This is one of the worst offences an actor can commit, but it is far, far too common. Maybe you’ve never done it, maybe you have, or maybe you’ve never given it much thought. If you’re in any doubt at all, here’s why you should never speak the dreaded phrase:
“My character wouldn’t say that.”
It’s the short road to unemployment
This phrase is the top of my list of Diva Moves for Actors. There are so many reasons why it’s a bad idea – it’s lazy, arrogant, naïve, and disrespectful. Obviously those traits are the opposite of what you want in an actor. In a small town, word spreads fast and if you act like a diva, it won’t be long until no one wants to work with you. So don’t stack the odds against you – making a living as an actor is hard enough!
It is insulting to the people you work with
No matter who you say these words to, what it essentially means is, “I know (my character) better than everybody else here.” Really? You think because you like to do thorough character work that you suddenly know better than the team that has worked on this scripts for months or years? Even if you’re working with a team of newbies, those newbies have spent longer than you working on this script. Even if you think it’s a totally crap line, it’s the one they picked.
You need to respect the people you work with or the whole production will fall apart. No joke. Nothing screws up a production as quickly as lack of respect from members of the team. And just a reminder – you are part of this team. (Well actually, if we get down to the nitty gritty, the people you are insulting with that phrase are your BOSSES.) So play nice.
It’s not your job
If the writer has written those words and the powers that be have let them stay on the page, then – NEWSFLASH – your character DOES say them. Your job is to find a way to make it believable. I repeat, YOUR JOB IS TO FIND A WAY TO MAKE IT BELIEVABLE. Not to rewrite the script. You’ve been hired as an actor, not a writer. The only time that making changes is appropriate is if it is in your contract or it has been EXPLICITLY stated by the director or producer. Otherwise, do your job. Figure out a way to make a shit line awesome.
Wanting to make changes to your lines is the easy way out. It’s lazy. It means your initial reading of the character didn’t fit with that line and you couldn’t be bothered rethinking some of your choices. It means it’s not the sort of thing you think your character should say, and you can’t be bothered spending a few extra minutes to figure out how to deliver the line in a way that works.
If it really doesn’t fit with how you see the character – great! It’s an opportunity to discover something unusual and memorable about your character, rather than assuming you’ve got him pegged from the get-go. One sentence can completely change how you see a character – so instead of thinking, ‘this is wrong’, you need to think, ‘in what circumstances would this line seem RIGHT’?
You can’t see the whole picture
The truth is, as an actor, you cannot see the big picture. You’re too close to it. You’re inside it, in fact. Making changes to your lines might seem insignificant to you, but it could have a snowball effect that wreaks havoc on the production. On a small scale, maybe someone in the scene with you has memorised that line as a cue for when they enter the scene, and changing the line is going to make their life more difficult. On a larger scale, maybe the director has planned some sort of amazing effect or cue on that line, or maybe they’ve already shot visuals that reference that line. You never know what they might have planned… but you can count on the fact that they have actually made plans of some sort, and anything you want to change at the last minute is a real pain in the butt. It really is. Just trust me. And trust your director.
But what if I seriously can’t make the line sound good?
OK, OK. I know that sometimes the writing is actually just crap and it’s really hard to make it sound plausible. If you’ve put the hours in and it still feels terrible, or if there’s something you’re uncomfortable with (like graphic language, for example), it is ok to speak quietly to the director or writer and POLITELY request a small change. Did you notice my use of caps there? I said POLITELY. And also, let me just capitalise REQUEST. If you go in guns blazing and demand rewrites, that makes you an arrogant, pain-in-the-a** actor (who, by the way, no one will want to work with again).
Find a good moment, go in quietly and politely and explain that you’re having trouble with the line, and request a specific change. What I mean by a specific change is, “Can I change ___ to ___”. Don’t go in and expect the writer or director to solve your problems for you – that is also lazy. They might bring a counter-offer to the table if they don’t like your suggestion, or they might want to go away and think about it, but bringing a first offer to the table makes the difference between polite request and whinge.
I hope I’ve made my point. Don’t pull this shit. Get over yourself and do your job. If you’ve never said those awful words and you’re just reading out of curiosity – well done you! Now you will never make the mistake so many before you have made.
Yes, I have used caps lock a lot in this post. Because lazy, arrogant actors suck. Don’t be one of those. Be a hardworking, trusting, respectful actor. That’s what will get you employed and keep you employed. In the end, you’re not an actor if you never get work… and you won’t get work if you’re lazy or a pain in the butt.
Great actors can make even the crappiest of dialogue sound amazing. Think of this as an opportunity to practice being amazing. Flex your acting muscles and get to work.