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Tips and Techniques for Actors in the Genre World

Acting in genre film and TV is a unique experience that requires actors to embrace fantastical and otherworldly elements, deliver heightened and stylized dialogue and create tension and suspense for the viewers. From horror to sci-fi to fantasy, genre projects often require a specific set of skills and techniques to bring the story and characters to life. The challenge of genre acting is to elevate your craft and create memorable performances that resonate with the audience.

What Is Genre Film and Television?

Genre film and TV refer to works that belong to a specific category or classification based on their shared style, theme, or subject matter. Genres can include horror, science fiction, fantasy, action, comedy, drama and many others. Genre films and TV shows often feature recognizable conventions and tropes that help audiences understand what to expect from the story and characters. For example, horror films often include jump scares, suspenseful music and supernatural elements, while science fiction often explores futuristic technology and otherworldly environments. By adhering to these genre conventions, filmmakers and TV showrunners can create works that appeal to a specific audience and provide a unique viewing experience.

Unique Techniques Required for Acting in Genre Film and TV

As an actor, it’s important to understand the genre conventions and incorporate them into your performance to create an authentic and believable portrayal.

Embracing elements such as aliens, monsters, or magical powers is no easy feat. Your job is to create a sense of believability that allows the audience to suspend their disbelief and become fully immersed in the story. But just how do you go about doing this?

The three techniques we’re going to discuss are Creating and Maintaining a Consistent Character, Delivering Heightened and Stylized Dialogue and Creating Tension and Suspense.

Creating and Maintaining a Consistent Character

When playing a character in a horror, fantasy or sci-fi world, actors must not only create a compelling personality and backstory but also embody physical and behavioral traits that are consistent with the world they inhabit. From body language to vocal delivery, every aspect of an actor’s performance must fit seamlessly into the setting.

Developing a Backstory

The first step in developing a character’s backstory and motivations is to fully understand the world in which the story takes place. In a genre film or TV show, the setting can be vastly different from the real world, with its own rules, customs and history. Actors must take the time to familiarize themselves with the world and any relevant historical or cultural events that may affect their character’s behavior and motivations.

Once the world is understood, actors can begin to create a backstory for their character. This can include details about the character’s childhood, education, relationships and past experiences that have shaped their personality and beliefs. These details can be used to inform the character’s behavior and reactions to events in the story.

It is also important to consider the character’s motivations. What drives them? What are their goals and desires? These motivations should be specific to the character and consistent with their backstory and the world in which they live. For example, a character in a post-apocalyptic world may be motivated by survival and the need to find a new home, while a character in a high-fantasy world may be motivated by a desire to restore a lost kingdom.

In addition to the above techniques, actors can also draw on their own personal experiences and emotions to bring depth and nuance to their performance. By tapping into their own feelings of love, loss, or fear, actors can create a more empathetic and relatable character.

Creating a Distinct Physicality and Voice

In many cases, the physical and vocal characteristics of a character must be exaggerated or stylized to fit the fantastical world in which the story takes place. This can involve anything from mastering a specific accent or dialect to developing unique physical mannerisms and gestures that convey the character’s personality and backstory.

One example of a character in a sci-fi/fantasy movie who has a distinct way of speaking and moving is Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Gollum, played by Andy Serkis, is a creature corrupted by the power of the One Ring, has a unique physicality characterized by his hunched posture, exaggerated movements and wide, unblinking eyes. He also speaks in a distinctive manner, with a raspy, guttural voice and a tendency to refer to himself in the third person. This combination of physical and vocal traits creates a memorable and iconic character that stands out in the fantastical world of Middle-earth.

Delivering Heightened and Stylized Dialogue

Unlike in naturalistic acting, where the dialogue is designed to sound like everyday conversation, heightened and stylized dialogue is often used to convey the otherworldly or fantastical setting of the story. This can involve using archaic or made-up language or delivering lines with a specific rhythm or cadence that adds to the overall tone of the performance.

Understanding the Tone and Style of the Dialogue

In genre film and TV, the language used often reflects the world and tone of the story. For example, in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, the dialogue may be more formal or archaic, using language that is not used in everyday conversation. It is important for actors to fully understand the context and meaning behind the words they are speaking, as well as the intended tone and delivery of the dialogue.

Balancing Naturalism and Theatricality

The key to balancing naturalism and theatricality is to maintain a sense of consistency in the performance. This may involve finding a balance between naturalistic delivery of dialogue and exaggerated physicality or vocal inflection. It may also involve understanding the emotional journey of the character and finding ways to convey that journey in a way that is grounded in reality, while still fitting within the context of the story.

Emphasizing Key Words and Phrases

This can be achieved through changes in vocal inflection, volume, or pacing. However, it is important for actors to use emphasis judiciously. Over-emphasizing words or phrases can come across as cheesy or over-the-top, undermining the authenticity of the performance. It is important to strike a balance between emphasizing key words and phrases and maintaining a sense of naturalism and believability.

Adjusting to Dialects and Accents

One of the key challenges of adjusting to dialects and accents is the need to maintain consistency throughout the performance. Actors must be able to sustain the accent or dialect for the entire duration of filming or recording. Adjusting to dialects and accents can also require actors to develop a greater understanding of the culture and history behind the language. By researching the linguistic and cultural background of the accent or dialect, actors can develop a deeper understanding of the character.

Adapting to Different Languages and Fictional Languages

One of the key challenges of adapting to different languages and fictional languages is the need to master the pronunciation and cadence of the language. This requires a significant amount of preparation and practice, including working with language coaches and linguists to master the nuances of the language.

In the case of fictional languages, actors may need to work closely with the creators of the language to understand the linguistic and cultural context of the language. This can include developing a working vocabulary, understanding the grammar and syntax of the language and incorporating unique linguistic features into the performance.

Creating Tension and Suspense

Understanding the Audience’s Expectations

Genre stories have established conventions and tropes that audiences have come to expect, and actors must be able to deliver performances that meet these expectations while also bringing something fresh and original to the table. Failure to understand the audience’s expectations can result in a performance that feels out of place or unconvincing, ultimately detracting from the overall impact of the story.

Building Suspense Through Pacing and Editing

One way to build suspense is through the pacing of the story. Directors and editors can manipulate the speed and timing of shots and scenes to create a sense of urgency or tension. By gradually increasing the pace and intensity of the action, audiences are kept on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what will happen next. Conversely, slowing down the pace of the story can create a sense of dread or unease, heightening the tension and anticipation.

Editing is also a critical element in building suspense. Quick cuts and jump scares can startle audiences and create a sense of unease, while longer shots and slower editing can allow suspense to build gradually. By cutting away from key moments or delaying the reveal of important information, editors can heighten the tension and anticipation, leaving audiences on the edge of their seats.

Actors can also contribute to building suspense through their performances. By delivering performances that are nuanced and layered, actors can create characters that audiences care about and are invested in. By developing a deep understanding of their character’s motivations and desires, actors can bring a level of authenticity to their performances that enhances the suspense and tension of the story.

Utilizing Music and Sound Effects

Music and sound effects are powerful tools in creating atmosphere and building suspense in genre film and TV. They can heighten emotions, add depth to a scene and create tension, suspense and excitement. Actors can work with the sound design team to ensure that their performances are well complemented by the audio effects and music.

Music can set the tone for a scene or a character. By selecting music that is appropriate for the character or situation, actors can create an immersive and emotionally charged experience for the audience. For instance, a haunting melody can evoke a sense of sadness or loss, while an upbeat track can generate excitement or anticipation. This can help the actor to develop a more dynamic character.

The correct sound effect at the correct time can enhance the emotions an actor is trying to express. For example, the sound of footsteps approaching may trigger fear or anxiety when a character is feeling suspense. On the other hand, the sound of a sudden impact or explosion may trigger the sensation of shock.

Reacting to Practical and Visual Effects

Practical and visual effects are often used to create a sense of otherworldliness or to bring fantastical elements to life. Actors must be able to react to these effects in a convincing manner. This can involve rehearsing with stand-ins or green screen technology to simulate the practical or visual effects that will be added in post-production. Actors must also be able to maintain their focus and concentration, despite the distractions of special effects and other technical elements on set.

Whether performing in sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or any other genre, actors must be able to bring authenticity and depth to their characters, while embracing the unique demands and conventions of the genre. With skill, dedication and a willingness to experiment and take risks, actors can create performances that transport viewers to new and exciting worlds, leaving a lasting impression and cementing their place in the annals of genre film and TV.

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Ilana Rapp is a media-savvy Generation Xer with instinctive wit, quick humor and a taste for deep human emotions. As a former (child) actress with Broadway, film and television credits, she is adept at, well, lots of things.