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.

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Realistic Camera Acting

I’ve just released a tutorial on my YouTube channel about realistic camera acting. Basically, I’ve compiled 4 simple tips that will help us to act as realistically as possible on screen. In other words, how to act like a natural human being in real life would act. I elaborate on the term ‘realistic’ because, of course, acting realistically is a bit of a contradiction: acting is not at all realistic. You can, however, act in a realist way, or a naturalist way, but I digress. We all know what we mean by acting realistically: it tends to be the question people ask when they want to know how to act: it’s basically about being believable.

My first tip is to don’t show it, think it: you’re not supposed to look like you’re acting. A lot of aspiring actors, when they first get in front of the camera, get all worried about showing that their character is thinking and feeling certain things. We don’t act like this in real life, so why do we act like this in front of the camera? You’ve got to trust that the camera will pick up those thoughts and feelings that your character is having. Basically, don’t worry about “showing” it to the camera. Just have that thought behind the eyes: think those things the character is thinking (as much as is possible of course). Acting is the only profession where the goal is to encourage the viewer to forget you’re an actor. For instance, we don’t look at a painting and go, !wow, that painting is so good, I forgot Picasso was a painter for a moment there.” But for acting, that’s the goal: to make your performance feel real so that the audience can get lost in the story, can suspend their disbelief, can find cathartic release, can ultimately forget they’re watching actors playing make-believe (Brecht would have something to say about this, but we’ll talk about this another time).

My second tip is it’s not how you say it, it’s why you say it. A lot of aspiring actors, when they’re starting out, get hooked up on ‘how’ they should say their lines. This makes people look like they’re acting. Think about it: in real life, you don’t go around thinking about HOW you should say things (unless you’re preparing a speech or confession or breakup or something, but again, that’s acting – I digress). For most of the time, you usually think about WHY you say things. Therefore, if we want to act realistically, it’s important to understand why our character is saying what they’re saying. Then the ‘how’ they should say it will come naturally out of that (if you don’t force it and just let it happen). What is the character’s motive? WHY are they saying this particular line in this way? We’re getting into Stanislavski now and his units and objectives (again, I digress).

Think about it: is a character being poetically verbose to express the extent of emotional pain they’re going through? Are they joking and resorting to B.S. to change the subject and hide their sadness? Making jokes like this and thinking sad thoughts can reveal some contrasting layers to a character that also helps make them appear realistic.

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