in which i remember to keep it simple

When I was a kid young actor, I got by on my instincts and ability to take direction. As I got older, I began to realize that instincts only go so far, and I felt a need — a very strong need — to formally study the craft of acting, and to gain a deeper understanding of the art. I spent years studying in various programs, most of them based on the Meisner technique. I learned how to break down scenes into beats, how to understand what my characters wanted and needed, and how to make emotional and intellectual connections to my characters, as well as the other characters in the scene.

One of the fundamentals of Meisner is “keep it simple.” It’s something a lot of inexperienced actors don’t do, because they (understandably and incorrectly) believe that unless they are doing something with every line, every beat, every reaction, every moment, then they are not acting. The trick is that almost all of acting is reacting to things going on around you, and letting those reactions happen naturally, through the lens of your character’s needs, wants, fears, expectations, and circumstances. The very worst thing for an actor is to get caught acting, so the other trick is to know all of that intellectually, and then let it all go so it happens emotionally, naturally.

I have nearly three decades of experience performing as an actor in all sorts of productions, from dramas to comedies, from stage to television, from period pieces to contemporary ones. I feel very confident in my ability to do the work an actor needs to do to be prepared and to create a believable character. I haven’t always been in fantastic works of art, but I’ve always done my best to bring something meaningful to the piece, and do justice to the writing (the number of actors who don’t understand or respect that the thing we’re doing existed as a thing long before we ever held the pages in our hands, and should be respected as a result, is staggering).

I’ve been working on The Big Bang Theory this week, and I’ll be on Stage 25 Monday and Tuesday next week, before I return to my corruptible, mortal state on Wednesday. This is the first episode I’ve done (and I’ve done a bunch) where I finally feel comfortable as an actor, like I know what I’m doing, like I deserve to be there, like I’m not going to get cut for screwing up the jokes. You see, all that stuff I said about being an actor? It’s true, but working on a show that’s shot in front of an audience is fundamentally different from everything else we do as actors. I was talking with John Ross Bowie today about it, and he said, “single camera and theater can not prepare anyone for what it’s like to be on this stage when the audience is in the seats,” and he was right. I often tell people that it’s like playing baseball: it’s very different being in the outfield than the infield, even though you’re playing the same game.

Today, during our run through, I pushed a line too hard for some reason, and after the scene was done, Chuck Lorre reminded me that I didn’t need to do that. “This is one of those times when you can just let the words do the work,” he said. He was right. Letting the words do the work is the difference between a scene being funny and obnoxious, sentimental and sappy, clever or obvious. It made so much sense to me, and even though it was something I knew, it was something I had forgotten. It was like putting a quarter into an old videogame (let’s say TRON) that you haven’t played in years, and after dying on the light cycle level, realizing that you remember the pattern, but had forgotten it because you didn’t need it until just that moment.

I’ve been an actor for as long as I can remember, but in recent years, the majority of my creative life has been spent writing and producing. I’ve been using different tools in my creative toolbox, and I was grateful to Chuck for reminding me where I left the tools for this particular job.

27 thoughts on “in which i remember to keep it simple”

  1. I wish you could come to Mississippi and give us a class in this technique. We have actors here that try to get classes so that we can become better actors, but it is difficult to find classes without traveling for great distances. I am glad that you found that comfortable spot. I look forward to seeing you on the Big Bang Theory.

  2. A bit more than a year ago, I ended working with some amazing actors and teachers as part of the Ottawa Theatre School. I’m a writer, and it’s been fascinating for me to watch the work of acting as a craft being developed. I must admit that I really hadn’t given it much thought before… I don’t think I’d realized the art in it or the work behind it. Thank you for this.

  3. Not to be a Dick, but as a counterpoint, keeping things simple is a general rule to greatness and daily life. I conceed that we must all be reminded of the basics at higher levels of our personal and professional development (which is what you were referring to with the video game thing) or did I jusy miss the point of what you were trying to say…my perception may be slanted becuase I perform in front of audience regularly.

  4. How is it different when you are playing yourself? I would guess it’s several levels of weird, but at least you know how you normally talk and react.

    1. I’m playing a fictionalized version of myself, so I just create his character the same way I would create any other character. It was very weird the first few times I was on the show, but I seem to have settled into it now.

      1. This is an important thing to remember that I just wanted to touch on a little more… even when someone is playing him or herself, as Wil stated, it’s a fictionalized version – the name might be the same and some bits of information might be similar, but it’s not actually the same person.

        Wil’s character (personality, memories, experiences, etc.) in Big Bang is surely not the same person in real-life. If anything, that might make it more difficult at first.

  5. I had a co-worker who jumped out of perfectly good plan for fun. I imagine the two fields are similar. He said that it wasn’t until his 104th jump that he was skydiving and not skyfalling. Congratulations on hitting your “number”.

  6. Just an FYI, Wil. I’m logged in with WordPress and can’t leave a comment like usual. I have to fill out name, email, etc, like some random website. Weird. Not sure if I’m the only one having this issue, but thought you might want to know… *shrug*

    So, here’s all my comments to the past few entries at once:

    1-best thing ever would be if after you posted that BBT script pic, your next entry was, “BAZINGA! It’s an old script!” But I’m glad it’s not.
    2-congrats to you and Anne on number fourteen! I hope you had a great day.
    3-glad you are enjoying your time on the BBT set, and keep it simple is great advice, no matter the field. Thanks for the reminder. I’m irritated with holiday BS today, and trying to just breathe through it. Thanks for the help.

  7. “It’s alright to act, just don’t get caught.”

    Best advice an actor can hear. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  8. The Zen of acting? Doing it from an empty mind. Then the big problem is to remember one’s reactions according to the script, but not what caused them, no matter how many retakes.

    I practice aikido, and there’s a similar paradox. We take turns being attacker and defender, training the same technique over and over, but for discovering the subtleties of the aikido solution, the attacker has to forget what the response will be in order to react naturally to it. The memory span of a goldfish. I guess that’s kind of acting, too.

  9. A few movies I’ve recently seen have first-rate acting that seems to reinforce your comments. If you can find them, check out “The Invisible Griff” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” The actors in both movies allow their characters to develop in a belivable fashion, precisely because they DON’T push too hard. This natural (for lack of a better term) acting makes the whole show more believable, and that quality is what I most treasure in a play, movie, or tv show.

  10. Hi, Will, just wanted to say this:

    Stand By Me movie seems to me like it talks about my personal life sometimes.
    It has scenes that make me relive some periods of my life.
    I am like the character Gordie , since I write short stories … and I met in real life , in 2010, a person like the character of Chris … I swear some scenes with the two of them seem to represent my life on the screen. ..
    Since the film also speaks of death , I insert the fact that a few days after seeing this movie for the first time a person of my age group has died , and I was among the last to see him alive …
    In the film, the guys are looking for the body of a boy who died in an accident in the forest …
    Gordie ‘s brother dies in a car accident , like my classmate did …

    Four months later, in August 2010 (like the August 1959 of the film) I met ” Chris ” …

    Even the forest of the film reminds me of the woods or forest near my house , which I explored with friends far and wide several times …

    I strongly believe in signs , signals, synchronicities in life because I have experienced moments that were bizarre and extraordinary …

    For me personally it is very very strange that there is this movie … It may be that many people can identify with these characters, but for me really at a deep level when I see this movie is like exploring my memory …

    I’m still in touch with ” Chris ” … and the more I know of him the more I find that he is similar to this character

  11. “This is one of those times when you can just let the words do the work,” Funny that this refers to working on BBT. I just watched last weeks episode last night and was reminded of how awesome Bob Newhart is…he seems to be a master of letting the words do the work.

    I have a little geek-gasm every time you pop up on that show and look forward to seeing the episode you’re working on.

  12. Looks like Charlie Sheen was wrong about Chuck Lorre after all.
    That having been said, this was one of your best posts ever, Wil. You have a wonderfully human voice that makes a person feel they’re in the same room with you, but without that starstruck feeling that would cause most people to pee themselves.
    Well done once again, Wheaton.

  13. It seemed liked you were never really trying on TNG – you’re only real chance to make it. Now you are trying REALLY hard, but it is sad.

    1. If you’re gonna cap on a brother on his own blog, at least get the difference between “you’re” and “your” right, or you look like a bigger fool than you are. LEARNING AND GROOOOOOOWIIIIING.

  14. I figured i just wanted to say thank you, for all the fun and great stuff I’ve learned from you.. as a long time RPG nerd, I’ve frowned on both D&D and tabletop games, but for some reason, i decided to watch The prisoners of slaughterfast, with AI, wich led me to the podcasts, and from that to tabletop… and your love of gaming, the way you present it have sparked a newfound love of even more things geek than I had before..

    you are an inspiration…. thanks Wil.

  15. I’m in the car business. Sometimes I will have a spell where I don’t sell a car. Then a customer comes up and I will fumble my words around a little–but then it comes back and I’m back on your game.

    BTW–Tron is my all time favorite arcade game. I almost bought a Tron standup about 20 years ago for $300 but passed at the last minute (a lot of money back then–still is!!!) I’ll bet I could get through the first 5-6 levels of light cycles–I still remember those patterns so well so many years later.

    Anyways–good article. Look forward to the Big Bang Theory–it’s been going downhill lately–hopefully you will make it funny again for at least one episode.

  16. Thanks for the post Wil. The insights you’ve gained and shared here are invaluable. I’ve been acting for three decades and thought it refreshing that the very first rule I was told to never violate you repeated here: Never get caught acting. It’s what I try and instill in my students to this day.

  17. When I read “unless they are doing something with every line, every beat, every reaction, every moment, then they are not acting” for some reason I heard “Welcome, To The, William Shatner, School, Of acting” in my head.

    On and on side note, it seems your secure site is pulling insecure information. On IE it warns me and lets me click to proceed, on FireFox, it just blocks the unsecure content (maybe CSS or a plugin) and I cannot log in (via Google). I think CSS are being blocked because the layout of the page is totally different.

  18. A little off topic, but just finished listening to your Narration of “Ready Player One” by Ernest Clines. Really enjoyed your Narration / Voice Acting. There’s a lot got great Narrator’s out there but I can’t think of anyone that could have done a better reading. Planning to get the John Scalzi books you have done next. Hope you keep working as a Narrator as well as your Acting career.

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