Quite a lot has been said in previous blogs about the principles of scenework as the foundation of great cinema, and about the gaps in a film education designed for putting directors to work in commercials and music videos. One of the most important skills a director can develop is the ability to quickly identify the actions, intentions, and motivations that drive a narrative, and to keep a cast and crew focused on that action as their creative compass. From a performance standpoint, one consequence of losing that focus is “mugging.”

Most of us have heard this word used as a way to describe bad or “over-the-top” acting. Specifically, mugging is when an actor deliberately shows something to an audience instead of letting a performance speak for itself by pursuing an action with as much conviction and vulnerability as possible. There’s essentially three kinds of mugging to watch out for:

Because models are taught to embody an emotion, and in doing so to give photographers the opportunity to capture those moments in time when that feeling is most apparent and real, lots of people come into acting expecting a similar job description. In reality, pushing an emotion makes a performance feel forced and fake. Asking actors to “play happy” or “play scared” only directs otherwise great actors to give one-note performances. Maintain and cultivate emotional vulnerability, establish the stakes and motivations, and then focus on the action. This is how an actor weaves a complex tapestry of emotion into their performance, instead of clinging to a single thread.

All my director’s notes on establishing tone apply equally to actors. Asking an actor to (or allowing them to) play a tone encourages them to lean hard on obvious impulses when a more specific and interesting choice could more honestly reflect the stakes that tone was trying to communicate in the first place. On TV, as well as in most action movies and romantic comedies, we see this kind of mugging all the time. Ever notice how asking an actor for “more intensity” usually just makes them look consipated? Network dramas have the same problem, and it’s an issue with the directing…

Check out the rest of this article from Tennyson Stead on 8sidedforum.