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Exposing the Liar, the Fool, and the Pig (blog)

In acting, characters have objectives. The objective is what the character wants in the scene. Without an objective, a character is passive and uninteresting. Good actors phrase the objective as a question. The idea behind phrasing the objective as a question is that it creates an active need for that question to be answered. The “driving question” usually begins with, “How can I …?” The actor refers to himself in the first person.

The driving question is posed to the other character in the second person. Instead of, “How can I force him to hear me?” the actor asks, “How can I force you to hear me?” Stating the question in the second person keeps the actor personally engaged with the other actor. It removes the invisible “pane of glass.” Staying active and present makes the driving question potent and real.

The driving question should sound like the character and come from their “emotional core.” The core is the emotional center, the main motor that propels a character. There are eight emotional cores: control, love, power, security, freedom, passion, respect, and truth.

Suppose you are playing a scene in which you are a teacher working with a problem student. Here are some examples of driving questions reflecting different choices of cores for the character of the teacher:

  • If the core is truth: “How can I get you to understand that these aren’t just words? This is real.”
  • If the core is power: “How can I force this jerk to learn this crap?”
  • If the core is passion: “How can I get you to embrace this amazing stuff?”

Secret inner actions are the path to achieving your driving question. They are secret because the character may not want the other character to know what her real objective is. Actions are always active verbs that are physical. Actions always begin with “to …” For example, if your driving question is, “How can I crush you?” your secret inner actions could be: to bait you, to hook you, to reel you in. The inner actions must lead to the driving question, or else they are wrong.

If the secret inner action is what you’re doing, the outer tactic is the “how.” Specifically, it’s how the actor reveals or conceals his inner action. The outer tactic is also an active verb, but ends in “ing.” This dance between what you want (secret inner action) and how you go after it (outer tactic) is what many people unconsciously do in life. When it comes to acting, actors have to figure it out ahead of time.

Here is a quick and dirty example. Can you remember back to the time when you were in middle school and you asked that pretty girl or cute guy out on a date? The driving Question is: “How can I get you to go out with me on a date?” The inner actions are: to charm, to captivate, to seduce, to sweep off your feet.

You’ve chosen the inner action, “to seduce.” Okay, but how specifically do you seduce? There are a myriad of different ways. These are what’s called your “outer tactics.” Here are a few examples: Befriending, flirting, coochi-cooing, tickling, boasting, complimenting. Each of these choices has a different energy.

Outer tactics are like having an artist’s palette, and the actor gets to choose from many different colors. The actor is the artist.

Combinations of inner actions and outer tactics create tension and dimension, especially if the actions and tactics don’t match. For example, if a person is insincere in complimenting you, the inner action might be to “cut you down” by “honeying.”

Circling back to the courtroom, consider the following example. It comes from the creative genius of Dana Cole.

You represent Jake, who is accused of selling drugs.  The prosecution’s chief witness is Meghan Connolly, who now admits to being Jake’s partner in the drug trade.  When first arrested, Meghan denies knowing Jake, much less being his partner in a criminal enterprise.

On direct examination, she says that she lied to the police “to keep from going to jail.”  She is a single mother of two daughters, ages five and three.

The penalty for selling drugs is twenty years.  Ms. Connolly agrees to testify against Jake in exchange for the prosecutor’s recommendation to dismiss the drug distribution charge and to charge her with possession only.  In addition, the prosecutor has agreed to recommend a three-year suspended sentence.  Meghan was convicted of possession of a controlled dangerous substance eight years ago and was sentenced to one year in prison.

Below are the three questions that I ask myself:

  • Q1: Driving question: “How can I expose you as a lying snitch who has falsely accused my client of something he didn’t do?”
  • Q2: Inner action: to explore, to uncover, to reveal
  • Q3: Outer tactics (the external mask for what the character is doing): revealing

Note: Because my emotional core is “truth,” my inner actions and outer tactics are identical.

This insight might lead to the following cross-examination:

  • Q: Ms. Connolly, I understand you have small children?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: Daughters?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: Could you please tell the jury their names and ages?
  • A: Sure.  Sarah is five and Taylor is three.
  • Q: Do you have any help raising your children?
  • A: No.
  • Q: Their father does not help you?
  • A: No, we haven’t seen him in quite some time.
  • Q: If you go to prison for twenty years, who would look after your little girls?
  • A: I don’t know.
  • Q: That must worry you quite a bit.
  • A: Yes, it does.
  • Q: How old will Taylor be in twenty years?
  • A: Twenty-three, I guess.
  • Q: She will be a grown woman?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: What about Sarah?
  • A: She’ll be twenty-five.
  • Q: If you go to prison for twenty years, your children will grow up without you?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: That must be frightening for a young mother?
  • A: (No response.)
  • Q: You will not take them to school?
  • A: No.
  • Q: You will not see them in school plays?
  • A: No.
  • Q: You will not read to them at night or tuck them into bed?
  • A: No.
  • Q: You will not see them off to the high school prom, or attend their high school graduations?
  • A: No.
  • Q: You will not be there to take care of them when they are sick?
  • A: Not if I’m in prison, no.
  • Q: You would like to be there for them, right?
  • A: Of course I would.
  • Q: You have been to prison before?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: You know what it is like there?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: You were scared while you were there?
  • A: Sometimes.
  • Q: Scared of the other inmates?
  • A: Some of them.
  • Q: There is no privacy in prison?
  • A: Not much.
  • Q: You sleep in the same room with other inmates?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: Shower with other inmates?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: The guards tell you when you can eat?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: When you can sleep?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: When to take a shower?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: You can only have visitors on specified days?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: And for specified times?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: In a large and noisy room?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: Sometimes nobody comes to visit?
  • A: (No response.)
  • Q: You count the days until you can go home?
  • A: Yes, if you know how long it will be.
  • Q: You don’t want to go back there, isn’t that true?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: Not for twenty years?
  • A: (No response.)
  • Q: There is a way you can avoid that?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: You understand that if you testify for the prosecutor in this case, the prosecutor will charge you with simple possession and not dealing in drugs?
  • A: That’s what he said.
  • Q: And you believe him?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: He will recommend a three-year suspended sentence?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: That means that you may not have to go to prison at all, isn’t that true?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: And you can go home to Sarah and Taylor?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: That would mean the world to you?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: To have your life back?
  • A: Yes.
  • Q: And so you accepted the deal?
  • A: Yes.

While at first blush this might appear to be a “soft cross,” it accomplishes the goal of discrediting Meghan. First, not only are the facts presented, but how they were emotionally experienced by Meghan has been revealed. The jurors can empathize with Meghan while concluding that she cannot be believed.  Simply put, she has too much to lose to be credible.

Doing a simple role-reversal with Meghan allows Jake’s attorney to evaluate the situation from Meghan’s perspective and experience what it must be like to be her – a young mother who was paralyzed by the fear of being separated from her small children during the most formidable years of their lives.

Nothing can be more powerful than a technique that pulls back the curtain and reveals a witness’s true motive for testifying.

An important caveat worth mentioning is what tone would the cross-examination have taken if Jake’s attorney’s emotional core been something other than truth? For example, what if Jake’s attorney’s emotional core was “power” or “control?” If so, this cross-examination would have taken on a very different tone in the sense that Meghan would have been treated as an enemy combatant who must be destroyed rather than a sympathetic young mother.

The outer tactics would have been to pillage and plunder. With questions such as “You’re a liar!” it would not take long for the atmosphere to become so tense that you could cut it with a knife.