Eliminating Expectations

1969 American drama film Midnight Cowboy was directed by John Schlesinger and starred Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Both actors relied on the emotional world of their characters to convey the eccentricity of their lives, meaning a full commitment by them both to the unpredictable. The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

I have a problem with expectations.

As an actress striving to have no expectations through training, I am able to experience each moment for what it is—or isn’t. I have hopes and visions of what the moment might be, but rarely does the moment match my vision. Sometimes it’s better than I hoped. Sometimes not.

If you apply this to a particular role/character you are playing, as you know, there will be many factors that affect your performance:

  • How well do you know your character and every aspect of his/her being (no matter what size the role)?
  • Have you worked with the director before? If so, does he/she allow you to take chances? If not, how does that affect you?
  • Do you have the confidence in your acting skills to allow a real moment to take place? (If so, those moments are often magical.)

Chances are, you have been cast because you fit the director’s vision of that particular character in his or her overall view of the story to be told. And usually, there is confidence that you can fulfill that vision.

An added dimension is the hope that you will bring something to the table other than the expected performance, something that the director didn’t expect in a reaction or approach to a scene. A good director will be open to his vision being slightly changed, or at least give it consideration.

My point is this: watch films. (I recommend a list of particular films in my downloadable ebook The 7 Essential Acting Exercises.) Look for moments that you didn’t expect—not in the story line (that’s something different), but in an actor’s/character’s reaction.

Those actors are “in the skin” of their character, allowing an honest moment to happen, often to their own surprise. Those reactions cannot be planned. They are simply living the moment in character.

Example: I heard Dustin Hoffman talking about a moment in “Midnight Cowboy,” a scene I remembered well. Hoffman and Voight are walking down a crowded sidewalk of New York on their way to the stoplight at the corner to cross the street. Director John Schlesinger was filming from inside a moving taxi. Permits to shoot this scene from the sidewalk or street would have been prohibited, so he was basically “stealing” the scene. Timing was crucial. Hoffman was to deliver his dialogue and time it so that they made it to the corner with the light being green so they could continue across with no stop. And they needed to do this in as few takes as possible—probably no more than two before they stood the chance of getting caught.

Two attempts at getting the shot had been unsuccessful. Schlesinger said, “We have to get this in the next shot, just keep going no matter what.”

Find the film and watch that scene! As the two characters get to the corner, the light is green turning yellow, and with no extra beat, they start to cross. Suddenly, a vehicle trying to beat the light slams on the brakes just beside them, nearly hitting them. Ratso (Hoffman’s character) slams his fist on the moving car and screams, “We’re walkin’ here!” (with maybe a few expletives), and continues his scripted dialogue as they walk on.

Had Hoffman broken character (never will that happen with Hoffman), the scene would not have happened.

Look all around you. Observe, observe, observe. When you see an unexpected, unusual reaction by someone to something, make a mental note.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to either say or accept someone else saying, “That would never happen. No one would react like that.”

Really? How do you know? Have you walked in their skin or been in their circumstances?

There are many, many “givens” in life. As an actor (read as “sponge”) try to find the “un-givens”. It’s visually, and for me emotionally, so much more interesting.

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