How Actors Read a Script

grayscale photo of man holding smartphone

Photo by James Frid on

Have you ever felt like a character on the screen just didn’t seem like the person they were meant to be? Or, the character seems just shy of a full deck and inauthentic? There is a simple reason for it—the actor is a newbie or doesn’t work on developing their character properly.

When a great actor is developing a character, they take hints from the writer. Every word on the script is an important hint to who the character is and how that person behaves. Skipping over any of it would limit the actor’s ability to truly capture their character in an authentic manner.

I recently watched the movie JUDY starring Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland. Her performance was so rich and spot-on that I actually believed I was watching Judy Garland, which is sure to land her an Oscar® nomination for best actress. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see past the character to Renée.

When rookie actors get a copy of their script, instead of reading every word on the page carefully, they jump down to the dialog and start reading one of their lines. This forces them to miss a lot of what the character is all about and why they make the decisions that they make. Most of the nuances of a character are written in the description lines and are therefore missed.

I try to remind all rookies that they are called actors because of their actions. I suggest they would be called vocal-ers or word-smiths if the dialog was central to their character, which it is not. Actors are called actors because they move and behave in visual terms. In fact, they were named for their most notable trait of acting before sound movies were invented.

A pro would read the below page word for word. In fact, some acting coaches will tell the actor during their first read to read everything out loud except for their own lines. This is to force their attention on all the character hints in the script.


A dim light hangs over a small table. GREG, 50s, unshaven and wearing unkempt clothing sits across from:

DETECTIVE, early 30s, a professional type wearing business casual. He reads a REPORT.


I needed food, my ulcer was acting up.


Jump to the part where you hit the guy
and grabbed the bread.

Greg faces the Detective.


You make me sound so—

The Detective leans in to listen.


Look, the system made me feel indignant,
so I acted that way. That’s it.


You don’t believe in taking
responsibility for your actions?


The program’s for the less fortunate. I’m
not one of them. Temporarily unemployed.


That’s unfortunate.

The Detective jots a note.

Let’s break down the hints…

The “INT.” stands for interior, which means the scene is happening inside… the interrogation room during the day. While we can’t tell that its day time, the actor needs to know that he is in an interrogation room instead of being at work. That immediately tells the actor his day is not a normal one and it has an added level of stress. Plus, he must figure out the “why” this has happened by reading on.

The “A dim light hangs over a small table,” immediately sets up the seriousness of the interrogation. This man is in a backroom somewhere as compared to the waiting area of a police station. The man is in jeopardy of some kind, another hint for the actor.

The line “GREG, 50s, unshaven and wearing unkempt clothing sits across from…” tells the actor that he was out in public looking like a bum. This hints to his character no longer carrying about what he looks like or taking care of himself. Since most people care how they look in public, the script is suggesting that he has been suffering for some time and has lost all hope.

When people get to the place where they’ve lost all hope, they can either become super depressed or very angry at anyone who differs in opinion about their behavior. This gives the actor two ways to explore his character during rehearsal.

Next, the detective is introduced and we need to read it from Greg’s perspective. The line reads, “DETECTIVE, early 30s, a professional type wearing business casual. He reads a REPORT.” The detective is unengaged. He is off with his face in paperwork. The script hints to the fact that this man is unmoved and sees the moment as another task he must handle. Again, this is from Greg’s viewpoint based on searching for hints to his behavior.

The actor must find a way to reengage the detective if he ever wants to get out of being locked up or fined. The decision is to open his mouth one more time. Yes, the script suggests that they’ve been there for some time because Greg’s first dialog implies that he’s been talking about something and he is just reiterating the information.

His line reads, “I needed food, my ulcer was acting up.” This is clearly a sympathy move and the wording suggests that he’s tried several different angles on his story, but none have captured the detective’s attention enough to let him go. Or, the detective has an agenda that Greg hasn’t yet figured out. It also tells us that Greg had been in a bad situation long enough to develop an ulcer from it.

The detective speaks next revealing his perspective with the dialog, “Jump to the part where you hit the guy and grabbed the bread.” Ouch. The other actor has revealed the big issue that this short is about. Greg must respond, but how. What are the hints? The most important hint comes in the description, “Greg faces the Detective.”

We know from life that when someone faces a person during a serious issue, they are taking the stance of being their equal. In other words, Greg is ready to go head to head with the detective. This is the first key point of conflict. This is the salt in the wound moment. The do or die moment. What will Greg do or say?

“You make me sound so—” Bam! Greg held his tongue. He cut himself off. He didn’t lash out. He showed restraint. This hints that his hitting the man was purposeful because Greg is capable of controlling himself. Curious then… what position will he take?

“The Detective leans in to listen,” along with the audience. What is Greg up to? Does he have the guts to say what’s on his mind, especially since the detective leaned in to find out? Greg is now on the spot. This is visually a point of intimidation. Will Greg crack? How would this character feel when being confronted? Does he retreat a bit, or charge forward with boldness? Or, attempt to charge forward, but quickly retreat. The actor will most likely draw additional hints from other places in the script to help him make the decision.

“Look, the system made me feel indignant, so I acted that way. That’s it.” Okay, Greg showed his cards or should I say he didn’t speak the truth, but instead pointed blame in another direction. Then he attempted to end the conversation by saying “That’s it.” He weaseled out of the situation with a lame comment that he hopes the detective will accept so they can both get out of this poorly lit room.

Will the detective call him on it? Of course, because it creates more tension in the scene, which makes stories interesting.

I won’t take any more time going through the first page, but you get the idea that the actor must take hints from all parts of the script, not just the dialog. Remember that the actions and descriptions will give the actor the greatest amount of hints for the physicality of the character and his behaviors.

Well-crafted scripts are loaded with instructions for performance and character development. Rookies don’t understand how many hours it takes to properly craft the concise, full-meaning words on the page.

Some newbies might even suggest that the dialog needs to be rewritten because it isn’t the way the actor would say the lines. Instead, quality actors realize that the words were specifically selected to make the character who he is and the actor needs to find a way to get into the character enough that those lines come across authentically.

Audiences want to see characters that they’ve never seen before and they want to be caught up into that person’s world as authentically as possible. To that end, the actor must learn everything he can about his character and make him believable.

© 2019 by CJ Powers




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