Scene Work – Questions I need to ask myself
You have a scene in a film. You know your lines, you know the action. But do you know your character?
It doesn’t matter if it’s one line in a single scene of a short film, or the lead in a blockbuster feature. The process has to be the same. So here’s a checklist of questions you need to ask yourself for every single scene.
Go through them, give honest answers, and you won’t go far wrong. Some actors will actually write their answers on a scrap of paper to help build their character… try it, it works!
Who am I?
That’s easy. You know your character’s name and background. You know where they went to school, who they love, their favourite colour, how they spend their time off… everything in fact.
And remember, the more you know about them (regardless of whether it appears on screen or not) the better and fuller your character will appear on screen.
Where and when is it?
So where is the scene taking place? Spend some time to think about where the action is happening and how that makes you feel.
- a hospital – how would your character react to that environment? your family house – does your character want to be there?
- a supermarket – is this a boring weeky shop or are you hoping to bump into someon?
Explore in your mind the relationship your character has with the location.
- Have they been there before or is it new to them?
- What happened the last time you were here and how does that affect you now? What emotions does the location conjure up for your character?
And don’t forget the time; a seaside resort, midday, hot Summer is very different from a seaside resort, late at night, mid-Winter. And again, think of the emotions your character has depending on when the action takes place: a city-centre bus stop is very different on a Wednesday morning going to work than it is on a late Saturday night when the bars are just closing and drunk revellers are passing by. Think how your character would feel in those circumstances…
Where have I just come from?
It makes a difference. Suppose your character just arrives home; think how they’d act and be if…
- they’d come from a heavy day at work
- they’d come from a drinking session with friends they’d come from the hairdressers
- they’d come from their lover’s house
Where you’ve just been makes a difference to how you feel now.
Where am I going?
This may not always be relevant, but think how you’d feel in these situations:
you’re having a quick snack and then you’ll go out clubbing with your friends
you’re having a quick snack and then you’ll visit your mother who is dying in hospital
you’re having a quick snack and then you’ll go to your lover’s house to split up with them
All of these options will affect the way in which you eat that quick snack!
These questions help explore your character in the scene.
What do I want – the super objective
This is helpful to know – it’s what your character wants throughout the entire film and tends to be quite general. For example, your character wants…
- to redeem themself after a major mistake to become boss at all costs
- to survive the alien invasion and reach their family safely to get revenge
The general objective will colour the way you act in each scene.
What do I want – the scene objective
This is a similar question, but it applies to the scene only. Ask yourself what your character wants to get out of the scene itself:
- to make up with their lover
- to tell an uncomfortable secret to someone to say a final goodbye to a dying friend
- to borrow €500 (in which case, what’s it for?)
Remind yourself of this before the scene begins and keep it in mind throughout as it will colour your performance.
Asking why all the time is essential to produce a genuine performance because in real life we might not make it obvious, but underneath every action we take, there’s a reason.
Your character might be visiting the corner shop to get a bag of crisps… but perhaps they’re really doing it to get out of the house because they live alone and just want to have some human interaction. In this case they might linger over a trivial conversation with the shopkeeper.
But suppose your character has been smoking weed all day and they have the munchies; they want some crisps to fill that craving but they want to appear sober so they’ll make the interaction very careful and short.
What happens if I don’t get it?
Always worth thinking about. What happens if my character doesn’t get what they want? In other words, how much is at stake here?
Above we gave the example of wanting to borrow €500. Suppose your character is going to ask their brother for the money… what is at stake?
- not a lot; it was for a holiday but they can forget it this year
- everything; it was to repay a loan and “big Harry” will come round and break their kneecaps if they don’t pay up by Thursday morning
- an emotion; they wanted it to give their estranged child a birthday to remember
Importantly, how will your character react if they don’t get what they want? Will they break down in tears? Laugh it off? Commit suicide? Get angry? Get violent?
Even if the scene doesn’t have your character react, you still need to know as your emotion will leak through as you perform and the audience will understand what this all means to you.
How will I get it?
Read the scene and work this out. Is your character going to threaten, or be tender, or flirt, or cajole…
You know what the stakes are, so what kind of attitude does your character need to have to get what they want?
At the same time, you need to ask yourself what you need to overcome to get it. Take the example of borrowing €500 from your brother. Maybe you need to swallow your pride to ask for the loan. Maybe you need to admit you were wrong about an earlier decision. Perhaps you need to lie, or go against your strongest instincts.
The more you can come up with here, the better.
And just to round things off, ask yourself this question:
What does my character think of themself?
Are you walking into the scene feeling confident? happy? worried? concerned? angry? annoyed? relieved? hopeful?
This single word should influence every move you make in the scene until either the objective is reached or it is replaced by another.