Originally published on Backstage
As actors, it’s important to consider a few things when it comes to working in an ensemble cast – especially when that ensemble is all in a scene at one time.
Game Of Thrones is an incredible example of how an ensemble works. They know how to play off each other and when to share the spotlight and when to give it away.
Another recent ensemble show is Netflix Original The Umbrella Academy. I’ve watched the entire show at least three times already and a lot of the reason for that is because there’s always something new to see with seven characters’ stories intertwining and overlapping. And that’s just the Hargreaves family, there are many other great characters to follow around too.
But it takes consideration to pull off scenes with so many people at once.
KNOWING WHEN TO PULL BACK
In ensemble scenes, there are moments where the life of your character needs to be pulled back and moments where they get to step forward and hog the spotlight. The scene isn’t about you and your character, it’s about the group as a whole. So as you work the scene, take into consideration times where your character can still be present, but do so without causing a distraction from what’s happening in the scene.
One pitfall I’ve seen many times, is that actors feel they need to react larger to the situation. In fact, it’s the opposite. There are so many people in the scene that your reaction should actually be smaller. Feel it out with the other actors. It’s like creating an epic song and knowing when to sing louder and when to let that harmony whisper.
There are several great examples of this in The Umbrella Academy, one, in particular, happens around the dinner table with the young Hargreave children, their adoptive father, and their mom. Only a few of the characters have lines in this scene, but several shots cut away to the reactions of others. At one point, young Vanya is shaking her head at her brother Five. She has reason to shake her head at him several times throughout the scene, but because she only does it once, it plays stronger. The rest of the time she’s quietly watching the interaction.
Game of Thrones is another example of this at work. The whole show is filled with powerhouse characters, but even when storylines intersect and it would be easy to steal the scene from others, they give and take like the perfect piece of music. And it makes the story stronger because they’re listening to each other.
Which brings me to another important thing to consider with an ensemble cast …
REQUIRES ALL YOUR LISTENING SKILLS
Acting is reacting. It’s all about listening, but it’s even more important to do this with an ensemble. In the acting workshops I run, I often start with improv games to warm everyone up. One of our favourites is a version of Freeze where you start with one actor in one setting and end up with seven in another setting. It’s always hilarious, but sometimes people aren’t really listening to each other and moments that could change the story for the better are missed because too many people are talking over each other.
While you’ll have a script, you can still overplay the character in an ensemble situation, so it’s important to really rely on listening to what’s happening in the scene. Again, The Umbrella Academy is full of great moments where the actors aren’t worried about their character being seen and instead are focusing on listening to each other. It doesn’t mean they just sit there like a bump on a log, but they’re intentional with when to move, when to make noises of agreement, and when to just sit and listen to the others.
To sneak another thing to think about with ensemble work, if you’ve been cast in a show or film with an ensemble, watch as many films, or shows in that genre that also has ensembles to glean what you can.
What do you like or dislike about a particular ensemble moment? What stands out to you that encourages the story? What stands out that distracts from the overall scene/story? Figuring these things out can give you a bit more of an edge of things to consider for your own ensemble moments.
Look up shows like Game Of Thrones, The Umbrella Academy, The OA, Community, Friends, How I Met Your Mother and watch the way the actors are listening to each other. How are the pulling back and still maintaining the character
Overall, have fun with it, because getting to work with so many actors in one scene is awesome, it’s a room full of creativity and opportunity.