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Arts & Entertainment

5 Tips to Make Your Small Acting Role Stand Out

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

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Natalie Portman Teaches Acting

Small roles are a great springboard for a prosperous acting career. Small roles, also known as bit parts, also offer aspiring actors an opportunity to develop an interesting and memorable character around a minimal (and flexible) framework.

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Natalie Portman Teaches ActingNatalie Portman Teaches Acting

Oscar-winning actor Natalie Portman shares the techniques at the heart of her acting process—and teaches you how to tackle your next role.

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What Is a Bit Part?

A bit part is a minor acting role with between one and five lines of dialogue. While the term originated in theatre, it’s also commonly used across Hollywood in films and TV shows. A bit part can also be called an “under five” or a “five-or-less” (because the part usually consists of five or fewer lines of dialogue).

An actor who is known for performing bit parts is called a “bit-part player” or “bit player.” Bit players have a larger role than background actors (who often have no lines; also called “walk-ons”), but a smaller role than supporting actors (who usually play pivotal roles, like love interests or sidekicks, underneath the leading roles or principal actors).

A well-known type of bit part is a cameo (or cameo appearance), when a famous actor or film personality appears briefly in a film, usually for only a few lines. For example, director Alfred Hitchcock made cameos in each of his films.

5 Tips for Acting in Bit Parts

Whether you’ve already been cast in a miniseries or you’re hunting for casting calls for your feature-film debut, here are some tips to help you make your minor role shine:

  1. Memorize your lines. If you only have a handful of lines, you may be tempted to “wing it,” or not put a lot of effort into fully memorizing the lines—which is a huge mistake. Directors won’t tolerate spending a ton of time waiting for you to get it right. Whatever you do to prepare for your bit role, make sure that you arrive on-set with your lines fully memorized (also known as off-book), ready to hit your cues, and perform your lines confidently and accurately.
  2. Read and re-read the scene. In addition to knowing your lines for a small acting role, you’ll want to know the scene inside and out, so that you know exactly what sort of circumstances your character has been dealing with. Is it cold outside? Is your character frightened to be here? Did they just wake up? Reading your scene a few times will help you establish the setting and inform your delivery.
  3. Create a backstory. Just because you’re not playing a lead role doesn’t mean you aren’t playing a fully realized character—everyone has a storyline, with relationships, hardships, and aspirations. As you’re preparing for your part, think about what sort of a person your character is, and make sure that it comes through in your delivery. Ask yourself detailed questions: Is my character in love? Did they finish high school? Do they like thrillers or romantic sitcoms? Take every minor part as an opportunity to practice as a character actor.
  4. Don’t upstage the action. It can be easy to get carried away in your preparation and show up on-set ready to “steal the show”—but keep in mind that you were cast for a specific role, and the best thing you can do is to fulfill that role to the best of your ability. If you were cast in a small role, it means that your character may not be the focal point of the scene; it’s your job to play your character without compromising the work of other performers in the scene.
  5. Have a great attitude. A small part doesn’t mean a dead-end—many famous actors started their careers with small roles in film, television, or the stage. Remember that being on-set is a privilege that you should be grateful for, as well as an opportunity to form relationships and connections with other actors and filmmakers. Directors, actors, and casting directors remember people they enjoyed working with. Your work ethic and positive attitude may lead to another role or even a big break like a supporting role.
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