ON ACTING: "Playing Against"
One day, I was on a set with some of the other 'heavies', having just finished a scene rehearsal in a cowboy TV show. We heavies were to threaten some store owner in a Western town in the scene.
Between takes I was sitting relaxed, waiting for our turn to film the ‘close ups’ in the scene. The Assistant Director called us to work. As we approached the set, one of the most experienced actors leaned over to me and said, in a fatherly manner: “Kid. When you say that line to the store owner, ‘I’m going to kill you’…?” I nodded. “Smile; it’ll work better.”
So when it came to me to film the scene, the director said “Action!” I said my line to the store owner, “I’m going to kill you,” and instead of glowering as I had done in rehearsal, I smiled. The director immediately said, “Cut.” He walked over to me. “What the hell were you smiling about? You looked positively goofy.” The fatherly heavy leaned over and whispered in my ear: “I forgot to tell you; smile on the outside. But on the inside you still got to hate.”
The technique the heavy was trying to instruct me is was an acting technique (performance condition) called “playing against”: when the textual action--the dialogue or outer physical action--operates in dynamic opposition, contradiction, to the sub-textual emotion being felt. (In music they call it counterpoint.)
This oppositional (outer/inner) acting condition creates a desirable performance conflict between outer style and inner substance, a complexity of behavior that audience’s find intriguing: witness Hannibal Lector, the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, who smiles warmly, rather than glowering with hate, as he discusses eating the flesh off his adversary.
This style of ‘playing against’ complicates the actor’s performance life, creating implicit ‘irony’, ‘contradiction’, ‘complexity’…all valuable elements in creating exciting on stage or in film life.