Jimmy Fallon had one of the heroes of the European train episode on last night:
It’s a great story, and there’s a lesson there for actors as well.
Notice what Anthony Sadler says happens as he was waking up: his friends were ducking down and looking back, and then he says he looked back and saw the gunman coming in the cabin, “cocking an AK.” An AK-47 submachine gun, a Kalashnikov, that is.
And his response, even though his friends were ducking and looking back: “And I was like…is this real? Is somebody playing a joke?”
The whole thing seemed unreal. And this sense of unreality was potent enough that as he and his friends started to move down the aisle to tackle the gunman, he returned to the question, to settle it: “Both of them get up, and I just followed them, so I was like, Ok, I guess this is real.”
Reversal is a fundamental element of drama. It’s what’s popularly known as “twists and turns” and it basically means something unexpected is happening. A drama in which everything that happens is expected is not much a drama. “Predictable” is not a word used to praise scripts. We expect a good drama to have some surprises. And that’s what reversals are. Something that happens that changes everything.
Often, when actors are working on a scene, I see them face reversals, that is, unexpected radical developments in the situations of their characters, and take them into stride way too easily. I may see a moment of “reaction” and then it’s on to dealing with the new state of affairs. But that’s not actually the way we take in seismic changes in our reality, out here in the real world. There’s a reason that the first of Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grieving is Denial. The first thing we want to do when we are treated to a radical departure from what is expected is to pretend it’s not happening. “Is this real? Is somebody playing a joke?” “You gotta be shitting me!” But the the key to acting moments like this, though, is not mere “reactions of disbelief”, because reactions are not active. What is active is to seek confirmation. We can do it verbally, with utterances like those I just spelled out, or non-verbally, with our gaze, and, yes, with our faces. But these verbal and non-verbal expressions have to be directed at someone, they are a part of the effort to gain confirmation from the partner, they are active and dynamic, not static and merely expressive.
When this step is skipped, it gives the lie to the whole situation, because if the change is too easily accepted, then we, the audience, know that it wasn’t much of a change, or that the actors were anticipating it, or that the actors had no real expectations about how the situation would play out in the first place. None of these scenarios are good for the telling of the story or for the experience of the audience.
It’s often the case that people start to speak or otherwise take action before they have fully accepted the new state of affairs. Notice how in the above example, he says he started to follow his friends after they moved, then he decided that what was happening was real. Actors are often too ready to move past the phase of getting confirmation that the new state of affairs really is what has just been reported, and usually to their detriment. When confronting a reversal, see how long you can go after the reversal is announced and not accept, or not completely accept, its reality. That means, see how long the script will allow you to continue to seek confirmation of the new reality. The script may force your hand at some point, and it may not be possible to continue doubting the new state of affairs, but find that limit point. See how long you can maintain the effort to seek confirmation. This will make sure that you don’t move through it too quickly and thus deny the reality of the unreality.