Acting Tips from Oscar Winners: What I Learned Acting with Two Oscar Winning Actors

On May 11th, 2016, I arrived on the set of my very first TV show booking. I just found out the night before that I would be working with not one, but two Oscar winners in the same scene. It was going to be a crazy day. I want to share with you the three things I learned from that experience.

Working with Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss

Let me set the stage for you. One day in the future, I'm going to make a separate post explaining how I actually booked this job because that is a crazy story in itself. But today, we're just going to talk about what happened on set on the day of my shoot.

The name of the show was shots fired, a dramatic mini series that aired on the Fox network in the spring of 2017. The two Oscar winners that were in my scene were Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss.

On the show, Helen Hunt played Patricia Eamons, the governor of North Carolina and Richard Dreyfuss played Arlen Cox, a business mogul who is trying to negotiate a deal with the state.

My character was Craig Lam, the attorney for Arlen Cox. 

Ok, I need to explain really quick what I was feeling leading up to arriving on set that day. Since this was my very first TV show booking ever, I was already pooping my pants out of nervousness before I even found out who the other characters were on the show. 

When I got the call sheet the night before, and saw the names Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss in my scene, the amount of pressure that I felt in my gut was…  Put it this way, I'll never know what the feeling is to be a professional basketball player that needs to hit a game-winning free throw, but I imagine it's got to be something similar to being a complete newbie actor having to perform for the first time on a real TV show set in front of multiple Oscar winners.

The pressure to perform and to do well and to not screw up was overwhelming. 

Celebrities are People Too

All right, we'll get back to my feelings of pressure later. Let's start talking about what I learned on set from these two great actors. The first thing I learned was that both Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss were incredibly nice and easy to work with.

In fact, this has been true about 90% of the time when I've had the opportunity to work with a celebrity actor. Most of the celebrities that I’ve met on set have been really really cool people.

I first met Helen Hunt in the hair and makeup trailer. She was already in the middle of getting her makeup done when they sat me down right next to her. Helen was quick to introduce herself. She asked me my name, asked where I was from. We had a great little conversation while getting our faces powdered.

Richard was very much the same way. I met him on the transpo van taking us to set. Really nice guy, really personable. The awesome part was that they both treated me like an equal. Like I was a co-worker.

Scene Study Classes Really Work!

The second thing I learned was something I overheard when I was sitting with Helen and Richard in the cast waiting room. You see, we had just finished doing a walk-through rehearsal of the scene. The crew was now setting up the lights and the cameras and all that to get ready to start filming.

Meanwhile, they brought us to our waiting room and that's when I had the incredible opportunity to witness two Academy Award winners breaking down their scene together. 

As I sat there eavesdropping, I heard them talking about things like what their characters want in the scene, what the conflict was, what their motivations were, how their characters felt about each other.

And as they were talking, I was in my head saying to myself, this is exactly what I've learned in my scene study classes. This is the way I've been taught to dissect scenes. They're not relying on any sort of tricks or magical Oscar-winner secrets.

It was awesome to see these two famous actors relying on fundamental acting principles to break down an actual scene for an actual show. 

So my big takeaway from watching the two of them rehearse their scene is this: trust the process. Trust your acting teachers. Continue taking classes and working on your craft. These award winning actors prepare for scenes the exact same way we do in acting class. They’ve just been doing it for a lot longer.

So if you're in an acting class and you're learning about how to work on scenes and how to work on characters and you're learning about motivations and conflicts and needs and relationships, keep doing what you're doing. You are on the right path.

Let Go of the Fear of Making a Mistake

The third thing I learned from Helen and Richard that day happened when we were filming our scene. Remember when I said earlier that I was feeling immense pressure when I arrived on set? Well now that the cameras were about to roll, my heart was pounding out of my chest.

After they got the master shot, which is the wide shot of the entire room, it was time to move on to close ups for each of the individual actors. I got really lucky at this point because the director decided to get Helen's coverage and Richards coverage first before coming to me. I say I got lucky because during their close-ups, both Helen and Richard flubbed lines at some point. 

When I saw that happen, it felt like the weight of the universe had been lifted off my back.

I'm not telling you this to throw Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss under the bus for screwing up. The truth is there's no bus to throw anyone under.  There's nothing wrong with flubbing a line on set; it happens to everyone; it's a normal part of the process.

This is one of the big differences between on-camera acting and theater acting. When you are cast in a play you will usually have a month or longer to rehearse before performing for the first time. In film and television, you could be getting your lines the night before. Or sometimes they could be changing lines on the fly while you are filming.

So no one is expecting film and television actors to never mess up. Now I'm not saying you don't have to work too hard to memorize your lines. No, work as hard as you can to know those lines like the back of your hand. but at the same time, don't be so worried that messing up a line could mean the end of the world. 

I know a lot of actors feel this way both on set and at auditions. They think a flubbed line is disaster. It's not. Take that pressure off of yourself. Because when we are constantly worrying about getting our lines right, we are in our heads and not present in the scene and therefore, our acting is not going to be good.

A professional actor isn't someone who never makes a mistake. A professional actor is someone who doesn't let a mistake affect them.

When Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss messed up their lines, it was no big deal. They started the scene over and got it right the next time. 

Do you know what happened when they finally got to my close up in the scene? I flubbed a line! But luckily, I had just watched these two Academy Award winners do the same thing and I saw how they handled it and I followed their lead. So I reminded myself that it was no big deal, went back to the beginning of the scene, the director called action again, and we got it in the next take. 

This is one of the most important lessons I've learned in my acting career and I'm so lucky to have learned it the first time I stepped on a television set. Because I’ve worked on dozens of films and television shows since the and I’ve remembered that lesson every time I’ve been on set.

More Stories from Set to Come

This is the first post in a series that I'm going to cleverly call "What I learned working on...". I plan to share the lessons I've learned on each and every film or television set I've been a part of. Be on the lookout for the next one!



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