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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Not Lying Or Pretending: What Is Acting (Not)?

A comment that appears when those in the acting profession give evidence to public enquiries, trials, and other things is “they are an actor, therefore they are a good liar.”


(For reference: this was drafted some months ago. Whenever it ends up being published, it will not be in reference to any recent events).


It is perfectly possible for actors to lie, as is the right of all humans.


However, for the avoidance of doubt: acting is not lying. Nor is it pretending.


Lying is deliberately saying something untrue, usually with the intention of persuading somebody else to believe it, and it is certainly the case that actors routinely do this. However, acting normally takes place within confines that make it very clear that there is an artifice going on. Very few people sincerely believe that all films are documentaries.


More particularly, I would suggest that actors generally do not intend to deceive. Using the artifice is a part of the craft.


Even when acting historic or living figures, actors are rarely trying to present a mere deceitful impersonation. It is a version of that character, with choices made for effect that are only possible or useful due to the artifice. Watching footage of the historic Churchill is very different to footage of the historical drama Churchill.


Pretending is also not the right word. It is essentially means lying through behaviour, and falls down in many of the same ways. An actor who merely pretended to be someone else, like a child pretending to be a princess, would not in fact be acting well.


Again, there is an element of pretence in it. But the goal is not deception.


Sometimes people will say, for example, “they were so convincing as Richard III/Nina/That Generic Guy In An Office”!


But imagine an actual Generic Guy In An Office. Imagine them onstage in a drama about the nihilistic tendencies of modern bureaucracy. Wouldn’t that be awful? An actor is not pretending to be something real, but something artificial.


It is not merely the simulation of real life, but the emotional and intellectual effect on the viewer that is important to the actor.

Similarly, it is not ‘playing pretend’. Playing pretend emphasises the benefit of performance for the creator; the pleasure they get from ‘being’ a princess/hero/villain. It is not about achieving a particular effect on the audience, or exploring a particular theme, but embodying an imagined form of being. This is why LARP is popular, but it is not the same thing as acting.


Which leaves us with a third way actors are accused of deceit - that they are drawing solely on their inner selves.


This is true for some forms more than others. Certain versions of ‘method acting’, certain styles of lived-experience creation, quite a large amount of bad and self-indulgent acting - there are several ways of drawing on the self to create work.


But there are many ways that minimise that aspect of the process. Where an actor might work externally, forming the shape from the outside in through movement. Or listen to others, and seek to find ways to achieve an emotional or intellectual effect that embodies the core of what they heard. Or enjoy acting in uncharacteristic ways.


Though type-casting is popular, meaning some performers get pigeonholed into certain styles of role, character acting is also out there.


So yes, actors are often very good at speaking charismatically, and shaping how people feel. But being able to do that within the artifice of a performance does not automatically make it possible to do so outside one, and certainly does not mean that an actor is always seeking to be manipulative.


Most of the time, they are merely expressing themselves well. That is a skill that I suspect many people want, and far more sinister people use far more freely.


A blonde person in a leather jacket looks at their hands, which look blood-stained but with blue blood.
I remain proud of my work training Emma Scott for my Macbeth.

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