To a non-pro, acting can seem easy, but actors know that performing can be a particularly scary enterprise, not necessarily in a spooky way. Acting involves risk-taking and a willingness to leap into the void. Great risk can yield great reward, however, and many an award-winning performance comes from an actor’s willingness to tackle terrifying scenes head-on.
Such a jump into the unknown is uniquely pronounced for TV actors, who are rarely privy to their characters’ full arcs until shortly before they have to play them. “We don’t always know what’s going to be written for us,” says Taryn Manning (Pennsatucky, “Orange Is the New Black”). “We just cross our fingers and hope as an actor the arc is going to continue.”
In Manning’s case this season, that meant a switch from playing a budding friendship between her inmate character and a new prison guard — to her being raped by that guard. “The scariest moment was the night I got the script,” she says. “I knew I was going to embark on something that was going to be talked about and I’d be interviewed about — and I’d have to have these strong opinions.”
Big scary scenes often have to be handled virtually alone. Rami Malek (Elliot, “Mr. Robot”) played a withdrawal scene all but solo. “To pull off withdrawal, you have to get into a pretty dark place and allow yourself to be very vulnerable and very ugly,” he says. “[But] that’s when you do some of your best work, maybe make some memorable moments — when your back is against the wall.”
In those moments, actors often have to make instinctual decisions alone. Daniel Wu (Sunny, “Into the Badlands”) made a literal jump into the void with a stunt that required him to tumble 30 feet from atop a wall. Asked to “sell the hit” a little more strongly on a later take, Wu oversold and (though strapped into a wire harness) fell headlong toward the ground.
“I tucked my knees in and pulled back as hard as I could,” he says. “I ended up landing on my face and [that] caused me to get a free chiropractic adjustment to my neck. But if my instincts didn’t kick in, I would have been badly injured. An actor should trust his instincts.”
That inner conversation is one an actor must have when scripts challenge them. Ellie Kemper (Kimmy, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) says she had to dig deep to be truly honest about Kimmy’s past in a scene with co-star Jane Krakowski. “There were a couple of jokes in the dialogue [but] it was largely a sincere, honest moment,” she says. “My Midwestern upbringing makes it difficult for me to act like an emotional human being sometimes.”
Trusting the other experts in the room makes a scary scene more palatable for some actors, even if they wonder about the choices those experts might be making. Felicity Huffman (Barb, “American Crime”) was dubious about showrunner-director John Ridley’s decision to shoot a fight between her character and Timothy Hutton’s all in one take. “I went to John and I said, ‘Are you sure you don’t want a shot of the grass? A shot of the sky?’ ”
When he demurred, she said it was his faith that helped her complete the scene memorably. “John sets a really high bar, and is really confident you’re going to clear it,” she says. “It was about setting the standard of ‘don’t be bad.’ ”
Actors-turned-directors have different scary moments. They’re often directing themselves alongside cast members in scenes. In “Parenthood,” Peter Krause (Adam) directed Craig T. Nelson (Zeke) through some scenes where Zeke was having medical issues. “There was a scene where Craig has to fall down, and he wasn’t real fond of doing a scene like that, so it was a little scary getting through it,” he recalls. “I tried to get it done as quickly as possible.”
Directing comedy is no less a challenge. Don Cheadle (Marty, “House of Lies”) says one problem with funny scenes is, “how do you know if it’s funny? By the time you’re shooting it, you’ve rehearsed it 10 times and it’s not as fresh for you as it will be for an audience for the first time. You have to trust the material.”
There are others on a set who can help keep things in perspective and in the right tone. When Gina Rodriguez (Jane, “Jane the Virgin”) gave birth on screen she realized the scene needed balance. “I wanted to make it authentic, yet keep it with the tone of the show, which is more upbeat,” she says. “It’s a very personal and vulnerable experience [and] you want it to be believable but stay in the world of the show.”
Fortunately, she had director Zetna Fuentes, show creator Jennie Snyder Urman on set to ensure authenticity. She even had a birth nurse there to answer questions. “I did a lot of research,” she says.
Yet there are times when leaps into the unknown can surprise the actors who take them on. Four seasons in, William H. Macy (Frank, “Shameless”) found himself with almost a brand-new persona to play after his hard-partying, hard-drinking character got an organ transplant, got sober and fell in love. Then he had to play that new character with that much-younger girlfriend, having sex on live train tracks.
The wild scene over, Macy says he had a revelation about Frank. “A scary moment is one you can’t plan, you can’t think ahead. It swept over me that [Frank] wanted to live, and it was one of those lovely acting moments where your subconscious is galloping at full speed and all you can do is hold on. It was exhilarating.”
As was, no doubt, Eric Stonestreet’s (Cameron, “Modern Family”) most-terrifying moment on his show this season — one that he also had to play with faith, and keep a tight grip on. To a goat, that is.
“I had to bust open a door and run down a street with a goat in my arms,” he recalls. “Didn’t want to drop the goat. Didn’t want the goat to bite me, poop on me, or pee on me.” He survived thanks to “sheer athletic ability.”
And, of course, the support of the crew. “They really stepped up and said, ‘Eric, you got this. You’re a total stud.’ ”