Gabriella Cirillo on fundamentals of acting

Kopano Lekhoathi

“I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an actor, but growing up with very strict Italian parents, who believed I should do something ‘normal’. I did drama throughout school and I spent a few years in South America, and that’s where I got very involved with the theatre. I think that just fuelled my passion for the stage and for film, ” this is how Actress, Casting Director and Acting Coach, Gabriella Cirillo narrates her introduction to the performing arts.

After years of appearing in many commercials, Cirillo booked her first acting role on Egoli: Place of Gold and an international French film, Platinum. She then decided to transition into casting after working as a casting assistant with a few casting directors for a year. Cirillo described her introduction to casting by saying, “I love acting and I love working with actors and being able to get into the directors’ head and understand what they need to see on camera and so I thought that I should do it for myself.” She has worked along-side many casting directors and some of her works include casting on many successful tv shows such as, Still Breathing and most recently, Tshedza Pictures’ Legacy.

In addition to being an actress and casting director, Cirillo also works as an acting coach because she believes, “Formal education in this industry is very important, because there’s a whole lot of skills you can acquire”. She added, “You learn how to read a text, because when you’re preparing for a character, you need to delve deep into the story and understand the plot and also keeping in mind your character as a central point”. Cirillo further stated that, “Training can help you look for hidden clues when doing character analysis and development, you also get exposed to different methods and genres of acting, you learn how to decode subtexts and you learn how to work in a team”. Also related to training she says that training also helps you to get familiar with technical vocabulary used in the industry. The most important skill one can acquire from seeking acting training is that you get to understand your own body, mind, voice, and character.

Receiving training from a formal institution like a university or a performing arts school and the kind of training one can get from an acting coach, Cirillo describes to be very different. She says that a formal institution has a syllabus that is stretched out over three or four years and an acting coach may often have a syllabus as well, but you just dive right into the technicalities and nuances of acting. Cirillo’s acting coaching is very practical, she spends most of her time with her students and they breakdown many different kinds of scripts from movies, tv shows and theatre plays. She also added that an acting coach can also help their students with short-term, and long-term goals related to their careers, such as preparing for upcoming auditions.

Not many aspiring actors can get the opportunity to afford a formal institution or an acting coach, Cirillo says that for those who might find themselves in this position but still want to receive some kind of training, she says, “Google is your best friend. Go onto YouTube, take up a master class and just do as much as you can in order to learn.” She also says, “If you’re somehow connected to the industry, get a hold of scripts and practise using those”.

People often confuse stage and screen acting, they think it’s a similar process in performing. Well, that is not the case. Cirillo says that the main difference between stage and screen acting lies in the location of the audience. With stage acting, you have the audience right in front of you and for screen acting, the audience is often at home and sitting on their couch. Yes, the main objective for an actor in any scene is to captivate their audience, but there is a different approach to use in each situation. This leads to voice work, facial expressions, and body language. Cirillo makes an example by saying, “In stage acting, you don’t just shed one little tear, because only the front row of your audience will be able to see it, whereas in screen acting, the actor is often put close to the camera to capture that moment”. She added, “because screen actors often have so many close ups, they have to be more subtle in their performance. They need to have natural expressions, natural body movement, because huge and exaggerated stage acting can often look really awkward and silly on camera.” Another aspect that is different in stage and screen acting lies in preparation for the actor. With stage acting you have to get it right and know all your lines and cues because there is no room for mistakes. In screen acting, you get given a few takes to nail your scene. She also says that actors on stage need to learn how to improvise because anything can go wrong at any given moment, like missing a cue, forgetting a prop and other technical aspects and no matter what, the show must go on. With screen acting, there are a whole lot of influences in how the actor needs to perform, this often relates to budget concerns, which can also have an impact in shooting schedules and most times, they have to shoot their scripts  out of order, and this requires a mental reset from the actor. Another key difference in stage and screen acting is that stage acting provides the actor with a lot of freedom. Cirillo says that this happens because the actor has had more time to prepare, from the getting to know the environment they’re going to perform at and breaking down the script and exploring their characters a bit more.

Talking about acting methods, Cirillo shares ten key points which she believes every actor needs to ask themselves when doing character development, analysis and learning lines and becoming the character they’re portraying.

  1. Who am I? This is where you analysis the kind of character you have to portray, their family, their childhood, and their entire background.
  2. Where am I ? This is where you breakdown where the character lives and if your character is familiar with these surroundings as this can and will influence the characters’ behaviour.
  3. When is it? Here you ask yourself of the year your character is in, the season they’re in and the time of day.
  4. Where have I just come from? You have to identify what the character has done moments leading to the scene you’re trying to unpack because It’s very important to understand your characters’ previous circumstances.
  5. What do I want? This is a very important question to ask. Here you identify your characters’ needs, their motivation behind what they do. Their main course of action.
  6. Why do I want it? This is where you create the drama, intensity, and interest behind your character.
  7. Why do I want it now? Being in the now gives you immediacy that is very crucial in drama. You have to ask yourself, why does you character want to do what they want to do at that exact moment and why not later or why didn’t they do it before.
  8. What will happen when I don’t get it now? Here you unpack the consequences that will come after not achieving what the character wanted.
  9. How will I get what I want? Here you outline what your character has to do to get what they want. This question helps the actor in term of breaking down the scripts and all its nuances. Here you develop your characters persona from how they walk, how they talk and their entire behaviour in general.
  10. What must I overcome? This deals with inner and outer obstacles the character and the actor faces. Every actor must have an inner and outer obstacle. The outer obstacle is resistance to the main objective, and this is often always the other characters in the story. The inner obstacle is the inner conflict. There must always be something the character wants to overcome in their personal life, because you’re never without an inner obstacle.

The acting industry in South Africa has to represent many kinds of people and for an actor, this requires them to be very versatile in terms of languages, accents and other skill sets they can acquire because this can also provide them an opportunity to work abroad as well. “Also, versatility is important because we often get told that that is the job of any artist, you have to be versatile”, Cirillo says. She added that this all stems to the time you invest in your craft.

The last piece of advice Cirillo shares with all actors is to know their own characters, know their own minds, body, and their own souls, because this is the only way you can maintain your own mental health and emotional stability.

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