backstage expert

Lights, Camera, Relationship!

3 Tips for Developing Character Relationships

By Rob Adler | Posted Dec. 3, 2014, 10 a.m.

Sometimes actors show up to set, are introduced to their co-star and have to hop into bed together like they have been lovers for years. In the fast-paced world of film and television, especially during auditions, chemistry reads and network tests, there often isn’t time for actors to create detailed relationships the way they’ve been trained. Many actors wind up substituting pre-planned emotions/feelings for relationship or otherwise try and cram a backstory into their head, which, in the allotted time, only keeps them in their head.

In my last article I suggested playing a game to help actors get out of their head in scripted scenes for the camera. Several people emailed asking me to elaborate.

Instead of spending your time stuck in your head with relationship backstory or focusing on feelings (which change, e.g., sometimes I love my brother, sometimes I hate him, but he’s always my brother), consider the ways people demonstrate relationship more consistently. Try these tips to stay in the present and truthfully communicate detailed relationships regardless of how you feel in the moment.

1. Name the relationship. To avoid the trap of pre-planning feelings, label the relationship so you can be free to explore the way the characters relate to one another in a truthful context. If you’re playing Hamlet and Gertrude, the given relationship is mother and son. As artists, we can also choose to paint with different colors. As actors in relationships, we may want to use a metaphor. Laurence Olivier explored and heightened Shakespeare’s text without changing a word by famously communicating that Gertrude and Hamlet were lovers. Or in “American Hustle,” Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence are husband and wife, but there are scenes where he treats her like his child.

2. Physicalize it. If the scene were dubbed into a foreign language, how would the audience see the relationship? This is important for getting your choices out of your head and into the frame. What can you do to truthfully reveal the relationship? How can you show the relationship so that it’s unmistakable, even if it were dubbed in Mandarin? Even a detailed backstory is useless if it remains in your head. One way to explore this is to make physical contact with your scene partner. So much is revealed through touch. You can increase the challenge by finding ways of making contact without your hands; even if it’s out of frame, it will inform the relationship. Touching toes under the table, for example, can spark a sparkle in the eyes. Watch Richard Button and Elizabeth Taylor in Mike Nichols film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” on mute. You’ll see every nuance of their relationship.

3. Seek tension. In a recent class, two actors were playing sisters in a power struggle. Tension built as they got closer to each other. They were nose-to-nose at the climax. Although the older sister won the beat verbally, the actor stepped back, so it appeared visually like she lost. In truth, the actor felt the physical discomfort of tension and released the tension by stepping away.

Another common relationship trap is when actors view their scene partner as an opponent on the other side of a boxing ring or chessboard. While this might encourage the fighting spirit, it also may overlook the very important collaborative role of relating with your partner while in conflict.

To explore working together to create tension, play Viola Spolin’s Tug-of-War game. Put an invisible “space” rope between you and your partner. The rope illustrates the high level of connection it takes to relate in conflict. Use as much energy as you would to pull a real rope to your side. If both players pull, but don’t collaborate, the space rope will stretch or slacken and there is no conflict, just sound and fury signifying nothing. If instead, both players are unified and seek to pull the rope (physicalize) while simultaneously maintaining tension in the rope together, a magical thing happens: A previously invisible relationship fills the space between them.

Today’s TV and film auditions are moving at hyper-speed and require quick, clear action to land the job. And when you’re on set, you’re often working with strangers. The next time you need to show the camera complex, detailed, truthful relationships fast, keep these tips in mind. Together, with a partner, you can make something greater than just a winner and a loser. Remember, it takes two to tango.