Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, Adam Sandler and Robin Williams — all recognizable names. You probably know them from their roles in “The Mask,” “Happy Gilmore,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” or other goofy, light-hearted films. In fact, these films are what made these actors household names, but they have also received critical acclaim for serious roles, often to some surprise.
When Jim Carrey starred in “The Truman Show,” he was praised for a sincere, sweet and evocative performance, and he did it again in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” This shocked some of his fans and critics who were used to seeing him perform in roles like the eccentric and animated Ace Ventura, where Carrey typically sets the extremes for physical comedy.
Bill Murray is better known for his comedies and time on Saturday Night Live, but he delivered a soulful character in the film “St. Vincent.”
The examples go on and on, and one that is especially relevant is Adam Sandler’s performance in the recently released “Uncut Gems.” Although this movie isn’t actually about circumcision, it is still a great performance from Sandler and it is jarring to see him in a movie that isn’t over the top, silly, or uh … bad. In fact, Sandler’s performance seems to be the most talked about quality of this film and has earned him an Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor, among others.
So how does it make sense? How does the guy from “Jack and Jill” turn around and give an incredible edge-of-your-seat thrill ride which is the centerpiece for a whole film? And how do comedic actors consistently deliver in dramatic roles?
I once had an acting teacher tell me that comedy is harder than drama, and while it isn’t quite that black and white, there is some truth to it. Imagine a scene from your favorite movie and think of it as a piece of music: There is a pace to it, a rhythm. This flow is made up of many different elements but one factor that is necessary for an actor is the ability to control tension.
In most scenes, tension builds to an emotional climax, similar to how a standard plot arc diagram looks. Often in dramas, tension builds and builds and builds and builds until we reach the climax where we experience a release of emotional catharsis. In a comedy — at least in a good comedy — tension needs to build the same way, but since the goal is to keep the audience laughing, we need consistent releases of tension along the way. This release of tension is delivered through a “punchline,” and it is really hard to keep audiences rolling on the floor given the amount of jokes-per-minute needed to keep people’s attention.
So in comedy, actors constantly need to be building tension to get to the emotional climax of the scene but they also need to be constantly delivering jokes which release tension so that their scene remains humorous. Sounds like a lot of work, right? This is exactly what my acting teacher meant. While dramas aren’t “easier,” a well-written comedy scene is much more dynamic and the actors need to be incredibly nimble and versatile to hit the exact right moments the exact right way so they can work to the best of their ability.
Even in poorly-written comedies, the actors still have to be incredibly quick on their feet as they dance from moment to moment, building and releasing tension in seconds, and when those actors step into dramatic roles, they find their scenes to be far more static.
This is not to disrespect dramatic actors. The emphasis in dramatic scenes is less on fast-paced jumping from punchline to punchline as they have to weave their way to an emotional apex. Instead, in a dramatic scene, actors are better able to explore the nuances of each moment as they hold tension with fewer releases on their way to a climax.
So, it should be no surprise that when an actor who is used to performing 12 different emotions in a minute shifts to a scene where they have half those moments, they have an easy time adapting. Now they have to make the transition to honing in on those emotions to make them deeper and richer in a way that is discernible to the audience.
That does not apply to all dramatic or comedic actors, nor does it apply to all of the films they are in, but next time you see an upcoming drama with an actor or actress known for silly or ridiculous roles, give it a watch! They’ve probably got a better chance of wowing you than you might think.