Actors take different approaches to the most basic part of their craft
Recently, Emily Mortimer says, she and her fellow cast members on HBO’s “The Newsroom” decided that bringing Aaron Sorkin’s rhythmic and plentiful dialogue to life “is like doing an action movie with words — we’re all, in fact, incredibly sexy action heroes.”
The lead-up to all that on-camera repartee requires a certain diligent preparation, though.
Each actor approaches the bread-and-butter task of learning lines differently, depending on the gig. A Sorkin set requires word-perfect, faithful-to-the-script performances, which means “Newsroom” actors start memorizing as soon as the scripts come in, because filming is going on nearly every day.
A three-camera sitcom such as “The Big Bang Theory,” however, is built around rehearsals and joke rewrites and only one night of shooting in front of an audience.
“You can’t really get married to anything too soon,” says cast member Mayim Bialik, who plays neurobiologist Amy. “They’ll change things right up until the last minute. We’ve had speeches change in front of the audience.”
Bialik says the “Big Bang” cast members are all disciplined about their various memorization processes, but she’s noticed an interesting variation in how science jargon is learned. Because of the actress’ real-life doctorate in neuroscience, she can learn the show’s oft-referenced scientific terms based on an actual understanding of what they are.
“Johnny (Galecki) and Jim (Parsons) have to memorize them as words as sounds linked together,” Bialik says, “but I couldn’t do that unless there was conceptual meaning behind it.”
Over at “The Newsroom,” Mortimer, who plays news producer Mackenzie McHale, learned from Jeff Daniels — relaying a tip he got from “West Wing” alum Allison Janney — that looking for patterns in Sorkin’s dialogue helps make the torrent of words feel less daunting.
“If there are three ‘whats’ in two sentences, then you try to get from ‘what’ to ‘what,’ ” says Mortimer. “Or four words in a sentence that begin with an ‘s,’ or beginnings of words might go in alphabetical order.”
A technological tool she uses is the popular app Rehearsal 2, which allows actors to record theirs and other characters’ lines, plus highlight and black out lines in scripts. (Julianna Marguiles has publicly sworn by it, too.) Meanwhile, BBC America’s “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany, who plays a handful of cloned characters — often in the same scene — uses the track-layering music software application GarageBand to get a handle on her many roles.
“It’s because I start to feel I’m going to annoy somebody if I’m like, ‘Hey, can you spend 48 hours running lines?’ ” Maslany says. “It’s way better to use a machine.”
What Maslany and other actors venturing into the world of television have learned is that the brain is a muscle like any other. Invariably, learning lines for the last episode of a season is easier than the first. “Your brain becomes like a sponge,” she says. “By the time I wrapped in February, a friend joked that he could say an eight-digit number to me, and I would remember it for 14 days.”
For Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman on FX’s “The Americans,” learning lines divorced of grasping character behavior is pointless.
“First I learn what I’m doing, what actions the character is taking, what he wants,” says Emmerich. “I don’t start with the dialogue. I do the work first, and the lines become organic.”
Then again, “The Americans,” like many shows, might see scripts change the morning of filming. Suggestions from actors also make their way into what’s said. “The Newsroom” requires fealty to the particular musicality of Sorkin’s writing. Mid-shoot changes are few, but becoming a “homework geek,” says Mortimer, is essential.
“It has to be second nature, and there’s no way to cram the night before,” she says.
There’s an ironic side effect, however, notes Mortimer. “The biggest hang-up is when you’ve got only one line in a scene where everybody else is going a million miles an hour,” she says. “You think, ‘One line, I can learn that on set.’ Then you’re the one person (screwing) it up, forgetting your line over and over and over, and they have to keep going back! That’s where things go wrong.”
There’s also workplace-atmosphere pressure when the show rests on an actor’s shoulders, as it does on Maslany. Learning lines becomes about more than just nailing a performance.
“It’s a very important job,” she says. “I’ve worked on shows where the lead actor doesn’t know their lines, doesn’t care, and it affects everybody, the crew, the director, the other actors. It’s definitely a responsibility.”