Whether he’s in the Scottish play or zombie-slaying, David Morrissey says, timing and rhythm are crucial to holding together the entire production
For an actor, timing and rhythm are all about the writing. With Shakespeare it’s about iambic pentameter; we worked on the very specific kind of timing and rhythm found in classical drama when I was at RADA and, later, at the RSC. For me, the notion of timing is really all about rhythm. Even in modern drama. Every actor will talk about the specific rhythms of a speech. It has its own musicality. As you gather experience, you realise that, only once you’re really familiar with the rhythm of a piece can you start moving around the emphasis – breaking the rhythm, if you like. It can be hugely liberating.
When I played Macbeth early last year, I knew I wanted the rhythm to be fast because, particularly in the early part of the play, Macbeth doesn’t have enough time to think about what he’s doing. In one speech – ‘If it were done…’ – he tries to talk himself out of the murder of Duncan. But he is quickly persuaded back to the murderous plan by his wife. I always felt, if Macbeth had more time, he wouldn’t have done the deed, so that pace was important to me.
Modern writers such as Neil LaBute or David Mamet write in a rhythm based on everyday speech. But it still has a specific structure to it. If you break it in the wrong place or for the wrong reason, the whole play can collapse Rules about timing translate to the big screen; the dialogue of Tarantino or Martin McDonagh has a very specific rhythm holding it all together. As an actor, you are always aware of the timing of a scene. You think about it carefully and work it out in relation to the other cast members. Hopefully you will have some rehearsal time with the other actor (this is sadly not always the case) and, if you’re lucky, both the director and the writer will be on hand to offer their opinions on the way the scene should sound.
Then the director takes the rushes into the editing suite and plays around with the timing, potentially changing the rhythm of the scene. Sometimes this enhances the scene. Sometimes not.
A scene may need to be cut to the bare bones because of time pressures. It’s something you can’t control as an actor, so you just have to give it your best shot while filming the scene and then let it go.
I’ve spent the past six or so months acting with zombies on The Walking Dead and timing is everything with the undead. You have to be able to move fast in order to kill them and think fast in order to get away.
I have only one rule when it comes to zombies on screen. Humans run, but zombies don’t! Our zombies (we call them ‘walkers’) shuffle really fast, but never break into a run. Charlie Brooker’s zombie drama Dead Set involved zombies racing along the corridors of the Big Brother set and it just looked wrong to me. Whereas Simon Pegg’s zombies in Shaun of the Dead seemed much more lifelike – or, rather, more undead-like.
I love working on The Walking Dead. It’s a luxury to be on a TV series in the States because budgets allow so many different camera set-ups and more time, though I do miss working at home. I’ve signed up for four seasons, but who knows if my character, The Governor, will be savaged by a zombie and written out?