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Careers clinic: How do I act alongside an old ham?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I have been cast in a regional tour with a group of actors who were well-known TV faces a decade or two ago but not so much any more.

I really don’t want to appear disrespectful and my problem isn’t that the cast is mainly older than me. The issue is that most of my scenes are two-handers with a particular chap who has been in the business for a long time but really hasn’t worked much since his big TV show was taken off the air. He doesn’t seem to have much stage training at all. His way of compensating for this seems to be to overact loudly in every scene. You can hear laughs in the wrong places at most houses.

I know it’s something the director and other cast members are aware of as I hear them whispering about it. Nobody pulls him up as he has a stake in the production.

I have nothing against him as a person (and I’m grateful for the work) but as a scene partner he is just all over the place. As an up-and-coming actor, I still need good reviews, even if he doesn’t. What should I do?

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE I’m going to start by telling you what I don’t think you should do, even if it would be a perfectly human reaction. Don’t overact. Being dragged into it by somebody else is never a good look, and even less for an actor trying to establish themselves.

As you say, the actor you are working with appears to be coasting on his reputation (or what’s left of it), but you are still building your brand. To do that, you need to demonstrate good acting ability on stage and a positive working attitude off it. If the overacting was a deliberate attempt to upstage or bully you, that would be a different matter. This case sounds like you are just unfortunate enough to be working with a scene partner who is not as good as they once were.

Being unevenly matched (in either direction) is an experience all actors need to learn to handle. You also seem to be dealing with a director who isn’t doing their job properly, as getting the best out of the actors appearing in a scene is ultimately their responsibility.

Sometimes this can require reining somebody in as much as encouraging them to go bigger. You can try to fight that, but in most interpersonal interactions, the amount of energy we need to invest in getting other people to change is usually far more draining and less effective than adjusting our own approach.

The first step is something actors should be good at anyway: looking at things from the other person’s point of view. If the overacting is coming from insecurity, is there anything you can do to help with that?

If you are going to have to deal with a rogue ego, you may as well use it to your advantage. Can you find something your opposite number is doing that genuinely does work in the scene, compliment them on it and use that as a bridge to discuss how the scene can work better for both of you?

Can you (deep breath now) ask for advice on some aspect of the scene? You’ll sometimes find the other actor will not only be flattered but will also back off a bit to give you the space to try out their suggestion. Even if you don’t do what they suggest, thank them for helping you discover whatever choice you do make. As you point out, this person may not be at the peak of their powers but he is still more experienced than you.

Every actor we work with can teach us something, even if it is just a lesson on how not to work with other actors when we ourselves get to be the big name.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

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