Hippo Manchester
August 4, 2005

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From stage to the silver screen

How an actor makes the transition from community thespian to movie star

By Michelle Saturley 

Actors such as Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando switched from stage to film without changing much of their performance technique. But today, stage and screen are two very different entities. An actor who wants to do both must be versatile, and prepared.

With this transition in mind, Yellow Taxi Productions recently hosted a screen-acting workshop for local performers. The day-long event was led by Martin Goeller, an independent film director and co-founder of  NYC-based Sixtus Pictures.

The audition

As with a theater audition, a film actor is expected to give the casting director a resume and headshot. The shot should be a head-and-shoulders portrait, in black and white, with a clear representation of what you actually look like.

“Your head shot is your calling card,” Goeller said. “It should look like you — the way you look now.”

Just as stage actors must prepare for an audition by learning a monologue, a film actor must prepare by being familiar with the type of role at stake.

“You should never just show up at an open call with no idea which role you are reading for,” Goeller said.

Trade papers that announce film auditions (such as NEED) often allow room for directors to print the specific types they seek. For example, “Woman in her mid-20s, sexy, femme-fatale,” or “Man in his late 40s, slightly paunchy.” If these descriptions don’t fit you, don’t waste your time showing up at that audition.

What’s your type?

“As a film or TV actor, you should learn to love typecasting,” Goeller said. “The word has a negative connotation to it that it doesn’t really deserve. A good actor knows what kinds of roles she does the most convincingly, and goes out for those roles consistently. Stage actors are often expected to play a wider age range. That’s not typical of film or TV performances.”

To determine your “type,” think of an actor who might play you in the movie version of your life, or an actor with whom you think you could compete for roles. Be realistic. If you’re slightly short and slightly round, don’t peg yourself as a leading man type. And that’s not a bad thing. There’s no shame in comparing yourself to, say, a Paul Giamatti type over a Brad Pitt type. Both actors are in high demand these days.

Goeller had the actors at the workshop stand in a circle and try guessing their types. Many of them were accurate, but some of the actors struggled with the exercise.

“It’s not about the roles you wish you could play, or the roles you have the acting ability to play,” Goeller said. “It’s about the roles you could most easily land, based on your physical appearance and voice.”

The technique

In screen acting, the performer must rely much more on the cerebral than the physical.

“The way films and television shows are put together is different than a play,” Goeller said. “It’s a series of shots that are edited together to tell the story. There isn’t a fluid movement through each scene. There could be one shot that’s a close-up on your face, and other that’s a close up on your hand touching another person’s hand. It isn’t one wide shot of you looking at the other person and touching their hand. So your face, your voice, have to tell the story, but in a more subtle way than you would on stage.”

One issue that stage actors must face when working in film is to “tone it down.”

“Stage actors are trained to project their voices, no matter what the scene,” Goeller said. “That’s because we need to hear you. But in a film, actors are wearing microphones. You can whisper, you can even mumble if the scene calls for it. Vocal diversity is key.”

Actors also need to be careful of facial or physical “tics” that can seems small on stage, but look huge on screen.

One example of moving away from stage techniques is shedding the concept of  “getting into character.” Iin film, this sort of technique doesn’t work as well.

“Have you ever noticed how Denzel Washington seems to play the same type of character? Or Harrison Ford, or Julia Roberts?” he asked the group. “For the most part, they are playing their type: good cop, rugged hero, romantic heroine. It’s because they don’t have to ‘get into character.’ They are the character.”

Instead of relying on staged vocalism or mannerisms, Goeller advises to just let your own personality — and the writer’s lines — shine through.

Martin Goeller will direct Odd Man Out, a new play about the life and death of Harvey Milk, with Yellow Taxi Productions in September. For more information, go to yellowtaxiproductions.org. For more information about Sixtus Pictures, go to sixtuspictures.com.