December 8, 2007.
I’ve been watching a lot of Grey’s Anatomy these days and while it is one of the best shows around, it brings to my attention a Very Serious Acting Problem that has bothered me for years. In short, why do actors who are drinking coffee on-screen fling their coffee-to-go cups around as if they weren’t filled with a scalding hot beverage? Obviously the prop cups are not filled with scalding hot beverages but the actors don’t even try to pretend! I was watching a scene between Dr. McDreamy and Addison on a ferry boat. She comes up to him with two coffee cups and says, “Hey, I thought I saw you and thought you might want this.” Or something like that. And hands him one of the presumably full cups of coffee. He takes it as if it were airy astronaut coffee and proceeds to wave it about, punctuating his dialogue, and to take random and completely fake sips of the light-weight beverage. Uta Hagen, where are you when we need you???
Yesterday I was driving with a full cup of coffee. I thought of that scene and noticed how I, as a real person, drank the coffee. There was a weight to the cup as I lifted it from the holder and I was extremely careful not to spill it even with the lid. I felt the warmth from the liquid spread across my fingers. I noticed that I bent my head to meet the cup half-way because I didn’t trust that I could get the cup all the way to my mouth safely. When my mouth met the lid I took a tentative sip and made sure that the liquid on my lips wasn’t too hot. And then I savored the coffee in my mouth for a second before swallowing and feeling the warmth travel down my throat. I mean, there are so many things going on when a person takes a sip of coffee. To skip all of those steps is just plain bad acting. Not that you mark out those steps one by one, but they should at least be there.
There is such a simple solution to the prop coffee issue. Just fill the damn cup with water! Why do props masters insist on giving actors empty cups and why do actors go along with it? Water gives the cup weight and no one has to worry about spills, stains, or burns. For heaven’s sake, there’s a craft service table around every corner. No one is lacking in options for believable liquids.
When I was little I played a popular game with my sisters called Shark Attack! The game was basic in set-up but profoundly effective. We cleared a space on the living room floor and spread out a blanket big enough to hold the three of us. The blanket was our raft and the entire living room floor surrounding us became shark-invested waters. I mean, we were terrified. How were we going to get out of there alive? We kept falling overboard and getting limbs bitten off and attracting even more sharks with our blood. And that was the game. We just played it until we all died or got bored with screaming and paddling.
The imagination is a powerful thing and lately I’ve been allowing myself to return to the childhood innocence of simple belief in imaginary circumstances. If a child can believe that sharks are swimming in her living room carpet, surely a highly-paid and professional actor can believe that the cup is full of hot coffee.