I had the incredible experience of acting on film for the first time last week. I played a supporting role in a Christmas movie shot up in Langley, BC with a wonderful cast and crew that took me under their wings to help me learn the ropes. Here are just a few of the things I learned….
Learn your lines.
I only had a few days to drill my character’s lines of dialogue into my head, so I spoke them to the mirror, said them to the walls of my hotel room, walked the streets and whispered them under my breath like a crazy person, recorded the cue lines and spoke my answers back to them while I drove around, and finally I rehearsed them with friends. And thank GOD I did all the preparation, because once you’re on set, the pressure is on! I sure wouldn’t have wanted to trade places with the lead actress, who was in every scene of the movie (and seemed totally capable of learning dialogue 5 minutes before she spoke it!)
Learn the lingo.
Your “call sheet” is your lifeline – it’ll be waiting in your trailer every morning to tell you where to be and when, which scenes/pages of the script are being shot, which days in the storyline you’re shooting for continuity purposes, and the names and jobs of everyone on the set. If someone tells you to report to “the circus”, that’s the area where all the trailers are parked. If they ask you if you want to “travel”, don’t say “I’ve always wanted to go to Italy”…that actually is a term that means going from the circus to the set. If they offer you a “cozy”, take it – that’s a warm and unglamorous coat, usually 10 sizes too big, that the actors practically live in until the cameras start rolling (along with warm booties). You’ll be glad to have it when you’re shooting a scene in a thin shirt in freezing weather, as opposed to your “picture coat” which is part of your character’s wardrobe, is probably stuck into shape with double sided tape, and will inevitably wrinkle if you sit down in it.
Hit your mark.
When you start working on shooting a scene, the first thing you do is “block” it. The director arranges all of the actors in their positions and walks you through the scene. Each time you stop somewhere, someone swoops in with a roll of tape in your specifically assigned colour and makes a “T” on the floor where you’re standing – that’s your “mark”. When the cameras start rolling, you must “hit your marks” and stand in those places. If you miss by an inch, you’ll be off camera or blocking the shot for someone else, so it’s crucial that you do it right. And it gets even harder, because for the actual shot, your big “T” on the floor becomes a teeny tiny dot of tape masked in black marker. Plus, on camera you can’t get caught looking down to see if you’re standing on your mark!! So you have to either find it off camera and aim for it when you walk into the shot, or count your steps and hit it blindly for mid-scene marks. Not easy!
Get used to your props.
As soon as the director shouts “ACTION!”, everything suddenly feels very foreign…the doorknob won’t turn, you’re tripping down stairs, and you’re putting your coat on inside out. I played a nurse, so my acting coach warned me to ask for my stethoscope and wear it for as long as I could before shooting my scenes. I tried to put it on and take it off over and over again until it was second nature, and I still hit myself in the face with it a few times on camera. I also had to take someone’s blood pressure, so part of my job was to watch a bunch of YouTube videos to see exactly how the cuff is positioned, how you pump it up, and how to put the stethoscope on the brachial artery.
Expect to be primped, preened and picked at constantly.
The moment the director calls “CUT”, people will come running out of nowhere. Makeup will be re-applying your powder, Hair will be curling your locks, Wardrobe will be rolling your pants with a lint brush, Lighting will be holding a light meter an inch from your nose, and someone from Sound will be sticking his hand inside your shirt to reposition your microphone (which is wired to a small pack that fits on your belt or around your ankle).
A scene takes a long time to shoot.
Shooting just ONE scene when you’re an actor goes something like this…. Go through hair/makeup/wardrobe, hop the shuttle over to set, get your props, block the scene, take a 20 minute break while cameras/lights are set up. Rehearse the scene, tweak the lights, marks and cameras, finalize hair/makeup/wardrobe, shoot the scene a couple of times with a wide angle, 20 minute break. Fix hair, makeup and wardrobe, set new marks, shoot the scene a few more times from another angle, shuttle back to “the circus” for lunch. Hair/makeup/wardrobe again, go to set, get your props, move the furniture around and block a completely different mark for your close-up and re-set cameras/lights. Shoot your closeup a few times, delivering your lines to your co-actors off camera (if they’re on set with you – otherwise you deliver them to a barrel with a stick on top or something). Break to re-set cameras/lights and furniture. Shoot a close-up on the actor you’re talking to by contorting yourself into some ridiculously tiny corner right next to the camera and sitting on an apple crate to play your side of the scene off camera so the actor can interact with you with the proper “eyeline”. It’s really all quite glamorous…and on the screen, it looks like it just took 45 seconds.
Acting is WAY harder than it looks.
I was so blessed to work with two great acting coaches during the shoot, I learned that preparing not just about learning your lines, it’s about dissecting every scene you’re in. I created a chart summarizing my relationship to every person in the scene with me (including the unnamed extras). I answered questions like: “What happens in this scene (in one sentence)?” “What must be true about this scene?” ”Why is this scene lucky to have you in it as an actor? “ We took my dialogue apart, so each line of my script became a road map of different thoughts, motivations and emotions directed at different characters. We underlined the certain important anchor lines to be delivered in a way that stood out from the others. We created spaces between the lines where I was saying things inside my head instead of speaking them out loud.
Plus, when the cameras started rolling for my close-ups, I had to be constantly reminded not to move my head so much, not to scrunch up my forehead, and to find an internal calmness that’s a bit elusive with cameras and lights and boom mics right in your face. And all this just to come across like a normal human being!
Working with great actors lifts your performance to another level.
I know actors always say this, but it’s really true! The lead role – my sister – was played by a wonderful actress named Erin Karpluk (from CBC’s “Being Erica”). We had a pretty intense scene together where I had to give her some “tough love”. In real life, confrontation makes me uncomfortable, so it’s a bit of a struggle for me to be blunt and direct with a stranger. But when she delivered her lines to me, she made me love her and be exasperated with her at the same time, just like a sister would. So it felt natural.
There was another scene when we were drinking apple cider at a party together, and before the cameras even started rolling, she turned to me and said “Remember when we were kids and Mom used to let us have cider?” It totally put me in the moment, and her generosity helped to put you me in character.
My movie “family” really did feel like my family. We shot a scene by the sickbed of my ailing grandfather (played by the amazing Shakespearean actor John Innes), and in between takes I caught myself staring at him sadly and feeling really worried about him. And my movie mom, Rebecca Toolan (Fox Mulder’s mom from X Files), was fantastic – off camera, she called me “kiddo” and jokingly disciplined my “sister” and I when we started poking fun at each other.
Anyhow, I did my best at jumping in with both feet, so here’s hoping the final product turns out OK! I’m so very grateful for this experience and to everyone in the cast and crew who opened their arms to me and made a newbie like me feel so welcome! I’ll keep you posted when the show airs.