Friday, October 26, 2012

What an Actor Looks for in a Screenplay - Guest Article by Molly Kerr

Having recently been asked to contribute to a couple of sites/blogs I started thinking. This blog has always been written exclusively from my point of view, perhaps I should open it up to guest contributions. So I posted on my facebook page asking for articles from colleagues along the following lines:

Actors - what do you look for in a script when choosing roles?
Directors - how do you like to work with writers?
Producers - what attracts you to a project?
Writers - how do you pick which projects to work on?

The first of which is from an actress I met only recently at a Perth Film Network function, Molly Kerr. She certainly left an impression and has an excellent blog and a website where you can see examples of her work. Molly has "...completed shooting for three music videos and performed in numerous live theatre productions. Her most recent on screen role was as an anarchist for Dylan Tilbury's feature length independent HOTEL."

Over to you, Molly!

This isn’t as representative as I would like it to be. So I have below a series of points that are of personal importance to me but other actors may disagree. Hey, that rhymed!       

Don’t put too much action or description in.

Actors may be here purely to make your vision come true. Maybe. In reality, however, every project with an actor is collaborative because we are going to interpret the role in a thousand unexpected little ways. From speaking in a way you hadn’t thought of to dancing on certain words to fighting with the other actors for screen time. Everything we do will make your dream a little less dream like and a little more “what the hell…” It’s what we do. Every line of action or description is prescribing our performance to us. When we have less room to interpret the script we feel less creative and eventually this leads to resentment. So keep the “shining tears trickled down her golden cheeks” for your Twilight parodies. Of course, there is the exception of screenplays written for direct audience consumption. They should be as easy to read and be as descriptive as any prose. But that’s because no actor is needed to interpret the screenwriter’s vision.

Use subtext in dialogue.

I get excited when I read a script and the plot isn’t spelled out for me. I like this kind of problem solving. “How am I going to show the audience that while I’m talking about eating chicken tonight I’m actually thinking about the bomb that’s about to go off under my feet?” This is the ultimate opportunity for actors to get creative and collaborative with the blocking to make the screenwriter’s intentions come through. It takes more skill to reveal important details in subtext and draw the audience into the intrigue than to give away the plot and take the audience for a bunch of lazy idiots. As an audience member I enjoy those moments when something important in the character dynamic has been revealed through a performance and circumstance and the dialogue has only indirectly illustrated the point. As an actor I love the feeling that I’m putting together pieces of a puzzle, not presenting the already formed picture. That’s boring.

Unless it’s important, don’t tell me what the character looks like.

I really would like to make my own decisions about how to realize the nuances of this character and appearance is one of these. If I read the script without character descriptions and I don’t figure out that the character is Emo then you probably haven’t written an Emo character. You’ve relied on your character description to portray that character type without allowing it to inform your writing. If you use it ironically, you have a hulking big hippy with dreads portraying a businessman then I can appreciate that you’re challenging audience assumptions about aesthetics and character. However, you might lock yourself into a dilemma. You pictured a sweet petite blonde actor for that role when the person that captures her character most effectively is a black haired giantess! When I’m writing I like describing the characters because I like creating people and appearance is an important part of creating. When I’m acting, I feel the same way and want as much to do with creating the characters as possible. If I don’t think I have a salient feature for a particular character I won’t change the character to suit me, I’ll change myself or suggest a different actor. There is a particular character that I would love to portray, she’s little and dark haired like me but I picture her voice as so much more sultry and husky than mine can ever be (unless I have swine flu). I wouldn’t audition for her because I think that particular feature is so clear in the characterization that it would be wrong to portray her for my own selfish reasons.

Make my character want something.

I can only do so much. If you make it clear from the plot that my character is after something then I will do everything to make sure my character gets it. I may fail. I may die in the attempt (or my character anyway) but I will do all that I can to get it. Of course, you don’t need to spell it out for me. But do make it interesting. And do make it high stakes. If I don’t think it’s worth wanting, why would any audience engage with my performance? I can suspend my own disbelief so the audience find my particular part of the screenplay engaging but they won’t be able to suspend theirs so what’s the point. We are here to serve our creativity and the audience. If my character wants something, make it worthwhile. Why have you bothered to write a whole screenplay if it’s just about wanting a sandwich? Is that worthy? Of course it isn’t! Unless you’re a girl sandwich and it’s a boy sandwich and you have to run away from the evil human mouths to be whole again and not be eaten. It’s about wanting a sandwich, still, but the stakes are higher. (Yay, a sort-of-pun.) Probably don’t go for something so bizarre, though. There isn’t much audience over 5 years old for that kind of thing.

Please for the love of God let the plot make sense!

Probably should have been number one on the list but I was doing the bullet points for clarity rather than importance. Oh my goodness! Please, why did the children leave their dead mother on the back lawn and walk into the wilderness to visit their cannibalistic aunty? I DON’T KNOW! I don’t understand and I got to read the script over and over. The audience watch it with our brilliant performances, the DOPs great cinematography and the director’s best attempt to make it make sense but still… what is going on? Why? Why? Why? If the audience can’t work out a character’s motivation, that isn’t always the actor’s fault. The actors probably tried to come up with an explanation that makes sense but it was never written down, never shown in the film and therefore doesn’t affect the understanding of the audience. Please let the script make sense. Don’t give us important looking cutaways that don’t pay off or flashbacks that leave more questions than answers. Making the audience wonder what has happened is not the same as making them wonder whether you were on drugs when you wrote it! Just answer this question: Why?

Thank you for allowing me to rant. I have a screenplay to read, now!


There you have it - goals, stakes, subtext, clarity and don't be too prescriptive with description. All things we should be doing as writers and refreshing to hear it reinforced from a different perspective. Thank you Molly.

Do you agree? Do you have other elements you look for? Do you rhyme? 

If you would like to contribute an article please email me at


  1. A great comment from actor Jonathan Anelli in Manchester, UK on my Stage 32 repost of this article:

    In my acting classes we look at a lot of scenes. we've a been taught a process whereby the first thing we do is look for two points where the scene changes. Firstly we're taught to look for the point where the conflict between characters comes in and then where the conflict has reached is apex. We've found that the scenes that get the best out of us as actors have points where these are easy to find. if a scene has absolutely no conflict whatsoever its harder for the actor to work out where the writer is going with the scene. Also scenes that are high drama are really hard to do if the drama is continually high as it doesn't leave the actor anywhere to go.

  2. They are given examples to understand what goes into preparing for a role, both in terms of looks and in terms of emotions.
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  3. Acting classes facilitates an actor or actress change there natural talent and will support them refine their expertise to ensure that can develop as the ideal actor. The acting classes aids the actors within a number of ways.
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  4. The Dark Place:  An "all is lost" event causes hero to retreat or happens due to a retreat. The point where the character sees what the things he has been doing are not working. Because of own flaws, Hero failed, but he learns from them, faces his deepest fear and starts trying to overcome inner challenges standing in his way. Hero make changes to himself, to his plan, making a decision that forces the resolution of the story, transitioning him from warrior to hell-bent selfless hero. It also is known as Energetic Marker 3, Dark Night of the Soul, Abyss and Revelation, Plot Point Two, Act Two Climax, The Major Assault, Death Experience, Rock Bottom, The Ordeal, The Crisis, Big Change, Epiphany, Inmost Cave, and Crisis. The hero comes at last to a dangerous place, often deep underground, where the object of the quest should be hidden.  The tension should be at the highest point, and this should be the decisive turning point. You must convince the audience that their worst fears are going to come true. Dark point

  5. There should being that makes the conflict personal for the hero. screenplay changes