Acting Impulses: What Are They and Why Are They Important

What is an impulse and why is it important

We all know things like impulse buys or impulsive behavior, but what about an impulse in acting terms? It is hard to explain to be honest, but here it goes.

An impulse is an instantaneous, conscious or unconscious, idea to do or say something. There are big impulses, like slapping someone, to micro impulses like scratching your nose or adjusting your glasses or your idiosyncratic movements. These can be based off of exterior factors, or it can be from internal factors.

Physical impulses are the easiest to spot, because they manifests so boldly.

In real life people react with words or movement because of impulses.  Impulses are on the inside – take the focus inside. Most people don’t think they have time to feel in today’s society, but if you are an actor that is the exact thing you must do.

Impulses as Described by Nikolai Demidov

These are a few key points from Demidov’s book, Becoming an Actor-Creator.

  • The ability to follow the first impulse without delay is so important for actors that every one of them – regardless of their persuasion – consciously or subconsciously prizes this particular gift.
  • Let us take a closer look at it. Any impression we receive evokes in us a certain response – a reaction. In a spontaneous person, this reaction is immediately visible – it meets no obstacles on its way. If someone unpleasant walks into a room, at that very moment his face would pout – without even noticing it, he would turn away. That would be his first reaction.
  • The next moment would bring a delay of this first reaction – its inhibition. With it would come the orientation in the surroundings: the person understands that such a direct expression of his attitude is awkward and indecent – finally, it is insulting for the newcomer.
  • This brings about the third moment: a reaction in view of the surrounding – this reaction can be called secondary. Now the person may, on the contrary, make a friendly face and even offer his hand to the newcomer.
  • The actor’s creative reaction cannot be like either of those. It is much more complicated.
  • The actors must transform into a character with his or her nature, beliefs, feelings and tastes. In addition to that, actors have to live with all the circumstances of the play.
  • In the meantime, the natural orientation cannot disappear: actors cannot forget that they are actors, performing onstage.

Nikolai Demidov, Becoming an Actor-Creator, trans Andrei Malaev-Babel and Margarita Laskina (New York, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016), 290.

What do you mean “Judge your impulses?”

If you let impulses flow without judgement your behavior is real. But, if you judge them (stopping to think about them) then rather than impulses they become thoughts, and thought out actions. If we move or talk based on thoughts then we are aware of what we’re doing, and it becomes just an imitation of what we think we would naturally do. But it’s not what we would actually do, it is stifled and lacks life.

Another problem to this is when you judge an impulse halfway through. This happened a lot to me when I first started out; I would let the impulse go and begin to act on it, but then halfway through I would start to think about it, and the immediate thought in my head was “This is stupid, why are you doing this?” and then I would immediately shut down that impulse and almost every subsequent impulse for that scene.

Go with the impulse, we can argue about how it landed later.

A recent example of me judging my impulses

Here is an example I noticed in myself the other week. I walk home in the dark, and when I see groups of three or more men, especially loud or clearly drunk ones, my body begins to shift toward fight or flight. I become aware of my own behavior and I change it so as not to attract any attention. (I know I’m never in any sort of danger consciously, but our mind and body still react, seriously it’s super interesting to realize you and your thoughts are actually two different things)

Rather than do what I normally do while I’m walking home, looking around for foxes, squirrels, and dogs, I now have tension in my instrument and judge those impulses. I keep looking forward until I pass that group, making sure to avoid eye contact. While I was walking I realised that from the outside looking in, because I was not letting my micro impulses go through there I guarantee you could tell I wasn’t executing my real behaviour, and that something about me was off. I bet I really just had my head down and lengthened my stride, I didn’t look real.

Real vs Fake impulses

This is hard to figure out, but it is something you need to really think about. When I first started my acting classes I thought that I was freeing myself up and letting impulses flow. This was not the case though, I was acting off of fake impulses.

I was uncomfortable with the long pauses between lines. Rather than sit still and wait I pushed and changed that nervous energy into physical movement. The want to move was not an actual “want” based on what was really happening in front of me, but was an escape button to let myself out. By forcing these actions I was no longer truthful.

Saying or doing nothing when you’re performing is hard. It takes a lot more courage to do nothing.

Dealing with an impulse that the script doesn’t call for

How can you deal with an impulse to talk when the script doesn’t allow it?

In this case, you need to transfer the verbal impulse to a physical impulse. Do something, maybe it is not what you want to say, but you want to do something.

Being watched changes you

People change their behaviour when they’re watched, sometimes consciously or sometimes  subconsciously. In fact there is a study that showed even just a picture of a person’s eyes can alter the behaviour of people (link in further reading at bottom of page). And there is further study that if you are watched while you’re working out you will increase your efforts

This is a massive problem for an actor as what we do is inherently done in front of an audience or a crew. I remember when I first started acting I made a comment to the extent that if someone was paying to watch me act, I’d better be trying hard to do something.  This is the completely wrong attitude. Trying harder and pushing for a result in acting leads to an imitation, something people also can subconsciously detect instantly. And audiences feel insulted if they sense this from an actor.

So why does being watched matter to our impulses?

When we are watched we judge ourselves, and every impulse we have. This is why some people who may be very lively when you’re talking to them one on one can become stiff and stifled when onstage.

When we judge our impulses we don’t let them occur naturally and in their own time. And when we think about or analyse our impulses they become conscious thoughts.

In judging what we are doing we are creating tension in our instrument. This tension can stop the fluidity of our movements and can move the voice from the diaphragm to the throat. When the voice no longer sits on the diaphragm the actor loses authority and people will begin to think he doesn’t know what he is doing.

Final Thoughts

This has been just a very brief introduction to the idea of acting impulses, but I wanted to leave you with as clear of an example as I could of what our true aim as actors should be. Think about watching children at play. They follow every single impulse that comes to mind, they don’t worry about what it will look like, or what people will think. They feel it, they act on it. Our goal as actors is to get back to this mindset of really just allowing ourselves to be free to feel and to act on those feelings.

Links to topics mentioned in this blog

How being watched changed you – without you knowing. By Jason G Goldman

Nikolai Demidov: Becoming an Actor-Creator

So, you want to be an actor?

“All the world’s a stage” – William Shakespeare

So you really want to go into acting now?
That’s a question I asked myself about two or three years ago. Hell, I even laughed at myself.

To start acting at the age of 30, I’d be competing with well established movie stars, and besides what did I know about acting?
I was in my final year in university getting my second degree at the time, and let’s just say the idea was ludicrous. Why the hell did I spend all this time and money in order to throw it out the window? I was, at the time, and still am just searching for what makes me happy.

My First Excursion into Professional Acting

I had done some community theatre growing up, and even did a small monologue show while I was at West Point. But by no means did I really have any experience acting.
In 2015 I was selected because of my American accent to be an extra for Jason Bourne. My first day on set I got selected for a speaking role and was thrown into a scene with Alicia Vikander and was being directed by Paul Greengrass. I thought that this world was amazing, and I thought, hey this is easy, it’s only my first day!
But I thought that acting wasn’t really what I was supposed to be doing, and that I was meant to go into Special Effects. Do the behind the scenes work, just make cool stuff that makes people scratch their heads wondering how we did it.
But, just trying to get onto an SFX team for years wasn’t panning out, that acting itch came back with a vengeance.
So I knew I had to follow it.

I started reading acting books at the rate of one a week. I could not get enough information.

Then I researched training and went to seminars and short courses.

Something just felt right.

Something I wish I would have known about acting

The most important thing you want to know before you chase the acting dream is your “Why.”
Why are you doing it? Is it to be rich and famous? To feel loved? To fill a void?
These are not the answers you should have. If you become an actor the problems you have will still be there even if you become the most successful actor in the world (in fact they may actually get worse because you will become more sensitive to your own emotions.) The process of Acting isn’t about putting on a mask and playing a character. It is about becoming wholly vulnerable, and to do that you have to be comfortable with your authentic self.
You are the character.
Think of Michael Clarke Duncan’s amazingly power performance in The Green Mile. This amazing and powerful man let you look into his soul when there were close ups of his eyes, he was wholly vulnerable. You could see and feel the pain of the whole world.

“Acting deals with very delicate emotions. It is not putting up a mask. Each time an actor acts he does not hide; he exposes himself.”

Rodney Dangerfield

You should only follow acting at a professional level if you honestly can’t see yourself doing anything else, because it’s going to be a hard road, where most of it seems like an uphill battle. So you must enjoy the work and the process.
Your “why” needs to be solid and bigger than you. It will keep you going when things get tough.

My Personal Why

My personal why is because I believe that film and tv can change the world, and that’s exactly what I want to do.
I have always been a movie lover. In fact I saw Jurassic Park, 12 times in theatres. (I was 8 at the time, so thank you dad for taking me so many times.) I also read Jurassic Park and The lost World back to back, seriously what 8 year old does that? I watched all the Indiana Jones movies countless times on VHS and idolized Steven Spielberg. I wrote a book about him about the time I was 8, which I can only guess was almost completely plagiarized from one of the many books I read about him. I even dedicated it to him. I began making really terrible stop motion videos with my GI Joe’s.

Movies were also an escape for me. When life got tough all I had to do was go to the cinema. I would be transported to other worlds, laugh uncontrollably, or fight off personal demons.

To me films can make you feel and learn about yourself. They can bring us closer together and challenge your beliefs. They make us laugh and cry. The moving image is a very powerful thing.
If you know your Why, you will find your how.
Remember that nothing worthwhile is easy to obtain.

Some other things I wish I knew:

    • It will be hard, harder than you think. The best actors make it look easy, like they are just existing on camera. This is a skill.
    • In being so vulnerable, any criticism is deep cutting at first. You have to learn that your teacher is not telling you how bad you are, they want you to improve and be the best you can be. It’s never personal, it’s about the work.
    • You are developing a very different set of skills. You will doubt yourself, just keep pushing
    • You will find new and exciting ways of being uncomfortable.
    • It’s ballbusting hard work. Not just the exercises and daily routine you adopt, but the life after you are done training. You must come to terms that you will be unemployed for long periods of time. And in today’s world a lot of people gain a lot of self worth from what the do that it can wreak havoc in a person’s mind.
    • Almost every audition will end up in not getting the job. It’s not personal, the reasons people are or are not cast can be ridiculous. As Michael Kostroff says in Audition Psych 101 on going into auditions., “I’m not getting the fucking job.”

Further reading links to things I mentioned in this blog:

Why Your “Why” Matters – Corey Poirier
Michael Kostroff’s – Audition Psych 101

About this Blog

Hello, my name is Kyle and I am going to use this blog to help share what I know now and and what I will learn about acting and the business of acting as I progress through my career.
I want to provide value. I may not know a lot, but I know I know more than some, so I know I can help.

I will be publishing weekly blogs with the goal of compiling a resource for beginning actors and eventually creating a tribe of positive actors sharing their knowledge and supporting each other.

If you have questions let me know because I want this to be an interactive page so I can help as many people as I can.

I believe that films can change the world, and that is exactly what I intend to do.

Kyle