Mel Churcher is a world-renowned acting, voice and dialect coach who has worked with Hollywood stars such as Daniel Craig, Keira Knightley, Gerard Butler, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jet Li, to name but a few. Alongside extensive work on blockbuster films and high-profile TV series, Mel has taught in most of the major London drama schools, delivered courses all over the world and written two books on acting – ‘Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second’ (Virgin Books) and ‘A Screen Acting Workshop’ (Nick Hern Books).
My first introduction to Mel’s work was through her second book. At the time, I was a recent graduate trying to supplement my drama school training and adapt to screen. My agent did an excellent job of getting me in front of the right casting directors but I quickly discovered that acting for camera required a new skillset I had yet to develop. One of the most liberating lessons came from reading Mel’s ideas on staying alive: reconnecting to the effervescent life and fire we all have as humans that is so often shut down the moment the camera starts rolling and we begin trying to be small. I use several of Mel’s core principles in my own work as an acting coach today.
This year, Mel has a new book on the horizon and ahead of its release I jumped at the opportunity to deep dive into her craft. Immediately from our initial conversation it’s clear that Mel is a paragon of her own teaching, exuding the same qualities that she seeks in her actors working for screen: enormous life, joy and fire. I was eager to learn more about the roots of her impressive and varied career.
Where did your education in acting begin?
I was brought up in Africa. One of the funny things was I’d never seen any professional stage acting. Lots of am-dram, but never anything professional until I persuaded my mother to bring me to the UK where I arrived at the age of 16 in a bright red mackintosh. I proceeded to go round all the drama schools and they said “Come back when you’re older”. So my mother said, “Well, you’ve obviously got no talent, why don’t you come back with me?”
I decided to stay. I went to a slightly eccentric drama school called Corona Academy, where, actually, a lot of now-famous people also trained. My mother went back to Africa and I went into the bedsits of London in the sixties. I did about a year and a bit at Corona and then very happily got an agent. I had quite a nice run until I got too old to play nineteen-year-olds anymore. By then I was in my thirties and it got steadily worse until I got to my forties and was playing beaten up people in The Bill, or social workers.
But I never stopped learning. I went to masses of workshops, did an M.A. at Middlesex University in my forties and then, when I found myself in the RSC’s voice department, I decided I’d better do another one and did an M.A. in Voice Studies at Central. I joined the British Voice Association and just kept on working with people, and still do.
What type of work do you enjoy the most?
Well, I absolutely love working with actors, I feel very free coaching. On movies I love pre-production. Actual 14-hours-a-day, five-months-at-a-time, standing on a set has its moments, but it’s quite hard to reach the actor. It can be quite frustrating, the set bit.
I absolutely love travelling. I prefer location work to studios, I get a bit stir crazy in studios. It’s just that it’s so long! I have a kind of 12-week thing; at the end of 12 weeks I go slightly mad, I know I do. Especially if I can’t get home.
Marco Polo for Netflix was fascinating to work on. It was a very different kind of project where you didn’t have one guiding director. You have lots of different directors and lots of different producers, all telling the actor different things. Terrifying really. It taught me a lot, separate to the movies with one director and one vision. I’ve been on a few sets like ITV’s Victoria for a few days but that was my last really long thing away from home and on a set all day, every day.
Since then it’s been pre-production, and I enjoy my workshops very much, I enjoy teaching my coaches very much. I’m going to do that again in February for Central’s MA Actor Coaching course.
And I love working with directors. I wish I did that more. I ran some classes in Germany with both beginner and more experienced directors. I have some that come from my workshops and I have a few, who I won’t name, who come to me when they’re preparing.
So that’s all gorgeous.
In your second book ‘A Screen Acting Workshop’ you talk about being big on camera which may come as a surprise to actors who have been told to ‘do it smaller’ or ‘do less’. You say, “Film can’t be smaller than life. On the contrary, your reactions are likely to be (truthfully) enormous.” What does it mean to be truthfully enormous?
I defy you to find one actor who you think is fantastic that you would call small.
Film is made up of enormous things that happen to people. That enormity might be suppressed because they don’t want other people to see how much they’re hurt, or see how enormously they want to kill someone. And whether they release it or not depends on the world they’re in, who they are, relationships, and that’s like life. That’s what happens to us in life.
You’re looking at the problem that we have as actors coming through theatre. It’s nothing to do with loud voices or anything like that. It’s because in theatre you have an audience and therefore you have to share with them in some way. Sometimes in a big theatre they won’t be able to see your eyes or see expressions so you learn to do something that helps them understand what you’re going through. That bit you don’t do in life and you don’t do on screen.
The biggest thing, I think, is that there’s no audience when you’re doing screen, there’s nobody there except you and the other people in the imaginary world. The crew aren’t an audience. The crew are out there doing their jobs. It’s nice to think that film is life but it isn’t quite, it’s distilled life and you’ve got cameras there.
I’ve been really fascinated by this idea of time and space. I say it’s like jumping into a magic circle but that circle becomes your own individual time and space which you only share with the other people in that scene with you. When you jump in it and you become fused with the role then you act as you would in that world, in that situation, as you are, as enormously as you would with those other people. But you don’t need to share it. As soon as you share it, it looks false. And some director who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening will go, “Can you do less? Can you stop acting?” Because you’re starting to show them how you feel when in life you wouldn’t.
You know, I think our biggest problem is learnt text. There’s something very constraining and unnatural about text, it keeps you in your head instead of in your centre. People feel real in a rehearsal room when they improvise. If you decided what to say in a real-life situation, when you go in you’d never do anything you’d prepared because of everything that happens around you, and the other person, and the cat that ran in, and the light that changed… Nothing is the same. To make it feel like that real impulse, that magic trick of making it feel like it’s us speaking, that’s the difficult part. If you tie that in with the fact that we might think we’ve got a hidden audience that need to understand, and that we feel uneasy because we’ve got learnt text, it’s really difficult to be truthfully enormous. And it’s always enormous inside.
I mean, you watch an actor when they’ve forgotten their lines. It’s utterly enormous.
Do you find with some actors there is a fear of being too big?
There isn’t in kids, is there? I always go back to child’s play; what was it like when you were a kid and you completely believed in that castle, or that battle, or the ghosts? You were enormous and truthful. In a way, all you have to do is believe. As you get older and you play parts that are different to you, you might have to research what it was like living in 1700 or what this territory was like and all the things that give you pictures in your head. But in the end, all you’ve got to do is believe. And if you believe it’s you as the role in the situation and suddenly you see the enemy, how can that be small? It’s just a question of believing the game.
You gestured towards your centre as you were talking. How would you like that transcribed?
I don’t mind. Solar plexus, chakra, core, centre. This abdominal-diaphragmatic area is where we have the most amount of nerve endings, that’s why it’s got an official medical name, but it’s often known in the east as solar plexus. Plexus, the braid of all the nerve endings. Solar is the fire.
You have to have fire as an actor.
You wouldn’t get up in the morning if you didn’t have some kind of fire that you had to do something and it’s the same for your role. If you want your role to live they’ve got to have fire. I prefer the idea of fire to needs or wants. You have needs, of course you do. But there’s a fire to do something and there are so many different fires. It might be a volcano exploding with anger. Or it might be one that never explodes. You might have a sparkler of excitement. A fire of passion. It might be under lock but still enormous. A warm healing fire that makes you want to feed, to love, to care.
I recall one of my first TV jobs when I was fresh out of drama school and I asked one of the leading actors enthusiastically, “Do you warm up your voice? Do you do all of your drama school exercises before walking on set?” And he said quite frankly, “Not really. I just say the lines.” As a young, wide-eyed actor I was shocked.
How important is a trained voice for screen actors?
Before I answer that, your chap said something incredibly important. That is what I mean with learnt text, it’s really hard to just say it as if it’s you. We still need to warm up, and by the way, an awful lot of actors out there do, but maybe this guy’s been in this particular programme for a while and he’s relaxed, he’s confident, therefore he’s on relaxed breathing. You walk onto a set for the first time, you’re not, you’re up there.
[Mel’s signals to her chest and throat, her breath becomes shallow. Her voice is constricted, weaker and higher pitched.]
And so you’re going to talk like that and that’s not how you talk in life. You just need to say it. So in a funny way you actually only need to be able to have a relaxed posture and talk from your centre because that’s what we do in life. We’re always working from our centre unless we’re nervous and, of course, stage and singing make you consciously work from there.
If you were to ask me does an actor need to do all that work for stage, I would say absolutely. It’s really difficult for someone to go from screen into stage if they haven’t learnt how to make the audience hear without losing their voice, and con them into thinking that they’re really talking to someone next to them.
But screen is a trap as well. If you’re not relaxed like that actor you spoke to and you’re not really speaking from your centre, you’re going to want to lean forward, you will use half a voice and you won’t sound or feel real. I’ve developed lots of very quick fix exercises that you can do very fast without anyone knowing. Do I think you need twenty minutes to warm up every day? Probably not. But I do think you need five.
In a funny way, you could do all the work on the role and then if you came in, got locked with fright and said, “I want you to go” [Mel disconnects her breath from her core and her voice becomes strained], it would be terrible. If you knew nothing about the text or the story or anything, but you just sat there and said from your belly, “I want you to go” [Mel’s voice is rooted, full, and the words are spoken with ease] you’ll sound real and the audience will do the work for you.
I really do think you ought to go somewhere and just get used to relaxed breathing, find out how it works. Nobody ever told me the physiology of it when I was at drama school. I think it’s important to know why it’s happening and how to do it so that then you can tap into it. I do this all the time with experienced actors on my workshops who say “I can’t play strong roles, I’m really nervous” and the whole thing is just because they’re not working from their centre.
We need to be able to do what we do in life and the reason we can’t is because there’s a crew, which can be as many as several hundred, and there’s a camera. Or in theatre, there’s an audience. All these things make us forget how to move at all, how to speak at all, how to think at all, because we stop breathing, we stop moving and we’ve locked ourselves up. That’s when the training comes in.
Do modern actors find it harder than previous generations to be present and turn their focus outwards?
It’s a really interesting question. Are we only talking about actors? Or are we actually finding ourselves more and more separated out as humans, for all sorts of reasons.
Here we are on Zoom.
People aren’t even picking their phones up to call anymore, are they?
We are afraid too. Of saying the wrong thing, of being cancelled, of getting mocked on social media. So we’re much less likely to just go out with what we think. We’re going to start censoring. We talk about subtext a lot and what we really mean is, are we actually going to open up and say what we mean? I think that has become harder and harder because you’re always watching what you say.
One of the things that turns a performance inward is judging yourself. Some techniques, if used too long and not by a good teacher, do the opposite of what they’re meant to do. Instead of releasing you, they make you start judging “Was that real? Did I feel that?” We don’t do that in life. I would say human beings are incredibly brave. If you look at the news and you see people, they’re practical. They want to you to understand what they’re going through so they’re telling you. They’re not going “…then this terrible thing” [Mel speaks with exaggerated sadness], they’re not doing that. We should stop trying to feel as actors and instead know who we are, what we want, the life we’ve led. And then it’ll happen as it happens.
I do say to directors when we see a wonderful take, “They’ll probably come and ask you to do another now because they didn’t feel it”, and sure enough…
We don’t remember it as actors, it’s just gone, and we go, “I didn’t feel that. Can I have another take?” But that’s what life is like. We don’t feel it. We’re not saying we are never conscious of feeling, but we don’t try to make it happen. It just happens.
We’ve also never been asked to do things on our own as much as we are now. I think self-tapes are a terrible trap. I work a lot with people on self-tapes and the problem is that they’ve got a missing person. They might have partner, mum or Zoom-in reader, but they’re not the actor they play with and they don’t give enough time to creating that other person. It’s different to when you’re on the set and you work moment to moment with what comes off your real actor. With self-taping you’ve almost got to decide what’s coming off the other actor so that there’s something you’re responding to and seeing, otherwise we do start talking to ourselves.
Some actors place great importance on their ability to produce real tears. Do I need to be able to cry on cue to be a good actor?
No. I mean, watching someone cry is very boring really. Technically it’s difficult because you’d start crying in the master shot because you’re an easy crier but by the time you get to your close ups later in the day, not only have you got swollen eyes and everything else, you’re dried out. The point is to know inside that sense of loss or frustration, whether it makes you cry or not, and if they really want tears they can give you glycerine. Also the makeup department have a little thing that they put in your eyes that makes them run. I don’t think you and I would watch a film and think, did they actually cry? The point is, we knew what they were going through and we might’ve cried while we were watching. I do occasionally use triggers with people but they’re not much use because you’d have to be crying right at the beginning of the scene.
In my workshops we always start with people telling real experiences, real stories. We’re so good at that and we’re such good storytellers, and we only hit the moment when we hit the moment. If you decided this is a sad scene and you play your trigger, but actually you should have the joy of life until that window opens or that telephone call comes or whatever, it’s not going to help you. So I’d say we have to take that away.
Is using an eye irritant always approved of? An actor who hasn’t done that before might think, “I can’t use that! They’re going to think it’s not real, it’s not good enough.”
Yeah, well, I don’t think anybody knows except the makeup department. The director doesn’t have a clue. The thing is, there’s no cheating. We are finding a way to believe. It’s proven that if you smile, you release serotonin and you start to be happier. If you stand up straight, you feel more confident. And if your eyes prick with tears, your body feeds back to you that you’re crying and that you’re about to cry which makes you cry. It’s not cheating any more than wearing a different piece of clothing.
What’s the difference between acting for stage vs. screen?
When you’re on the stage you’re trying to bring the audience into your time-space bubble. You’re inviting them to believe along with you. Technically on a stage they have to be able to hear you. You can’t just think because they won’t be able to see that up in the gallery. You absolutely need to be truthful, but you need to share it to the extent that everybody joins you in understanding. In the front row you’re going to get more energy coming up but you know it’s theatre so you welcome it because it’s like you’re on the stage with them. If you’re in the back row it’s just like being in a long shot, you’re hoping that you will hear and that you will get clues as to what’s going on.
On screen there’s no audience, so you’re just truthful in the way you are in life without an audience. There’s always this desire in an actor when they first do screen to show you the subtext in case you haven’t got it. To show you what’s going on, to explain it for you. And to some extent that is needed in a live theatre space. But when you’ve got a camera and it can see what you think and it comes even closer than your closest human being would come, you only have to think and it’ll see it. You don’t have to add anything. Be truthfully enormous, when you need to be enormous, but you don’t have to add anything to make it interesting or explain it or show you’re scared. You just do what you do if you were terrified because this rhinoceros is coming at you, you know, you don’t have to show me you’re scared. What life do you live? What are you doing here? What senses do you use? Why do you want to be where that rhinoceros is and what are you trying to achieve before it kills you?
Very dangerous, apparently, rhinoceroses!
It’s a question not of truthfulness, but of energy. The energy in screen is the energy you would use in life in that situation. The energy in theatre is the energy you would use if you wanted people to share your world from a distance, but without going up in pitch or doing anything that alienates them. It takes a lot more energy in theatre. Energy of thought and energy of body, energy to send it. Having said that, it depends what the scene is in the film. It takes an awful lot of energy to ride over the Alps yelling at your troops. So it depends what you’re doing.
Donkey’s years ago, I played Hermia at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 1975 and Ian Talbot was Bottom. They use mics all the time now but they didn’t in my day. People used to go from six weeks in the rehearsal room and being really real and natural and then get on that giant stage and they’d go potty for a couple of days before they found the right energy. But the impulses are still real. Isn’t that the point? I mean not every text is naturalistic but the impulses behind everything are genuine.
Are there any parts of the industry that you believe would benefit from change?
We’d like more women writers. We would like more diversity. We would like more opportunities for actors. I’d love directors to do a little bit more thinking about what actors need. Don’t just give them the end result. Metaphors are fine, like you feel hot or you’re walking on ice. They work really well. But please can they understand they have to tell actors why they are crying, why they are angry, and not just ask for the effect.
In 2003 in your first book, you mentioned the lack of good roles for women. Then in 2011, in your second book, you highlighted it again in more detail. Here we are in 2023: have things progressed?
European film is good. In Hollywood they still have to be botoxed, etc. This year in BAFTA people are trying harder with which films they put forward. There are definitely more women directors. There’s definitely a bigger mix of things. So I’m hopeful. I think now I’m more hopeful that there will be more openings for everybody in different ways that we don’t expect.
How is the third book coming along?
I’m told April now, we’ll see. It’s called ‘The Elemental Actor’. A lot of the stuff that I’ve said in the other books will be there in a different guise but I’m also looking concretely at lots of the things we’ve discussed today. I use air, earth, fire and water a lot and pop in lots of metaphors to approach it. It’s got a lot more voice work in it I think as well.
But yeah, it’s about myth and magic which you see everywhere and in everything now. Those primal sources that Shakespeare is absolutely full of but so is everything from Star Wars to Banshees of Inisherin. It’s very hard not to find it everywhere.
In some ways our lives are becoming very superficial, which we talked about, and yet as audiences we seem to be really drawn to those primal drives. Game of Thrones for example. Why? Because we’re not releasing it in our own lives. Let’s hope we’re not releasing it by violence and other things. It’s quite hard to find something that isn’t rooted in myth and magic. There are some very domestic dramas that aren’t but the minute that you start looking at things like jealousy and revenge you’re back into myth and magic. It’s about finding out what lies beneath the surface, much deeper than subtext, about your role. What’s driving you? What’s that need for power or need for safety or need to protect? What are those deep things that are going on underneath?
It doesn’t have to be violent. You said you’ve got a little one on the way, what primal drives are there? You’re making sure that this world is safe for that little one. I think my book is a lot about finding joy again, because we do lose joy if we’re not careful.