Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I love Bill Nighy

In a recent article, actor Bill Nighy (you’ve seen him in everything) called out actors who didn’t bother to memorize their lines. Not only that, he said it’s become fashionable for actors to show up on a set or rehearsal hall unprepared. The bullshit rationalization is that knowing your lines ahead of time stifles discovery. Nighy says:

“Rehearsal is not the enemy of spontaneity. The idea is the process is you say the lines over and over and over and over and over again until you can give the impression that you’ve never said them before and it’s just occurred to you. That’s the gig.”

Thank you, Mr. Nighy.

Just this weekend I wrote a post on how the CHEERS cast got lazy towards the end. But that’s after ten years and over 200 episodes. I don’t condone it, but I can understand that the show had become a grind and the actors were looking for ways to deal with it. Also, scripts on CHEERS changed practically daily so it really made no sense to commit them to memory until after the third day of rehearsal (day three of a five day production week).

But if you’re an actor in a play, or you have scenes in a movie – and the script is locked – it’s your job to be off-book as soon as possible.

Yes, it’s hard. It’s one of the reasons I never became an actor (that and lack of talent). I marvel at people who can memorize two hours of dialogue word for word. I don’t know how they do it. But as Mr. Nighy says, “It’s the gig.”

I must say this is a real pet peeve of mine. I work very hard on my scripts, shaping every single line. Lines are worded very specifically to get the biggest laughs. There is also a rhythm and flow. All that goes away when the actors are halting, groping for lines.

Just know that the time you take to learn a line is probably a third of the time it took for me to write that line.

So when I hear, “well, I feel restricted by knowing the words, my spontaneity is cut off by memorizing the script” what I really hear is “I’m just lazy and unprofessional.”

And aside from how disrespectful that is to the writer, it’s also a slap in the face to the other actors who have taken the time to learn their parts. Not to mention the director.

Look, as an actor so much in this industry is out of your control. It’s such a subjective business. Unfair, infuriating, illogical. But the only thing you can control is your professionalism. Believe me, I find professionalism a way more impressive "special skill" than ballroom dancing.

Oh, and by the way, postscript on CHEERS: Remember in the series finale there’s that wonderful lengthy scene of everyone sitting around the bar late at night reflecting on their lives? Beautifully written by Glen & Les Charles and directed by James Burrows, that was all filmed in one take. Every actor had their lines down perfectly.

It can be done. And since it can, why not do it? Even if it means bucking a fashionable trend.


Jim S said...


Excellent column. But this brings up something that is a bit of a sore spot for me. Today's comedies seem to rely on the "make it up the day of shooting" method.

By that I mean, as in "Curb Your Enthusiasm" the story and plot seems to be a loose outline and the actors are expected to fill in the blanks. That was the problem with the Ghostbusters remake. I could tell when the actors were just throwing lines on the wall, hoping some would stick.

It was the problem with Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler movie "The House". When I see the DVD outtakes with scenes showing seven or eight variations of some line, I find that very annoying.

As you said, actors act and writers write. Shouldn't all the lines be written before the first take is done?

I mean comedy is supposed to be fun to watch, I get that, but that's for the audience. Shouldn't comedy require work, hard work to make? I feel that the best comedies were well thought out in advanced. Comedies like "Airplane" and "Young Frankenstein" may be silly, but boy the writers really thought about every line.

You can really see the intelligence and work behind comedies like "Groundhog Day" or "The Apartment" or "To Be or Not to Be" (the original).

But that's me. The kids also won't stop playing on my lawn.

Michael said...

Apparently, when Jackie Gleason guested with Lucille Ball, each of them nearly went nuts. She rehearsed everything, again and again. On his variety shows, they often would just have an outline and he would wing it. It seemed to work out all right for both of them.

Ken's and my idol, The Vin, was asked about his work, and he quoted Olivier on what makes great acting: the humility to prepare and the confidence to bring it off. Then Vin said, "I'm loaded with the humility to prepare." In terms of actors, I would say that if that attitude was good enough for Lord Larry, it should be good enough for everybody else.

Covarr said...

The (admittedly amateur community theater) actor in me says: I don't get how an actor could not want to learn their lines. The sooner you get your lines down, the more time and room you have for the real fun part, experimenting with delivery and nuance. This "discovery" excuse doesn't even make sense; in a good script there's so much below the surface that an actor cannot possibly discover if they're still "discovering" the lines themselves. This is what you do if you aren't passionate, if you don't care about the magic, and the audience will see that.

The (admittedly amateur community theater) director in me says: LEARN YOUR LINES. I recently had one cast member who, after nearly a month of rehearsals, was still struggling with her lines, and it led to wooden acting. It wasn't until the start of hell week that she really had it down. Once she did, the difference was night and day. She ended up putting in a very good performance, and it was only possible after she'd gotten the memorization out of the way.

I don't know where this idea that not knowing your lines helps with discovery, but it's utter bollocks. Anyone with even a modicum of experience anywhere near a studio or a theater knows this. Surely the people who tout this know that.

marka said...

I think I read somewhere that Kelsey Grammer did that on Frasier because it made the lines fresher or some nonsense like that. No doubt Olivier did that as well when doing Shakespeare!! Ken, we’re you doing Frasier when he was doing that? Did it boer you, or are there exceptions to this?

Glenn said...

There's nothing more annoying then an actor still struggling with lines when you're two days away from opening. I've worked with a lot of actors that don't study lines outside of rehearsals, and it shows onstage; dropped lines, missed cues, having to be bailed out by other actors, etc.

Frank Beans said...

I'm not a professional actor, but I think that this is a big reason why some of the best comedy actors often have solid Shakespearean backgrounds, and a love for the craft of playwrights in general: They respect the script. And they find freedom in thoroughly knowing their lines, not constraint.

It's understandable that scripts go through many re-writes during taping, which can often hinder the ability to memorize lines, and make the process frustrating for the actor. I mean, no one is saying that FRASIER is Shakespeare, but the actors in the show know how to bring the words to life, often in incredibly densely-worded scripts.

I will add tangentially, as a musician, the same thing applies to music. It's great to feel awesome and spontaneous in the moment--and magic moments like that do happen--but what really gets things done, and done brilliantly, is practice and memorization.

Roseann said...

I have to say having worked on single camera Episodic TV for the better part of 30 years I can name only one time that an actor (and a VERY WELL KNOWN one) didn't know his lines. And I think that was because he couldn't do it.

Even the very youngest actors always understood that first rule of moviemaking: 'Time is money.'

VincentS said...

I just shared this article on Facebook, among other places on Donna Hoke's Playwright's page. It's started quite a stimulating discussion.

Eric J said...

After all this time, I finally got "Curb Your Enthusiasm" form Netflix. For me, it was an older,crustier Seinfeld in another show about nothing. I understand it was shot without a script, just an outline. The level of improv was very impressive. But that's what I kept seeing. I didn't see believable characters interacting. I saw actors acting. I'm not supposed to see them acting. If I do, they failed. It was just annoying after 4 episodes. I couldn't stay in the story.

Spontaneous output from most writers is crap. They know it. That's why they edit and edit and edit over and over again to make it READ like it's spontaneous/ Like it's never been written before. I expect the same from actors. Study the lines over and over and over until you can make me believe it's spontaneous. If you don't, I can see you acting. Clever improv is amazing, but it's still just a stunt. Professional acting is not a stunt.

Andy Rose said...

Brando was notorious for his cue cards (when he wasn't just making up lines on the spot). There's a photo from The Godfather of Brando's lines literally taped to the chest of Robert Duvall.


jcs said...


In the context of this post did you encounter actresses or actors during your career whose solid professionalism just blew you away (i.e. who were always on time, courteous and accommodating or who shined in the face of adversity)?

I'm not surprised to read that Nighy has a solid work ethic. He's convincing in comedies and he's terrific in dramas. I'm a big fan.

Andrew said...

Sir Ian McKellen made this point years ago.

"How will you know what to say? Well, the words will be in the script. And you will learn the words! You would not have the script on the night! And that goes for everybody, there will be no scripts on the night! You learn the words!"


VP81955 said...

I see this in table reads of my scripts, even when people have read earlier segments of the story and are playing the same character. I excuse them because this is the first time they've seen the script (the same happens to me when I read others' work), but for a professional actor who's seen (and, I hope, re-read) the script for several days, it's inexcusable.

Denny said...

Ken, Academy has kicked out Harvey. And its Board of Governors - most of them - voted in favor of his kicking out. Spielberg is on the board too. Bet, he was the one who pressurized the academy to convene the meeting in the first place. Revenge sweet revenge for Saving private Ryan losing out to Weinstein's crap.

Hmmm.....Your oft-repeated Oscar review anecdote is now complete with a revenge angle :D :D :D

Mike Bloodworth said...

That's why I do improv. My feeble, walnut sized brain has a hard time memorizing anything. I can't even remember my grocery list. And as I get older it gets even harder. At Second City they write through improvisation. One of the most gruelling aspects of this is when the piece is set and you have to start memorization. Your first thought is, "This used to be funny. What happened?" Eventually, however, after MANY, MANY rehearsals it finally starts to come around. Even after a scene is being performed there is still the occasional tweaking of a line here and there. That's one advantage of live performance. In T.V. you've only got one shot. As to why you see so much improv in movies, its because many of today's writers are hacks. Ken, you touched on this in a previous blog. Personally, I blame college and other writing programs. Its, Here's how you write a sitcom: You do A,B,C and D. So, writers come out of school, they write A,B,C and D. And then people wonder why so many shows look the same.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Andy Rose: On stage, too! When Brando was in STREETCAR on Broadway they had to tape bits of script all over the set. Assuming he played Stanley every night for months, how could he NOT learn the words? John Barrymore (for whom cue cards were invented) had a memory problem, but only after years of blackout drinking.

I also love Bill Nighy, and I love him more after reading this. I gave up Woody Allen movies when they began to be full of actors saying "I mean" and "you know, like" because "that's how real people talk." If I want to hear real people talk I'll hang around a coffee shop. I want to hear trained actors deliver lines crafted by great writers, damn it!

And you kids had better be off my lawn by the time I get back.

Diane D. said...

Regarding Shakespeare in Love, the screenplay by Tom Stoppard is so witty and brilliant, I don't know HOW people can continue to complain about that beautiful movie winning the Oscar. A 2015 article by Meredith Borders says it better:

And though I think Saving Private Ryan is a magnificent movie, a lot of the backlash against Shakespeare in Love feels like a disregard for the legitimacy of romances over war films. Since the downfall of the romantic comedy (a genre that is being revived by great independent fare like Obvious Child and Amira & Sam, but that hasn't thrived in the mainstream in many years), romances are no longer perceived as serious cinematic endeavors. If they were, Shakespeare in Love would earn admiration instead of disdain. It's a great movie, and we would be allowed to call it a great movie even though it beat your favorite Spielberg war flick."

Henry Lawson said...

JIm S mentioned Billy Wilder's film "The Apartment". Wilder was notorious for prohibiting an actor in his movies from changing or omitting a single word from the script.

Earl Boebert said...

Supposedly the celebrated "cuckoo clock" speech in The Third Man was ad-libbed by Orson Welles.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

What about SNL? So often over the years you can tell the actors are (not so) slyly checking the cue cards, yet there are supposedly many changes that take place between dress rehearsal earlier in the evening and air time.

Remember, too, that some of the guest hosts are not professional actors.

Bill Murray was reportedly angered once when he was forced to read lines cold on the air because last-minute clashes with NBC censors over a "Todd and Lisa" sketch necessitated substantial changes in the script.

D. McEwan said...

Yes, Brando hid late career laziness behind the "They'll be fresher bullshit also."

If you can't make memorized liens sound new, you're not a very good actor. Brando was a greata actor, so it was just laziness coupled withthe contempt for acting he developed later in life.

A friend of mine, known to you also, Ken, was in a movie with Al Pacino around 25 years ago. I remember her coming home from a day of shooting complaining about Pacino, saying, "For the seven million dollars they're paying him for this movie, the least he could do is learn his damn lines."

Andrew said...

Thank you, Diane D. Add me to those who think Shakespeare in Love deserved the Oscar. A completely charming, beautiful film from start to finish.

I also think Saving Private Ryan is grossly overrated.

Andrew said...

Concerning Marlon Brando, here's a famous photo of Robert Duvall holding Brando's cue cards.


Steve Mc said...

For me, memorizing everything for a stage play before the first rehearsal does not work. To a degree, the performance start to become 'set' instead of playing off the other actors. Once preliminary blocking has begun I go off book. The blocking actually helps me to remember the lines more perfectly.

Diane D. said...

I'm so glad to hear I'm not the only one, and would like to add: If it won Best Picture because of Harvey Weinstein, surely that doesn't explain why it was nominated for 11 total Oscars and won 7, all well-deserved. It was exactly what you said: "A completely charming, beautiful film from start to finish."