‘Thinking Like An Actor’: London Screenwiters’ Festival Handout

@MelChurcher – Thinking Like An Actor:

It’s not WHAT your characters say; it’s WHY they say it. And the way they say it depends WHO they are, what they WANT and the LIVES they lead – the speed of their thoughts, their dreams, passions and predicaments.

There is no such thing as dialogue – only thoughts that manifest themselves as words or are hidden by words. And that camera sure sees thought!

Our Magnificent Seven…


Actors – and writers – are dealing in LIFE: life distilled, alien life, naturalistic life. The work needs to connect to us as human beings – we should recognise it as the real thing – however far it is from our own. We need to be engrossed, empathise, feel, learn or be entertained. And that means both actors and audience have to connect with the world you dream up at a deep level.


Actors have to inhabit A LOGICAL WORLD – even if it as alien world. (For example I worked on a screenplay where Adam and Eve took turns to visit Earth: Did they wear clothes or not? If they did, were they the current fashion? Where did they keep them? Could they bring things back from earth to heaven? Or did they just think – and the clothes were there? Did they grow older? Did they expect the other back at particular times? What happened while they were waiting? Could they communicate with each other? How did they feel left alone? Etc. etc. etc.) We all know how it feels when there are holes in the plot. Humans have internal logic and geography – even it is personal and idiosyncratic. Actors need this – Who are they? Where are they? What do they want? Why do they want it? How do they get it? What stops them? ACTORS CAN’T PLAY IDEAS – even good ones. The ideas must become substance – and flesh. They must enter the actors’ hearts, minds – and souls.


To find this depth in performance, you need ROLES WITH LIVES; roles of all ages and ethnicity. They can’t be ciphers to help the plot. Actors need to believe (that’s what they deal in – make-believe). They need to stand in your characters’ shoes: know their lives; think like them; feel like them. They need people with a past, a gripping present, and a dreamed-of future. They want to become people who CHANGE and GROW.


Actors – and human beings – deal in thoughts, not words. It’s not WHAT they say but WHY and the WAY they say it. Words happen when thoughts erupt into speech. Sometimes speech pours out to cover thoughts (subtext). Sometimes words cough up like hard stones. WORDS CHANGE THINGS – and can’t be unsaid. And you don’t always need speech to tell a story. Human beings are amazingly good at reading thoughts, emotions and reactions. It’s how we survive. In a close-up, the camera gets much closer to the actor’s eyes than a human being usually can. So the camera will SEE thoughts. (Martin Scorsese calls it ‘the psychic strength of the lens’.)


Thoughts make actions. (And – as they say – ‘Actions speak louder than words’. Or, as my nemesis of a director, John Dexter, would say, ‘Don’t talk about it – DO it.’ How characters REACT to the situation/surroundings/other people drives the plot. What people/actors DO drives them – their thoughts, actions, relationships, emotions. What they decide, and need to get, leads them to take ACTION. What stops them getting what they need – the obstacles (emotional or physical) they encounter – provides the drama.


Thoughts and actions create words. Dialogue needs to be speech that real people use or would have used – even if it is stylised. Find the language of real places, real jobs, real pasts – the language of real relationships. We don’t talk to our employer as we talk to our lover. And long-time partners develop a shorthand. Different people think at different speeds, choose different words, have different rhythms. Sometimes human beings choose to show their thoughts; sometimes they don’t. LISTEN TO OTHERS; test your dialogue out loud. Have readings with actors when you can.


Actors need ammunition – gripping dilemmas, intense relationships, pasts that shadow. They need HIGH STAKES and aims to pursue or resolve; to succeed or to fail. And to grip us as they fly. Roles need things to MATTER!

Practical Suggestions…

Write an autobiography for your characters.

If they have fears/quirks/problems – where did those come from? For example, if they mention the ‘vow’ they took – When? Where? Maybe you can show the past – either in flashbacks or allow us to know it by the way in which the roles handle the present – or possibly in dialogue if it is in hints or subtext. (Rather than in lengthy explanations.) Even if you don’t show the past, having one/knowing it will give your roles logic and depth.

Don’t expect actors to ‘show’ the subtext.

Instead, provide them with moments alone, when others can’t see. Then they can reveal their true feelings or motives – through their thoughts and actions. Use less dialogue. Don’t explain.

Resist thinking in ‘labels.

People are not ‘shy’, ‘lonely’ or ‘bullying’. That may be how the world sees them – but to themselves they are simply dealing with life – in whatever way they do. Instead – build up the life they lead and show some of that. E.g. The ‘lonely’ man can’t sleep after the death of his wife, so he walks the park with his dog at two in the morning, looking up at lit windows; the ‘shy’ person tries to go to parties but never dares go into the front door; the ‘bully’ wants to make sure her pupils see that life is hard and doesn’t expect to get anything easily. And so on.

Keep asking Why?

Why do your characters do things? Say things. Logical actions drive from needs and drives.

Stand in the ‘Magic Circle’.

There is a magic circle in front of you and your character is standing in it. Jump into the circle and stand in his/her shoes. Think like your role. Speak like your role. Act like your role.

Think like an actor!                   LSW1               ©Mel Churcher 2015

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About Mel Churcher

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