Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Actors: Acting Against Type and Each Other

Posted by Neal on July 1, 2006

There’s an interesting quotation that’s been getting reprinted a lot. It’s from Anne Hathaway, during an interview about her role opposite Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. She said:

Acting against [Meryl Streep] was like taking a cold bath of terror every day. I was always ready to wet my pants.

Now why would Anne Hathaway want to take action against Meryl Streep? And even assuming she had a good reason to do it, what did she do? Circulate a petition? File a lawsuit?

But wait, there’s more. Evidently, Meryl Streep acts against people, too, but only if she thinks they’re good enough to warrant it — perhaps once they get good enough to be a threat, she squashes them like bugs. And to judge from this second quotation from Hathaway in the same interview, it is considered a compliment for Meryl Streep to do this to you:

Meryl had to see Brokeback Mountain before she believed that I was good enough to act against.

Or maybe Hathaway just intended act against to mean “act (theatrically) in scenes with another actor, especially one with a strong reputation.” That would make more sense, but do people really use act against in this way?

Evidently, they do. Googling the phrase acting against and restricting the hits to those with the word movie in them, I got (in addition to a lot of acting against type hits) several hits with this meaning for the act against, all from the past year and a half:

Acting against [Daniel Day Lewis] in that film would have been a daunting task for anyone. (Regarding Gangs of New York, Mar. 2005. link)

Martin Lawrence is the one in the spotlight, though he is almost always at his best when he’s acting against another talented actor. (Review of Rebound, July 2005. link)

The movie itself is quite pretty as is the young Meryl Streep acting against a little known Englishman named Jeremy Irons. (Review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Oct. 2005. link)

You have two leading men – Collin Farrell and Christian Bale – who you spend large amounts of time acting against. (Interview with actor in The New World, Jan. 2006. link)

So what are the challenges acting against Robin Williams? I imagine it’s like holding your own against a tornado or something? (Interview with actor in RV,
Apr. 2006. link)

How did act against come to have this meaning? Some of the other hits I got suggest a semantic progression, starting from an original, compositional meaning of “act theatrically, against a particular backdrop.” This compositional meaning appears in text referring to actors “acting against” a green or blue screen, in movies that involved a lot of special effects that were added after the filming took place. The earliest one I found was from 1999:

Geena Davis, who’s had experience acting against special effects before in “Beetlejuice,” … (Review of Stuart Little, 1999. link)

Law and Jolie have plenty of experience acting against blue screens (in A.I. and Tomb Raider, respectively), so they may even pull off respectable action-movie performances. (Regarding Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Mar. 2004. link)

Here, all we got were B.C. actors who were not from B.C., acting or over-acting against a horde of CGI beasties. (Review of The Matrix Revolutions, 2004. link)

Director/scriptwriter Kerry Conran has pulled it all together in this film which has the actors acting against a blue screen and the computer wizards doing their work filling in the background. (Review of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Sept. 2004. link)

Dennis Quaid tries to make the best of his “father rescuing his son” bit, but when you’re acting against a snowstorm, people are going to remember the storm, not the actor. (Review of The Day After Tomorrow, late 2004. link)

Although Naomi Watts deserve considerable credit (and praise) for giving a naturalistic performance (where exaggeration tilting into caricature would have been more than likely, especially when acting against a greenscreen)… (Review of King Kong, Dec. 2005. link)

From acting against a backdrop to be filled with various animate or inanimate computer-generated images, we come to acting in the presence of an imaginary character, to be added later as a computer-generated image. The earliest attestation of this type that I found was from 2003:

As far as the novelty aspect of it goes, some major kudos have to go out here to the technical crew who took care … of coaching and helping the actors act against characters that weren’t there at the time. (Review of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? DVD, after Mar. 2003. link)

Not only does every line they deliver remind us that 50 [Cent] is like a block of wood they’re acting against (one imagines the tennis balls on sticks used to denote eyelines for CGI monsters give more back to actors), but that they’re acting at all. (Review of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Nov. 2005. link)

From acting in the presence of an imaginary character, it’s a short jump to generalize act against to refer to acting in the presence of real actors, and it seems the idea of it being a difficult task has carried over as well. This story is consistent with the attestations I found: acting against special effects in general as early as 1999; acting against special-effects characters as early as 2003; acting against other people as early as 2005. And here’s a nice example of the oldest and the newest of the three usages in the same quotation:

Not that acting against Adrien Brody is much different from acting against a blank wall painted bright blue. (Regarding King Kong, June 2005. link)

The story will be falsified if act-against-another-actor is found to antedate act-against-a-CGI-actor, or if act-against-a-CGI-actor is found to antedate act-against-a-background-of-special-effects. This sounds like a job for… Ben Zimmer!


3 Responses to “Actors: Acting Against Type and Each Other”

  1. Philip Whitman said

    Perhaps she meant to say acting “opposite” Meryl Streep and, just being an actress who normally has her lines created for her, just didn’t choose the right word, since in some contexts “opposite” can mean “opposed to” or “against,” whereas in other contexts “opposite” can mean “across from” or “in the same venue as,” etc.


  2. Neal said

    That’s a possibility. In fact, opposite is the word I’d’ve chosen if I’d been expressing the thought. But I still think my scenario has a decent chance of being true, too.

  3. michael said

    I wonder if the current trend towards talking about the craft of acting (e.g. DVD commentaries, “Inside the Actors Studio”) has encouraged use of “against” to describe the interaction of actors. Much like a young tennis player hits a ball against a wall – a learning/growing actor trusts another actor to be that same type of reference point. If so “to act against” could be a cooperative act. I wonder if there’s evidence of the phrase being especially common relatvie to the other current trend towards improvisational acting (Curb your Enthusiasm, Christopher Guest movies…).

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