Acting in a musical comes with its own set of challenges and obstacles. It has a specific technique and training that is unique to the medium, as does acting in front of the camera.
Musical theaters artist tend to forget that acting in front of the camera does not need the large gestures and actions that you need to communicate intention as when you act in a musical. You don’t need to push with your body or large hand gestures, and you certainly don’t need heavy breathing and big rolling eye gestures. When you make these large gestures in front of the camera, you are overacting.
Acting in a musical require a sledgehammer, and I say that not in a derogatory way. What I mean is, you have to be able to reach the back row, so your gesture need to be big. However, acting in front of the camera is acting with a razor-sharp scalpel so the slightest gestures, movements with your body and eyes, reads for the camera.
When you’re acting in front of the camera, think with your eyes, notice your environment in the scene and then react subtlety. You can communicate an intensity of danger or nervousness, by merely moving your eyes from object to object. You can intimidate someone by slowly moving your eyes from down, then up at someone. Women can show she is interested in a man by merely moving her hair from one side of her neck to the other, without saying one word. And a man can show feeling flush or nervous because of a woman by merely moving his tie, or touching his collar. All of these are massive movements on screen.
On set, always look for a prop you can use, props can help ground you. I always try to see if I can drink coffee in the scene, or a liquid of some kind so that I can ground myself with a prop. It helps fit your behavior to the camera by helping you act more naturalistic, as you would act in ordinary life. And if the director or story does not allow you to drink something for whatever reason, then play with an object next to you, subtlety, but as you would in day to day life. It can be anything, something as light as clicking a pen. How many times have you picked up an object while talking or thinking and for no apparent reason? Lots.
Michael Keaton is a master at this - watch him in Jackie Brown. He’s subtle with his behavior on screen and is always is doing something with a prop. Eating, moving an object around or drinking something. His gestures are small and incredibly natural, and all of it allows you to read his intentions right on his face because of his subtle but normal behavior, without him saying one single word.
On screen, all you need to do is to think and let your thoughts leak through your eyes. We believe you and the story when your behavior is subtle. It all allows us to focus on the story and the truth of the scene that we see on the screen. And this is especially true for TV. And when we don’t see it, we don’t trust it.
Hugh Jackman is terrific both in musicals as he is on the screen; he understands how to go from one medium to another medium. In a musical, if you act small, it won’t work. How many times have you seen a Movie or TV star do a Broadway play or musical and not fill the stage? Lots!
2 Helpful Tips
Record yourself with your phone doing a scene. Study your eye moments and face gestures and learn how you can communicate different behaviors and emotions with only your eyes. What emotion can you communicate when you look up at someone with your eyes moving them up slowly or darting to an object from another object.
Record yourself using a prop in a scene or monologue. Notice how it grounds you and helps tell the story more truthfully. Playing a coffee cup, drinking from a glass, playing around with your tie or collar, or a pen. Take off your jacket as you do a scene, and if you are a female, play with your hair. Notice how flirtatious these actions help you communicate with the camera. And memorize these moves so that you can use them in your work when in front of the camera.
The more natural you behave on screen, the more truth your acting will come across. When you are in front of the camera, trust that if you think it, it will read. You don’ t need large gestures; in fact, large gestures will get you cut out of the scene.