Knowing How To Use Subtext

Actors need to know subtext. Pure and simple. If you don’t, your performance will lack substance and often give the impression that you don’t know how to act. Personally, I think half the ‘bad acting’ we see on tv shows and low budget films comes from not giving subtext a real thought. But this simple tool can change and impact a performance in leaps and bounds.

What is subtext? Simply put, it’s the meaning and intention under every word spoken by an actor. It’s a collaborative effort, starting in the writing room and carried over to the director and actors. Sometimes you’ll get a director who doesn’t see it, but as actors, we need to be looking for it on every page. The more you understand and know your character, the more you’ll pick out moments of significant subtext. Often, it’ll come in unexpected places, and other times, it’ll be super obvious, but when used well, it can make the scene memorable.

One example of this comes from Rob Reiner’s classic, When Harry Met Sally. At the end of the film, Harry is professing his love to Sally, and when he pauses for her to respond, instead of saying something like, “I love you too, Harry.”, the words she utters are about hate. After a little rant about how he makes it impossible for her to hate him, she finishes with, “… and I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.” The subtext though is the opposite – the intent and meaning behind the words is “I love you, Harry.” 

We know this for two reasons:

1. This is a rom-com, and it’s the end of the movie, everything is wrapping up, and we gotta get these two characters together. Sally’s not going to start another fight and walk away. She’s going to accept his declaration and make one of her own. Nora Ephron’s exquisite writing here takes a cliche rom-com scene and makes it so memorable, acting and writing teachers are still using it as an example 30+ years after it’s release. 

2. Sally and Harry’s friendship throughout the course of the film has been full of witty banter, so for her to just say what we expect isn’t the person we’ve come to know. Thus, we know Sally is going to find a quirky way of saying, “I love you.”

Having an idea of the genre, the character, the relationship to other characters in the scene, and even who wrote it can give you the edge on seeing subtext when others miss it. 

Another way to start seeing it more, is by watching more movies and tv shows with a critical eye. You’ll often see it in boring scenes. On the surface, they look like a randomly placed scene of two people doing an average, everyday thing, and what they’re saying probably sounds lame, but underneath the words there’s subtext and meaning. Adding layers and depth to an otherwise meh kind of scene. 

For example, if I told you I was writing or acting in a scene with two characters – a woman who’s tail light is out and her car is dead and the other is a cop giving her a ticket for that tail light, does that sound like something you want to watch or act? Yet, there are at least three scenes like this within the hilarious comedy Bridesmaids. And each time, there’s more story than just the ticket. There’s flirtation, misunderstandings, insights into what they want from each other, even though half their dialogue consists around the topic of tail lights and driving badly. 

The next time you’re given sides for an audition, see if you can find the heart of the story within the words and actions. Don’t always play to the surface of the words, and if you still can’t find a way to add subtext, try placing the scene within a story and see if that helps bring a new take on the scene. The more creative and out of the box, the better!

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  • Charis Joy Jackson

    Producer, Director, Writer, Actress

    Charis Joy Jackson is a writer, director, producer and teacher working with The Initiative Production Company. During the day she makes movies and in her spare time writes short stories and novel. She's a self-proclaimed nerd who wishes she could live in Hobbiton. You can follow her on Instagram @charisjoyjackson

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