How long does it take actors to memorize a movie script? The answer to this question definitely varies by actor, script, and maybe even what the actor had for lunch, so we will have to generalize a bit.
Having spent some time on movie and television sets as an extra (Friday Night Lights and Tarantino’s Death Proof), I can tell you that even lead actors spend plenty of time waiting.
In fact, actors may spend more time waiting to act than they do actually acting, giving them plenty of time to read over the script.
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Unless the actor is preparing for a monologue, other actors will be in the scene. While the sets are being prepared or other scenes in which they do not appear are being filmed, actors will often run lines together before shooting their scenes.
Memorizing Lines for Movie Scenes
An important thing to consider is that movie actors don’t act out the whole movie in its entirety in one go. They only need to recall their lines for whatever scene they are shooting that day.
More than likely, they will be doing several takes of one to three scenes on a given day. The scenes won’t be acted out in the order you’ll see them in the final production.
For example, suppose there are two or three separate movie scenes that take place in the same location, one at the beginning of the script, one in the middle, and one near the end.
In all likelihood, the director will want to shoot all three scenes while on the location where the scene takes place. They will shoot the remaining scenes that take place in other locations on other days.
Shooting scenes in a nonlinear fashion over several days or weeks, with repeated takes of each scene, requires that the actor get and stay “in the moment.”
This means that the actor will need to act out the first scene, skip ahead to the middle scene, and then to the last scene, pretending that all the plot points in between have already taken place while acting out the later scenes.
Still, it really isn’t going to require nearly as much memorization of lines as acting in a stage play does.
There is no film these days to leave on the cutting room floor because it’s all digital. The actor will be doing several takes of any scene; some of those takes will be due to the actor forgetting the line, others for other reasons.
This may have been problematic when film reels cost money, but that is no longer the case. It would be impractical but not impossible to shoot the movie, stopping every few lines so the actor can look at the script. Movie actors don’t really need to memorize very much at all.
“Shooting movies, it’s not like you are doing a play and you have to remember the whole thing from beginning to end every night.” – Samuel L. Jackson
Memorizing Lines for Live Theater
Over the past decades, I have been cast in several lead roles in various theater productions, beginning at age 14 with a small role in the British farce “No Sex Please, We’re British” and most recently in a musical.
So, while my film acting experience is somewhat more limited, I do feel qualified to discuss the subject of memorizing lines.
The average stage play has the same run time as a feature film at 90 to 120 minutes, with a short 15-minute intermission at the halfway point. Most scripts I have worked with have anywhere between 70 – 90 pages of dialogue.
There are no second takes in theater, so stage actors must memorize all their lines.
Stage actors spend around six to eight weeks, usually four or five evenings a week, rehearsing together before opening night.
During the second week of rehearsal, the actors’ movements on stage, known as “blocking,” will be incorporated as they run through the script. This helps significantly as position and movement serve as cues for lines.
Typically, actors are expected to be “off book,” meaning they can act out their scenes without using the script by the end of the third week of rehearsal.
Memorizing Dialogues vs. Monologue
Repetition breeds familiarity. I would always highlight my lines in the script with a yellow highlighting marker. By the time we were off-book, I would have a picture in my head of the pages of the script with my highlights and notes and the page numbers at the bottom.
By opening night, many actors will have memorized not only their own lines but everyone else’s lines too. If a castmate does forget a line, another actor will often feed the line to their castmate or improvise to cue the castmate without it being obvious to the audience.
Monologues, often used for auditions, are scenes where an actor is the only character speaking. These are more difficult than dialogues because no partner in the scene can cue you as to what your next line is.
So pure memory may be even more critical to successfully act out a monologue.
To sum up, most movie actors will only need to memorize a few pages of a script at a time, often requiring just a couple of hours of review before shooting a scene. They also have the opportunity for retakes if needed.
Stage actors will need to memorize all of their lines in the script. There are no second takes. They generally rehearse several nights a week for several weeks to accomplish this before opening night.