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Michael Merton

Michael Merton has been a working actor for nearly thirty years. He has appeared on such television shows as Last Man Standing, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Criminal Minds, Two and a Half Men, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, and many more. Michael is also an accomplished writer of television animation, with two Emmy Award nominations to his credit. For a full list of Michael's industry credits, visit The Internet Movie Database.






Point of Reference

From time to time I like to restate what I'm trying to accomplish in these on-camera workshops. It's so easy to get distracted with all the challenges I throw at you, I find it helps to continually ask ourselves, "What is our ultimate goal?"

We are always told to know the tone of the television show we're auditioning for, before we come in to read. For instance, I like to describe the acting in sitcoms as "amplified reality" -- it's usually played naturally, but it's heightened for effect. Every show has a distinctive blend of comedy and drama, and a specific style of presenting it. If you're familiar with that tone, when the casting director redirects you to bring "more" or "less" to the scene, you have an identical point of reference, and chances are you will give them the performance they want. But what is your personal point of reference in all of your acting work?

As film and television actors, we all strive to be able to be completely and totally natural and real on camera. That is our ultimate benchmark. What I want actors to experience in my workshops is the feeling of doing less and less and less on camera until they feel that they're not doing anything. And it's a very uncomfortable place for an actor to be, because if we're not doing anything then we're not acting, right? I disagree. If we're not doing anything then we are being natural and real.

If you audition for a sitcom or a broad comedy movie and the casting director tells you to "have more fun with it" or "you can go further", they want you to amplify the reality, and it's easy to add unreality to a performance. But if you're auditioning for a television drama and the casting director tells you to "bring it down" or "throw it away," what is your mutual point of reference? It is reality.

Only when an actor has experienced what it feels like to do nothing on camera, and is confident and comfortable doing that, have they established their acting benchmark, upon which all other acting styles, tones, and techniques are built.

Michael Merton

The Heart of the Matter

You often hear people talk about the “craft” of acting and of various acting “techniques” and declare that one is a superior actor if they have mastered one or the other. It seems to me that mastering the craft of acting will make one a craftsman, and mastering technique will make one a technician. Sounds a bit clinical, doesn’t it?

The reason that very young child actors are often so terrific is that they are completely focused on imagining what it would be like to find themselves in the situation of the story, and on feeling those feelings. They don’t even realize that they’re focusing! They’re just pretending, and following the natural instincts of play. Their minds are not yet cluttered with years of often-conflicting craft and technique – when children act, it’s all coming from the heart.

I think as adult actors we need to constantly remind ourselves to reprioritize. Sure, we have to hit the marks on the floor and not move our heads too much on an over-the-shoulder shot and be aware of our blinking during a close-up… but what is going on in our hearts should always remain the first priority. If we aren’t feeling anything true then we have given a wonderfully clinical performance, like good little technicians.

You know that feeling when you’ve played a scene and gotten so wrapped up in the moment that it felt real to you? It’s exciting and electric, and deeply satisfying. When was the last time you felt that way about hitting your mark? Follow your heart.

Michael Merton

Location, Location, Location

I recently went on one of those awkward auditions where you can hear other actors auditioning through paper-thin walls, it was for the role of a little league baseball coach trying to motivate his next batter as the boy took to the plate. I overheard the actor before me speaking his dialogue in a soft natural voice, as if he was talking to someone next to him in an elevator… but he was playing a coach on the sidelines talking to a kid on home plate! He wasn’t placing himself in the environment of the scene.

When you audition for a role the casting director and the producers are imagining you in that role as you read, and it doesn’t go unnoticed when you are truly and completely imagining yourself in the environment of that scene. I’m not talking about recreating actions – they already know that your character is using a chainsaw, polishing a Porsche, or juggling cats. Awareness of your environment is not about making it clear to the audience where you are, it’s about making it clear to yourself where you are. Your performance will change, and for the better.

Also, the more completely you imagine yourself in the scene, and the more real it becomes for you, the less likelihood there is that you’ll be nervous in the audition. Your awareness of the room – the camera, the producers, the ugly color of the carpet, whatever – starts to vanish. It’s a win-win.

Ultimately the only question about our environment we really ever need to ask ourselves is: “Am I in the scene or am I in my head?”

Michael Merton

The Big Picture of Close-Ups

As usual, I walked away from this week’s on-camera workshop at The Actors Safehouse with as much fresh insight on the craft of acting as I hope the participants did. It was Close-Up Night, where during the scene work portion of the evening the camera pushes in tight on the actors’ faces and catches them… hopefully… doing absolutely nothing at all.

One filmmaking textbook defines the close-up as “conveying to the audience a character’s emotions, reactions, and states of mind, thus creating between the audience and character a greater involvement by forcing the viewer to focus on the individual and nothing else.” Actors tend to take this to mean that they are responsible for conveying emotions, reactions, and states of mind to the audience, which often leads to unnatural reactions and facial exaggerations. On stage it is true that we must project our emotions outward through physicality and vocalization, but on film our only responsibility is to create the reality of our character in that moment, and it is up to the camera to see it.

When a director chooses to go to a close-up in the editing room it is because the very use of that close-up informs the audience that they should now see that moment in the story from that character’s point of view. Therefore, the director’s use of the close-up is what conveys an emotion, reaction, or state of mind to an audience – the actor does not convey a thing.

This is one of many instances in which actors find themselves responsible for accomplishing something emotional onscreen. What I enjoy most about running workshops at The Actors Safehouse is the opportunity to give actors the permission not to work so hard. And by doing so, I keep reminding myself not to work so hard as well.

Michael Merton

"The Actors Safehouse has not only given me adjustments but tools that let me walk away from auditions feeling totally professional."
- David St. James
1600 Penn, Community, Transformers: Dark of the Moon
, iCarly

"It's a great place to learn if you are new and also if you have been around for a while..."
- Dagney Kerr
Ben & Kate, Strawberry Summer, Pretty Little Liars

"With Michael’s expert direction and tweaking, I am bringing my “performance” into a much more real place…and enjoying it more."
- Suzanne Altfeld
Conan, General Hospital, The Jon Hovac Story, Repo Man

"Michael has an outstanding way of teaching and not just talking."
- Andrea Anderson
Arrested Development, Got Home Alive, Southern dysComfort

"If you're looking to sharpen the weapons in your acting arsenal, look no further than the Actors Safehouse."
- Eric Radic
Walking in Circles, Clownvis Time, The Binds That Tie Us