Actors are taught that when the other actor in a scene is speaking, they should give all of their focus to the other actor and let the other actor have his or her moment. However, the other actor is usually off-camera and what’s left on camera is an actor graciously listening, while being completely uninteresting. In editing, we can cut to the actor on camera if we want, but why would we? Someone just listening isn’t interesting. Someone struggling with their own emotional experience because of what the other character is saying, and while the other character is saying it, is cinematic power.
What the film camera loves more than almost anything else is a character caught up in his or her own emotional experience because, no matter how caring we would like to think we as human beings are, we are all, always, wrapped up in our own emotional experience. This doesn’t mean actors shouldn’t be genuine artists who collaborate respectfully with others. What it means is when the artistic and creative work of you and your fellow collaborators is done, and the camera starts to roll, the actor in front of the camera has an artistic responsibility to make every moment, every frame, all about, and only about, what his or her character is thinking or feeling.
In other words, the film camera wants you to think like a movie star. That way, every moment your character is on camera will be cinematic gold and, when the director is editing the film, the director can cut to your character at any point during a scene and your character will be carrying the emotional story of the film and commanding the camera’s and the audience’s attention.
None of us want a return to the era of silent films, but, all actors and filmmakers can take a lesson from the time when the actor on camera, while listening to the actor off camera, had to carry the emotional story of the film because there was no dialogue coming from the actor off camera to do that for the audience. Since the introduction of sound, and therefore dialogue, actors on camera listening to actors off camera have abdicated their cinematic responsibility in favor of being attentive.
In life and on set, you can be the most wonderful, giving, selfless, and supportive artist and person in the world, but when you walk the dozen or so steps to your mark in front of the camera, the camera wants you to become a movie star. After we call cut, you can go back to being the wonderful, generous, genuine artist with whom we love working, but while you are in front of it, the camera wants you to think like a star. The camera wants you to be a star. It wants every actor to be a star. It's what the camera loves most about being a camera.
April Yvette Thompson