Stage Acting Versus Film Acting

“A more honest trade” does not necessarily mean “a better trade.” Film acting and stage acting are different, and arguments as to which is “better” are pointless. Each has its own requirements, and good actors are good actors, stage or screen. Some actors are at their greatest on the stage, others in front of the camera, and some work brilliantly in both. Stage or film, the Art of Relating, which is the ability to relate to another actor, is indispensable. How
and to what extent you relate depends on whether you are in front of the camera or on the stage. Successful actors know how to adjust in the crossover between the two mediums.

A friend of mine, who is a now a successful film actor, tells a story that when he was fresh out of college with his degree in theater acting, his first professional job was a role in a low-budget feature film. He determined to knock ’em dead. He studied and restudied the script, analyzed his character, an planned his performance and his choices line by line. As is the case on a
depressingly high number of films, he got no help from the director. Later, when my friend saw the finished film, he was surprised and embarrassed that in most of his scenes he was not believable. He looked especially bad in the scenes he had rehearsed the most diligently and in which he had carefully made his choices. Why was this? He knew he wasn’t that bad an actor. He looked at the film several times to figure out why he came across as poorly as he did, and on the fourth viewing, he saw the light. He had prepared for and acted as he would have for a stage play. Here’s what he had done.

He had planned ahead of time how to deliver each of his lines. His ideas stifled his natural delivery and turned his dialogue into line readings. Because he repeated his dialogue the same way on every take, the editor had no choice but to use my friend’s line readings in editing each scene. He had planned how he was going to react to the other actors’ lines. As a result, his reactions appeared contrived rather than spontaneous.

He had projected his voice and his actions. He was unaware that the camera and the microphone were the audience. He did not realize that the camera was capable of intimacy and would record his feelings and thoughts without projecting.

He had thought that what he said was more important than what he felt, with the result that he communicated the wrong information. Dialogue is less important than what a character feels or thinks. He had decided what emotions he should feel, and was working hard to express them, coming off as an actor “indicating” emotions that were not there. Without time for rehearsal, predetermined emotions can look forced and dishonest.

He had no idea that the camera was picking up his real feelings, which were nervousness and fear. The fear made him stiff and uncomfortable in front of the camera. At moments he even showed a nervous quiver. He did not know that, with rare exceptions, a character in a movie is the actor’s own self. He spent the entire movie trying to be the characterization
of a policeman rather than just accepting himself as the policeman. He did not know that his job was to see and listen to the other actors so intently that he recognized their feelings and to say his lines intuitively according to what he saw and heard. He came across as an actor who was not giving to or receiving from any other character in the film. The overall result was that he came across as a stiff, scared actor who was not participating in the story because he was not relating to his fellow actors. His ideas created line readings and made his performance unbelievable. He looked like an actor covering up his insecurity with overacting.


For a stage role, you spend a lot of days rehearsing everything you are going to have to do every night for the run of the play. You and the director block your movement and action to make sure you and the other actors don’t run into each other and that you always end up in the right place at the right time. Day after day, you rehearse your performance, your entrances, exits, timing, and stage business. You prepare for the reality that during the play’s run you will have to repeat your entire performance every night. For film, things are different. Actor Tom Hanks, in a TV interview, described how he used to spend the night before acting in a film scene by analyzing the scene, marking the key points, identifying the beats, making his choices, planning how he should do each line, and determining how he should feel and move. Then when he gets on the set the next morning, the director makes him throw out everything he planned, and perform by relating to the other actors. Frank Sinatra always refused to rehearse performance. Laurence Olivier said that in making the movie Wuthering Heights, director William Wyler told him to relate instead of “act.” Gene Hackman said he learns his lines by rote without any planning, not allowing himself any emotional reaction, so that during shooting he can perform according to how he relates to the other actors. Meryl Streep said she usually reads the script once or twice and then performs by relating to and dealing with the other actors. Steven Spielberg said in an Actor’s Studio interview that he never rehearses, because he doesn’t want his actors to “act.”


In a stage play you know what you are going to do from the moment you first step onto the stage to final curtain. You often work from the emotions of other actors, but the camera’s intimacy and truth are not always demanded of you. When the curtain goes up, there is no looking back. You must know all your lines, movement, stage business, and interpretations; and you are under pressure to carry through to the final curtain. Some nights you are brilliant, other nights not so brilliant, and there’s nothing to do but approach the next performance with hope, determination, and good spirits. For film, you are not expected to give a sustained performance for more than one shot at a time, and never for the whole screenplay. Restricted by costs, availability of actors, locations, and convenience, the director shoots her movie in separate chunks at different times and hardly ever in the same order as in the script. It is not unusual for the last scene to be shot first, followed by the other scenes, not necessarily in script sequence. The special character of motion picture production results in constant changes and altered points of view during actual shooting, so that director and actors rarely, if ever, rehearse for a sustained performance from the beginning to end.

“All the good things, in any film, were a series of accidents.”

-Robert Altman


For the camera, you have to give a good performance only once, and both you and the director concentrate on getting that one good performance. You may get it in one take, or you may have to do many takes before the director decides that you have done the right one. Your job is to perform under the pressure of Elia Kazan’s “severe and awesome trial” of the close-up. Once your best performance is “in the can,” it has been immortalized on film and you never have to do it again. Unlike for a stage play, film audiences in perpetuity will be able to see your best performance. For posterity’s sake, let’s hope it’s a good one.

Your best performance in a film comes from living in the moment of the scene, which may or may not be what you or your director had planned or expected. You may or may not act the whole scene at one time, depending on its length and on how the director plans her shooting. It is certain that you will do several takes of the scene in close-up and from different angles. When a good film director calls “Cut and print” and then calls for an additional take of a shot
you have just done, she is not looking for repetition, even though your performance may have been brilliant. She is making one more try for something that she hopes will be knock-’em-out-of-their-socks brilliant. In the film, not rehearsing does not mean not preparing or not understanding the story. When a film director says she never rehearses, she is referring to dialogue and emotional relationships. Both you and your director rehearse blocking and camera movement, but the real performance comes when dialogue, emotions, and reactions are fresh and unrehearsed and the actors face each other with the camera running. The stage equivalent would be if the cast were to do its first rehearsal for performance on opening night. You don’t see this in the theater, and I think you would be hard put to find a professionally produced play in which the first rehearsal for performance is on opening night.


In the film, you are acting for the camera and the microphone, whose only purposes are to record everything you do and say with relentless intimacy. Not until much later will audiences be allowed to see what you performed privately for the camera. My actor friend, unaware that the microphone and the camera were so close to him, had projected his voice and his actions. On the screen he sounds as if he is talking to someone on the other side of the playground. If he had been in a stage play, he would have sounded okay. In the film, his third-balcony voice projection while speaking to an actor standing fourteen inches away from him makes him look ridiculous. In a film scene, the camera and the microphone are as close as the lover you are whispering to, so you don’t Projecting need to project your voice and actions. To avoid looking amateurish, talk naturally and don’t project.

“The chief requisite for an actor is the ability to do nothing well, which is
by no means as easy as it sounds.”

-Alfred Hitchcock


When you sit in the front row at a play, you are close to the actors and you can see them in what might be called a stage version of a close-up, but it’s not anything like a movie close-up. In the front row, you are aware of the actors’ loud, projected voices, their taut neck and throat muscles, and the tiny meteors of saliva streaking through the light. In contrast, a movie close-up shows you a quiet reality with its normal level of human interaction. It is easy to say that all you have to do in going from stage acting to film acting is to be what actors call “broad” in the wide shots and subtle in the close-ups.” Not true. In a close-up, you have to be not only subtle but real, because it is in those close-ups where Kazan’s “severe and awful trial” takes place. The camera sees everything and demands absolute truth. If you’re scared or nervous or angry or sweating even a tiny little bit, the camera picks it up. It shows your insincerity, your truthfulness, your nothingness, your involvement, your emotions. You have to be there. The camera sees what you truly are at the moment. Good film acting teachers try to teach you how to successfully face that trial. Film is a medium of images, and a movie close-up of you having an emotional experience is a wordless image even though you may be speaking dialogue at the same time. If you do not experience an emotion stimulated in you by the other actor and the circumstances, the scene dies. Your emotion, not your words, communicates to the audience what is really going on.


What’s the distinction between emotions and feelings? There is no difference. Feelings are emotions. When you feel happy, you are experiencing the emotion of happiness. Feeling sad is the emotion of sadness. Your feelings and emotions originate in the right side of your brain and have nothing to do with the logic of its left side. You can decide what to think, but you cannot
decide what to feel. That’s why big macho football players cry and apologize for it when they are inducted into the hall of fame. They can’t help it. When you are acting, your feelings have to be like that—you can’t help it; they have to come from your true reaction to the other actor and to the circumstances of the scene. “I’m sorry,” the football player apologizes at his display of emotion and tries to suppress it. You, the actor, must welcome your emotion and certainly
never suppress it. You cannot fake emotion, but there are actors who try to all the time.

There are many working actors of the kind whom Constantine Stanislavsky called “mechanical actors.” Although there are many fine actors in television, we see a perpetual parade of mediocre actors who try to “act” emotions. Stanislavsky said the mechanical actor uses his facial expression, mimicry, voice, and gestures to show us nothing but a dead mask of feeling that doesn’t exist. “Indicating” means trying to express a feeling not from within but from without by using body and voice devices that supposedly represent some emotion or another. When you deliberately decide ahead of time to evoke a specific emotion, you can only indicate that emotion, not experience it. Sanford Meisner said, “you can’t fake emotion.” The camera knows the difference.

“I don’t believe in rehearsing the emotion of a scene: you can rehearse the mechanics of a scene. The actual thing happens when the camera goes.”

-George Cukor


Subtext is what you really are saying regardless of what your lines are saying. It is the true meaning underneath dialogue, and it is what you communicate when you talk to anyone in the film. The words you say in film seldom convey an equivalent meaning to the words said on the stage, because the real meaning of a film scene is found mainly in the subtext created by what you experience at the moment, which has little or nothing to do with words. Stage actors do not have the close-up to let audiences see their emotions as intimately as on film. On the stage, there is little subtext because dialogue explains virtually everything. In a film, when the dialogue explains the story or the situation or feelings, it comes across as fake and boring. Your performance on film, mainly in close-up, depends on your true reaction to the feelings of the other actors and the situation. Unlike stage actors’ preparation for their work on stage, most good film actors do not rehearse or plan exactly how they are going to react in a scene.

Subtext is that unspoken communication by way of your emotions or feelings. Regardless of what your script lines are, subtext is what you really mean and what the audience is really watching, even though it may not be logically aware of it. Through the subtext, the audience discovers your relationship to the other actors, and only when you are relating to each other can there be useful subtext.

People don’t always express their inner thoughts to one another; a conversation may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person
really thinks or feels.

-Alfred Hitchcock

You communicate subtext through your tone of voice, body language, looks, and emotions, but only if they come from your emotional response to the other actors and to the circumstances and not from indicating, as with mechanical actors. Subtext is an undercurrent that allows the audience to understand what is really going on between the actors. Subtext is virtually impossible to rehearse because it is experiential and difficult to duplicate. The director usually tries to set the blocking to help the actors in creating subtext.

One example of how film director Mark Rydell blocks a scene to help the actors with subtext is in the film, On Golden Pond. To understand how this works, it is important that you view this film and watch this scene both with and without the sound. Chelsea, played by Jane Fonda, arrives on a visit to the summer cottage of her parents, Norman and Ethel, played by Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn. Norman is a crusty, often abrasive man who has a sense of humor but is unable to express his feelings very well. Chelsea desperately wants his love and approval. When Chelsea (J. Fonda) enters the cottage, the director frames her and Norman (H. Fonda) in a close two-shot: we see Chelsea full-face and the back of Norman’s head. We see her feeling of happy expectancy. Here she encounters the close-up’s “severe and awesome trial” of being absolutely honest.


CLOSE TWO-SHOT ON J. FONDA. The back of H. Fonda’s head is to us.
Hello Norman.

(She goes to kiss him, but just before her lips touch his
cheek, he very slightly pulls his head back. We see her
extreme pain for an instant. She continues and kisses him.)

Happy birthday.

(She is once again expectant and happy. Hepburn comes in the
door and stands behind them in the same close shot.)

Consider the dialogue to this point: four words, “Hello, Norman,” and “Happy birthday.” Not much for a great actress to knock us dead with, yet Jane Fonda does it. There is a lot happening emotionally, and Fonda, as Chelsea, lets us see how she feels. She is happy at the prospect of greeting her father, and it is clear by her feelings that she expects to be received by him in the same way even though she has been burned in the past. When Norman pulls his head back when she attempts to kiss him, we see, for a brief instant, the intense pain it causes her. Then she is back to her feeling of happy expectation for a short moment when Norman gives his next line:


(to Hepburn)
Look at this little fat girl,

Rydell blocked this scene so that Jane Fonda faces us in a close shot over Henry Fonda’s shoulder. We see exactly what is going on inside her. With the back of his head close in the right foreground, we see his slight unplanned movement backward that tells us what he is experiencing. The least bit of untruth on Jane’s part would kill the scene, but she truly experiences the emotions so honestly that we experience them with her. What she does is impressive. This is a good scene for film actors—and film directors—to study.

On stage it is almost impossible to achieve film’s intense intimacy. The same scene as it was done originally in the stage play with other actors is effective, but not as compelling as it is in the film close-up. Chelsea hugs her father, who hesitates briefly before returning the hug. The dialogue and body movements predominantly indicate the feelings of the actors, particularly when Chelsea’s father, instead of pulling back from her kiss as in the film, hesitate before he returns her hug. The actors doing this scene in the stage presentation show the proper discomfort and awkward hugging the scene requires, but without the power of a film close-up, it takes Norman’s line, “Look at this little fat girl, Ethel,” to give the scene its full impact. In the film scene the impact comes earlier, when in close-up we see Chelsea’s emotions so intimately that it seems we are guiltily eavesdropping, which is exactly what the camera is doing.

On the stage, an actress has to make sure the entire audience sees her response. Subtext nuances are not as discernible, especially for someone sitting several rows back in the theater. In a play, subtext, or the author’s hidden intention, comes from the text. On film, subtext becomes clear to the audience through the actors’ emotional experiences while relating to another actor. The stage actor has to look for the author’s intent by interpreting the emotional
undercurrent, explicit or hidden, in the words. Eugene O’Neil experimented with conveying subtext to the theater audience in his play Strange Interlude by having his characters speak their true thoughts and feelings in asides to the audience. It is an interesting play, but its asides are not as effective and unobtrusive as the film close-up.

All acting in film takes place in close-up. In a wide shot, anyone can look believable taking a gun out of a drawer or fluffing up the sofa cushions. You earn your money in close-up, where the camera sees your emotions. You can’t hide anything because the camera sees everything—fear, happiness, anxiety, lack of confidence, nervousness, whatever is going on inside you. On film you cannot “act” in love, you have to be in love. Sanford Meisner said that your greatest
source of creativity as an actor is concentration of attention outside yourself. The way to get in touch with this creative source is to concentrate on the other actor. The camera will pick it up.

Some very good actors in the theater play parts that don’t reveal themselves, whereas in films, some actors who may not be as great have some
quality that gets revealed.

-Paul Mazursky


The camera can take your audience anywhere. It can present a panoramic view or an extreme close-up. It can range from the spectacle of Braveheart and Gone with the Wind to the simplicity of Strangers in Paradise or Clerks. Film has the ability to take us visually from distant galaxies to the microscopic world of neurosurgery, from an aerial shot of a lake to a close-up of
the lily pad. The size and design of a theater dictate what the set will look like and how the audience sees the play. Most theaters have a proscenium arch through which the audience sees the play from a single point of view as if through a transparent fourth wall. In some theaters, the stage thrusts out into the audience, and in-arena theaters, the audience completely surrounds the acting area. The location of your seat in a theater determines how you see the play. Your point of view is different from that of any other position in the house, except that everyone in the audience can see the whole stage and the whole set. At a play you may watch the entire action or any part of it you choose. You may study the set, look at any actor on the stage, or watch the actors who are speaking—whatever you choose to look at.

On the film or TV screen, you may only see what the director wants you to see. She dictates what each image will be, how much of the screen it will fill, and from what distance and point of view you see it. If the picture is a big-head close-up of an actor, that’s all there is for you to look at. If it’s a wide shot, the camera shows you only as much as the director wants you to see. Though the stage audience sees the entire set, it does not have the ability to move closer or farther away. The film audience sees an assortment of close-ups and wide shots created and selected by the director. She, in effect, moves the audience closer to or farther away from the action in the movie.


In both film and theater, there are two kinds of roles: personality and character. Your personality is who you are mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Almost all the roles in film are personality roles in which you play yourself as if you were actually the character called for by the script. Jimmy Stewart, for one, was a personality actor who always played himself in someone else’s shoes. Most stars are personality actors and do not try to transform themselves into someone else. In most film roles, actors let their individual selves filter through the role to exploit their respective personalities. Milos Forman, who directed great films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest andAmadeus, was once asked what it means to be professional in films; his answer was that what is important are the talent and the personality.

In a Character role, you play the fictional personality of someone else. Character roles are traditional in the theater, and we read about the great actors of the past who transformed themselves into the famous roles of characters who were completely different from themselves. When you play a character role, you have to hide your personality so that you are perceived as someone who is different from you both physically, psychologically, and mentally. The great Michael Chekhov, a character actor in both stage and film, transformed himself
so completely in many roles that the real Chekhov disappeared.

Film is a personality medium, but character roles have been created by some film actors like Chekhov and others. In the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets, Alec Guinness plays the eight character roles of the people his main character has to eliminate to gain a royal title. Each character is completely different from the others and is not just Guinness in a different costume. Paul Muni transforms himself as Zola in the film The Life of Emile Zola. More recently, there was Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot; Tom Hanks in Forest Gump; Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Little Big Man, and Midnight Cowboy; Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; Billy Bob Thornton in Swingblade and U-Turn; Gary Oldman in Hannibal; Judy Dench in
Shakespeare in Love; all create wonderful film character roles in which they are not recognizable as their own personalities. Jon Voight is such a great character actor that no matter what his role, he always seems to be someone other that Jon Voight. His Howard Cosell in Ali is virtually unrecognizable as Voight.

There are a number of leading men and women who have done or could do character roles: Anne Bancroft, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Meryl Streep, Helen Bonham Carter, Cicely Tyson, Jodie Foster, Marlon Brando, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Duvall, Tim Roth, and a few others. They have the ability to filter the assumed character through themselves and make it believable. There are many women actors who could do character parts brilliantly, but such parts are hardly ever written for them.

“You make use of your personality. That’s why some have lasted such a long time. They have something you can use.”

-Howard Hawks

A few of the prominent personality actors who have lasted a long time are Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, John Wayne, Danny Glover, James Caan, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Harrison Ford, Sidney Poitier, Kirk Douglas, Bette Davis, Robert Redford, and Kathy Bates.
A leading actor who fits a role playing his or her own personality is more efficient for film than hiring an actor who doesn’t look the part and having him transform himself into the character. We still have character actors in film, but they are mostly personality actors who themselves are interesting or unusual characters. The Academy Award for best supporting actor was originally created for the character actor, the type of actor who would never be a leading man but who did an excellent job in a lesser part. Character actors for film, both men and women, usually differ from leading actors by a wide range of traits and characteristics that are physical: fat, thin, bald, specific accent, tall, short, unusual facial features, odd physical build, unusual voice. Each is usually cast for his or her respective characteristic physical traits, but the true character actors transform themselves into a character having any one or more of such specific traits. The Academy categories for men and women, as distinct from the categories Leading Men and Leading Women, are Character Men and Character Women.

There are good reasons why character-transformation roles are not common in film acting. Most important is that it takes a long time for an actor to create a great character. It took Dustin Hoffman nine months to work on his character Dorothy for the movie Tootsie. Eddie Murphy creates a whole family in The Nutty Professor. He plays the Mother, Father, Grandmother, Uncle, and Brother. When I saw the picture, I thought each was a different actor until my daughter told me he was playing all the parts. The time spent creating a character for film costs a lot of money that producers are unwilling to spend. It is cheaper and easier to hire personality actors that fit the role. There are exceptions, like the two above, because where would you find ready-made personality actors like Dustin Hoffman or Eddie Murphy? They don’t exist and have to be created. The time it takes for character transformation costs lots of money, so only leading actors with marquee value get a chance to do it. To the accountants, the expense of creating a transformed character other than a star would not be cost-effective.

Film is all about personality. Robert Duvall has been around for years andhis character work is exceptional, but we still see the Robert Duvall personality with an accent and changed mannerisms. James Woods was brilliant in The Ghost of Mississippi, but he was still James Woods, the person. Character acting takes a skill many actors do not have, and producers are wary about hiring an actor who tries to get too far away from his type.

The stage is more suitable for creating character roles. A thirty-five-year-old actor may have the chance to play a twenty-year-old young adult or a man of sixty-five. During the relatively long stage rehearsal, he discovers the character’s traits that are different from his personal characteristics and has the time to blend these into his performance. The actor may have a month of rehearsal to find the different ways the character reacts, and how to bring these traits
closer to himself. Immersion into a character is a challenge; it is also part of the satisfaction and fun of working on the stage.

In the film On Golden Pond, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda are perfect as a sixty-nine- and seventy-nine-year-old married couple. They are such skillful actors that we believe they have been married forever. They play themselves, even though Fonda has made a few subtle character choices, like being a little hard of hearing and a little senile, but he is the same Henry Fonda we have loved through many films. Had this role been available when Fonda was a
young actor, I doubt he would have been cast as Norman and then aged to eighty with makeup. Using age makeup to make a young actor look old on film can sometimes be effective, but it is expensive because of the time it takes. In Citizen Kane, Joseph Cotten played the part of Kane’s friend both as a young man and an old man. In this film, it was necessary to make up Cotten as an old man to cover the time span. The makeup was pretty good, but even though the transformation is not very great, there is no doubt it is the young Cotten playing an old man. On film, we are aware of Joseph Cotten’s makeup job, but onthe stage he would have looked like a genuine old man. Undetectable age makeup can be created for film, but it is more demanding and time-consumingfor both the actor and the makeup artist, which costs more. For the stage, actors are expected to do their own makeup.

It is physically demanding to rehearse a play and then perform the lead role night after night. I don’t think Henry Fonda, or any man at his age, could have made it through rehearsals and a run of the play. To get the play rehearsed and performed, it is more practical to cast a younger actor for the role of an eightyyear-old.


Film is mainly visual, and a film script usually contains about onetenth the dialogue of a stage play. Compare a stage play to most screenplays. You can immediately see the difference. A leading actor might have a hundred lines in an entire movie. In a play, he may have a hundred lines in four pages.

Dialogue is the essence of a play, and actors tell the story through the playwright’s words and instructions. The story is advanced in words. The audience
comes to hear what the playwright has written. In a good film, the story
advances through the subtext created by the actors’ emotions.

“I try to avoid talk at all cost. You lose that spontaneity when you realize
somebody’s thinking the hell out of their part.”

-James Bridges


Monologues are rarely used on film because the camera can take the audience into a character’s mind through flashbacks and voice-overs and in close-ups that reveal what is going on inside the character. Film can present scenes that enact what in a play would be offstage action and have to be explained in words. The monologue is a device for the audience to understand what can only be communicated by words of explanation, such as the back
story or a character’s thoughts and feelings. A monologue in a film is most often a misguided attempt by an inept writer or director to solve a dramatic problem. There are exceptions. In the film On Golden Pond, Hepburn sends Henry Fonda out to pick strawberries. We see shots of Fonda wandering around the woods. He can’t find his way. He turns and runs in the opposite direction. He is out of shape. He sits on a log to catch his breath. We can see that he is confused, lost, and frightened. In this scene, the camera shows us Fonda’s experience, but in the stage play, it has to be explained later in a monologue or expository dialogue.

On stage, monologues can be used for exposition, back story, or for understanding a character’s thoughts. In modern theater, they also need some reasonable motivation. In a film, a monologue needs a strong dramatic motivation. Katharine Hepburn has a monologue in the film version of On Golden Pond. She delivers her monologue to a doll her character has had since she was a little girl. She is alone in the cottage.

(She takes her doll, Elmer, down from the mantel and hugs him to her.)

Oh, Elmer, isn’t he awful?
Elmer, Elmer, Elmer.

(She stands for a moment, lost in thought. The sound of a
motorboat on the lake interrupts her. She turns and walks to
the window. She waves to it and sits on the steps.)

(to Elmer)
They say the lake is dying,
but I don’t believe it. They
say all those houses along
Koochakiyi Shores are killing
Golden Pond.

See, Elmer, no more yellow
tents in the trees, no more
bell calling the girls to supper. 
I left you in this window, Elmer, 
sitting on the sill, so you could look 
out at Camp Koochakiyi, when I was
eight and nine and ten.

And I’d stand on the bank,
across the cove at sunset, and
I’d wave. And you always waved
back, didn’t you Elmer?

This monologue allows Hepburn to reminisce about her life as a child on the lake and what she shared with her imaginary playmate, Elmer. The monologue gives the audience insight into Ethel’s character, thoughts, and feelings. You might say that it is not a monologue because she is talking to someone: her doll. But the doll is really not a participant and serves the same purpose for her as did Wilson, the basketball, for Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Cast
Away. The basketball and Elmer are pretty good excuses to allow the actors to speak monologues when there is no other live person to talk to.

“What I’m looking for instead of actors is behaviors, somebody who will bring me more.”

-Robert Altman


The close-up offers emotional exposure. It reveals your inner feelings through your eyes and face. It uncovers your personality by revealing your deepest thoughts. In the climax of On Golden Pond, Jane Fonda confronts her father, Henry Fonda:

. . . it occurred to me that
maybe you and I should have
the kind of relationship we’re
supposed to have.

What kind of relationship is

Well, you know, like a father
and a daughter.

Oh, just in the nick of time,
huh? Worried about the will,
are you? I’m leaving everything 
to you except what I’m
taking with me.

Oh, stop it, I don’t want anything. 
It just seems like you
and I have been mad at each
other for too long.

Oh? I didn’t know we were mad.
I thought we just didn’t like
each other.

(This hits J. Fonda hard. She starts to cry.)

I want to be your friend.

The intimacy of this close-up on Jane Fonda as she says the last line brings the audience in to where it is standing next to her and participating in her feelings. Finally, Henry Fonda lets her in, not much but a little bit. We know their relationship will improve.
The stage actor has to project the dialogue and use larger-than-life movements to reach the back row. The experience of an actress on stage may be as deep as Jane Fonda’s in the close-up, but the distance from the stage to the audience makes that experience less visible and intimate. Onstage intimacy has to be heightened to convey its meaning to the audience. Paradoxically, however, when you heighten intimacy, it diminishes. Intimacy is close, personal, and quiet. The back row is not close or personal, and it cannot be reached with quietness. So on the stage, some of the intimacy, maybe most of it, is lost.

“An actor who is truly heroic reveals the divine that passes through him, that aspect of himself that he does not own and cannot control.”

-John Patrick Shanley


One interesting and important characteristic of film is its use of the reaction shot, which is just that—a close-up of an actor reacting, with or without words, to something that has been said or done. It is a valuable shot that is intimate, revealing, and fascinating. There is nothing like it0 in a stage play. In editing, the director and the film editor select scenes and bits of scenes and assemble them in the order they think makes the best final film. To acquire all these bits and pieces, a conventional and safe way to direct a scene is by “coverage” shooting, which refers to blocking and shooting every scene in such a way that there are sufficient shots and angles of every line for the editor to assemble the final film creatively and in continuity.

Let’s say you are at a table with another actor in a dialogue scene. The director first shoots the scene in an establishing shot, generally a wide shot that shows most of the table and the two actors. She follows this with a medium shot of the two of you. Then she has you repeat the dialogue while she shoots “over-shoulders” (OS), which are close shots of each of you with the camera looking at your face from behind and over the other actor’s shoulder. Then she shoots individual close-ups of each of you as you speak and listen to the other actor who is off-camera. The director ends up with a group of shots that allows her and the editor to edit the scene in many different ways. This is not the only way to shoot a scene, but I refer to it here to point out the nature of the reaction shot.

Of these shots, several will be close-ups and over-shoulders of you just listening and reacting to the other actor. These reaction shots are very important to the editor and especially to you. Editors love good reaction shots because they can put them anywhere in a scene to change the pace or set a mood, or use them to get over an awkward or unusable cut. The point for you, the actor, is to always be participating in the scene and to not be out to lunch during the other
actor’s lines. Concentrate and listen. If you are interesting and involved, you may get a lot of screen time in reaction shots. There are times when the reacting actor is on screen longer than the actor speaking. It depends on who is the most interesting.

An Emmy-Award-winning film editor told me of the time she was editing an episode of one of the biggest prime-time TV dramas whose guest star was one of film’s biggest stars. (For obvious reasons, I can’t name the star or the show.) His performance was so bad that after she had edited out his bad scenes, the guest star ended up with a minute and a half of screen time on an hour show. You can be sure that there were a lot of reaction shots in this episode.

Stay with it. Be totally involved in your scene even if you do not have a single line of dialogue. You will be surprised at how many of your silent reaction shots make it into a film when you keep concentrating on the other actor and stay in the moment.

Acting in film requires a different orientation and training than for acting in theater, not that one is better or more valuable than the other. Some assume that the tricks of acting for the camera alone distinguish film acting from stage acting. These include tricks such as not blinking your eyes, hitting your marks, looking steadfastly at the actors’ eye nearest the lens, matching your movements, and so on. You do have to learn these things, but the distinguishing
essence of film acting is that you have to bring up your emotions not through psychological or physical gimmicks but through the concentration of your attention on the other actor’s emotions and the circumstances (see Chapter 5, The Art of Concentration). All significant acting in film takes place in close-up, and learning film acting is the task of learning how to successfully meet the“awesome trial” of the close-up. This is what I teach.

About the Author

Jeremiah Comey
Jeremiah Comey is a Hollywood-based acting teacher and a trainer of acting teachers. He has conducted classes and workshops all over the world and in such universities as UCLA. He has acted for both stage and television.

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