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It can seem a daunting task, being handed a script and knowing you have to memorize all your character’s lines. Although there is no one generally accepted method for remembering dialogue, memorization techniques are taught in most acting programs such as Toronto Film School’s Acting for Film, TV and the Theatre Diploma Program.
In this blog, we’ll go through some of the more tried-and-true methods for script memorization.
How Do Actors Memorize Lines So Easily?
Remember that actors make it look easy—that is their job after all. And making their lines sound convincing requires memorizing them first. Once they’ve gotten the dialogue down cold, they can then concentrate on the director’s instructions, such as when and where to move, or their character’s inflection or emotions.
10 Ways to Memorize a Script
If you’re looking to memorize a script, try these methods (or a combination thereof) and see which ones work best for you.
- When you first get the script, don’t worry about memorization or even acting out the lines. Just read it over (and over) so you can become very familiar with your character, the plot, and settings.
- Try writing your lines out repeatedly. Repetition is one of the easiest ways to memorize something.
- Try memorizing only a scene first. Only move on to the next scene when you’re comfortable you have memorized the current one.
- Read your lines out loud. To do this, find a place where you won’t be disturbed or heard. As you say your lines, consider the meaning behind the words.
- Look for patterns in the text. This is helpful particularly when there’s a lengthy monologue. For example, maybe there’s three points your character is trying to make. Consider how your character leads up to those points, or expresses them.
- If there’s jargon you don’t understand (perhaps you are playing a lawyer or doctor), find out what those words actually mean. This will help you to remember.
- Try repeating your lines when doing something else, like walking or exercising.
- Get a friend to go through the script with you by reading the other actors’ parts.
- If a scene is very complicated (perhaps there’s a lot of movement), suggest that the director allow time for a rehearsal. This may mean just allowing a little more time on set when that scene is being shot, rather than making time on a different day. But it will allow you to get that scene down pat.
- Consider your surroundings. If there’s a prop you can associate with a particular line, then make that mental connection so you can better remember later.
The benefit of acting in a film or television production (one that isn’t live) is that you will have time between setups to go over your dialogue for the next scene. However, the more the script is memorized in advance, the more you can concentrate on your performance as opposed to remembering the words.
How Do Famous Actors Memorize Lines?
Matthew McConaughey says one of the questions he gets asked most often is how he memorizes all his lines. His answer is that it’s never about memorizing the lines—check out this video for his insight, and for more tips on acting:
Samuel L. Jackson says that once he gets into blocking a scene, his character’s movements help him to remember his lines:
Do Actors Really Memorize Lines?
They do, because it’s the first step in acting their part. However, even with the best of intentions, actors can sometimes forget their lines. During shooting, a script supervisor is usually on set with the latest version of the script (see our blog on the role of a script supervisor for more).
Sometimes actors are fed their lines through an earpiece, known as an ‘earwig’—but that’s rare. That’s because an earwig increases production time as shots have to be framed a certain way to avoid seeing the device in the actor’s ear. In addition, the actor has to listen to their lined before repeating them—sometimes causing an awkward pause which can throw off the other actors. This pause can usually be edited, but not in a theatre or live production.
How Much Time Do Actors Have to Memorize Their Lines?
When an actor is casted often determines how much time they have to memorize their lines (assuming that the script is complete). Sometimes, actors can get signed to a project and have months or weeks to memorize their lines. Sometimes it may only be a few days, hours or minutes (if someone is casted last minute, or revisions are happening on set).
Michael J. Fox wasn’t the first actor casted as Marty McFly in Back to the Future. When Eric Stoltz wasn’t working out, Fox was brought on to replace him. Incredibly, he agreed without first reading the script. But his involvement meant working on his NBC sitcom Family Ties during the day, and Back to the Future at night. This included weekends. So Michael had double duty when it came to memorizing his lines. This must have been especially difficult for Fox because Family Ties was shot in a front of a live studio audience.
Christopher Plummer replaced Kevin Spacey in the film All the Money in the World. The movie had already been shot and edited when the decision was made to remove Spacey from the film. The plan required Plummer to shoot his scenes in just nine days because the film was only one month from its release date. Plummer has stated that it was his theatre training that helped him to memorize his lines so quickly.
Once the film was released, the actor was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Listen to this Kwik Brain podcast for more tips: Memorize Scripts and Lines Quickly.
What is the Most Important Skill for an Actor?
It’s hard to pin it down to just one skill. Memorization is very important, even critical, but so is the ability to take direction, be physical, and interact with other actors. All while making your character’s behavior and motivations believable. This is why professional acting training is so important.