writing your own material
Recently, we lost Ray Liotta. Elizabeth Banks directed Liotta in what turned out to be one of his last films, Cocaine Bear. Banks decided to cast him after working with him on another film as an actress and seeing Liotta's approach to performing a scene. After he delivered an "amazing" take with "scathing intensity," the film's director requested one more. As Banks told the New York Times:
Ray said, “OK, what do you want me to do differently?” The director said: “I don’t know. I feel like we just need one more for safety.” Ray said: “No. If you’re not going to direct me, then I did my work. I’m done.”
In Liotta's view, he had made an original contribution to the film. That was his job. He could simply have said his lines, of course, but he put a creative spin on his performance. He made the scene something more. The director didn't appreciate the value of that contribution, but Banks did. She understood that Liotta was more than just a performer. He was a creative contributor. As a relatively new director herself, Banks wanted to work with co-creators she could count on to bring something original to the table.
On Magic Mike's Last Dance, Steven Soderbergh recognized this same creative quality in Salma Hayek. At first, Soderbergh's team worried that an actress of her stature wouldn't be willing to perform some of the more outrageous dance moves with Channing Tatum. This fear proved inaccurate, as Soderbergh told Vulture:
[Hayek] felt like, If we’re here, let’s do it. There’s so much of her in the film because we were building these scenes based on conversations we were having with her. The scenes where she’s debating or challenging Mike to make something better: Those were all conversations we were having with Salma in which she was challenging us to make the movie better. There’s one big argument scene they have about whether the “Suavemente” performance should be in the show — “You don’t have a climax!” — and they’re just really going at it. That’s what it’s like to get into a creative conversation with Salma. It’s that intense! You’ve gotta step up to her level. She’s so smart and she’s so quick that, if you can’t keep up with her, she’ll just run right over you.
Whatever your main skill or expertise, cultivate the ability to contribute something new. Not just the ability—the willingness. Generating material is an attitude first. Get comfortable speaking up. Creativity is stone soup—it's on each participant to add something to the pot. The ability to do this is a force multiplier, but for most people, it goes against the grain. We don't give ourselves permission. "I'm not the director."
Let the director tell you that you're not the director. Until then, raise your hand.
“Humans need people to talk,” Chris Rock said in a podcast. “Fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, philosophers used to be famous. There’s no more philosophers. People used to be religious, went to church every week. No one goes to church anymore. So the only place people actually go to hear people say their thoughts is through standup.”
Rock isn't kidding about these parallels. He comes from a long line of preachers. He even watches preachers for inspiration when working on a new act. Philosophers, preachers, and comics all stand up and say what they think in front of a crowd. (I'd argue that comics are the most truthful of the three—people are always honest when they're "kidding.")
The whole episode from Fly on the Wall is worth a listen. It gets particularly relevant near the end as Rock discusses what it takes to succeed as an SNL cast member with fellow alums David Spade and Dana Carvey. All three concur that the show's superstars—Myers, Sandler, etc.—were set apart by their ability to generate material. To make creative contributions beyond comedic timing and delivery, funny voices and physical contortions. Someone might not be the strongest comedic performer at their SNL audition, but if they bring a point of view to the stage, Lorne Michaels notices. If Michaels sees a bit in your audition that he hasn't seen a million times before, according to the three comedians, he will single you out. Originality beats execution.
Whatever you do, regardless of your role, you can add your spin. Don't hesitate. Originality is easy: speak your mind. It takes real effort to steal ideas.