Something actors hear all the time from casting directors and directors is “raise the stakes.” But do you really know what it means?
Let’s begin with one basic fact that is true for every script you will ever read: it is not just “any” day in the life of the character, it is a very special and deeply meaningful day. There is something very big the character needs to have happen, something vitally important that he or she must accomplish. When do you think the character needs to accomplish this? The answer is always, always, always, RIGHT NOW.
Here’s a scene for you. Billy and Susie were high school sweethearts. They went their separate ways and years later, Billy can’t get Susie out of his mind. He needs to let her know he loves her and wants to be with her. He sees through Facebook that Susie is engaged and decides he must let her know how he feels. Those are the given circumstances of the scene. Billy needs to tell Susie how he feels and find out if she feels the same way, despite the obstacle that Susie is engaged. When must he do it? Right now!
Why now? If Billy doesn’t take action immediately, he will lose Susie again—probably forever—and that will destroy him. So Billy has a deep need to take action right now.
But what if there is no specific timeline given by the writer? Create a sense of urgency for yourself. In the example scene, you might decide that Billy just found out that Susie is getting married tomorrow. Urgency! Take action! They didn’t tell you that—you made it up. Not only is it fun and inspiring, it helps you spring into action. When? Right now!
To create a compelling and fascinating performance, you must have a true and powerful need to take action, just like Billy. You must make Billy’s need your need. We do not mean the imitation of Billy’s need, we mean you must find in yourself a true need to accomplish what you’re setting out to do. In acting terms, we call this personalization.
Personalization means finding a way to relate personally to the circumstances the character is going through. To make this very simple, we can say that the character has a problem he or she needs to solve right now and you need to make that problem your problem. The way to begin this process is to look at the character’s situation and ask yourself what might be going on for you that would give you a similar problem or challenge to overcome. What you choose to work with must be imaginary yet at the same time, it must have true meaning for you. This is what will make the problem necessary for you to solve and will make you take immediate action. It’s also the part of the work that will take you away from the false, fake, pretending-based acting and instead, will lead you to acting that has a beautiful quality of reality, vitality, and emotional aliveness.
How badly you want your deep need to be met is what will create the high stakes. It’s not just what you want from the other person in the scene but what you do to get it. Because there is a conflict and it’s not easy to accomplish, this makes things interesting for you and compelling for the audience as they witness you fight for your life.
Delete the word “casual” from your acting vocabulary. There is no moment that is casual for the actor. Even if you think the character is “just sitting around doodling,” there is something important going on. A one-minute audition scene, a two-hour film, 16 bars of a song…they all need to have something important happening. Just like in our lives, in every moment there is much at stake.
When what you are doing to get what you want in spite of your obstacle has great meaning to you, only then do you become interesting to watch.