How an Actor Prepares for a Role

The Art of Curating Human Nature

When I say “acting” what do you think of? Shakespeare? Wicked? The Oscars? Accents? Fake limps? Crying scenes?

At any one time, I’ve thought all of the above. Now I just hear the voices familiar to anyone pursuing the acting career: “Get in shape. Get a coach. Get an agent. Get paid. Get laid. Show range. Do student films. Don’t do student films. Make your own content. No, wait… don’t.”

And as if those voices weren’t torture enough, there’s the daily struggle to find vague and self-promotional answers to the question: “Are you famous yet?”

But when I read a script for the first time, the voices fade. I remember my vocation. I can finally take a break from practicing the art of getting paid, and return to the art of curating human nature.

Find the Core Desire

Whether it’s two lines in a commercial or a role in a five-act play, preparation always looks the same. You frantically arrange and rearrange dreams and fears into a customized concoction meant to animate the soul the writer put on paper. My mantra remains the same throughout: “Honor what was written, but bring to the story the unique perspective only you can have.”

With that in mind, I hunt for a character’s “objective,” for the core desire that sustains him or her the entire story. I avoid the “scripted” objective. For example, if I were cast as William Wallace in Braveheart, I wouldn’t play his core desire of freeing Scotland because I’m not Scottish. I’m not a revolutionary. And I most certainly don’t have his courage.

So I need to find a more elemental and relatable desire.

To make the woman he loves proud? That’s relatable. If even on a smaller scale, the desire to make my loved ones proud might drive me to attempt the impossible.

Make It Personal

But identifying with this desire requires that I be brutally honest with myself, too. Maybe I don’t want “to make my girlfriend or wife proud.” Maybe it’s my mother, an old teacher, or a close friend I haven’t spoken to in years. To summon the full spectrum of emotional colors I have to know my colors. I have to value the voices society tells me to quiet: “I want to my dad to say he loves me,” or “I want my co-worker to fear me,” or “I want to be worshiped.”

The more specific the loved one, the more personal my performance becomes. So if I’m playing Superman and I’m kneeling before a chunk of kryptonite, I can look at it and just react. Not think, not pretend. Instead I substitute that rock for a person who can destroy my confidence and self-assuredness with one comment, every time.

Adjust the Externals

After identifying the right desires, and applying the appropriate substitutions, I write my findings into the script (in pencil) and practice them over and over. This becomes the emotional core of my character, the foundation everything is built on. And only when this foundation is in place do I carefully and cautiously select the “externals” I want to commit to the character. (Let’s hope they’re few.)

By“externals” I mean the stuff most people talk about when they see a “good actor”: Accents, physical strength, and any other skill you may need to perform onstage or on camera. To prioritize externals, however, over a character’s core and your connections to it is to set yourself up for failure in pivotal moments of a story. We can all spot artifice a mile away. We’ve all seen it. The actor who makes the scene about the slobber running out of his mouth when crying rather than about what the character just lost.

The reason we cry during William Wallace’s execution in Braveheart is because Mel Gibson was madly in love with whatever he substituted for “her” (his own wife, his career, the film itself…who knows? It worked).


Then comes the big day—the performance. You’re standing across from the other actor. They give their cue (which prompts your substitution and reaction) and you have to forget everything.

All the paperwork. All the prep. All the motivations for saving Scotland or surviving Kryptonite.

That’s when you get the “inspired” moments people talk about. When the best improvisation happens. When the real tears come out, not the scary fake moaning, or the single tear actors leave on their faces (who does that in real life anyway?). These are the moments when you forget you’re acting and you simply react. And whether you’ve achieved your object or been stopped or thrown off course, your heart’s doing the talking, not your head.

The Actor’s Responsibility to the Audience

The more we paint with the colors of human nature, twisted from ourselves, the more we transcend the rigidity of acting coaches and books, of greedy producers and bad scripts. The responsibility becomes art. It becomes an opportunity to know yourself and to know others, to help an audience say:

“It’s not selfish to want something so much. I deserve to be loved way more than I am. Maybe I could be that badass. Maybe I can change the world.”

Scenic designer Robert Edmund Jones said of acting in the theatre: “Great roles require great natures to interpret them.” If those words don’t challenge me every day to fine-tune myself as delicately and as brutally as I would any other character, then what place do I have in front of a camera or on a stage showing you 165 pounds of decoration without core?

It’s boring.

To construct a character (even if it’s just yourself) is to lust after knowing humanity’s noblest capacities and tiniest gestures. Its divinity and its depravity. Its sameness and its uniqueness.

The call to act, after all, is a responsibility to all persons. And when we see that responsibility handled with the detail it deserves, we cannot help but learn a little something more about ourselves than we knew yesterday.


A graduate of Franciscan University, Julian Curi currently works as an artist, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles California.

This article is part of an August series on theatre, hosted by the Play and Create channels at Humane Pursuits. Read more here.

Image via Unsplash.

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