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How to Play Drunk

Illustration by Radio
Illustration by Radio

Article by Malia Wollan – originally written for The New York Times Magazine.

“Acting drunk convincingly is about the hardest thing you can do,” says D.W. Brown, 60, an acting coach based in Santa Monica, Calif., who has worked with both film and stage actors. There are famous film scenes for which actors are said to have drunk alcohol, but getting intoxicated for real is ill advised, especially for stage actors, who perform the same scene day after day. Figure out how to fake it instead, which will require practiced motor-skill impairment and discernible psychological shifts.

Alcohol relaxes the body. “Shake it out, get very loose,” Brown says. Sometimes it helps to start by spinning yourself into dizziness and noting what it feels like to stand or walk when your balance is off-kilter. When he’s working with actors on a scene, Brown will often have them start by acting more drunk than what’s required and then dialing it back and trying to conceal it, just as tipsy people do. “You’re trying to fight off that disequilibrium,” Brown says. Be particularly deliberate about actions a sober person would do with ease, like buttoning a shirt or counting out money.

Find the right level of intoxication. “Subtlety is a tremendous mark of virtuosity,” Brown says. Still, you have to meet what Brown calls “audience expectation.” If drunkenness is written into a scene, the audience wants to see you sufficiently soused. On an inebriation scale of one to 10, Brown says most scenes call for a seven or eight. In order for the audience to register you as drunk, he says, “you need to slur more than most drunk people would in the wild.” Consider the type of drinker your character is. Brown helps actors choose from his taxonomy of archetypes: aloof drunk, happy drunk, maudlin drunk and angry drunk. Usually, you’ll want to stick to one type unless something in the scene triggers a switch — like, say, a kiss, or the mention of someone’s name. Note that alcohol blunts reactions, creating a kind of emotional sogginess. “For an angry drunk, you want a generalized foulness and misanthropy, as opposed to a pointed rage,” Brown says.

A drunken scene might be comical, but that humor should not come from an actor mocking his or her character. Your job is to embody a character, not judge it. “Never think you’re better than anybody you’re playing,” Brown says.

D.W. Brown

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