Phone-acting 101

Posted on May 24, 2011


Characters in TV and movies talk on the phone much differently than real people.  In real life you have the benefit of talking to a live person, but one actor on the phone is charged with carrying on a conversation for two.  We can’t tell what the unseen, unheard person is saying, but the actor on screen gives us both sides of the conversation by repeating all the information given by the off-screen chat partner:

“Hello, Dan.   What can I do for you?  What’s that you say?  The CEO of the company is coming to inspect our factory?  And he wants to have dinner at an employee’s house?  And he selected me?  And he used to date my wife in college?  And you heard she still has feelings for him?  And my oldest son looks exactly like this CEO?  And you always wondered how he could be my son if Alice was five months pregnant with him on the day I met her?”

My favorite part of phone-acting is when the actor pauses to listen for a fraction of a second and then repeats a line that would have required one minute for him to hear:

“But why does the president need to see me tonight? (o.5 second pause)  Really?  An alien spacecraft is descending on New York City and will arrive by midnight and the aliens have taken the vice-president hostage and the aliens are demanding we surrender earth and the alien queen is out-of-this-world attractive?”

Whenever I get a short phone call and my wife is in the room, I wait until the person on the phone says “bye”, I answer with “uh-huh” and then after the hang up I use the opportunity to practice my phone-acting to see if I can get a reaction from my wife.  The real conversation starts out:

(My phone rings)
Me: “You got Paul.”
Andrew: “Did I leave my keys on your table?”
Me: “Yeah.”
Andrew: “Will you be home if I swing by in an hour?”
Me: “Yeah.”
Andrew: “Great.  Bye.”
Me: “Uh-huh.”

This is the part where I continue the conversation by myself for my wife’s benefit:

“Who’s afraid of responsibility?  Me?  I’m not afraid to take a paternity test!  I’m not afraid to take a paternity test!”

“What?  You’re in love with me?  Run away together?  But you’re my wife’s best friend!”

“No.  No.  You weren’t listening to me in the lab.  It’s three parts water and one part poison.  If you give him three parts poison and one part water he’ll be dead before you can get back to the party and establish your alibi.”

“50,000 dollars in damage?  But I could buy her 50 new wheelchairs for that amount!”

“How was the test run?  What!  You couldn’t read my notes?  You lost my drawing?  But the ramp has to be at least 45 degrees or the rocket bike will never clear the gorge!”

“She filed another complaint?  What did I do this time?  What?  500 yards?  Oh, I thought the judge said 500 feet.”

“And the light is blinking red?  And it was a solid green before you smashed the window?  Well, that probably means ADT security will be there in 6 to 7 minutes.  Alright.  Good luck.  Love you too, Dad.”

“Sure, my wife would love to make 500 creme puffs for the cancer fundraiser.  Is there anything else she can do to help?  Wait, what?  The fundraiser is raising money for cancer and not against cancer?  Then you better only put her down for 300 creme puffs.”

“Who’s not breathing?  How hard did you hit him?  Go poke him with a stick.  Yeah, I’ve got some garbage bags, but just go and poke him with a stick before we start talking garbage bags.”

And when I get off the phone she asks, “Who was that?” and I always shake my head and answer, “Must have been a wrong number.”

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