Most people remember Michael Jordan for his high-flying dunks or his game-winning shots. I was recently reminded of his ability to pass the ball while watching the 1989 documentary “Michael Jordan: Come Fly With Me.” In basketball terms, a pass that sets up a teammate to score is called an assist. In one game, Jordan had 17 assists, meaning he passed the ball for 34 points! Believe me when I tell you that his passes were as spectacular as his shots—or watch for yourself.
Acting, like basketball, is a team sport. An “assist” is anything an actor can do to enhance what their scene partner is doing. Most actors learn some variation of Stanislavsky’s system, which has the actor identify the character’s objectives and then fight for them at all costs. I’ve heard people liken this to a chess or boxing match. The drama is obvious in those solo sports, but in those games, the other person is your opponent and the metaphor may overlook an essential component of great acting: collaboration.
Understanding that each moment in a scene must be born of the moment before, you can collaborate by behaving in ways that anticipate what your scene partner must do next. If his line is “et to Brute,” make sure to stab him. While every line is not an obvious slam dunk like that one, every moment in a scene works in partnership with the prior moment. How can you pass your partner the metaphorical ball and “assist” them?
The crew is also an essential part of the team that makes the scene great. I’ve been on set when a camera move necessitates an unnatural pause, and when blocking requires an actor to power walk. Assisting your partner may mean waiting an extra beat for the camera to crane up before speaking your line or pacing your walk to the exact rate of the dolly tracking backward. On the set of “Up in the Air,” George Clooney was delivering his lines on an airport tram. Because of a beeping noise at the tram stops, he was getting cut off, so he learned the timing and delivered his entire 45-second speech within the 30-second time parameters of the tram ride to get the shot.
Don’t focus on what you can get in a scene so much that you forget all you have to give to a scene. Actively seeking the “assist” by paying full attention to your partner is valuable for several reasons. First, it heightens listening. The kind of listening required of an actor extends beyond simply hearing. It demands observing and noticing your fellow actors in a detailed manner such that they influence your behavior in the moment, which keeps things spontaneous and connected. Spontaneity adds an improvisational element in scripted scenes without straying from the script. Second, it takes your attention off yourself, alleviating you of any nerves caused by self-consciousness or fear. Third, it creates trust as actors shift the focus from themselves to making their scene partner look good. As people begin to play together, something magical happens—they become a team. This elevates the craft to the level of artistry. (And Jordan sticks his tongue out!)
To practice the “assist,” try playing Viola Spolin’s camera game and put your full focus and energy on your scene partner. Think of yourself as one large eye from head to toe. Imagine that you can see with the back of your head if you need to—like Jordan seemed to. You’ll notice partnership emerge, self-consciousness disappear, and discover new presence and spontaneity in the scene (even though you know how it ends).
The Chicago Bulls didn’t start winning championships until Jordan’s teammates earned his trust. He didn’t pass his teammates the ball until they were in the right spot on the floor and they would knock down the shot. He elevated the players. Together, they elevated the team. Pass the ball. Look for the assist. Be like Mike.