Concealing and Revealing

(This was first published in ‘The Great Acting Blog 2011 but links were updated.)
Actors are often obsessed with sub-text and when they find it, they want to share it. But
what is sub-text? Literally it is what lies beneath the words. But we deal in sub-text all
the time, even when we are not telling lies or trying to hide. Every association, clutch at
the heart, memory or link we make as we talk, look around or communicate is a form of
sub-text. If I say, ‘I’ve got to go and pick up Johnnie from school’, there is a whole world
within that line – a life with and caring for Johnnie, pictures of the journey, a happy
excuse to go or a duty to be done and so on.
If I look around my room or out of my window, everything I see evokes associations,
feelings, memories and needs.
In life, these connections are already there but for a role, you have to build them. You can
use improvisations, research, psychological gesture, substitutions, sense memories and
especially any physical imaginative or practical work that stores muscle memory. Always
act out stories that you have to tell at home so that when you tell them on set, your body
has real memories of what happened.
(You will find many ways to rehearse alone in ‘A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD’
published this year by Nick Hern or my earlier book, ‘Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a
Second’ published by Virgin Books and also available on Kindle.)
But once these connections and deep feelings and thoughts are stored, they must be
trusted and relied upon without you feeling any need to parade them. You must not show
us your preparation or how hard you’ve worked. Just like life, we will see it when we’re
meant to or it will seep out in spite of yourself. Just like life, you may have to work hard
not to show it if you wouldn’t want others to see it. The difficult words may be simply
statements thrown away or they may be pulled out like thorns to extricate you from the
situation. It all depends on what you, in the role, want to do – to conceal or to reveal and
whether that is easy or hard. You may even smile or laugh when you talk about the most
painful things.
Watch any documentaries or newsreels when people talk about terrible things that have
happened to them. They don’t lose their warmth, personality or even humour. They don’t
stand back and comment on how the story should make you, the listener, feel. They are
factual, practical, often laid-back and sometimes surprisingly funny. Their action is to
share the pictures in their head with you, not to ‘feel’ it again. In fact, this is often the last
thing they want to do.
‘Sub-text’, when used in acting training, is usually focused upon the want or need that
lies beneath the surface of the actual words or action. The first thing to ask yourself is, do
you want the listener to understand this need?
1. ‘Would you like a drink sometime?’ (I fancy you like mad but you mustn’t know
that – I’ll play it cool.)
2. ‘Would you like a drink sometime?’ (I need you to know that I’m here for you
whenever you want me.)
The speaker in example 1. will not give an inkling of the desires running underneath.
He or she does not want the listener to read the subtext.
The speaker in example 2 will be trying to make contact and to see something back
from the other person that shows the proposition has been understood. The speaker
wants the listener to understand the subtext.
But we don’t even think about this in life as sub-text. We just know what the stakes are
and whether we have to conceal or reveal our thoughts. And if we are alone, we just
think. There is no-one to share it with, but we are not concealing anything either. In film,
if you are alone, this is the same. You are not having to conceal anything from anyone
else but there is no-one to explain those feelings to, either.
We are not trying to ‘show’ our thoughts – we are just having them. And reacting to them
ourselves, if we need to.
If there the other people in the room who mustn’t understand those thoughts we will not
give them away. If Kevin Spacey, in ‘The Usual Suspects’ gives the game away and we
know his story is fiction, there is no film…
Of course, if we want the other person to guess our thoughts then we can share them, as
Lauren Bacall does in this famous clip from ‘To Have and Have Not’:
Sometimes our eyes can show what we feel but our voices mustn’t give us away.
Consider this superb moment from Colin Firth in ‘A Single Man’(He cleverly takes off
his glasses. A natural move but it allows us to see his eyes. )There is no-one else in the
room so he doesn’t need to hide his emotion in his face but his voice cannot give him
away. This is also superb moment-to -moment work. Real listening. He is always just
dealing and computing each second as it comes. How spare the script is.
A clever director/writer will allow the actor a private, unobserved moment when the
thoughts don’t need to be hidden and we , the viewer can see what the other roles must
not. But there are other ways for us to observe subtext without the actor ‘showing’ us. In
this famous clip from ‘On The Waterfront’
Marlon Brando cannot show Eve Marie Saint’s character how much he cares for her, but
when he puts on her glove, we, the audience, understand the subtext through this
(seemingly) unconscious move…
It is a useful thing to give characters activities they would do in the course of the scene,
The juxtaposition of the mundane and the extraordinary makes compelling viewing.
This is an extreme example of secondary activity explaining the actors’ feelings. Albert
Finney and Joyce Redman share a meal! Pretty explicit subtext.,,
We think of James Dean playing haunted characters. But in this clip from ‘East of Eden’,
the shadows have not yet descended and he and Julie Harris explore their attraction for
each other. They are both superb actors and here Dean allows his warmth and charm to
shine through and we see clearly how he feels about his brother’s girl.
Jeanne Moreau in the classic ‘Jules et Jim’ sings a song with a deceptively upbeat tune.
See the deeper meaning in her eyes and the way she looks differently at the two men.
Here in the Pinter screenplay, The Servant, there are dark undercurrents in this
beautifully played scene between Dirk Bogarde and James Fox (Doesn’t Laurence look
like him…). Notice how they hardly look at each other. Even at the height of the quarrel,
there is no sign of the screwed up faces or histrionics you see all the time on daytime
television…(although the music is heavy on subtext!)
In Mrs Brown, Judi Dench never indulges her pain. It is always about interaction with the
other people. Her loneliness, confusion and sorrow leaks out of her, but her energy is
always away from her, looking, listening, watching – never towards herself or trying to
get a ‘feedback’. She is always communicating.
Subtext doesn’t always have to be serious. ‘The African Queen’, Humphrey Bogart and
Katherine Hepburn embrace in delight at getting their boat through – and then find their
feelings for each other need hiding – for the moment..
Clips from older films are easier to find on youtube and earlier Hollywood actors were
superb at sitting back, letting their words fall out and allowing the subtext simply to
happen. But I would have liked to have shared more wonderful examples from recent
television dramas, like the Swedish ‘Wallander’, ‘The Killing’, ‘The Sinking of the
Laconia’ or ‘An Appropriate Adult’.
The moral of all this is: do your homework, but then trust it – sit back, relax, think, let
pictures pop into your head and simply interact. Watch, listen, pursue what you want. It
is YOU speaking, they are YOUR needs – it’s easy, like life. Don’t add anything. Don’t
know what will happen next. Don’t try to make it interesting. Don’t show us…

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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.