeably towards the direction of what could best be called "over-earnest, over-annunciating over-acting", in which the subtle reactions were replaced by broad, loud and obvious lines. At the same time, the show's traditional adversarial relationships seemed to weaken, in this case by making characters like Charles and Margaret into more three-dimensional characters -- they were more sympathetic, but less funny at the same time.

Ken, I know you only did one show after Season 7, but was there any give-and-take prior to Season 8 about moving the characters in this direction? And is it something that would have been pushed by the writers, actors, producers or meddling network execs 3,000 miles away. I know shows have to evolve to find new story ideas, but to me it's interesting how suddenly things seemed start changing in Season 8, to the point that by the start of Season 9 the acting and dialog seemed to be coming from people who had been given a bad Korean translation of what the show was all about.

Anonymous said...

John Eje Thelin, I gotta disagree with you about RED DWARF. It was one of the best-written, most original shows ever. I've watched the whole run of the series 6 or 7 times, and no one I've given it to has ever done anything but love it. I love that show, which is why I bought the whole friggin' series on DVD, even though I already had the whole thing on VHS.

It is true that in seasons 6, 7, and 8, the quality of the writing fell off. They began relying on formula joke structures for the characters, and the plots became so repetitive that Lister even commented on it, mid-episode, noting how he seemed to keep getting into the exact same jams. The fixes attempted in seasons 7 and 8 only made a mess of things. Season 8 is terrible. Given that the first 6 seasons were all written by just two guys - period - two guys, it's amazing the quality held as long as it did. It was certainly when that team broke up that it began falling off.

Seasons 1 and 2 were excellent, and were what I fell in love with, but it hit it's stride in season 3, and seasons 3, 4, and 5 are just plain great.

That wasn't a laugh track. Despite the enormous special effects and frequent location work, as much as possible was played 3-camera in front of live audiences, and what couldn't be shot in front of the house, was screened for them. That was a real audience laughing.

As for the "overacting," well that's a matter of personal perception. You saw overacting. I didn't. (Okay, the original Kochansky could barely speak, but it was a small role at that point. When she became a regular character, they got a good actress.) And with guest casts that included everyone from Craig Ferguson to Geraldine McEwan, there was some fine comic acting on that show.

But we can be glad the American version didn't run. Holly in the American version was played by some English woman named Jane Leeves. It went belly-up just in time to free her up for a sit-com about a Seattle radio shrink and his goofy family.

Anonymous said...

The death of the American RED DWARF pilot also freed up Leeves' co-star Craig Bierko to turn down the role of Chandler on FRIENDS. Fifteen years later, I wonder if he is able to sit down, after that much kicking himself.

Craig D. said...

How about unflattering lines that have been created for and need to be delivered by a character that might offend the real life actor? How are those brought up and eventually executed? Working in overweight, ugly, dorky, or thin jabs and calling these unfortunate traits out front and center. Zinging the character with one of these also infers that the actor is the same. George Costanza's weight or baldness, etc.

How do writers bring these up and how do actors typically react? I wonder at the number of eruptions we'll never know about...

Anonymous said...

Good post Ken and I have no doubt that your suggestions are correct.

What's interesting to me are the exceptions to the rule. For instance, James Spader has made a career out of sleazy unflattering characters and has never requested his Alan Shore character be softened to look palatable to the audience. The contradictions of his character make him more complex and interesting. The actors on Boston Legal who consistently look good all get canned. Each new season is a bloodbath with the thin sane goodlooking ones getting purged.

And think of NUMBERS. Holy moly is there a ton of exposition there with the same FBI team being told by the boss' brother how the world works. Good thing the genius is charming or they'd string him up.

Anonymous said...

As far as exposition goes, there are two phrases that I hear that drive me bonkers:

"Let me get this straight..." and the now-retired, "Cut to the chase!".

Many times the lines that follow are sufficient and the above phrases can be eliminated. It feels as if you are telling the audience, "I'm going to recap something!" without giving them the opportunity to absorb whatever absurdity that needs restatement.

Anonymous said...

Some of my all time favorite "Frasier" moments are Kelsey's ranting speeches. (the Supermodel Zoologist one being my favorite Frasier rant ever.)

I don't know if Kelsey himself enjoyed Frasier's occasional diatribe but they worked and they worked quite well.

Does it get progressively more difficult to NOT write speeches for actors when you know how well said actor delivers them?

Barry Wallace said...

If he’s in the scene he needs to have a purpose and needs to be a participant. If he has no purpose, find a way to get his ass out of there. [...] they would MUCH rather be out of a scene than be a piece of furniture in it.

I wonder how this relates to large ensemble dramas like "ER", etc or to the show that first popped to my mind, "The Office". An entire episode could go by with hardly any lines from characters like Meridith, Chase, Oscar.. but they're always in the background, doing their jobs. How do the actors feel about those sort of large, open set, workplace situations where if the characters aren't seen then they're missed - but they don't have to have lines?

Anonymous said...

Great, great post. Re: parentheticals, I have noticed, when reading TV scripts, that some shows use parentheticals quite a lot, and others don't use them at all. I always assumed that with this, as with other stylistic quirks, I should try to emulate the style of the scripts of the show I am specing. Yes? Or no?

Anonymous said...

If she wasn't primary Laura Innes always hid in her trailer so she wouldn't get sucked into being background for someone else's dialogue.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to be late to the comments, but I wanted to add, I just watched a few Burns and Allen TV shows and the interesting thing is how George incorporates the joke he is nothing but a straight man to Gracie, and how she could go on without him but not the other way. Like everything with that show, it played smart to the audience who understands what he's doing is part of the art of appearing to make it easy. I never thought of him as a "poor guy" being overshadowed or overwhelmed by Gracie's natural presence (and good lines). He was even smarter and cooler for going that route. And an incredible amount of honed comedic dialog for anyway.

Jack Ruttan said...

Thanks! Great post.

Nothing witty to write at the moment.