Actors Who Improvised Their Best Scenes
There are times when actors wow audiences for the way they relay a particular line, and it often seems like they did a lot of preparation to say those words in a way that conveys the proper emotion. Or maybe they nailed a scene after getting some keen instruction from the director. But other actors have done a stellar job in the movies or on television by simply making up their words right on the spot.
Why would an actor have to do that? Maybe the director gave that person the green light to improvise after establishing a solid work relationship with him or her built on trust. From “I am Iron Man” to “No trust, liar,” Robert Downey Jr.’s game-changing improvisatory contributions, for example, are famous within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, it’s also possible that whatever was initially written for the actor to say simply didn’t work once it was shot, and someone had to create something right then and there.
Whatever the reason an actor has to wing it, it occasionally becomes the work their most known for, which is the case with the following screen stars. Here are the actors who improvised their very best scenes.
Joe Pesci improvised in rehearsal
It could be called one of the funniest, yet tense scenes in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film, “Goodfellas.” It’s the scene when Joe Pesci’s character, Tommy DeVito, is telling a story to his friends, as well as Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, while they’re all hanging out at the Bamboo Lounge. After DeVito tells the story and everyone bursts into laughter, Hill says to him, “You’re really funny,” totally paying him a compliment, but DeVito takes his words as an insult. “I’m funny, how? I mean, funny, like, I’m a clown? I amuse you?” he replies.
It turns out, the scene was improvised and based on something that really happened to Pesci. According to Insider, Pesci once told a mobster that he was funny while waiting on him in a restaurant years earlier, which offended the guy. But Pesci and the rest of the guys didn’t improvise the scene on film — they did it in rehearsal. Scorsese, who thought it was an interesting story, then added the new lines into the script.
“You don’t improvise on camera when we’re shooting. They all think that Marty [Scorsese] just doesn’t do anything, that he lets the actors say, ‘Okay, go ahead.’ … It’s not true,” said Pesci, who’d go on to win the Oscar for best supporting actor for this performance, in “Getting Made: The Making of Goodfellas.” He added, “It’s crazy to think you can go in there and make a movie like that. It has to be structured.” That is crazy, isn’t it?
Jack Nicholson borrowed from The Tonight Show
Who can forget a crazed-looking Jack Nicholson introducing an ax to a bathroom door, then poking his head through the gaping hole that he made to get to a knife-wielding Shelley Duvall, who played his wife? You guessed it, we’re talking about “The Shining,” folks, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror flick that’s probably most associated with two words: “Here’s Johnny.” Indeed, that is what Nicholson’s character says after poking his head through that massive hole.
But in actuality, the actor improvised the line, as the Independent reported, which was often said on “The Tonight Show” during the Johnny Carson years. Decades later, some behind-the-scenes footage popped up, showing Nicholson preparing for the famous ax scene. In the clip, he can be seen jumping around as if he’s exercising, then talking to himself to get into character, and at one point doing a practice swing with the ax (via The Irish Times). And it looks like he had to remain in character for a long time, as a separate report from the Independent revealed that it took Kubrick three days to shoot this scene, with Nicholson having to break through 60 doors before the director felt he had the final take.
Of course, it seems the long, intense shoot was well-worth it. As the critics’ consensus on Rotten Tomatoes puts it, “Though it deviates from Stephen King’s novel, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ is a chilling, often baroque journey into madness — exemplified by an unforgettable turn from Jack Nicholson.”
Daniel Bruhl broke out some impromptu dance steps
There’s a scene in Episode 3 of the 2021 Disney+ series, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” that shows Daniel Brühl (who plays Helmut Zemo) dancing in a nightclub — and it seems that many viewers have fallen in love with it. One might assume that Brühl worked with a choreographer to get his epic moves together and practiced … but none of those things happened.
Instead, the Spanish actor made up the dance moves as he filmed and enjoyed the response from those on set. “I like the way Sam and Bucky [reacted] to it, being truly annoyed,” he told ET Canada. When he’s not busy filming, Brühl revealed that he’s usually partying in his personal life, and that his friends also get pretty “embarrassed” when he breaks out his “matador moves” in a fierce “flamingo style.” The fact that those moves aren’t in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is nothing short of a crime, because who wouldn’t want to see Zemo go all matador on the small screen? Perhaps one day.
In the meantime, Brühl’s improvised dance moves quickly went viral, and he can’t get enough of the fans’ “hysterical” reaction. Noting that he felt Zemo “need[ed] to let off some steam and show his moves” after “sitting in a dodgy German prison cell for years,” he told Entertainment Weekly, “I was 100 percent sure that they would cut it out [of the show]. I was really surprised and happy that they kept it.”
The Breakfast Club cast drew from their real lives
In filmmaking, some directors don’t want actors to deviate from the script, but late director John Hughes wasn’t one of them. In his 1985 Gen X classic, “The Breakfast Club,” Hughes had actors Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, and Ally Sheedy improvise lines, including in that touching scene when they park themselves on the floor and really talk to each other.
It’s a point in the film where the characters stop focusing on their differences and realize they have more in common than not, despite being in different groups in their high school’s social scene. According to Screen Rant, Hughes told the actors to not only ad-lib the scene, but to also draw from their personal experiences of being in detention, since the plot centers on the characters having to spend all day at school on a Saturday for disciplinary reasons.
“John was very accepting of suggestions from the actors,” said director of photography Tom Del Ruth while speaking to HuffPost in 2015. “He wanted them to feel free and that gave them a lot of latitude. If there was a line or two or even a paragraph that lent itself to the character or enhanced the story, John was would simply rewrite on the spot.”
Leonardo DiCaprio stayed in character
Focus. That’s one thing an actor needs a lot of if he or she wants to nail a scene, and Leonardo DiCaprio showed that not even a bloody hand could take him away from being locked into his character, Calvin Candie, in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” During one scene, when Calvin is giving an angry speech in his dining room on his slave plantation, he accidentally smashes his hand on a glass and it begins to bleed profusely. But did DiCaprio stop the scene and ask for medical attention? Nope, he stayed completely in character and used the bloody hand to enhance the character’s hate-filled words. In fact, the film’s co-producer, Stacey Sher, told The Hollywood Reporter the glass “disintegrated” into the actor’s “hand,” but “he never flinched.”
“My hand started really pouring blood all over the table,” DiCaprio told the publication. “Maybe they thought it was done with special effects. I wanted to keep going. It was more interesting to watch Quentin’s and Jamie’s [Foxx] reaction off-camera than to look at my hand. After the take, the room erupted in a standing ovation. We did it bloodied and bandaged for the rest of the movie. I’m glad Quentin kept it in.”
Talk about being committed to getting a scene right — and really earning that Golden Globe nomination. Just, wow.
Tommy Lee Jones scored an Oscar after improvising this famous line
It turns out that arguably one of the most famous lines in the 1993 film, “The Fugitive,” was totally improvised by Tommy Lee Jones. It’s the scene where Jones’ character, Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard, chases Dr. Richard Kimble, played by Harrison Ford, onto a dam after Kimble is accused of murdering his spouse. “I didn’t kill my wife!” Kimble tells Gerard, who then replies, “I don’t care!”
According to What Culture, the line Lee was supposed to say was, “So you didn’t kill your wife,” and it could be argued those words didn’t capture the sheer desperation his character might’ve felt at the time … because he did have a gun pointed at him, let’s not forget. Per The Atlantic, this type of improvisation was par for the course for director Andrew Davis and Jones’ onscreen collaborations. “Jones, a Texan who graduated from Harvard with an English degree, had worked twice before with Davis, who knew Jones did a lot of rewriting and improvising,” the outlet notes. “The cast … established their characters alongside Jones, coming up with dialogue on the fly.”
Considering Jones nabbed an Oscar win for his supporting role in “The Fugitive,” it’s safe to say that his delivery of his improvised “I don’t care” line helped him secure that coveted golden statue.
Craig T. Nelson and Mae Whitman used their real emotions
Sometimes, the most touching scenes are rehearsed repeatedly, while actors try to find just the right emotion to convey whatever their character is feeling. Craig T. Nelson and Mae Whitman, however, did the opposite on the second season of “Parenthood” by totally winging it. During one heart-wrenching scene, Zeek (played by Nelson) takes his granddaughter, Amber (portrayed by Whitman), to the junkyard after she was in a drunken car crash to show her how badly the vehicle was damaged and to give her a necessary scolding.
At first, Amber seems hesitant to learn her lesson, but Zeek eventually makes her realize the severity of the crash in a brief speech that Nelson improvised. After saying that he dreamed about having a family and eventually grandkids when he was a soldier in Vietnam, Zeek tells Amber, “You do not have my permission to mess with my dreams.”
“He improvised this incredibly beautiful, honest, real, raw speech of, like, pain and heartache, and stuff that I knew he really felt about his own family,'” said Whitman on PeopleTV’s Couch Surfing. “So all of my reactions in that scene are totally surprised and genuine.”
Amy Adams created something for Jennifer Lawrence to do
“She’s open to anything.” That’s what Amy Adams said about Jennifer Lawrence while talking about a scene in their 2013 film, “American Hustle” — in which Lawrence’s character, Rosalyn, plants a big old smooch on the lips of Adams’ character, Sydney, during a confrontation in a public restroom. While the move wasn’t truly improvised on the spot, it wasn’t written into the original script either. As Adams revealed during an interview on “Chelsea Lately,” she actually came up with the idea.
“My character is really strong and her character is kind of crazy, and I was thinking, ‘Why would I let her leave?'” Adams explained, according to the New York Daily News. “I really want to tell her something and I thought, ‘What’s the craziest thing she could have done to me?’ I thought she should kiss me.”
For her part, when Lawrence talked about the kissing scene with Extra in 2013, she described it as “great,” while also talking about how much fun she and Adams had working in scenes together. “[Director David. O. Russell would] call cut and we’d both start laughing, ’cause we would just make such a scene … Like, these kind of women are so fun to play,” Lawrence stated.
Kadeem Hardison just wanted some help from his co-star
For those who were a fan of the ’90s sitcom, “A Different World,” they probably jumped for joy while wiping tears when the character, Dwayne Wayne, crashed the wedding of Whitley Gilbert and Byron Douglass to ask Whitley to marry him. It could be called the most dramatic moment in the show’s six-season run, so it’s very important to set the scene: Dwayne and Whitley, played by Kadeem Hardison and Jasmine Guy, respectively, shared an on-and-off relationship on the show, and viewers were left heartbroken when they parted ways. When Whitley got engaged to Byron, played by Joe Morton, and it seemed her relationship with Dwayne was done for good.
Fast forward to the wedding, when Wayne barges in, walks up the aisle, and says, “Whitley, I love you, and if you’ll have me, I want you to be my wife. Will you have me, Dwayne, as your lawfully wedded husband from this day forth to have and to hold in richer, for poorer? Baby please, please.” For her part, Whitley says, “I do” — and from there, the characters made TV history.
But as Hardison later revealed, the famous “please baby” line wasn’t supposed to be uttered at all as it was totally improvised. “[It was like] a cry for help from one actor to another,” he told Shadow and Act. “Like, ‘Yo, I messed up. Help! Girl say your line or we’re gonna have to do this again and again!'”
Robert De Niro improvised this scene while talking to himself in a mirror
Whether it’s the mob characters that he nailed in films like “Casino,” or the phony florist/retired CIA agent/meddling dad that he played in “Meet the Parents,” Robert De Niro has been known to deliver some of the best lines ever written for film. But one of his most famous lines in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 hit, “Taxi Driver,” wasn’t written for him at all — it was improvised.
Yes, we’re talking about that famous scene when De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, talks to himself in the mirror while holding a gun. “You talkin’ to me?” says the actor, which Scorsese later discussed on the “Today” show during a 2016 “Taxi Driver” reunion. “There was no dialogue, I believe, in the scene, and I remember saying, ‘Can you say something to yourself? In the mirror?'” the director explained. “It was the last week of shooting … He kept saying, ‘You talkin’ to me?’ He just kept repeating it, kept repeating it … It was like a jazz riff. Just like a solo.”
In that same interview, De Niro humbly admitted he merely said the words and couldn’t fathom in the slightest that people would remember that line all these years later. It might help that “Taxi Driver” is often listed as one of the best movies of all time — but De Niro’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of the incresingly unstable war vet undeniably has much to do with that.
Leonardo DiCaprio didn't love this famous improvised line
In director James Cameron’s 1997 tear-jerker, “Titanic,” Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jack, proclaims that he’s “king of the world” while standing on the bow of the ill-fated ship with his arms spread wide open. It could easily be called the most famous scene in the film, but it turns out that it very nearly didn’t happen that way.
During an episode of BBC’s “Movies That Made Me,” Cameron revealed that he had DiCaprio say a bevy of other lines to capture his character’s excitement about being on the vessel, but none of them worked. So, the director had to pivot, and that’s how he came up with the oh-so-quotable “king of the world” line. “It was made up on the spot,” Cameron said, according to ET. “… And I said, ‘Alright, I’ve got one for you. Just say, ‘I’m the king of the world,’ and just spread your arms out wide and just be in the moment and just love it and just celebrate it and love it.’ And [Leo] goes, ‘What?’ … I said, ‘Just f**king sell it.'”
Obviously, DiCaprio did just that — but as Cameron revealed, the actor didn’t seem to love the improvised line so much.
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