Acting for Film IV - The Actor’s Obstacle

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    In the last entry, we said that getting to the structure of a script involves answering three questions:


    What does my character want?
    What’s preventing them from getting what they want?
    When does what they want change?


    Finding your character’s objective is the first step in discovering the structure of the script and learning the inner workings of your character. Knowing what your character wants, what desire drives their actions fuels your performance.


    Without conflict there can be no drama. In most cases, the presence of conflict is readily apparent in a good script. The term we use to identify any aspect which creates conflict is the “obstacle.” The objective is what we “play;” the obstacle is what we “play against.”  It’s important for the actor to know the difference between the two and know how create a dynamic performance with both.


    If you are playing a medieval knight, saving the damsel in distress may be your character’s objective. The forward action is motivated by this objective or desire. The dragon guarding the castle in which the damsel is located is the obstacle. The conflict in the scene is created by the dragon’s existence. In actuality however, the dragon is merely a physical manifestation of the obstacle; it is external. There are also important internal obstacles yet to be explored and played against.


    To understand your character more deeply, you need to fully understand the motivation beneath both the objective and the obstacle. From the script, you can say that your character’s objective is “to save the damsel from the dragon.” This is a simple statement of both the objective (save the damsel) and the obstacle (from the dragon). In fact, this is so simply stated that some actors are inclined to assume that it goes without saying and merely play the action.


    However, this simple statement brings with it a number of complicated implications which need to be explored. A simply stated foundation is required to further explore the structure of the script. For what reason does your character want to save the damsel in distress at this moment in the action? It may be that your character will eventually fall in love with the damsel.   However, if at this point in the structure of the script, your character is doing the bidding of the king then that’s what you need to play. Does this mean that your character is doing it for honor? To impress the king? To put themselves in a position to become king? Or are they simply doing what they believe is the right thing without any notion of self interest?  These are all possible internal objectives. The one you choose to play will temper your performance.


    Now, to make your action even richer and nuanced, you need to prepare what to “play against.” Your conflict is not only created by the dragon but also internal obstacles which make your battle with the dragon interesting. What is preventing you from defeating the dragon? Fear of failure? Fear for the damsel’s safety during the battle? Does the dragon pose a more forceful adversary than you imagined?   


    It is precisely these types of internal choices that are sought out by the camera. The more genuine, specific and nuanced the internal objectives are played and the internal obstacles are played against, the more fascinated the camera becomes. Simply playing the externals (saving the damsel/fighting the dragon) without utilizing these internal dynamics seems flat and empty to the camera. If you are in the external activity of saving the damsel “to prove my worth to my beloved king” and you play this internal objective genuinely, the camera will focus on the development of the external action through the motivation of the internal action. The same is true for the internal preparation you your do for the obstacle. Your action will have a richness that will resonate with the camera and, as a result, with your audience.


    These are the raw material of the structure of the script. Knowing how to move from one action to another and being aware of where they specifically take place is at the core of the actor’s understanding of the structure of the action. We’ll cover this more closely in the next entry.

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