From the book Blowing the Bloody Doors Off: And Other Lessons in Life (2018), legendary actor Michael Caine shares a few tricks of his trade. For Part 1, click here.
Acting is reacting
When I’m learning my lines, I put as much thought into the parts where I’m not speaking as I do into the parts where I am. Sometimes more.
Once again, less is more. In movie acting, as in life, you don’t have to be saying a lot to be effective. In movie acting, as in life, the real value is not in how you say your own lines but in how you listen and react truthfully at the moment to what other people are saying to you
Know your lines
Know your lines until you could come out of unconsciousness and say them, until saying them is no harder than reciting the alphabet or counting to ten. Could you say your lines while half your brain is doing something else, like cooking an omelette or packing a suitcase, or chasing someone down the street? If not, you’re unlikely to be able to get them out at your audition, when half your mind will be frozen with nerves and the other half trying to register the names of the people who have just introduced themselves to you.
And don’t say them in your head or mouth them silently. (This is an acting tip I picked up from the great theatre and screen actor Laurence Olivier.) If there’s a tongue-twister in there, or a combination of consonants you find difficult, you won’t find it unless you say the lines out loud. Ever had that feeling where the sound of your own voice takes you by surprise, and seems unreal, unconvincing? Don’t let that happen in an audition, an interview, a date, a sales pitch. Practise until it sounds natural. Practise until it is natural. If you can’t convince yourself, how are you going to convince anyone else?
How to learn your dialogue
All of the techniques that applied to learning lines for an audition apply again once you have the part. Say your lines out loud. Practise until the line sounds perfectly natural. Convince yourself, and don’t be a pushover. Be hard on yourself. Keep asking for more. Remember, this preparation is the work. Know the rest of the dialogue but don’t have someone read the other parts for you.
Retain an element of surprise so that you can truly listen and react naturally on set. You will need to try your lines in different ways. Think through the various ways to express each thought. Work them all up, then decide on the one that strikes you as the most valid and commit to it. Keep the others ready, though – you may need them. And don’t overlook the possibilities in a mundane-seeming line. A good test of a restaurant is how well it does the basics – the literal bread and butter. And a good test of an actor is how much meaning they can get out of a simple line.
Ducks look calm as they glide along the surface of the water but they’re paddling like hell underneath. When you’re doing your preparation right, it sometimes looks so good that people watching you make the mistake of assuming it’s all natural and effortless. In my experience, it never is. Some of the most ‘natural’ performers are the hardest-working, and some of the most apparently spontaneous performances are the ones that have been the best-rehearsed. To get to a natural performance you have to go right through acting and come out the other side into real, and that’s a long, tough journey, underground, with no scenery.
And, by the way, don’t do what I did and only prep for today’s scenes. Plan ahead for tomorrow, and the days after that too. Learn your lines for the whole film before you start shooting, and keep studying whenever you get a break.
Confidence = Experience + Preparation
Confidence comes from experience plus preparation. Experience and preparation are your safety net, your insurance against a freefall off the high-wire. They are what you need to conquer your nerves and relax into a great performance. If you don’t yet have much experience, it’s even more important to focus on the preparation. Alfie was a huge opportunity for me and I was terrified I was going to screw it up. The nerves don’t show on screen, though, because I knew my lines like I knew how to spell my own name. But even now, after more than a hundred major movies, preparation is still crucial. I will still learn my lines until they’re a reflex, until saying each line on its cue is as automatic as saying, ‘Bless you,’ to a sneeze. Any actor who wants their career to endure has to do the same.
Below, 2 back to back Michael Caine interviews from The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (Oct 2006 & Oct 2010):
Last but not least, a 59-minute 1994 documentary about Caine’s career as told by himself:
MORE ON MICHAEL CAINE IN OUR POSTS Michael Caine On Acting For The Screen & More About Film Acting from Master Michael Caine (Part 1).
MORE ON FILM ACTING IN OUR POSTS The King of B-movies, Bruce Campbell, on Film Acting, Goodbye to a Master of Acting, Max Von Sydow, On Screen Acting According to Edward Dmytryk (and Jean Porter), Joseph Cotten, a Great Autobiography and On Directing: An Elia Kazan’s Masterclass.