Ten top tips: Katherine McRae
Actor Director Katherine McRae provides her top tips for acting on the screen.
Katherine McRae worked as an actor in New Zealand theatre, television, film and radio before starting to direct theatre in the late 1990s. Her production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, set in 1880s New Zealand, won six theatre awards, including director and production of the year in 2003. In 2005, McRae took the role of Brenda Holloway on Shortland Street and, after her character was killed off, she became a director of the show. She has also directed Nothing Trivial, Go Girls and Filthy Rich on television. Her short film Abandon Ship has screened at several international festivals. McRae stars in the upcoming Television New Zealand telefeature, Catching the Black Widow.
1.Work on your relationships. While you may be the central character, it is your relationships with others that reveal your ‘character’. Get to know the other actors from the start – at the read-through, in rehearsals, in the make-up room. Ask to run lines. Discuss the scene. Before an intimate scene, have a hug, as this breaks down physical boundaries. Be there for them on set – be clownish to cheer them up, be annoying to make them angry. Scenes improve the more actors trust one another, the more risks they take and the more fun they have together.
2.Know your lines and the intention of the scene. Why did the writer write this scene? Why is your character there? Include other characters in your intention. Rather than, “I want to divide my kingdom into three parts”, use, “I want my daughters to publicly declare their love for me”. Lear is now dependent on the actions of his daughters and more vulnerable. Secure in your knowledge of the scene, you can play it lightly and trust the audience to read what you are doing.
3.Beware of flat-lining. If a scene flat-lines, it is dramatically dead. Most scenes have an emotional arc from a positive ‘charge’ to a negative ‘charge’ or vice versa. Identify the turning point of the scene – the moment where everything changes. This will give the scene its structure. Increase this change by entering the scene in a mood opposite to the one your character ends up in. The greater the arc between the two emotional states, the more dramatically dynamic the scene will be.
4.‘Intention’ is locked; ‘how’ is not. Your character’s intention is fixed but how you play the scene shouldn’t be. Approach it with a sense of play. Be prepared to discard the interpretation you came up with at home. Be open to what the other actor(s) and the director bring, and keep on digging. Keep things fresh. Take risks. Surprise the other actor(s) and yourself. You may make a discovery about the scene in the last take of your close-up.
5. The issue of physical continuity. After the first take, continuity becomes an issue, as editors can’t cut from a shot with your hands in the air to a shot with your hands in your pockets. Perfect continuity allows them to cut at any point, but the more shots there are, the less you have to worry, as there will be many ways to cut the scene together. Although continuity is ideal, never let it stop your fresh and spontaneous impulses. If you come up with something extraordinary on a take, the director will figure out a way to make things work.
6.It doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders. The audience ‘read’ everything they see and hear. There are a lot of things that help tell the story without you doing anything. The audience get information from your costume, makeup, design decisions, shot choices, context, music and sound design. Your job is to play the scene as truthfully as you can from moment to moment.
7.On ‘action’, relax! The crew need to be on their guard in order to capture whatever the actors deliver. On ‘action’, the crew have to tense up and concentrate, while the actors need to breathe out, relax, begin the scene when they are ready and go at the pace it deserves.
8.Talk to be heard. Some actors whisper their lines but I have yet to meet someone in real life who constantly whispers, unless they have something wrong with their throat. Your volume is dictated by your relationship with the other characters. If you are lying in bed together, you might murmur sweet nothings; if they are across a field, you will need to yell; and if they are trying to kill you, you’ll want to scream bloody murder.
9.Don’t stress about technical aspects. If you are a stage actor worried about the technical aspects of working for the screen, remember that you deal with technical requirements in the theatre. You stand in light, you speak to be heard at the back, you know how to make a strong entrance and where the edge of the stage is so you don’t fall off. In many ways, acting for the camera is less technical, as you don’t have to artificially project your voice – the microphone and camera come to you to capture your performance.
10.Your work is the key ingredient. If you are doing a small part and you enter a set where the crew all know each other, it is easy to feel unimportant. Yet on screen, the crew disappear and your work is the most important part of the show. Actors are emotionally intelligent beings who bravely reveal the highs and lows of human experience in order for the rest of the world to enjoy great stories. Good drama crews know this. They can’t wait to watch actors strut their stuff and they love it when you shine. Their job is to support and to enable great drama. The camera and microphone are there to capture your wonderful work. Imagine a warm light shining on you or a fire that you want to lean towards. Great screen acting is a dance between the actor and the camera – they need to work together.