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by dr andrew cousins

Jocasta Meridien - Thespian Angel

Jocasta Meridian has been running the Meridian Academy of Drama in Islington for nearly twenty years. Her standards for entry to the academy may be extremely high but she has produced some of the finest actors and actresses in Britain today — Kate Winslett, Jude Law, Kate Beckinsale, Christopher Eccleston and Vinnie Jones to name but a few. I asked her for some of her top tips for a better screen performance

The Basics

Darlings, I often hear people using that awful phrase "it’s not rocket science". Well when it comes to acting that’s exactly what it is. Because the basics of acting are the same as basic physics. Newton’s Third Law of Motion dictates, "An action on a body will create an equal and opposite reaction". So it is with performance. The important thing is not the action but the reaction. Once an artiste has mastered the principles of reacting then he/she will have found the most important tool in his/her toolbox.

So poppets, I’m going to take you through a few of the most common emotions and scenarios that you will be asked to perform. First though we must perform some centring exercises to prepare us for le grande performance.

Breathing exercises

First take a deep breath and hold it for several seconds. Then breath out again. Repeat until you start to develop a slight buzzing headache, rather like the one you get as you smoke your first Benson and Hedges of the morning, that is nature’s signal to stop. Unlike the signalmen in Railtrack’s employ, nature never gives false signals. Ignore her at your peril. This exercise is designed to strengthen your diaphragm. An artistes voice is the most important asset that you have. Without it you will be condemned to a life playing mutes or worse as a non-speaking background artiste selling fruit and vegetables on ‘Eastenders’. No one from the Meridian Academy of Drama has ever sold fruit on ‘Eastenders’ and while there is a breath left in my body nobody ever will.

Now that we have stretched our diaphragms we must apply the same rigor to exercising our vocal chords. The best way to do this is to repeat a phrase over and over in a variety of volumes and regional accents. The phrase should be suitably complicated so as to really give your tongue a good work out. There’s nothing I enjoy more then wrapping my tongue around a really meaty idiom. My own personal choice of sentence is "She sells sea shells by the sea shore". Some people prefer "Round the ragged rocks, the ragged rascal ran". I once gave elocution lessons to Jonathan Ross and Toyah Wilcox and accidentally gave them the wrong phrases to use. Darlings, it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Lets try the exercise now using appropriate accents and volumes:

"Round the ragged rocks, the ragged rascal ran" - low volume. Somerset

"Round the ragged rocks, the ragged rascal ran" - loud volume. Glasgow

"Round the ragged rocks, the ragged rascal ran" - medium volume. Geordie

"Round the ragged rocks, the ragged rascal ran" - whisper. Cockney

"Round the ragged rocks, the ragged rascal ran" - shout. Yorkshire

"Round the ragged rocks, the ragged rascal ran" — normal volume. Northern Ireland.

If you wish you can keep going with this exercise until you’ve exhausted all the regional accents in your repertoire. I taught Meryl Streep and she could keep going for three hours without repeating an accent once. I also taught the same exercise to Sean Connery with rather less success.


Anger is one of the most common emotions you will be asked to portray. It is also one of the most difficult. The question is how do you convey anger convincingly? A good tip is to use an artificial aid of some kind. I have a videotape that I watch just before I am asked to perform a scene where I need to be angry. I find that twenty minutes of "The Best of Beadles About" and I’m ready to start kicking chunks out of people. Another good tip that you can apply mid-performance is to start off talking very quietly and then to steadily increase the volume of your voice. The volume can then be raised and lowered accordingly from then on. Michael Caine swears by this technique.


Fear is basically anger but with the polarity reversed. A quick and easy way to show fear is to quiver your lower lip and say, "no, no" over and over again. This is best combined with a slow shake of the head. Depending on your level of skill, a good mucus flow from either one or both nostrils can be effective here. Always be careful when employing mucus though, as many an actor has nearly drowned in their own phlegm. Thankfully we’ve never lost one yet but the risk is always there.


Most people assume that the best way to show confusion is either to scratch their head or their chin. No darlings, this will not do! We’re not on ‘Crossroads’ now. The best way to show confusion is to quiver your lower lip and shake your head slowly. Then look down at the floor and continue shaking your head. This is to let the audience know that you are conveying confusion and not fear.

Another good tip that you can use mid-performance is to ask yourself a question. For example, when your character is given bad news mentally ask yourself, "why did they make ‘Waterworld’?" or "how does Steven Segal still get work?"


Put simply this is confusion plus fear. You need to combine the head shaking and mucus of fear with the looking down at the floor of confusion. But you also need to add tears. Tears can be done artificially with glycerine but it’s best if you can create your own. To do this think about something that upsets you. My ’Best of Beadle’s About’ tape comes in handy again here.

Body language

Alongside the voice, your body is your greatest tool. A small gesture can make a very large difference on screen. Watch some actors at work and you will see that they can create a whole performance with just a few small movements. Harrison Ford can create an entire character with just his index finger. Study him and you’ll see what I mean. He employs it as a warning to be quiet, to indicate towards something else or as a danger signal. All with one finger.

George Clooney can do the same thing just by tilting his head. A fifty degree tilt conveys anger whilst a forty-five degree tilt suggests confusion. Kirk Douglas used to do slightly dilate the dimple on his chin. In fact the movement was so subtle that he could express a range of emotions without his face ever seeming to change at all. That is the mark of a great actor.


Acting is a slow and deliberate process. The techniques I have outlined will take a lifetime to master. Acting is a precarious business. There is a thin line between being Richard Burton and operating the till in Burtons. It’s a short step from being Sandra Bullock to mucking out real Bullocks. Even Ray Winstone once stacked shelves in Safeway.

Remember also if you do become successful how important it is to stay grounded. Acting depends on you depicting real people. How can you do that if you never see them, except out of the window of your private jet? It is important to maintain old hobbies. Catherine Zeta Jones use to work at Cardiff Museum at weekends cleaning up old fossils - now she’s married to Michael Douglas.

Break a leg darlings!

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