The Best Acting on Television
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I remember being taught in an acting class an extreme peoplewatching exercise to broaden our conceptions of normal by surreptitiously imitating people on the London Underground. Adopting their walks. Their postures. Imitating their face. And any other ways we could think of to earn a public disorder charge.
Sometimes, I came up with ideas about what happened in the people I was watching’s lives to, for instance, make them walk with stiff knees or raise their chin when they talked. Other times I ended up thinking: ‘Wow, he sure is carrying a lot of tension on his left shoulder and also a shoulder bag.’
When we’re out and about, we see people between events. Liminal spaces give us insight into what others look like at-rest, their brains freewheeling between appointments. It's the physical equivalent of an: 'Umm.’
However, strangers’ events tend to be hidden from us. When was the last time you watched someone write an exam? Sell a car? Burgle? It is rarer to be present for their moments of pressure than of relaxation.
But stories are all about pressure.
We meet Frodo when he inherits the ring, follow his adventures as it grows heavier, experience the battles both internal and external. When, at the end of the book, he (spoilers) goes on a cruise, we’re out. And in all that time, we never once watch him listen to a podcast between Acton Town and Southwark.
If we want to mine real people for data that we can apply to character, we need more than just their resting state. We have to see them under pressure.
So where do we find vast quantities of data which logs people’s actual reactions to events as they happen? Where can we reliably see people we don’t know build up and release adrenaline? And all of this in a respectful manner, preferably one in which they have signed a contract that says they’re OK with our gawking?
I’m watching MasterChef.
The Quiet Liars of the Kitchen
I’m making my way through the most recent season on iPlayer, the BBC’s catch-up service. The advantage of watching MasterChef on catch-up is that I can watch it exactly as it wasn’t intended: extremely quickly. I’m house-sitting at the minute so I’ve got enough time that every day of my week, nine new contestants arrive in the MasterChef kitchen, look threatened when they’re told to make a dessert, faint in front of a food critic, and are whittled down to two semi-finalists.
It’s a format show, and watching it at speed lays bare the structure.
“MASTERCHEF is BACK.”
Montage from upcoming episodes.
The contestants walking slowly near some bricks.
Greg tells John the contestants will have to cook.
John tells Greg that cooking is hard.
Contestant places food on table.
John and Greg give feedback.
Contestant reaction shot.
This is the gold.
After the hosts say that: ‘the chicken is raw but your sauce is luxuriously sweet’ and ‘cor, you can do flavour but I want a bit of salad to cut through all these beaks,’ the contestant generally says nothing more than a mumbled thanks. Perhaps it feels too much like being pulled up by their headmaster. Perhaps their reply is edited out.
The result is footage of people in a moment of tremendous pressure. They’ve come from an energetic hour rushing around a kitchen they’re not familiar with and are now listening quietly. They can stop moving but the adrenaline is pumping. Their thoughts craaaawl over their skin.
Once the judgment of their hearts (stuffed with rice and served with a port reduction) against feathers is complete, the contestants are filmed walking to a small alcove shaped like the inside of a chimney, the designated space on MasterChef for having feelings. Some release so much energy on the walk their hands shake.
And then, they lie.
Nobody lies like a MasterChef contestant with the wrong result. To the producers, to the hosts, to themselves.
We all have stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the chaos outside. That story might be remarkably close to reality (eg. I am a lecturer in Politics at the University of Bath) or quite far away from it (I am a free spirit, a leaf on the wind, impossible to pin down, my charms are mysterious and wonderful!)
When we are put under pressure, those stories are challenged and thoughts bubble up. (Why am I making chicken liver parfait? Stick to Marx dammit / That I have served the pie on an ostrich is sure to delight.)
Crucially, train of thought does not necessarily match the words they say.
It goes like this:
Story [not necessarily conscious] → Thoughts → Words
MasterChef gives us the treat of watching the second two steps. We see their thoughts while they are judged, and then the tailored version of their thoughts that they decide to give us as words in the Emotions Chimney.
For one person, the thoughts might be that they’re just not working hard enough and everyone is constantly disappointed in them and they don’t deserve to be there and you can tell because the fondant potato was hard and that is proof. Which is expressed as: ‘Yeah, bit gutted obviously, but onwards and upwards.’
For another, the judges didn’t take into account all the work that went into the veal, that it’s ridiculous to expect a perfect dish in so little time and an unfamiliar kitchen, that I am a lecturer in Politics at a UNIVERSITY so come on!, that everyone on the crew dislikes them and you can tell. But everyone can see me on TV and it is important to be a thoughtful lifelong learner'.’ Or as they put it: ‘Not the result I was hoping before but I’m grateful for their feedback.’
For a third, perhaps it’s: ‘AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!’ Or: ‘Happy with that!’
Lies on the Page
So how is this useful?
When we’re dealing with a script, every line of text is the final result of thoughts. Our character is continuously serving up a Hasselback potato here, a crispy tofu skin there, a badger jus somewhere else, all selected in the moment from the ingredients served up to them by their brains. The thoughts come from the story they tell themselves.
The more pressure our character is under, the more they have to depend on that story. If a problem is a long way away, there is time to consider solutions from different angles and maybe do something unexpected and out of character. If the problem is here, now and needs an immediate answer, there’s not. And if they’re doing something out of character under pressure, that is a clue that something else is going on - perhaps we should broaden our conception of their character.
I think it’s useful to start from the assumption that every character is a liar. People who are honest with themselves and others make boring stories. The lies don’t have to be nasty lies. Self-doubt is often a lie. Frodo believes he is weak, not the sort of person at all to go on a cruise.
If we begin by asking who the character is lying to (others or themselves), and in what way, we find the drama of that character. To do that, we need to study real-world examples of people saying what they don’t mean when they’re under pressure, preferably because their bone marrow is under-seasoned.