Outside the Actor’s Studio – A Question of Motivation

WHY?!?! HOW?!?! WHEN?!?! WHO?!?! WHICH?!?!

As I’ve mentioned here before, my professional development thus far has led to an illustrious position on one of the lowest rungs within the entertainment industry. Ergo, I have no stroke whatsoever on the TV shows I work on, but I’m constantly around the people who do.

However if you need something photocopied on multi-colored paper? I’m the shit.

Anyhoo, amongst the bizarre collection of misanthropes I deal with on a day-to-day basis, it goes without saying that Actors are by a considerable margin the most cuckoo magoo. Pause for a moment and actually ponder the mentality of someone who pretends to be an imaginary character for a living. That’s playing make-believe 5 days a week. And generally (not all of them, but a lot) seem wayyyyy more comfortable within a fictitious persona than their own.

When discussing character and performance, one of the most common recurring issues Actors seem to have is Motivation. It’s really a cliché now, the Actor muttering “But what’s my motivation here?” It’s right up there with the Hooker saying “Looking for a good time?”, the Pirate growling “Shiver me timbers!”, and the Police Office yelling “Hey you! Stop where you are and put the Dachshund down!”

Or something

When an Actor questions motivation, what they’re asking a Director or Producer is “How do I play this scene? What is my character thinking? Why would he/she behave this way?” Without this knowledge it might be impossible to convincingly ‘play’ their part.

At least this is what they want you to believe.


Going purely by my meager experience, the simple sentence “What’s my motivation?” actually means something entirely different.

What’s my motivation?” as a rule instead seems to translate roughly to “I don’t want to do this as written“.

“I don’t think my character would react that way”…

“I’m not sure why my character would stand by and just watch this happen”…

“My character wouldn’t fall for Janet, she’s not his type”…

“My character would know that Steve was up to something”…

When you invest so much of yourself into an imaginary person, the line between reality and make-believe inevitably becomes blurred from time to time. And the more you invest yourself into this caricature, the less likely you are to allow them any weakness whatsoever.

Method acting, you have a lot to answer for…

So, “What’s my motivation?“… more often than not actually means “I don’t want to appear stupid/weak/inept/cruel/selfish/racist/ignorant/shallow/villainous/like an asshole“.

Which is fair enough, until you remember that most every story needs an Antagonist. Not everyone can be The Great Leslie.

Photo taken shortly before Jack Lemmon said "I just don't think the evil Professor Fate WOULD wear all black and cackle in a villainous manner at other's misfortune, is all..."

A sociological experiment then;

Try going home tonight, and when your partner asks “Do you want pasta for dinner?”, respond with “Hmmm… I don’t think my character would eat pasta on a Wednesday. My character is the kind of person who’s very focused on their carb consumption. In fact, if my character was to eat pasta, he’d probably make his own by hand”.

“Do you want to watch a movie?” “Well… I think my character would be far more inclined to watch a documentary on a weeknight. That or read a book. My character has a thirst for knowledge, and I just don’t think he’s the kind of guy to waste an evening on watching ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’ again”.

How long do you think it would it take before you received a much-deserved slap to the jeans?

Actors are a breed different to our own. Never forget it. Whether you’re watching Mark Harmon on ‘NCIS’, Rebecca Gibney on ‘Packed to the Rafters’, or Christian Bale in ‘Batman Begins’… ALWAYS remember:

The Actor in question is probably better at inhabiting that particular role than they are at being themselves.

Look, I love William Goldman. He’s like a Screenwriting God. And he had it totally right when he famously said that stars never want to appear anything less than perfect.

Scary to think thought that by only mentioning stars… maybe he didn’t quite go far enough.

If you need me, I’ll be over here in the corner… questioning whether my character would eat a McChicken for lunch or not.



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