Acting Nuts

This week; Actors Who Leverage Layering

When I work with my students either at NYU, privately, or in my Access to Agents seminars I always work on audition technique and scene study. Often when I venture upon this acting avenue with thespians – viewing what acting skills they have to present – the first foray is just that; presentation. Either the actor plays a singular emotion (“Johnny-one-noting” as I call it) through the entire piece. Or the actor gives me a one dimensional take on the role. When either happens I begin to immediately lose interest. I light-grid. “Light griding” referring to when I zone out at a theater, looking to the light grid, when the action presented on stage has less excitement than watching dead grass grow.

Whenever presentation happens I’m asking, “Where’s the depth? Where are the layers?” The more evolved the choices, the objectives, the twists and turns the more exciting for the viewer watching the actor.

I have two “layer/flavor analogies” that I often provide to an actor when we’re working together once they have fallen into the one dimensional-acting trap.

“Like a potato casserole”, I’ll begin, “with slices of potato both thick and thin layered on top of each other and then covered by a crumbly crust, give me layers within this scene/character.”

When that falls on deaf ears (because God knows potato casserole, a less than palatable  plating, is rarely popular beyond Iowa and parts of Pennsylvania) I go for a better known “food” staple to exhibit my layer/flavor analogy.

“Think of what you’re doing as a Snickers’ bar. You’ve got the nougat, the caramel and the nuts. Those are the layers and flavors. The chocolate that wraps up those flavors is the entire scene itself. What’s inside makes for the content of the scene and character. Play the interior flavors and layers. Give me more choices. More flavor.” Often students give me just the nougat.

The more choices, appropriate to scene, character, motives, objectives and story that an actor provides (without seeming schizophrenic or an actor gone emotionally rouge) the better casting, talent reps. and audience will respond. At worst they’ll think of you as intelligent. At best they’ll think you to be brilliant.

So if you find yourself having trouble with a scene or monologue ask yourself. “Am I playing all the flavors and layers that can be found within this? Or am I just playing the nuts?”

Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit

Author: Paul Russell

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