How to Act “Realistically”

My latest YouTube video is another video about acting ‘realistically’. In this video, I say I’ve compiled four simple tips that will help us to act as realistically as possible on screen. Having said this, there are way more tips than this. Also, when I talk about acting ‘realistically’, I’m talking about acting like a natural human being in real life would act. As I’ve written about in a previous blog post (and mentioned in a previous video), acting realistically is a bit of a contradiction because acting is not at all realistic. You can, however, act in a realist way, or a naturalist way, but I digress. Basically: we all know what we mean by acting realistically.


The first tip I’ve learned about from various acting lessons and from experience is about contrasting layers. These must be present in your performance if you’re to act convincingly. I’ve learned from workshops that casting directors LIKE contrasting layers in an actor (something to think about!). People are complex and multi-dimensional, they think lots of different things at once, usually. So, to act realistically we must consider how people in real life are a melange of contrasting (or even contradictory) layers, or thoughts, or emotions, that can be seen in the eyes. We can represent such complexity in our acting via layers.

Layering is the idea that what you think or feel and what you say or do can be contrasting (or even contradictory) things. This is also useful if you can’t access a particular thought: maybe your character is breaking the law and you just can’t access this thought strongly enough because you can’t relate to your character’s actions. Well, as an actor, you might choose to incorporate unspoken guilt in this instance (this is just an example). This unspoken guilt will add a contradictory layer to the unlawful character that will make them more three-dimensional and maybe even more relatable to an audience. If you want to act realistically, you will inevitably have a bit of ‘you’ in your portrayal of any character you play anyway. For instance, maybe you’re playing a detective who is investigating a murder and thinks they know who did it, and when you’re interviewing your suspect, you might speak and act calmly and indifferently (because this is the job of a detective), but, at the same time, you might be feeling hate or disgust towards your suspect. These inner thoughts will reveal themselves in your eyes alone. And these inner thoughts will contrast with your outer exterior (or the front you’re putting on).  You may say something simply that could mean anything like, ‘and your name is?’ But if you say this line thinking hate and disgust then you’re adding subtext to this line. It becomes less about asking someone’s name and more about letting the audience know your character doesn’t like this ‘someone’. Likewise, if your character feels sorry for the murder suspect and doesn’t think they did it, then they might ask the question with pity. This contrasts with the outer detective exterior that also tells the audience more about the way your character feels about the situation.

Of course, this is a simple example of layering. Layering can get more complex: you can layer multiple feelings on top of one another and they can battle it out behind the eyes. People in real life are rarely open and honest and so, as actors, if we’re to portray a character realistically, we have to think about all those contradicting layers that make a person human. There’s often not always one inner feeling in a person: people are unsure about situations, they might like aspects of a scenario, dislike other aspects a split-second later, feel ashamed about themselves, proud of themselves, think about what they’ve got to do when they leave the room they’re in, think about where they’ve just come from, maybe they’re hungry and they’re wondering what to have to eat later.

People are rarely mindful and live in the moment, and they’re constantly judging their surroundings, other people, and themselves. Inner thoughts or feelings are plentiful and often contradictory with themselves. Moreover, these contradictory thoughts and feelings contrast with a character’s exterior facade: how they present themselves to others. There’s always a discrepancy between a person’s inner and outer, and the outer changes in different contexts/external circumstances (and I suppose, by association, the inner changes too). For instance, you present yourself one way in a job interview and this would be different from how you might present yourself on a first date (maybe… you get the idea).

Layering involves imbuing your character’s dialogue (or monologue) with subtext. Subtext invariably adds depth to the portrayal of a character. This depth is more about what you think, and it can be seen in the eyes. This layering of contrasts and subtext adds unpredictability to a character: we don’t really know what they’re thinking or feeling about a situation or character, and, so, we can’t really predict what they might do next in a scene (even though we can speculate). Bad two-dimensional acting is boring because we know what’s happened before the scene has finished. Complex characters with contradictory layers and subtext are way more entertaining to watch than actors who match thought with action and play everything sincerely. 

Do the Opposite

I learned my next tip from an acting lesson, and it is to do the opposite in moments of intense emotion. By intense emotion, I mean anything where things get a bit more dramatic, such as crying, shouting/arguing, laughing, elation, terror, heartbreak. If you think about it, in such moments, aspiring (beginner) actors wallow in it, they give themselves to the emotion they think they should portray even though it’s not realistic. Likewise, it doesn’t look realistic: it looks like they’re acting. However, in moments of such intense emotion, it’s more realistic to play away from it: in other words, play the opposite. This will heighten the emotional intensity in the scene and make things more entertaining for the audience. For instance, if you want to play scared, you don’t ‘play scared’, you ‘play brave’ in a scary situation. If you want to play a character is laughing, you don’t just laugh, you play ‘please don’t laugh’. If you want to play a character who is crying, you don’t just cry, you play ‘hold back tears’. Someone crying doesn’t usually let it all out, they’ll hold back tears, crying is a last resort. There’s a tension between crying and not wanting to cry. Of course, this isn’t to say you don’t laugh or cry when acting. You just have to think about these motions a certain way if you want to appear realistic. Things like tears and laughter as expulsions of excess energy and should always be a by-product, not a goal. If you make these by-products a goal, then the intense emotion that accompanies these by-products is lost because it’s simply not being accounted for. All you’re left with are the empty by-products and it’ll look like you’re faking it. People rarely let their inner emotions show, especially with there are intense emotions involved. People hold back tears, act brave when they’re terrified. When people are sad, they try to hide it. When people are drunk, they try to appear sober.

React to Changes

The third tip is about reacting to changes. This is something I’ve been taught in acting lessons and learned in masterclasses with casting directors. Often, something ‘new’ will happen in a scene: there will be a change. It could be a factual change or an emotive change. For instance, your character might learn something new about another character in the scene, maybe another character enters the room, or maybe there is a shift in status between your character and another character. Such changes will affect the subtext in a scene, the status of characters in the scene, body language, your character’s objectives and how they go about obtaining them; a character might learn something new that could present an obstacle for them, or maybe someone else enters the scene and this helps your character obtain their objective. These are just examples.

Subtext can also be affected when there is a change during a scene: for instance, saying ‘hello, nice to meet you’ to a new acquaintance is going to sound extremely loaded if your character realised moments before that this new acquaintance is having an affair with your character’s significant other.

Status can change is one character knows something the other doesn’t: the one knowing more usually has a higher status. Think about it: during a hostage scene, the person held prisoner sees a policeman arriving outside, but the captor doesn’t. There’s that noticeable shift or change in body language when the victim held captive has hope and knows they now have the upper hand. The captor doesn’t change, but relatively, compared to the victim, there’s a visual shift in status. This scenario is overused in dramas and film so no doubt you all know what I mean.

As such, body language is affected by changes during a scene, whether your character gains more status or a sudden dislike for another character, your body language is going to change. Changes during a scene might affect your character’s objective, the way they go about obtaining that objective, and the status or stakes in a scene (my acting teacher keeps saying that ‘objectives’ and ‘obstacles’ are ‘Stanislavski 101’, so I’m just going to through that in here).

Don’t underestimate small moments such as another character walking into the room during a scene: this presents a change that can affect multiple characteristics (body language, subtext, status). Someone entering the room will always be noteworthy, as it is in real life. Likewise, don’t pre-empt a change in the scene (don’t start acting the changes before there is a reason to). Remember: your character doesn’t know what will happen next even though you (the actor) do. Aspiring starting-out actors often forget to react to changes because, of course, they already know what’s going to happen in the scene: they’ll either have their character reacting prematurely to something about to happen, or they might not realise there’s been a change for their character and things would need to be approached differently. There’s lots to remember to incorporate when it comes to reacting to changes in a scene, so for now I’ll summarise as follows:

  • Listen (no, really listen)
  • React to the other actor
  • Acting is more than talking
  • React when your character is not talking

Know YOUR objective as well as your character’s

My fourth tip is to know YOUR objective, not just your character’s. I’ve realised this tip from much thinking and reading and acting. Just because you’re not acting realistically doesn’t mean you’re bad at acting. The definition of ‘realistic’ in art has changed over time anyway. In fact, the term ‘realistic’ isn’t even used when talking about this sort of stuff: people tend to use ‘realism’, which is also notoriously difficult to define. I’m only used the term ‘realistically’ here because ‘how to act realistically’ is a popular search-term. Everyone wants to know the answer to this question it seems.

The theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht claimed that his theatrical style (filled with contradictions and alienation and contrasting gestures) was better at portraying the reality of twentieth-century because it offered a variety of perspectives and forced the view to think about what they were watching rather than get absorbed amidst a story line and forget they were watching a play. But we wouldn’t call Brechtian acting ‘realistic’ acting. Or would we? It’s a different type of acting from Stanislavski’s system, though.

I think there’s a difference between playing something realistically and playing something sincerely. For instance, you can play something sincerely where you believe the character exists in that scene in that moment, but it’s still not realistic. Likewise, you can play something ‘realistically’, but the character is insincere.  You know they’re lying – they contradict themselves. They’re difficult to pin down. But this is how people behave in real life and it appears realistic, even though, despite such an accurate representation, the actor is acting and the whole this isn’t real anyway!

My point here is that you have to know what it is you want to do in your performance. If it’s to appear real and like you’re not acting at all, then you have to know how people act in real life: observe them, observe yourself. New actors always do something unrealistic, something that is not normal. But some of them do it sincerely, which isn’t bad acting, it’s just not ‘realistic’ acting. If you want to act like you would in real life then get to know how you are in real life.

Dee Cannon, in In-depth Acting writes:

‘if you do want to be an actor who shows great depth in your characters then I can’t stress enough how crucial it is to find the emotional depth within yourself. […] the richer you become as a person, the richer you will be and grow as an actor.’

Dee Cannon, in In-depth Acting, p. 19

I think knowing how you yourself behave naturally is crucial if you want to act realistically, or, rather, appear like you’re not acting at all.  

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