Coffee in the Cup

You’ve all seen it. The moment in the big budget Hollywood movie where the big time movie star is not drinking hot coffee out of a cup. He is not drinking the hot coffee out of the cup because there is nothing in the cup. Nothing hot. Nothing coffee. Nothing at all.

Instead of drinking coffee, he is pretending to drink something that isn’t there, out of a cup that is clearly not full. Of coffee, tea, water, or anything… other than air.

He looks ridiculous, waving his hands around as he talks, including the one holding the empty cup of hot coffee that isn’t there. Then he puts it to his lips and pretends to take a sip, but there is no steam coming from the cup. There is no reaction to the hot liquid. He does not swallow. For an annoying instant, you are taken out of the world of the film and are left wondering why a famous movie star in a big budget Hollywood movie is holding an empty cup and pretending badly to drink liquid that isn’t there.

How much could it possibly cost to have a pot of hot coffee standing by when shooting the scene? They could make this actor fly. They could make the room fly. They could change the color of his tie in editing. They could change the color of his suit. They could shave off a few extra pounds. They could shave him. They could make the coffee leap out of the cup, form a mirror reflection of the actor, and even have it speak to him, before splashing back into the cup. Or onto his face.

All this they could do, but fill a simple cup with actual coffee in real life? They cannot manage that?

Why would this actor agree to mime drinking, when he could simply ask for the cup to be filled with coffee? You can’t blame him, or at least not entirely, but you do have to wonder if he is aware of how much more believable his performance overall would be in that scene, if the easiest of the efforts to recreate reality were taken care of by simply being real.

What’s the point of acting something that does not ever need to be acted? Why act drinking, when you can just drink? Save the acting for the moments that count.

Most stage actors know how important props are. They are carefully prepared on the prop table in the wings, labelled by the stage manager, and god forbid you should touch someone else’s props, or put your own back in the wrong place. There would be hell to pay. For a good reason. Every prop person knows how important it is to have the correct prop exactly where it belongs, and how valuable those props are in the scene.

This should be that much more important on screen, which is supposed to be so much more literal. Right?

When she was asked about performing the lead in Funny Girl over a thousand times, Barbra Streisand famously said, “I began to wonder why there was dust on the plastic flowers. Then I began to wonder why the flowers were plastic.”

Onstage, you might not want actual hot coffee in a cup, for a number of reasons. It could spill and burn the actor or actress. Or stain their costume. He or she might not like coffee. The sole prop person might be needed on more important props in other scenes, and won’t have time to prepare a steaming hot pot of coffee. (All those prop-heavy British parlor comedies come to mind, with silver trays of tea sets and platters of cucumber sandwiches.)

However, there will be something in that cup. Cold tea. Water with a splash of cola. Something. So the actor can actually drink from the cup in the scene, rather than mime drinking. Why should this be any different on camera?

Look, I’m a mime. I could probably make you believe that I am drinking coffee that isn’t there. I could probably make you believe that, even if the cup isn’t there. That’s the whole point of mime. However, not many Hollywood movie stars are mimes. Not many of them have had any training in mime. So when the big time famous movie star is waving that empty cup around before pretending badly to drink from it, you really can’t blame him. Not just him.

You do have the right to ask, however, shouldn’t someone have pointed this out to him? Shouldn’t someone have noticed how silly he looks doing that, and offered the simple suggestion that they use… oh, I don’t know… an actual cup of coffee?

There is a scene in a small budget film about musical theatre actors in New York. The lead actor, who is far from famous, neither in the movie nor in real life, is carrying two cups of coffee down the stairs of his five-floor walk-up. The cups are ceramic. They are full of coffee. Hot coffee.

As he tries to walk down the stairs carrying these two cups of coffee, the hot liquid spills. It leaps over the sides of the cups, onto his hands. Onto his clothes. Onto his feet. He reacts exactly as a person would.

Carrying those two cups full of hot coffee changes the way he moves. It forces him to do things he would do in real life, without being aware that he is doing those things. Moving in that way. Most importantly, it makes his performance completely natural. The reality of the scene does not need to be faked. It just needs to be.

This guy was smart. Or someone on that film was smart, and the guy was grateful.

When he got to the bottom of the stairs (and no, they did not film him walking all the way down the entire five flights,) he was met by another actor who did not have to act when he saw the leading man covered in spilled coffee. He merely had to look at him and the work was done. For both of them.

That should be the case in every film, and what is so puzzling about it not being the case, is how easily it could be. Just put coffee in the cup. That’s all.


About anunperfectactor

Actor performer storyteller.
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