We have an exercise in class called “Breaking Nikki.” The exercise is named after our first actor who created this game, Nikki Nemzer, in an attempt to get better about breaking character (particularly about laughing when she doesn’t wish to laugh in character). The name is interchangeable with the person you are trying to break. Last night we played “Breaking David” and “Breaking Ahmed.” We take 5 or so of the funniest actors in the room and we line them up in “the breaker’s line”. Each has a minute to try to make the actor break character. They can talk to them, touch them, show them things. The actor has to look at them and speak to them. The actor has been given a secret (last night’s example was “Your girlfriend hasn’t been heard from in 4 days. You are pretty sure she’s dead). They are told not to disclose the secret although focus on it. They are not allowed to smile or laugh.
This is a great exercise developed just for the purpose of holding your character’s reality when the actor brain in you is distracted and wants to make choices not right for the scene. I’ve had the great pleasure of watching Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and others work in person. They are assassins! We, as an actor much further down on the call sheet (making less money and therefor on this set typically less important to the success of the project), can’t break character. The stars can do it all day and it’s perceived as cute. We may be fired if we can’t control our vehicle. Jimmy Fallon breaks on old SNL sketches and it’s adorable. He was already a star.
The game described above is a good bit of training. After the first actor works for a minute or two we yell, “switch!” Now the actor that just tried to make the other break either goes and sits down or gets in the back of the breakers line. We continue this process until (most often) the actor who needed the exercise breaks character and overtly smiles or laughs, or until the actor has exhausted the breakers line and has emerged victorious. If you are having trouble breaking on set, this is a good way to train yourselves.
If you are the actor who needs to defend against a break, simply trying not to smile and laugh probably won’t get you in control of the vehicle. This is especially true against Krista or if you were with us back in the day, Tim. Either one of these actors can just look at you and it’s hysterically funny. So, what do we do? I employ what I call a “ladder.” I climb up the rungs of my mental ladder and I think of things that aren’t funny. My sisters aren’t funny. They are takers. They are soul robbers. I think of them. Usually that’s enough. I’d rather not tax myself too much as the point here isn’t to cry. Crying in this exercise could be considered a break of character if you’ve told the actor not to cry. Crying can also add to the comedy, so that’s a judgment call by the director or coach.
My sisters don’t make me cry. They disappoint me. It’s sad, but not that sad. I feel bad enough for them that my sympathy will likely stop me from laughing. If I’m up against Krista, Tim, or someone like Ben, I may need to go higher on my ladder. I have memorized a series of things that aren’t funny. I have in my brain images of animal cruelty. I have images of racial crimes. I have seen the bodies of Jews (just like me) pushed into ovens from World War II. None of these things are funny. I can think of them and stop from breaking. I don’t go right to the Holocaust. I save it. It’s the most powerful rung on my ladder. I start with my moronic siblings. Remember, use your life, book the work. As much as possible, use things that currently give you a response.
I take pride in never breaking. I’m a professional actor. I simply don’t break. You should challenge yourselves the same way. Get in control of your vehicle and then whatever happens play it in character. If you are at an audition and someone busts in speaking loudly and doesn’t realize something important is going on in here, handle them IN character. Don’t break. Allow yourselves to improvise. This is a great opportunity. Enjoy the power of continuing to create. Producers are most impressed by this. It’s just acting folks.
If you are currently breaking you can also use the break as a choice. Let the character you are playing laugh. Don’t ever stop a laugh that has arrived as the character may laugh due to stress, anger, or they may find the situation so ridiculous they may laugh. People laugh at funerals. People laugh at ridiculous times. If that laugh is coming, use it. Laugh in character. That’s also not a break…. but it’s not allowed in “Breaking Nikki.” It’s a nice fallback plan if / when you need it. Turn it into a choice. Let yourselves laugh. Keep in mind though, you might hear: “Cut! Wow. Interesting. OK. Let’s go again. This time no laughing. Let’s keep it serious.”
If you heard this, your training will come in handy. You will want to laugh at the same place. Can you take the direction? Can you refrain from breaking? You can. Play “Breaking Nikki.” Be ready.
Onward and UP.