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Be Proud When You “Phone It In”

By • Aug 18th, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice

“Phoning it in” is a disparaging term often applied to actors who are just going through the motions. Putting no real work into a role, just showing up with the bare minimal needed for a performance to be coherent.

The one time the term could be used to describe something that is positive is when one is actually performing a phone call on stage. Yet many actors turn literal phoning into a problem as well. And I don’t just mean community players.

How many times have you seen someone on television answer a phone, wait 2 seconds, and with widened eyes slam down the phone and mention to the other people in the room who was on the phone, where that person was, why they were calling, what has to happen next, and on top of that have time to process that this is all bad news?

In reality, the time between the “hello” and the hang up may have given someone on the other end of the line time to say “hello” back, at most. But certainly not enough time to deliver all of the information that the character then conveys to the other characters. But of course, there is nobody else on the other line to listen to. So the actor pretends there is, and very often doesn’t allow anywhere near enough time.

So don’t be too hard on yourself, or actors you know should they be guilty of this same acting weakness. It is apparently quite common even among professionals. Yet not at all necessary.

I think one of the reasons actors, at least on stage, feel the need to rush through a phone call is that they are afraid to allow the silence. They may fear the audience will think someone has dropped a line. Or perhaps they fear the audience will get bored quickly if somebody is not constantly speaking. So they rush through a phone call without given the vaguest impression that anything is being heard.

Say the lines of the other person in your head. Slowly. If they seem too slow to you in your head, they are probably just about right. If you have to make up the lines you you say to yourself, go ahead, but make sure you are “hearing” someone on the other end. The very act of thinking of the fake lines will go a long way in giving the impression to an audience that you are actually hearing the words.

Yet don’t stand perfectly still and silent while you wait for the lines either. That isn’t how you talk on the phone. You look around while you listen. You move about. You hold the receiver imperfectly as you do other things. And you interupt the speaker. Be prepared to say things that get “cut off” by the person on the other end of the phone. People always cut each other off on the phone, so giving the impression that you are being cut off by the person on the other end of the line will give an air of even more realism. (These stammers are not often included in a script, so be ready to create your own.)

The answers to the too fast phone call are quite simple, as you can see. So simple in fact that many actors miss them. But stay relaxed during a phone call scene, and remember a little bit of silence is not going to kill the audience. In fact they will enjoy the scene more if it is more realistic, and not rushed into artificiality.

If you can master this seemingly small but often overlooked acting skill, you may actually find yourself proud to be accused of “phoning it in.”

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

3 Responses »

  1. This advice should be aimed at directors as well. When a director allows the actor to have a two second phone conversation, they’ve made the mistake in directing that portion of the scene.

  2. Very true.

  3. My pet peeve is an actor who says “hello” as they lift the receiver or “goodbye” as they put it down. It may seem like a minor timing issue, but it’s very annoying to me. You shouldn’t talk unless the receiver is right at your ear. If you want the audience to think you’re in a hurry, just bow your head down closer to the phone as you say goodbye.