The choice of acting style is a challenging one, for it’s the culmination of numerous dramatic choices, ones that require precise balancing. What is style? It is the selection and arrangement of acting elements and qualities to portray the dramatic truth, the purpose of the play. These acting elements consist of the degree of reality, the dominant dramatic flow, the selection of the emotions, intentions and the accompanying behavior. Additional items include the pacing, timing, the premise or purpose of the play, and the desired audience response.
Acting has to do with choices. One can define acting as the art and science of making and implementing dramatic choices with imagination, clarity, and purpose. Choices that support the dramatic equations, propel the story to its optimum potential, and create the desired illusion within the mind of the audience. Style is one of the more important choices.
For the acting ensemble, style is the full realization of the characters’ convictions. In other words, saying what we want to say just the way we want to say it. To illustrate how the style affects the actor’s portrayal I’ve selected two films, the drama “Michael Clayton” and the comedy “A Fish Named Wanda.” The two films are actually hybrid styles, a drama/thriller and comedy/farce respectively, each drifting between the two styles. Yet the same selection parameters apply. Understand that each genre has its own look and feel, a set of characteristics that makes it credible and gives it purpose. By comprehending these distinct attributes, the acting ensemble can express the truth, the essence of the play and pursue the desired response from the audience.
Let’s look at the drama/thriller “Michael Clayton” and see how style parameters are used to fulfill the purpose of this film. Tracking times indicated in parenthesis show the location of the various examples.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is brought in by his law firm as a “fixer” to remedy an embarrassing situation. The firm’s star litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) suffers a nervous breakdown while representing a chemical company, one that he knows is guilty in a multi-billion dollar class action suit. The crux of the story revolves around Michael’s growing suspicions about this case and his conflict between loyalty to the firm, his need to pay off a loan shark, and his ethics as a human being. A moral dilemma has him searching for answers. When the lawyer’s death looks like a suicide or accidental overdose, Clayton delves deeper into the case probing about what the lawyer might have uncovered.
Obstructing his pursuit for the truth is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) the chief legal consul for the chemical company. She finds her entire company’s future hanging on the outcome of a multi-billion-dollar settlement.
While the movie is a blend of the two genres, the acting styles are drama intertwined with the thriller aspects. It starts out as a drama. Reality is natural, truthful interpretation of human conditions having universal roots. It is lifelike and typical of everyday situations. It remains that way until Michael’s car blows up (15:28). Unknown forces have placed his life in jeopardy and the story now becomes a thriller. Reality becomes confined, almost claustrophobic as he frantically runs away. Where can he hide, whom can he trust? This scene sets up the thriller narrative wherein the audience experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with both the deeds of daring performed by the hero and the dangers to which he is exposed. The setting of thrillers is usually in a dark, corrupt and dangerous place, and this film slowly slips into this environment.
At this point, the movie jumps back four days in time. The genre reverts to drama; however, the audience lingers in the thriller mode. In this flash back, the main character doesn’t know he is in danger, however, the audience knows he will be. Thus, the audience seeks the identity of the culprits, plus why to they want him dead.
In drama, behavior is natural and normal with wide span of attitudes, from negative to positive. There is a balance of inner and external thoughts and feelings. Characters weighed with powerful motivations and struggles, conflicts and solutions are pursued in earnest manner. In thrillers, tension is inherent in characters and situations, and behavior is thus stress-ridden and on edge. Stress creates mistakes and errors of judgement such as not being able to see of full picture. When Arthur asks Michael (1:00:00) how they knew he had called Anna, he doesn’t realize that Arthur’s phone was tapped. Such myopic behavior is prevalent with sustained tension and multi-facets goals.
Deceptive behavior and betrayal from within are also found in this genre. Karen Crowder, (Tilda Swinton) the chief consul for the chemical company, places a contract (1:05:39) on Arthur’s life when she finds him detrimental to her case. It’s an act of desperation as there is no other option if she is to succeed. She justifies this immoral act to protect the company’s legal liability. Abnormal personality types are likely in thrillers and in this one; Karen Crowder might be classified as obsessive/compulsive. This is evident by her attention to detail and her meticulous preparation for an interview (23:04). In addition, her perfectionist drive likely contributed to having Arthur murdered.
Emotions in drama, more so than anything else, drive the story forward. They have a wide span, usually deeply played from full passion to concealment. Emotions can be elusive and subtle in quality making them apparent only through audience involvement in the story. They can also be highly volatile.
In thrillers, emotions have the same qualities; yet center more on the survival mode. They tend to be reactionary focusing more on the expected or imagined. Survival emotions include terror, horror, fear, dread, despair, grief, suspicion and apprehension. Michael Clayton likely feels terror when his car blows up (15:28), grief when his good friend Arthur is found dead (1:15:28), and suspicion when he learns Anna did not reveal her conversations with Arthur to anyone (1:23:40). He likewise feels apprehension; an uncertainty about what’s happening and this prompts him to dig deeper for the truth. When Michael decides to break into Arthur’s apartment (1:25:23), it’s likely done with the emotion of desperation.
In drama, intentions tend to be highly worthy, meaningful, and motivated, yet not always readable initially. At times, they unfold slowly pulling the audience into deeper involvement. True intentions are sometimes delayed or misdirected to increase tension and audience involvement. In addition, intentions are revealed more in subtext (implications) than in text (dialogue). In thrillers, the intentions tend to be reactionary and survival oriented. Missteps or being overmatched play into this genre where precarious outcomes keep the audience on edge. In this film, Michael’s choices include intentions such as, to do the job, to repay the loan, to save myself, to get Arthur right, to find the truth, and to make things right. Note that a new intention occurs when something comes to change it. In both drama and thrillers, intentions are portrayed in earnest as the characters struggle to attain a worthy goal.
In drama, pacing is deliberate and flexing to promote audience input through imagery, questions, speculation, anticipation, resolving and reflection of serious emotional caring forces. Time is required to nurture the unseen story, time to comprehend, process, embellish, and respond to what can be multiple story elements. In the thriller, pacing, while moderate, will slow at critical moments to extend the tension and create vicarious pain in the audience. When Michael gets out of his car to look at the horses (13:40), it’s a mystical moment extended to create added tension and set up the huge surprise, the bomb blast.
In drama, timing is flexing and loose. It is usually subtle, vague as complex presentations and strong emotional forces do not always generate a precise unison response. Emotional inertia is sustained, even heightened through pauses. Timing, especially in thrillers, optimizes the tension and stretches it near the breaking point. When Karen Crowder struggles with the decision to have Arthur killed (1:05:39), it is done through subtle implications that leave the audience speculating. Is she going through with this? Her ambiguity and well-placed pauses create the scene’s strong emotional impact. The scene is resolved later when the murder takes place.
Another key timing moment is when Michael receives the check from his boss (1:34:30). There is an extended pause where he weighs his options, taking the money or exposing the wrongs with the secret memo/booklet he holds in the other hand. It’s long enough to get the point across and allows the audience to speculate which way he will go. His timing and uncertainty creates the pressing question, how will this story end?
In this drama/thriller, the premise is highly worthy and has strong rapport with the audience. Powerful opposing forces (polarities) make for empathic characters. The writing is serious and intelligent having compelling arguments. The high moral implications give substance and purpose to the story. Human dilemmas are reflected through vital decisions and their consequences. The premise in Michael Clayton shows us how the truth can be adjusted. A powerful corporation suppresses the truth. However, the moral compass of one character unveils the conspiracy and rights the wrongs done to the plaintiffs in this case.
In the drama and thriller genres, the dramatic flow tends to be more emotional than informational. Emphasis is on the implied or inferred and almost lyrical in delivery. Multi-layered and with complex imagery, strong caring forces unfold gradually through wants/opposition–hero/villain polarization. Gaps are filled in by intense audience involvement in co-creation. In Michael Clayton, the dominant flow is emotional as we are caught up in the emotional struggles and decisions of the three main characters.
The emphasis for desired audience response for a drama is to care, feel and identify with the struggles of the main character(s). Caring ingredients include a sympathetic character in heighten jeopardy earnestly struggling to reach a worthy goal against formidable opposition–winning or failing with a satisfying resolution. In a thriller, the emphasis is to keep the audience on edge and deeply concerned about the harm that may come to the lead character(s). It is to elicit fearful excitement, an intensity of emotions, particularly apprehension and exhilaration generating that all-important thrill. By being in jeopardy, the pressing question is what is going to happen next.
The film, Michael Clayton, is a non-traditional thriller in that the climatic car bomb scene is pushed to the front of the movie. This ups the ante and makes the audience more invested in the story and its outcome. In addition, the identity of the bad guys takes some time to unfold and red herrings are tossed into the mix to deflect this revelation. This creates more interest in the story and the fate of the main character. While the film is a blend of a drama and a thriller, the creative team maintains the appropriate acting style throughout in a consistent manner.
In the final scene (1:47:57) where Michael serves up Karen Crowder’s comeuppance, he does so using his abilities as the fixer/janitor. It’s a risky play, yet he knows what cards she is holding. He cleans up a moral dilemma with a surprising twist that is both clever and satisfying. He turns the tables on her and records her trying to bribe him. The scene continues with a cab ride (1:53:47) in which his facial expressions recap the last four days, the uncertainties, the mistakes, the revelations, and the plan that made things right.
The film won numerous awards including Best Supporting Oscar for Tilda Swinton and Oscar Nominations for George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Original Music Score. It also won AFI Movie of the Year Award.
Comedy has a different set of parameters. I picked the film “A Fish Called Wanda” to illustrate how acting elements represent the essence and purpose of the play. This zany screwball comedy relies on farcical elements to bring this hilarious story to the screen. While farce is the dominant style the film, it does slip into straight comedy and is therefore a good example to dissect and discuss multiple acting styles.
“A Fish Called Wanda” is a funny farce about an uptight British barrister (John Cleese) who becomes involved with Wanda, a sexy con artist (Jamie Lee Curtis), her mindlessly macho boyfriend Otto (Kevin Kline), and their ambitious bank robbery and getaway scheme. After the robbery, Wanda and Otto turn in their ringleader, George and intend to take all the loot for themselves. However, they discover the loot has been moved to a secret location. Wanda decides to seduce George’s unhappily married lawyer Archie Leach (Cleese) to find out where it is hidden. The film uses the acting styles of both comedy and farce to unleash this story, and aptly illustrates how specific acting parameters define the genre.
In comedy, reality is distorted, and lacks balance. Proportion is over-emphasized, under-emphasized, and most of all surprising. It is founded on a real truth and real character values. The level of believability is suspended, fragile and detached. Settings are vivid and specific. When the film opens, it does so in a comedic style. As each character is introduced, they appear almost normal. However, when the gang assembles (05:12) to plan the robbery, their true qualities come out and the foundation for humor is laid.
They are a diverse group of characters with idiosyncrasies that can and do get them in trouble. Otto is a macho gun-totting self-style intellectual with an IQ of a gnat. Wanda is a con artist who would double-cross her own gang members. Ken (Michael Palin), the gang’s procurer, is a stuttering animal lover who is bullied by Otto. George (Tom Georgeson) is the debonair leader of the gang sleeping with Wanda. However, behind his back Otto and Wanda have a clandestine sexual relationship while pretending to be brother and sister.
All of these dynamics play into the potential for humor in a reality that is off-center, distorted and lacking balance. Likewise, when Archie and his spouse enter the story (00:34), we see that he is a hen picked husband living with his oppressive self-absorbed wife. This adds another element to the equation and opens the door for more comic situations.
In farce, the level of believability is further suspended and reality is more distorted and exaggerated. However, there is a delicate balance of exaggeration with believability. Incongruent facts and situations, while the corner-stone of comedy, must be restrained enough to be plausible. There has to be an element of truth to them. For example, in the robbery scene (07:25), Otto catches the manager reaching for the alarm bell (08:38) and forces him to stand erect then places an apple on his head and takes aim with a crossbow. Because Otto has been established as eccentric and psychotic, this reality appears plausible.
Behavior in comedy is exaggerated, usually with high energy and definite positive attitude. It is precise is movement, abnormal with wide contrast among characters. The behavior is readable, definitive, open, and outward. In the sequence of scenes beginning with Ken entering the apartment (23:15), he shows the safety-deposit box key to Wanda the Fish, while Wanda, the girl, watches from the bedroom. What follows is a series of situations with each character pushing his or her agenda. Wanda wants the loot, Otto wants to possess Wanda, and Ken wants to know why Otto is in the bedroom with Wanda. While the characters hide details from each other, nothing is hid from the audience. What we see is what we get, and it’s done in a definitive heightened manner. The characters are identifiable almost immediately and this allows the story to move forward with limited exposition.
In farce, behavior is more exaggerated and more energetic. It has a definite positive attitude, broadly painted, underlined, and falsely accelerated. It is executed with bold simple strokes. Before playing the outrageous or ridiculous, it is best to establish credibility. This credibility is aptly portrayed when Archie’s wife almost interrupts Wanda in mid-seduction (47:22). With participant’s traits firmly established, we know we are in for an explosive scene. Ambitious Wanda and jealous Otto hide while the mortified straight-laced Archie tries to explain a bottle of Champagne and a gold locket to his righteous self-centered wife. With these three people in panic, this is classic farce at its best.
In both comedy and farce, emotions are light, decisive, readable, and played predominantly on the surface. Vanity, greed and lust generate the comic richness of this film. Otto’s inflated pride believing he is a superior being produces his running retort, “Don’t call me stupid.” Wanda’s greed forces her to betray her fellow gang members and foster plans to abscond with the jewels. Archie hunger for a real relationship drives his lust for Wanda. Ken is the loyal soldier and with determination, he follows his ringleader’s orders. These emotions become apparent almost immediately even though the characters are divisive and have self-serving agendas.
Comedy intentions are usually meaningful, and pursued with considerable vigor and enthusiasm. Objectives are normally simplistic, apparent, and played externally. In the scene where Wanda and Archie meet (18:29), Wanda pursues the lawyer pretending to be a fan to get his name. Her enthusiasm awakens Archie’s primal urges and he becomes babbling schoolboy again. He is so befuddled by her advances he drives away with his briefcase still on the roof of his car. Her intention, to get his name, is meaningful in that it serves her overall object, to locate the jewels.
In farce, intentions are highly meaningful to the character and pursued with frantic desperation. Let us go back to the scene where Archie’s wife interrupts Wanda’s seduction (47:22). While Wanda and Otto hide, Archie enters the room with a bottle of Champagne from the fridge. He mortified to find his wife seating on the couch. He has a panic-attack and his mind goes into a survival mode. He is surprised with each snowballing revelation. Otto is now a CIA agent, Wanda is no longer behind the liquor cabinet, and Wanda’s gold locket lies on the carpet. In this scene, Archie’s over all intention is to not be caught. This intention is pursued with frantic desperation and while he succeeds, he digs himself a deeper hole when his wife assumes the locket is a gift for her.
Pacing is the rate at which interesting story materials are delivered to the audience. These include dialogue, actions, movement, gestures, and technical aspects such as cuts, lights, and sound. Music is another dimension affecting pace. In comedy, pacing is quick, energetic, fast, rapid, to limit exploration of transparent story where logic and reality are distorted. The quick pace also maintains focus on the lighthearted wit and humor, and replaces dissipating info with new, more exciting information. Usually in farce, pace can become frantic to up the sense of importance.
In “A Fish Called Wanda”, scene length is a function of pacing as short vignettes offer quick glimpses of the story; many having gaps the audience fills in. The montage comparing Archie’s drab life to the sexual escapades of Wanda and Otto (34:54-37:27) allows the audience to project a more romantic pairing, that of Archie and Wanda. The actors aptly portray this contrast.
In addition, in the longer scenes, more complications arise keeping the audience involved. Questions come up that speed up the film, as the audience becomes a collaborator supplying interesting facets of the story. The expectations, judgements, and reflections by the audience play a key role in the success of this film. The actors and the director, Charles Crichton, understand it is far funnier to not say something, and let the audience speculate on what is not being said, than to blurt it out. The imagination of the audience exceeds that of the creative team.
The cast understands this storytelling force. John Cleese, in particular, is highly adept at using readable behavior to generate this collaboration. In the aforementioned scene (47:22) where Archie’s wife interrupts Wanda’s seduction, Archie’s behavior states the unsaid. “What are you (my wife) doing here?” “Where is Wanda?” “Who are you?” (Otto). We relish in seeing him squirm, being humiliated by his own folly. The pace moves moderately fasts as his reactions and dialogues by others fill out this hilarious sequence.
In comedy, timing is an obvious part of the performance. Timing is the ability to sense what is going on in the mind of the audience and use this dimension of time to encourage and enhance the desired response. In comedy, it is highly calculated, highly responsive, building on audience reactions. Sharp accents are used to emphasize, control focus, and punctuate intended humor. In the scene where Wanda visits Archie’s at his office (28:49), Archie learns her full name. There is a long pause where he weighs the possibilities. He is looking to bed this young thing; however, she is an alibi witness in the case he is handling, and thus forbidden fruit. He pauses long enough for the audience to sense this struggle and his reversal of fortunes. The timing establishes his attraction for her and sets up the torrid affair that follows.
In farce, timing is very precise and dynamic taking advantage of accelerated pace and strong beats. It is heavily accented to emphasize and punctuate intended humor. I’m using the example beginning at (47:22) again as it best illustrates timing in a farcical setting. The scene’s inertia is predicated on close calls and expectations of being caught. Precise timing is thus required to sustain this hilarious sequence.
What length of timing is desirable? Delayed timing draws attention to the behavior; therefore we question its authenticity and the emotions behind it. On the other hand, by rushing the timing, the full impact of the behavior is not realized and the humor, suspense, or caring forces are not optimized. Note also that the timing in reactions, pauses, and behaviors varies depending on the importance of the moment. Some moments need more emphasis than others do and the timing flexes to accommodate the desired audience response. The timing in this scene is as good as it gets and due mainly to highly accomplished comedy actors.
The premise in comedy is moderately worthy in an ultra serious pursuit of sometimes ridiculous and irrational goals. Comedy is affirmative in spirit where protagonists triumph and it provides an external observation on human nature. At best, it is a distortion of a truth providing higher insights and better understanding of ones self.
In farce, the premise has little concern with the truth or mirroring life, yet can be founded on highly worthy themes. Whether absurd, ridiculous, satire, sheer tomfoolery, or having completeness of character, the intent of the play is to be funny. Stories are usually structured on “possible, but improbable” and more emphatic in situations than in character.
The premise in this film could be many things; however, my version is as follows. There is dishonor among thieves but not among lovers. The gang is set on double-crossing one another, however, when Archie and Wanda fall in love, the story takes off in a different direction. They combine their efforts, end up on the plane together and leave the country with the loot.
In comedy, the dramatic flow is much more informational than emotional. Rhythmic pointalistic deliveries build upon a simple singular line of thought. Comedy produces almost immediate clarity of wants/opposition–hero/villain polorizations.
Farce tends to be more informational than emotional. It has the externals of comedy and emphasizes antics more than language or character. In this film, the antics of gun-totting Otto and stuttering Ken add to this frantic style of humor. The running gag, “Don’t call me stupid,” (1:04:15) has a huge payoff when Wanda points out his absurd thinking. Film fans have quoted these zingers repeatedly. It is the comeuppance for which the audience has long waited and delivered in a matter of fact way. The information is what is funny.
Patterns play a vital role as they build up expectations and pull us deeper into the comedy. Pattern recognition is a pleasurable engagement for even when we guess wrong there is still a big surprise waiting, one that is likely better than what we anticipated.
A good example of patterns is Otto’s propensity for messing things up with his jealous interruptions. The audience comes to expect this behavior, yet does not know how it will unfold. In addition, with Otto at the wheel there is usually a fender bender due to his insane driving. In the third accident, he stops and shoots the wig off the man driving the other car.
Wanda and Archie likewise have a pattern where something or someone obstructs their romantic rendezvous. When things finally look promising, Archie is caught dancing naked by a family who leased the apartment (1:14:17) he and Wanda were using. The embarrassing situation is resolved in an amicable British manner. In comedy, patterns are punched up to emphasize their existence and comic value.
In this film, the classic three-part joke is used when Ken attempts to knock off the old lady, a witness to the gang’s get-away. The gag, commonly call the triple is a staple item in many comedies. Ken tries three times to snuff out this witness and each time he ends up killing one of her three small dogs. He uses a fierce Doberman Pincher the first time (52:49) and instead of attacking the old lady, the animal snatches up one of the small dogs and scampers away. In his second try (1:02:55), he attempts to run her down on the street, but instead runs over one of her small dogs. For his third attempt (1:18:13) he shoots a wedge holding up a huge concrete block, that plummets downward killing the last dog. He thinks he has messed up again; instead, he is surprised to find that the old woman has died from a heart attack. He can’t believe his good fortune and laughs while others mourn her death.
The irony to this joke is that he’s a passionate animal lover and sorry for their loss. Yet he is exhilarated in accomplishing his goal, that of eliminating a witness.
In the triple, the first item is a stated truth or the expected. The second is a variation reflecting on the first, and the third, with punch line, is a complete deviation from the first two.
In comedy, the emphasis for desired audience response is to surprise the audience in a humorous manner. It is to make them laugh; make them feel that life, with all its frustrations, is still worth living. It stretches the soul toward heights where laughter triumphs over fear and hate. By observing from the outside, we form new perspectives on human nature.
In farce, the emphasis is to surprise the audience in a humorous manner through recognizable characters in panic. This could be via discovery of one’s self, one’s anxieties, facades, or one’s ideas. The constant goal being the belly laugh farce uses the routine and roll–laughter building on laughter through precise timing and interconnecting situations/subject matter.
While “A Fish Called Wanda” drifts back and forth between these two genres, the desired audience response remains focused on surprising the audience in a humorous manner. The dramatic choices are made to facilitate this objective. Emotions are readable and played on the surface. Intentions are highly meaningful to the character and pursued with frantic energy. Pacing is quick, timing precise, and dramatic flow is much more informational than emotional. This selection and arrangement of acting elements defines the acting style, and more importantly, how the ensemble portrays the characters and their story.
The film won numerous awards including an Oscar for Kevin Kline in a Supporting Role, plus Oscar nominations for Best Director, Charles Crichton, and Best Original Screenplay, John Cleese.
Style is an important part of ones dramatic craft. Get in the habit of applying these style considerations to scene studies, auditions and your performances. Explore it by analyzing numerous genres. Then you will be able to create strong credible characters that fulfill the purpose of the play and the efforts of the ensemble cast.. For a more information on this subject, see the EzineArticle entitled, “Acting Styles, What Defines the Differences?”