Are You A Good Drunk?By Ty Unglebower • Sep 1st, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice
There are happy drunks, and angry drunks. Drunks that can be the life of the party, and others who can be such a downer, with their crying and whining that nobody wants to be around them. In other words there are as many ways to act when drunk as there are people. Why? Because despite some common difficulties with motor control, we still remain fundamentally the same person, just with fewer inhibitions. (Despite what Mel Gibson would have us believe.)
So why do so many actors portray characters that are drunk as though “Drunk” were one generic concept that came pre-packaged in a large white box? I imagine the problem is that they take a dangerous short cut: they begin to play drunk instead of playing their character
The result is usually the previously mentioned white box full of drunk cliches; stumbling. Slurring words. (Usually inconsistently.) The wayward hiccup here and there. Bleary eyes. Each of those physical symptoms indeed may be very common to an inebriated human being. But they are by no means universal. And even if they were, they would still need to be presented in context to both the scene and the person you are playing. Without that context, every drunk scene ends up being laughable in some way, even when it is supposedly to be deadly serious. This is because the audience is seeing a caricature, and caricatures are amusing to most people.
So ask yourself the same type of questions you should always ask about a scene or a line. Why is the person drunk? What are they trying to accomplish by being drunk? What do they want to accomplish while drunk? How do the obvious symptoms of being under the influence prevent them from obtaining this goal? (If they do prevent it.) How would that particular character feel about being unable to do something such as drive their car, or walk straight, or talk clearly? (Assuming they cannot.)
A lot of course is determined by the script. What is said, and to whom it is said, and such. But this doesn’t let the actor off of the hook. If you are any actor worth noting, you have done your homework in regards to character motivations and traits for your character during the sober scenes. This work doesn’t stop during a drunken scene. If anything, it is even more important, so that you aren’t guilty of the caricature I mentioned above.
Yet the work doesn’t stop once you have determined how your character would behave after a few. You still have to portray the same in a convincing manner. Which means you have to control any slurred words or stumbles you have decided are appropriate for the scene. Few things can give away a shallow performance faster than someone who stumbles about with no sense of direction during a drunk scene. That once again brings to mind the generic box marked “Drunk.” You must instead remember that a drunk person is usually working double time to act like they are not drunk. The irony is the less able someone is to walk straight, often the more effort they put into trying to do so. People that are drunk beyond a certain point over enunciate their words in order to not slur them and appear drunk. Ergo, when you portray someone that is wasted, your motivation should be to walk straight, and talk properly, but failing to do so. (As opposed to setting a goal of making sure you stumble and slur your way through the scene.)
If this seems like a fine line, it is. But a crucial fine line between holding up that white box full of tricks, and giving a great performance of a drunk character.
As always, you are presenting someone. Not a series of methods or tricks or exercises. If you must make a judgment call about a drunk scene, always make it towards having more control over the character, even if the sense of drunkenness is lessened. Your audiences will forgive you for this, and in many ways expect it. (Do you really think Brick would still be conscious about halfway through Cat on a Hot Tin Roof if the actor played the drunkenness as opposed to playing Brick??) If you can master that, you’ll find people raising a glass to your performances.
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Ty Unglebower 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 offbook.blogspot.com (for theatre related thoughts) and tooxyz.blogspot.com (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.