by Bonnie Gillespie
The Empty Coffee Cup
I have a major pet peeve. (Okay, okay. I have quite a few pet peeves, but this one is major and it’s actor-related, so indulge me, wouldja?) There is nothing — nothing — that does more to take me out of the moment, when I’m a consumer of actor-based storytelling, than an empty coffee cup. And it happens all the time. ALL THE TIME! Actors who will spend months in training to get the physical skills required of a role, actors who will meet with expert dialect coaches to nail accents, actors who are otherwise 100% Method in all things, will occasionally reach out to receive that full, piping hot cup of coffee from the dayplayer behind the counter, and then proceed to tip the cup up as if it were empty (which it is). It’s so freakin’ simple, yet it happens ALL THE TIME. And it bothers me. (Clearly.)
So, why devote an entire column to an empty coffee cup? Well, they say that the devil is in the details and I’d like to believe that actors who truly care about the on-screen reality to which they’re contributing would take the extra effort to “act” like an empty cup is full (or, for cryin’ out loud, ask that it NOT be empty). Is it that important? Eh, probably not. But after watching Will Smith lug around a 50-pound piece of medical equipment all movie long (in The Pursuit of Happyness), I was shocked that this same actor would choose to have his character bring the boss an empty cup of coffee. Watch for it! Here’s this HEAVY thing being given the tour of San Francisco for nearly two hours and the freakin’ paper cup can’t actually have anything in it? Heck, fill it with rocks! Anything that approximates the weight of a freshly-brewed cuppa! PLEASE! But instead, they gave that actor an empty cup and he lost the Oscar because of it! (Okay, okay. I’m probably exaggerating.)
I guess this falls in line with the wild world of continuity errors (a favorite topic of mine. I actually won a trivia contest back in college for listing the most continuity errors in a single movie — Pretty Woman). There are always going to be “little mistakes” in filmmaking that we simply let go. Money is burning by the second and producers are not going to authorize additional shoot days to go back and “fix” the little things that most viewers won’t even notice. Superfans will enjoy the anachronisms and other glitches, and there will even be TV specials about the worst offenders. But, even on a set where someone is paid to keep up with continuity, I believe it is an actor’s responsibility to minimize the damage.
See, an actor is hired for his or her ability to weave a part of an overall tapestry of this fictional world. And any time a viewer stops admiring the whole work in order to pick at a little thread that’s out of pattern, you risk losing that viewer to a shiny object somewhere else in his or her mind. If you’re on TV, that means you’re risking the dreaded channel change. If you’re in an otherwise award-winning film, perhaps the Academy just decided your performance was somehow flawed. They may not even know why they were taken out of the moment! But something was just not “right,” and their minds went elsewhere just long enough to remember how great so-and-so was in that last film they screened.
Of course, this sort of thing is not unique to the acting world! I remember being appalled at finding typos in textbooks, back in school. I would fume over having spent WAY too much money for required books and then finding stupid, sloppy typos that easily should’ve been fished out before the final print job. I remember saying, “Imagine how many sets of eyes have proofed this page by the time it gets to this stage of the process! HOW can such inferior work make it past so many skilled professionals?” Yeah. It was really fun to eat those words when my first book came out, complete with the misnaming of a particular casting director 17 times! Oh, and if you think it was simply “newbie mistake” type stuff, I appreciate your faith in my ability to improve over the years. Unfortunately, even my latest book has a lovely misspelling of a pretty important word within its pages: management. Yeah. An entire proofer patrol missed that one. *sigh* Sometimes the little suckers just get past you!
And that means there are times when the continuity errors just have to be okay. And, really, more times than not, the audience never even catches them. But for those items that are potentially within your sphere of influence, do yourself a favor and add a little continuity check to your mental “actor bag.” You’ll come off looking better in the long run if you remember where your hand was during certain portions of the speech as covered in the two-shot and match that physicality in your close-up. Is it a deal-breaker? Of course not. But it could win you friends on the set when it’s clear that you have such keen attention to detail. And, later, it could keep your audience in the moment, which is something for which you will never be thanked, but is something we certainly do value, subconsciously.
So, when you catch a continuity error in progress on set, does this mean you should yell, “Cut!” and risk being fired in a way that is both publicly humiliating and totally appropriate? No. Of course not. Your job is not to point out problems in continuity that are in others’ complete control. Your job is to bring a role to life, and if you can happen to manage to do so, also consider covering those continuity issues that you control. Like the weight of a full cup of hot coffee.
Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!
Tags: actor don't, craft, on the set