It seems to me that most actors misdirect their imagination or they don’t have enough imagination. Actors should not worry about what they look like on screen. They should worry how accurately they are able to imagine the source of fear, or the source of anxiety or the source of love.
No matter how much you want to appear scared or in love or angry and no matter how motivated you are you will not appear scared or in love or angry if you do not see the source of fear or love or anger in your mind. The source of emotion is not just in you. It is channelled through you because of your motivation which gives you a reason to react and defines how you should react but what you react to is not in you and that’s why it needs to be imagined. Trying to imagine what you look like when you are scared or confused or in love or any emotional state and then trying to replicate the feelings or expressions is not enough. It is not acting. Throughout the script breakdown stage many actors seem to be focused on their ability to imagine their own reactions but how can their reactions be truthful when there is nothing to react to, they have not imagined the source of emotion, they have not imagined the person or the prop to which they are responding.
Acting is imagining the source which is outside yourself and allowing yourself to respond to that source in any way required without worrying if you will look ridiculous or ugly or stupid. It is working with the other actor or prop or location and using your imagination to make whatever is in the script real and right in front of you. It has nothing to do with your ability to visualise yourself. It has to do with your ability to visualize the object or prop or actor or monster described in the script. When you can see its every line, smell its acid, feel its warmth, feel its texture, see its shadow cover you, see it touch you with its ugly oily hand that’s when it gets real. Unfortunately most actors are not capable of imagining in multiple dimensions so they act in one dimension, the dimension of flat speech . If you are talking to someone you hate, someone who disgusts you, you don’t want to touch him and don’t want to smell him and don’t want to be in the same building and you don’t want him to touch you and you know exactly what it is about this person you hate. And it comes across in your speech and your posture and your hand movement and your eyes, and where you direct your attention, and how you hold your body, what you do with your clothes and your belongings and how quickly you want to get out of there.
If you can develop your imagination to the point where you can imagine a great amount of detail half of your acting is done. If you let yourself react to the imagined your body will respond almost naturally without any need to force that action. But many actors don’t take any time to imagine the space they are in. They don’t research the script or talk to the director. They focus on the lines, lines, lines, lines. Where is this taking place, why this room, what is the meaning of this prop, what does this prop mean to the other actor, why this location, what is the next location, why am I here, how do I feel about this room, this space, sitting in this chair, in this part of the room, driving this car, looking in that direction, what am I seeing outside the window, why is this source of light here, why is this light here and why are they lighting the set this way, what does it mean to have this light on my arm. A great amount of time, effort and planning goes into designing sets and props but to beginner actors they don’t mean much. They are not in touch with the place so props and locations have little influence on their performance. They always sound the same. They could be in a dungeon, or at the top of the mount Everest or in a jet fighter they always speak with the same level of intonation, volume, phrasing, pitch and timing of the their delivery varies little across the film, they could be tired or high on coke or hit by a sixteen wheeler it’s always the same.
Actors do not realize that their characters’ every little movement is a response to the world in which they exist. They are what they are because of the world of the story and if they are to create a unique and detailed performance they have to imagine all the tiny little details of the world described in the screenplay and then construct ‘a character existence’ (my term), an existence which is a direct response to, and a result of the world of the screenplay, and it is through this detailed and unique ‘character existence’ that we learn about the world and about what it means to be human.