XVR27's Improv Interviews - Don S. Davis - Basic Acting Tips

Whose Improv Is It Anyway? : Original On-The-Spot Satire

An Interview With Don S. Davis

Basic Acting Tips

ChivalRuss: You've obviously played a lot of different types of roles. In your public question and answer session, you were talking about basic human motivations and responses. What types of roles would you say are the most difficult to portray, the most difficult to get the motivations for? Comedic roles, dramatic roles?

Don S. Davis: No, the most difficult role is to play somebody, be it a comedy or a drama, that is a character that you would normally have no sympathy for. You have to find something about that character that you like in order for you to play the character in a dimensional way. If you dislike the character and can't find... if you're playing a serial killer, you have to find something about that serial killer that at least excuses to you his actions. And you do that by exploring in your own mind what might have made that character be what he was. Or, you could manage to be just a jerk, like in the film "Swimming With Sharks", Kevin Spacey's character was just a totally jerk producer who had no redeeming quality, and yet he had to reveal something that made the audience accept that this guy could ever become a producer or to convince people to do what he wanted. That's what you do - you explore by asking yourself, and that's what I was talking about in there, questions about this character. What is his moral philosophy? What's his religious philosophy? What's his education? ... this, that, and the other thing. What happened to him to cause this attitude?

ChivalRuss: For someone starting out in acting with no formal training and no formal acting education, what would you say are the biggest things that they should watch for or the first things that they should pay attention to besides the motivation?

Don S. Davis: There really isn't anything besides the motivation. The first rule of acting is not you acting, it's you reacting. There's a situation that you're reacting to. You have a person that you're dealing with in a scene, so you're reacting to them. You're reacting to them in a way that's guided by your motivations in the scene - so you've got to know what those things are. That's the thing that an actor has to do if you're going to be in film especially, and even if I was going to be in theater, even though the two things are apples and oranges. In theater, you enlarge on life - ever gesture a bit more full, because you're selling to the back seat of the theater as well as the front row center of the theater. The guy in back payed [darn] near as much money as the one in front, and if you can't make the whole house react uniformly, your play is a flop. OK, so you do that by slightly expanding and enlarging on life. In film, every character in your audience is seated immediately off the apron of the stage because the camera sees you that close. So, everything in film is distilled - instead of enlarged, it's brought down - and one of the things that kills you in film is being over the top. One of the worst things is being over the top. So, what you really have to do is, I think, as an actor, be it in film or stage, now that it's available is get someone to tape your performance. And then you can look at it and see, "Oh my God, look what I did there - that was false. That didn't look right." And what you'll discover as you look is, well, the reason it didn't look right - I was acting there. But that part that looks good, I forgot to act - I was just reacting there. And that's what it is.

ChivalRuss: What would you say to a younger, beginning, or hopeful actor who has a problem getting up on stage and a fear of performing in front of an audience? What kinds of hints or suggestions might you give?

Don S. Davis: Start in student productions. Start in productions that are going to have a small audience that's not going to throw you. Start in a production where you'll have somebody that'll give you honest criticism or direction. And, y'know, real criticism is positive as well as negative. Hurtful criticism always has to have a positive turn. Even if you're telling somebody that they really stunk Friday night, do something to make them want to go on stage again Saturday night. Y'know, the only way you can do that is find some positive aspect of their performance. So, what you do, the way to act is to act. It's like anything. If you say to the world, "I want to be a painter" but you don't pick up a paintbrush and put paint on a canvas because you're afraid of criticism, that somebody would say "You can't paint," then you're never going to be able to paint. But, if you paint enough, you can be like Van Gogh and never sell a painting. That just means that the people you're selling it to don't like it but the world, throughout history, will say, "This man was a genius." So, what you have to do in any art form is practice your craft, and that's what it is.

ChivalRuss: So, you'd probably say, for a first audience, would you recommend friends or neighbors?

Don S. Davis: No. Third parties of some sort. That's why I say go to an amateur production, to a university theater department where kids are having to direct plays and put your name on the list to say "I want to get into theater" and "I want to give this a try if you're willing to cast me". Go to a local film department where students are supposed to direct films because again, you are your best judge because you are your harshest critic when you see yourself made a fool of. Get yourself on film, and if you do that in most acting schools, now they'll actually put you on film, even if they're a theater school, so that you can see, so that the guy is not having to say to you or suggest to you in an analytical way, "That was bad." If he can show you a video of it, you'll say "Oh yeah, well, I see what you mean right now, that was really stiff" or "I was fidgeting there" or "I had no reason to turn away like that. The natural thing would've been to a little turn away." And that's what a young actor has to do. The other thing you have to learn to do in acting is to temper everything. And I don't feel I got that point across. You have to get your emotions to a point where, instead of trying to bring yourself to sobbing, you've got to be able to click a button that makes you want to sob and then you're trying to keep yourself from sobbing. So, in a way, your lines are intelligible. Otherwise, it sounds like [intentional unintelligible sobbing speech]. But, if you're really upset, you speak clearly because you're trying to communicate, [intelligible sobbing speech] but one side of you is upset, you see. And that's what you do - and you click those things and it's horrible for somebody in an on stage situation [referring to the interview] to see this happen, because they say "I'm sitting next to some nut here" but that's what an actor really has to do. An actor can't lose control because no matter how emotional you become, and you have to be emotional, you have to remember that you give a cue line, be it on stage or film, that you have to get across. If you don't make that cross, then the next part of the scene won't work. So you really get the emotion so keyed - the method actors call it emotional recall and technical actors have a different term for it, everybody's got their own term - but you have to learn to vent, so that instead of venting when you're on stage, you're controlling, especially in film.

ChivalRuss: What would you say is most difficult about conveying emotions?

Don S. Davis: How to control the emotion once I've called it in. That's the hardest thing in the world.

ChivalRuss: So, for you, it's not achieving the emotion or achieving the ability to shed the tears, it's being able to control it once it's there.

Don S. Davis: I've built in so many mechanisms over the years just by working at it that bring it up, all I'm trying to do on stage is control it and a lot of directors... once the director trusts you, he'll say "Take that down by half," "Bring it up a third" or "Give me just ten percent more of that" and that's what the good actor does and make it still real. Y'know, I've worked with Dustin Hoffman a couple of times and he'd do it by nuance. I worked with Max Von Sydow and saw his face just go from one emotion totally to another and he didn't [need to] do anything. It took him hours someplace to do that, it wasn't improv. That was something he'd worked at, and he'd done it by triggers. And that's what all of them wind up talking about in the end. Y'know, and you become, in some ways, paranoid. You become, in some ways, schizophrenic because you have so many things in your daily work. It's just like if you're into computers or if you're into game playing, you've got to learn the rules of the game, you've got to learn the steps that it takes to master the game. Well, in acting, the one thing you're dealing with is emotions, and you can't do that and be normal.

ChivalRuss: What would be the two or three things that you would say to most watch out for, besides emotions and reacting, in terms of judging, helping to judge themselves before they see themselves on video, what would it be?

Don S. Davis: For people in any medium, on television or live or on film, they are reacting to a wide variety of situations and trying to figure out what it is that makes that work.

ChivalRuss: So you recommend research.

Don S. Davis: Yeah, yeah, always do research, and remember what made it work. Remember what made it funny but, y'know, if you think you're going to do something that... if you're going to play a character like the little tramp, like Charlie Chaplin, somebody's going to say, "OK, you're the little tramp meeting this big bully, watch somebody little use their wits to turn somebody brutal into a buffoon." Watch how a small animal keeps a big animal at bay by its wit rather than bearing its teeth. A fine example is, if you think you're going to be in theater games [improv], first of all, play games. Y'know, play charades, play theater games, do improv, because the more you do these, the easier they'll become; that's the other thing. Then expand on that. Y'know, if you think you're going to be in an improv situation in which someone is going to say that you're like a chicken picking feed off the ground, see what they [chickens] do so that you can say something about that that's universal. You don't have to go all the way down and peck it off the ground, but the thing that a chicken does is it extends its neck, so you can do an improv situation in which you're sitting on a chair and you can get that aspect just by doing that move. You've always got to find something, especially for improv on something like "Whose Line Is It Anyway?", what those guys are really great at is finding universals that are going to cause ten people to react in the same way to something. And that's what they do.

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