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The Power of Listening and Reacting: Actors Listen Up!

The camera loves to see actors listening and reacting.  In reality television or on-site news interviews, it’s the living moment that feels so poignant and sincere.  That authenticity and sincerity pulls us in.  Listening and reacting are at the heart of most acting techniques you’ll develop.  In this video acting lesson, master instructor John Walcutt shows how listening and reacting are what the camera loves most.


Hi, this is John Walcutt at 3-2-1- Acting school.  One of the things the camera loves the most is watching you listen and react.

[Title card: Acting on camera = Listening Feeling Reacting]

You listen and feel and react in a scene.  It’s very different from being on stage.  On stage, you move to pull focus.  Or the director sculpts a scene to tell us where to look.  If you think about scenes on camera, some of the most powerful moments you’ll see are moments of people listening, reacting, and what I call “taking their hits” in the scene.  Watch these upcoming pieces from class.  What you’ll notice is actors feeling something, connected, really on the moment, really taking hits from what the other person is saying.

[Title card:  Advanced Scene Study, 3-2-1- Acting Studios, Shaelan O’Connor]

Man (OS/Off Screen):   Do you know what I’m praying for?  Guidance.  Because you’ve now seen things you weren’t supposed to have seen.

Click here to subscribe to 3-2-1- Acting Studios monthly e-newsletter!Girl:  I can explain. 

Man (OS):  No.  The question is how do we proceed now that you’ve overstepped your place in the system.

Girl:  I’m confused.  I don’t know what I saw and I don’t know what to think about it.

Man (OS):  I know.  It must be very trying for you.  These things are not easy to explain.  But I will explain them to you in time.  But first we need to know if there is still loyalty here.

[Title card:  Advanced Scene Study, 3-2-1- Acting Studios, Adrian Gamez]

Man (O.S.):  Because we seem to have reached a crossroads here.  Because you’ve now seen things that you should not have seen.

Boy:  I can explain.

Man (OS):  No.  The question is how do we proceed now that you’ve overstepped your place in the system.

[End of Scene]

So I hope you understand what it is I’m talking about here.   I think the point is there are no small parts.  And did you know that big stars like Clint Eastwood and lots of other movie stars, they go through a script and they actually cut lots and lots of their own lines, because they know that the power of being on camera is listening and reacting.

[Caption:  Power on Camera is Listening & Reacting]

So if you get a small part, what you think is a small part, only one line or two lines in a scene, stay engaged, react, listen, connect.  You’d be surprised how much screen time you get.

click here to schedule a free acting class at 321 Acting school for kids in Los Angeles.It’s a famous line, “there are not small parts,” and when you do get cast, whether in your acting class or for a job, it’s an understandable impulse to want to measure your part.  Let that be an impulse and let it pass, and then get into your part.  Your lines are always only a fraction of your role.  It’s the living, breathing moment that makes television, movies, commercials, and even print work dynamic.

For print work, photographers and ad campaigns are watching hungrily for that bright, life-infused moment that captures the feeling and idea they’re trying to show.  In commercials, television and film, directors work with actors to create those moments for camera, then work tirelessly with editors to piece them together so they feel seamless and real.

Click here to Schedule a FREE trial acting class for ages 4-27 years old at 321 Acting School for kids, teens and young adults in Los AngelesEven if you’re performing solo, a monologue by yourself, you need to be listening and reacting.  In the case of a monologue, you’re listening and reacting to your character’s own words and feelings.  In life, people surprise themselves all the time.  Talk therapies are all based on the concept that vocalizing a feeling or idea clarifies, brings new meaning, and often reveals hidden truths.  What are the surprises in your character’s lines?  In a scene, what are the surprises in your character’s choice to remain silent?

Listening is a major component of keeping yourself “on the moment” and in the scene.  Veteran actor and director Clint Eastwood said the most important thing an actor should possess is, “The ability to listen.”  But in practice, what does that really mean?

The best way to learn about acting and yourself as an actor and performer is to get into an acting class.  If you’re interested in acting for camera, make sure to find an acting school that uses cameras in class and lets you see the results.  If you’re young, find an acting school for kids in Los Angeles or closer to home, wherever you are.  A good acting school for children and teens will have teachers skilled at working with young people and age-appropriate material to work with.  And try it.  So much of learning to act is learning about yourself, how to control and handle yourself, how to identify limits you might impose on yourself and strategies to break through those.  Even if you’re just practicing on your own, listen.  Listen to the words you’re saying, the words in the scene, and react to them.


It takes time.  It takes practice.  It takes doing, and it’s something that will evolve with you as you develop your skills, confidence, and actor’s toolbox.  Listen and react.  And don’t just take my word or John Walcutt’s word or Clint Eastwood’s word…  Here’s another gent’s advice to help you get started (or keep going).  An extraordinary gentleman whose love of acting, talent and persistence has resulted in decades of television and film work, Michael Caine has this to say about acting for camera:

You just hold the eyes of the other person and listen.  And listening is really what acting is all about for movies.  It’s not like theater.  It’s an entirely different situation.

When I was in the theater, I was inadvertently given some advice from a theater producer…  He said, “What are you doing, Michael?”  And I said, “nothing, sir.”  And he said, “what do you mean, ‘nothing?’”

And I said, “well, I haven’t got anything to say.”  Oscar winning actor Michael Caine talks about listneing and reacting for on camera acting.

And he said, “what do you mean, you haven’t got anything to say?”  He said, “Of course you’ve got things to say.  You’ve got wonderful things to say.  But you think there and listen, think of these extraordinary things to say, and then decide not to say them.  That’s what you’re doing.”

And that is the greatest piece of advice I can give to someone who wants to act in movies.  Is to listen and react.

(Excerpted from Michael Caine’s Acting in Film Workshop, 1987.)

Television and film editors often cut away from the person speaking to the others in a scene to show their reactions because it’s the reactions that really gives those words weight, meaning, and importance. Body language can detail story and character far more quickly and effectively than spoken words. After all, the words themselves aren’t as important as what we mean by saying them.

So listen and react.


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