How To Be A Good Scene Partner

To achieve a memorable moment (on stage/on-screen), there has to be a sense of trust on set, a partnership between actors that allows them the freedom to try new things, to hear each other and respond to what’s happening in the moment. Read below to learn what it takes to be a good scene partner.

If you’ve seen the 1990 Mob classic, Good Fellas, you will almost certainly remember the scene of understated menace that defines the fine line a made gangster must walk when Joe Pesci tells a funny story while the mobsters hang out in a nightclub. Ray Liotta responds, “you’re funny,” and what follows is a moment that drips with menace. We, as the viewers, have no idea whether Pesci is joking or whether he might, at any minute, pull his pistol and pop Liotta’s character between the eyes, which he is wanting to do in this film.

The irony is that neither did his fellow actors in the scene. The scene was based on Pesci’s own real-life experience as a waiter when Pesci actually told a mobster he was funny. Director Martin Scorsese asked Pesci and Liotta to improvise the scene, unbeknownst to the rest of the actors. The result was a powerful moment of tension where real reactions were caught on film.

To achieve a memorable moment like this, however, there has to be a sense of trust on set, a partnership between actors that allows them the freedom to try new things, to hear each other and respond to what’s happening in the moment. And this partnership extends beyond two actors or a group of actors to all the people involved in the shoot. It is, therefore, important that actors learn to be good scene partners in all senses of the word.

Some of the greatest actors to work with, and this is according not only to the actors who work with them, but directors, camera people, hair and makeup artists, and more, are those who are most affable, those who work to get along with everyone on the set. Take Hugh Jackman for example; he can step into roles as diverse as Wolverine in the X-Men series or the dancing and singing P. T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman and yet for all his wonder as an actor what he is remembered for by those who work with him on set is typified by what his X-Men co-star Sir Patrick Stewart had to say, "He is sweet-natured, lovely, and funny every day."


While actors like Jackman, your Tom Hanks, your Jim Parsons, have reputations for their kindness, what their reputations often translate into is a sense of professionalism, and one that pays off in long-term and high paying careers. Key to coming across as a pro is being a good partner to everyone on set through your kindness, by knowing your lines, by coming prepared for the day's work, and by respecting those you work with on and off camera/stage.


There are, of course, things that will help you, as you work with other actors, to build a reputation as a good or even great scene partner. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you work with others in scenes:

Listen

One of the most important aspects of being a good scene partner is to actively listen. Be in the moment with your fellow actors and listen to what they are saying and how they are saying it. Read their body language and be prepared to respond to what’s happening rather than what you thought should happen. J. K. Simmons, who played Schillinger in HBO’s Oz, says, “The thing that I learned or that was just a part of my process from the beginning was to listen. And I mean both as an actor when you’re playing a scene and also just in life in general: Be a sponge.”

Take Direction

This comes as an element of listening out of scene. Good actors know how to take direction and make asking questions of their directors and clarifying instructions a key part of their process.

Be Willing to Surprise

Good scene partners are not only ready to listen, but are willing to try new things on the set. You should still respect the writer’s lines and the director’s vision, but part of being in the moment may be trying a new way of delivering a line or responding to your partner’s actions. D’Arcy Carden (Janet on The Good Place) said of her co-star Ted Danson, “He is, maybe, my favorite scene partner of all time. He’s so present and giving and funny and can do it differently every single take.” That willingness to adapt pays off in deep respect from fellow actors.

Don’t Get Caught Up in Yourself

Upstaging is another word for ego, and only the most self-involved partners insert themselves actively into a scene where their role is to listen. Even the seemingly most insignificant roles in a scene offer you a chance to help build the story in unobtrusive ways. If you’ve seen New Girl, you’ll know Winston, played by Lamorne Morris. This truly ensemble show has key moments for each character and times also when they must step back. Morris notes that “As an actor, you go in and do your job and have fun, but when you’re working with such a big cast, the script plays a part in who’s really showing off their stuff a little bit.” It’s that kind of egoless recognition that has earned Morris his reputation as an actor to work with.

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