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The Throwdown: Acting vs. Real Life

10 (Not Really) Mindblowing Ways They’re Different

I’m waiting here on set, in what looks like a hermetically-sealed plastic booth. Strict Covid safety guidelines are in place, from the nasal swab two days earlier to my personalized bucket with a sealed sanitization kit containing a full facial plastic mask, goggles, and the instructions to properly use them. The project is an ad for a quick oil change franchise and I’m playing a customer. Fair enough, I’ve played this role in real life many times. And my car thanks me for it.

Art reflects life, even in the mundane, such as making sure that your car won’t break down anytime soon. It’s not always glamorous, but it’s a believable “slice of life,” as renowned acting coach Margie Haber likes to say. The audience should feel like they’ve just dropped in on a private moment or a conversation that feels spontaneous and natural.

All this preparation to play a moment, though, is anything but spontaneous. Yes, while we’re in the moment we should be, as Samford Meisner taught, “in the moment” and experience it as if it were brand new and react to it from a genuinely spontaneous place. “Acting is reacting” is taught early in the actor’s training … and for good reason. But there are some big differences between preparing to play a role and actually living it. The actor’s job is to bridge that gap so that one is indistinguishable from the other.

So, while I’m waiting to live a slice in the life of a customer having her car’s oil changed, here’s a list of my top ten things that distinguish acting (even great performances) from real life:

1. High stakes vs. “don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill”

An actor will study a scene to determine his objective, or what his character wants or needs from the situation and the other players in the scene. This objective will be highly important with a significant reward for achieving it or a devastating consequence if it’s not. Examples of high stakes are survival vs. death, landing a job vs. financial ruin, or winning the love interest vs. humiliating rejection. The audience doesn’t need to know any of this; it’s internal to the actor’s performance and develops his motivation to achieve his objective through a number of different tactics.

In real life, however, very few moments hold such high stakes. We live in the breaths between those moments, because these big moments tend to be rather infrequent. That is, unless we’re drama queens, elevating everything above and beyond what is considered a reasonable reaction by others. I’m sure that we’ve been told at some time or another – usually by our mothers (sources of most reality checks) – not to make a bigger deal out of something than it deserves. In real life, the stakes just aren’t that high.

2. Dramatic moments vs. “keep it cool”

To expand off my first point, the actor looks for the dramatic and comedic turns and twists in the script. She’ll often bring out the dramatic serious moment in a comedy or insert a humorous moment within an intense drama. This makes for interesting watching and provides depth to the performance. In real life, however, we’re more often going to be told to “lose the drama,” “keep it cool,” “don’t make waves,” “chill out.” Or we may be advised (by a teacher, perhaps?) that a little good humor is welcome, but don’t go overboard and play the class clown.

3. Interesting to watch vs. boring as h*ll

For all the reasons above, a TV show or film should be pretty interesting to watch … or it’s not likely to be commercially successful. Likewise, while some individuals may be pretty intriguing to follow on social media, reality shows, or their own talk shows – most of us are just not that interesting to watch moment by moment. The actor HAS to be interesting. Well, if it’s a walk-on one-line role, that may or may not be the case – that character is just moving the story along – but most of the time there has to be a compelling reason to care about the characters in the story. In real life, well, we’re just doing what we have to do. Some of it may be binge-worthy, but honestly, most of it is cringe-worthy or just downright boring as we go about our unremarkable business.

4. Relating to others vs. focusing on ourselves

The tensions in a scene lie in how the actors relate to one another and how that relationship may change and evolve as they go about pursuing their objectives. The actor MUST relate and react to the other person(s) in the scene! If he doesn’t, there’s no connection, no tension, no push and pull in their relationship and the scene falls flat. Even in a monologue, the actor is reacting to something – a memory, a known person or circumstance, another aspect of himself – and there is a dynamic movement within the scene.

In real life, we’re lucky if the other person is paying attention to what we’re saying. OK, it may not be THAT bad, but we naturally focus on getting what we want and making sure we’re heard. As any parent knows, little kids are prime examples of that natural inclination. Psychologically, we become of interest to someone else when we really focus on them and listen, and ask questions about their lives, hobbies, work. So, here’s a bonus tip for those looking to make a good impression: ask another person about himself and get him talking about his favorite subject. Usually for most people, that’s themselves. And they love it. And appreciate the person showing the interest.

5. Seeing things from other people’s perspectives vs. judging from our own viewpoint

Relating to other people also means learning to see things through their perspectives, which can be quite different from our own. This is one reason that actors so enjoy their craft: being able to temporarily become someone so different from themselves and imagine experiencing life’s ups and down’s, nuances, and preconceived notions from another person’s vantage point.

We’d all be better off if we tried to walk in someone else’s shoes once in a while. A few other professions may do this; the helping and teaching professions come to mind (social workers, psychologists and counselors, teachers, etc.) Most of us, though, never get or try to take the opportunity. I think this is one of the true gifts of actor training, to expand beyond ourselves. Something I want to continue to practice in my daily life.

6. Emotional life vs. using your head

The actor focuses on conveying the emotions of the moment, so that the audience feels those reactions within themselves. We react viscerally to emotion. It triggers physiological responses within ourselves. We find ourselves holding our breath in anticipation, shaking a bit in fear, relaxing the tension in our bodies when we realize something is funny and laugh. Actors use this tool in both ways: reacting in their bodies to an emotional stimulus and creating emotions within themselves with physical movements. It may the intensity of driving a point home that creates a finger to wag or the wagging of the finger to bring out the urgency of the message. It can be the physical reaction to an outrageous insult that stimulates a cringing response, or the act of physically shirking and avoiding an unseen enemy that creates the feeling of avoidance or powerlessness.

In contrast, in real life we’re told to use our heads and get our emotions under control. In many professions, thought is valued and not emotional reaction. Can you imagine many doctors, attorneys, financial analysts, and tech wizards FEELING their way through their daily work challenges? Neither can I. Nor would we want them making decisions that could affect us by flying by the seat of their pants. Of course, we want emotion and feeling to temper their work so we have caring and compassionate physicians, civic-minded attorneys, honest accountants, and helpful technology partners. And then there are those mothers again in the back of our minds, telling us to use our heads to solve problems, “keep a level head,” and so forth.

7. Cinematic “do overs” vs. one shot wonders

Actors prepare at least two, and often several, different approaches to their scenes. And then it may all go by the side when a scene partner reacts in totally unexpected way and provides a new interpretation on the spot. The actor always goes with the flow, reacting in the moment. Directors, however, decide which reaction and which interpretation best fits their vision, so actors will run their scenes multiple times. Even when their first take is spot-on, the scene will be filmed multiple times to focus on different characters and work different camera angles. The actor is always in “do over” mode until the director is satisfied.

In real life, we rarely get “do overs.” Little kids on the playground will allow them in their games, but not once they’re old enough to understand and agree to play by the rules. Our lives are series of one shot wonders. We say and do something - and it’s fixed. No going back and changing the past. Perhaps that’s why time travel stories are so popular. We can admit a mistake, apologize, and make restitution – a wonderful thing to do – but we can’t go back and relive the moment, choosing to say or do something different. The premise of “Quantum Leap,” one of my favorite shows from the late 80s/early 90s, had the premise of going back to fix major life mistakes. And it worked, because people could relate to it.

8. Being in the moment vs. really living in the moment

While real people don’t have the liberty of “do overs,” we do have the advantage of living each moment purely authentically, believably – because it’s our real lives. For the most part, we mean what we say and we say what we do. Our actions have purpose.

Actors have to work at that, developing background for their characters, assessing their belief systems, and their tendencies to react, etc. before leaping into the scene to experience these moments. Audiences judge whether or not they hit their mark by their reactions to the story being presented. Are the characters believable? Even in a wild fantasy or animated feature, can we identify with them and how they’re presented? Living truthfully in the moment (Meisner again) takes work, it doesn’t always come naturally.

9. Story arcs vs. “What, me, worry?”

Alfred E. Neuman of Mad Magazine fame had no concerns, breezing through life as it presented itself. Well, until MAD Magazine itself stopped publishing in 2019 after decades of popular political and social satire. Still, Alfred serves my point here, which is that actors analyze their scenes while most of us … don’t. We just live them.

Actors look to develop an arc for their character, even within short scenes. An arc has the character starting in one place emotionally or with a particular view and ending somewhere different. For example, a character may feel boisterous and exuberant, receive some unsettling news, and leave flustered and upset. In real life, we may also go through something similar, but only when viewed in retrospect. Nothing planned, unless we’re the ones springing some news on someone else or taking an action that we know will certainly affect them. Otherwise, we blithely move within the scenes of our lives, never really knowing when they started or ended; mostly in mundane life, they just flow from one to the other.

10. Getting paid vs. a lifelong freebie

Tongue in cheek … but a big difference is that actors get paid for their work. Well, except those who accept non-paid gigs for charity or student projects. Or do you know anyone who’s receiving payment just for living their life? Neither do I. The Truman Show may have been scripted for its audience’s entertainment, but most of us have to find payment in the work we do and the smart investments we make.

Entertainment is work. Almost all actors work long hours for little pay, supplementing their income with other jobs in the industry or in other professions. Yes, it’s also a lot of fun work and personally fulfilling. I find it’s a training ground for opening up one’s heart to others, learning through other people’s experiences, and experiencing a transformation in oneself as you begin to adopt a wider worldview. And ultimately, an intimate study of life.