This may seem to go without saying, but actors sometimes forget this.
A good scene has two characters in conflict about something. About whether or not Mom should be cremated or buried at sea. About who should get the Renoir knock-off and who gets the Ming vase. About whether we should order in Chinese or pizza while we argue about it.
Both characters want something, but what they want is in conflict. That is, if you want to cremate Mom and I think she should be buried at sea, one of us doesn’t get what we want if the other one does. (Unless we agree to cremate her and spread her ashes at sea.) If I want both the Renoir and the Ming, and so do you, one of us will be unhappy if we get neither, and both of us will be unhappy if I get the Renoir and you get the Ming. And if I hate Chinese food and you insist on ordering it, then I’m going to grouse through dinner.
The fact that not getting what we want in a scene is going to make us profoundly unhappy is what helps to heighten the drama (remember those “stakes” we talked about.) And so we fight for what we want, for what we believe, in this moment, is the thing we need in order to be happy.
It really is that basic. Our lives are driven by the need to be happy. Eating the last piece of chocolate cake will make me happy. Getting a raise will make me happy, because now I’ll be able to buy a new car, one that is reliable, fuel efficient, and beautiful, none of which can be used to describe my current car. Marrying the man of my dreams will make me happy. Getting revenge on the co-worker who screwed me out of that promotion will make me happy.
Or so I think. I might discover that revenge isn’t what I hoped it was. Or that it backfires on me in some disastrous way. But at the moment that I am seeking revenge, I am positive that it alone will make me happy.
But in art, as in real life, happiness is rarely handed to us on a silver platter. As in my “dead mother” scenario, two people often have contradictory desires, and that makes us go to war over what we want.
If there is no conflict, there is nothing to watch. It’s boring, and we don’t care. So it is up to you as an actor to find the conflict, and to make the most of it. The more you fight for what you want, the more we want to watch you do it.