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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
A brilliant actor once told me that the hardest thing to play is drunk. And then he told me how to do it.
There's an old saying that dying is easy, comedy is hard – and that's essentially true. As anyone who's ever cast anything will tell you, if an actor can be funny, then he can be dramatic. But the reverse is not quite so automatic.
Once, after a particularly funereal run-through, the lead actress came up to me and squinched up her face and asked, "I'm not funny, am I?"
She wasn't. At all. I don't know why – just something missing, I think. Some lightness or quickness or nimbleness or magic X factor just wasn't there in her eyes. And she knew it, too. And we should have known it, when we cast her, by looking at her reel – a DVD sampling of her work that her manager sent around, all fast edits and peppy underscore. It was mostly stuff from an action cop series, where she had to talk urgently into a cell phone and peer disgustedly through the one-way glass at the perp in the holding room. "I want this guy to go down," she growled at the older former Broadway actor playing the opposite her. "You care too much," he growled back, in his inappropriate-for-a-cop-character six-thousand dollar suit.
"Tell that to my ex husband," she regrowled back. And then they both stared moodily around the set.
"Great," we thought. "Let's get her."
And we did. But the trouble is, we ended up getting pretty much exactly that kind of performance – "I want this guy to go down" – when what we really needed was a funny mom.
So when she asked "I'm not funny, am I?" the right answer was "No. No you're not. And we all should have known that." But the right factual answer isn't always – or even mostly – the right useful answer, so I thought a moment, furrowed my brow a bit to make me look concerned that she was concerned, and then I said, "Oh my God. Are you kidding me? You're great."
"I just don't feel, you know, funny."
"Because you're not, dear," is what I didn't say. But what I did say was, "You know what? Maybe you're working too hard on it? I don't know, I think you're great, but maybe next time, just….throw it away."
Now, "throw it away" means, basically, back off. Don't push the lines so hard. Don't work so much. Don't act so….much. In fact, stop acting altogether. Just say the line in a clearly enunciated voice and move away in a sprightly fashion.
Actors pretty much hate hearing that – especially from writers – but the good ones – no, the great ones – know exactly what this means. It means, say the lines and try not to act the lines. Relax and let the magic pixie dust that all great actors have just naturally sprinkle themselves on the words. It means, say the words, but say them like a movie star, not like an actor. Throw it away.
Which she did. It wasn't much better, but it had the right effect: she said her lines in a quick and clear voice, which kept the pace from getting draggy, and she successfully took the spotlight of disappointment from her performance and transferred it to her opposite, the male lead, who although technically funny was also technically whiney and unlikable, which we all found out together, two weeks and a three million dollar pilot later.
So here's how you play drunk: you play not drunk. You don't play a guy weaving and slurring and bumping into stuff. You play a guy consciously, deliberately, carefully not doing any of those things. Which goes to show: being yourself is sad. Trying not to be yourself is hilarious.
And that's it for this week. Next week, we'll get pushed around. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.