How to Act Like a Professional

Trying hard to impress.

Trying hard to impress.

Arriving to the set, I was amped up. This moment marked a great victory – I’d booked a national commercial (my first ever), and it was being directed by a filmmaker who I admired deeply. And now, they were calling me to the set to shoot my scene. I was under the impression that I’d be in an office scene, seated in a chair, and simply look on as another guy passed a tablet to a woman who was playing our boss. But when I arrived on the set, in full wardrobe, hair, and makeup, a guy started attaching a wireless microphone to my shirt. Why did I need a microphone if I didn’t have any lines? Another crew member came over and handed me a piece of paper with a paragraph of text highlighted. “Are you Alex?” I nodded. “You’re going to be saying this.”

I’d just been handed a monologue that I’d never set eyes on, mere minutes before the cameras were set to roll. It was after 2 PM, and I’d arrived at the trailer this morning at 10 AM. In all that time, I could’ve been learning this. This was after writing to the producers the day before, and asking if there was anything I needed to be aware of for the scene. I’d been cast in a role different from the one I auditioned for, so I wanted to make sure I was prepared. The producers sent me a storyboard for the scene, showing the two guys, the boss, the tablet pass. I thought that was it. I understood that things often changed at the last minute. I’d heard plenty of stories of how actors were sometimes expected to learn lines on the spot. That was why I was hired – to be ready for anything. I just didn’t expect a curve ball like this on my first major on-camera gig.

My heart started to beat. There wasn’t time to panic. I looked at the monologue. It was a sales pitch, full of business jargon. The other actor in the scene with me, Tim, calmly led me into a quieter area of the set, saying, “Come on. I’ll help you learn it.”

Over the next ten minutes we ran my lines over and over. Tim cued me if I got lost and patiently drilled the speech with merepeatedly. “My team sees a lot of potential in Europe… We’ve reached out to several partners already and interest level is very high.” (There were other lines in the speech that sounded more technical, but those have since left my brain for a home where they’ll be given more use.)

It was time to go to the set and shoot. I got into position on the couch. I was handed a little remote control, to click through slides of a presentation I was giving. Of course, there were no slides, and nothing to gesture towards but a black screen. That didn’t bother me though – I just wanted to remember my lines and maybe try to do some acting. The director Todd Field (whose films In The Bedroom and Little Children are two of my favorites) came over. He told us we’d do a rehearsal before rolling the cameras. I had a few chances to run the lines.

The rehearsal went well. Then we started shooting. I had no problem with the lines. Todd Field had a few notes for me. My character, a young VP, was pitching an idea to the older, wiser CEO and her right hand man. Todd guided me: “Don’t make it sound like a sales pitch. Make it sound relaxed and confident. You are not as high up as the guys you’re talking to, but the way you impress them is to act like you ARE at their level.” This was a great note. And it turned out to be a great lesson. Like the character I was playing, I wanted to impress. I wanted to be a professional. It turned out the best way to do that was to act like I already was one.