How Can Acting Help Your Writing?

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If you look me up on the Internet Movie Database, you’ll see that I have acting credits. Some of them on things you may have heard of. But I’ve never really considered myself an actor. When I think of actors, I think of talented artists who study their craft for years, baring their souls on the stage and in front of the camera. I’m just some dude who thinks being in movies is fun, and does it every once in a while.

I do, however, consider myself a screenwriter. I’ve studied that craft for years, baring my soul on the page and in front of readers and audiences. And I always look for opportunities to learn more about writing whenever I’m involved with a scripted project. So when filmmaker Gary King cast me in a supporting role in his new horror film UNNERVED, I tried to keep my eyes open for chances to broaden my writing knowledge throughout the experience.

Mariel Matero and Marty Lang on the set of UNNERVED

Mariel Matero and Marty Lang on the set of UNNERVED

And I found a bunch. Working as an actor can really help you exercise all the muscles you need for a strong screenwriting career. If you’re brave enough to emerge from behind your laptop and commit a performance to video or film, you’ll find a wealth of ways to sharpen your writing skills.

You’ll get to practice networking. Gary and I have been friends for a few years, meeting on Twitter (where you can find me @marty_lang, and Gary @grking) and attending premieres of each other’s movies. Since he was shooting UNNERVED in Maine, he needed contacts in New England. I make my movies in Connecticut, so Gary contacted me for people I thought could help him. I gave him names of cast and crew (including a former student of mine who ended up getting hired), but I also mentioned myself. I told him if I fit any part he had, I’d love to audition for him. Turns out, I did.

You’ll get better in the room. You might think on set is the only time you get to perform as an actor, but that’s not true. Gary asked me to audition for him via YouTube, so I also got to act for him before getting the role. He sent me two scenes, and I performed them both for him, alone. (This will give you a whole new level of respect for actors, having to perform a two-person scene by yourself.) Gary asked me to do one scene two other times, giving me different direction each time. Does this sound familiar to writers? If you’ve ever pitched, you may have to change direction on a dime, based on feedback from the person you’re pitching to. This is great practice for that.

You’ll learn what film crews do. Once I was cast and arrived on set in Maine, the crew had no stand-ins, so actors had to be on set to help the crew prepare for each scene. That gave me lots of time to watch the director of photography, gaffer and sound mixer doing their job, getting ready to shoot. If you’ve never been on set before, acting is the best way to literally be in the center of the action. You’ll see how scenes are blocked, different lighting and camera techniques, and how many real-world variables can affect a live-action shoot. (You can actually see photos of the cast and crew of UNNERVED by going to the movie’s Web site, www.HauntMeNoMore.com.) Knowing the nuts and bolts of how your script will be physically produced will help your writing immensely.

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Katie Morrison of UNNERVED

You’ll learn the value of a director. I had two scenes to shoot for my character, Mr. Cooper, and once I was cast, I wasn’t 100% sure how to play him. The way he was written, he could have been a sincere man, a really happy one, a fake one, or any of a dozen other possibilities. So I asked Gary what he thought about Mr. Cooper, and how he wanted me to play him. He told me Mr. Cooper was a conservative man, very traditional, and that he had spent his whole life in this small town. Getting that direction from Gary made all the difference in the world. Once I knew that, I could picture him in my head, and how he would react to things, making him a much easier character to play. That vision, that knowing who your characters are, is a huge thing for an actor when putting their character together. But it’s also vital for a writer, because if you don’t direct your own material, you want to know your director can see your characters the way you do. (Experiencing this may also give you a push to make sure your characters are more clearly written. I know it did for me.)

You’ll learn the value of subtext. In the second of my two scenes, my wife and I approach the lead character, Mallory, to see if she has seen Nathan, our missing son. After my wife explains that Nathan is always running around in the woods, I try to cover for our mischievous child, telling her “You know how kids are.” When I read the scene, I always thought Mr. Cooper was embarrassed, which motivates him to say what he says. But there’s more to this scene; in the movie, Mallory’s son died a few years earlier. So when I delivered that line to Katie Morrison, the actress playing Mallory, her reaction was an immediate sadness, and remembrance of her own son. When I performed that scene, the subtext of that line hit me like a ton of bricks. Immediately, I knew that Mr. Cooper was also a little bit dim-witted to say something like that to her. That’s something I didn’t learn while reading the scene, but quickly learned performing the scene.

You’ll get to practice networking. (Yes, I know. It’s a repeat.) Throughout my time in Maine, I got to hang out with the cast and crew. In particular, I spent lots of time with Mariel Matero, the actress who played my wife, since we were on set together. So by the time I finished my work, I had a group of new friends, who work in film, television, theater and new media, and who live all over the country. As a writer, expanding your network to include actors and crew members is great; actors can help you conduct staged readings of your scripts, and should you decide to direct your own material, you’ll need to know crew to help you produce it. I also had the added bonus of learning one crew member would be producing his own film in 2014, and that he was looking for a writer.

So of course I offered my screenwriting services.

For many of us writers, the anonymity of the blank page and the solitary nature of our work is a draw to the craft. But working as an actor offers a world of opportunities to hone that craft. If you accept the challenge of stepping in front of the camera, you’ll return to your writing with a whole new set of eyes – along with the chance for the world to see them in the movies.

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