Idioms: Authenticity for International Actors

man and woman standing side by side

At the heart of acting is the pursuit of authenticity. It’s about fully inhabiting a character, understanding their world, and making it believable for the audience. This is where idioms come into play. These phrases aren’t just linguistic quirks; they’re windows into culture, history, and emotion.

What are Idioms?

An idiom is a phrase or expression that has a figurative, or sometimes literal, meaning. They don’t necessarily make logical sense when translated word for word, but have understood meanings within a particular language or cultural context.


  1. Kick the bucket (to die):
    • I can’t believe old man Jenkins finally kicked the bucket; he seemed invincible.
    • After a long and adventurous life, Captain Redbeard kicked the bucket on his ship.
    • She joked that if she ever tried to go skydiving, she’d probably kick the bucket before even jumping out of the plane.
  2. The ball is in your court (pushing another to make a decision):
    • I’ve done everything I can to set up the project; now, the ball is in your court.
    • We’ve given you all the offers we can; the ball is in your court to accept or decline.
    • I’ve told you how I feel about this relationship, so the ball is in your court now.
  3. Spill the beans (reveal a secret):
    • I can’t believe she spilled the beans about the surprise party we had planned!
    • Tom, if you know where we’re going this weekend, don’t spill the beans.
    • I promised I wouldn’t spill the beans, but it’s so hard to keep such exciting news a secret!

Why are Idioms Important in Acting?

  • Offer cultural insights: Knowing idioms can show you more about a character’s background.
  • Enhance authenticity: Use idioms to make dialogues more natural and relatable.
  • Highlight key moments: Some idioms can signal a major turn in a story, like revealing a secret.

How Can Idioms Improve Your Performance?

  • Depth: Understand the emotion or history behind an idiom to add layers to your role.
  • Connection: Relate more with characters and audience by using idioms correctly.

Example in Conversation!

Catching up with the multi-talented Berend McKenzie — a writer, director, and actor based in Toronto. Watch as we discuss video chatting and listen closely; you’ll catch Berend casually dropping the idiom ‘spill the beans’ in our candid conversation.

The Challenge of Idioms in Acting

Idioms, while rich in cultural meaning and local flavour, present unique challenges to actors, especially those for whom English is an additional language. Their metaphorical nature means they often don’t translate directly, which can cause misunderstandings or a loss of the intended nuance.

  1. Literal vs. Figurative Interpretation: For an international actor, it might be tempting to interpret idioms literally, leading to confusion. For instance, “kick the bucket” doesn’t relate to any physical action of kicking, but rather means someone has passed away.
  2. Cultural Context: Some idioms are deeply rooted in specific cultural histories or stories. Without understanding this background, the essence of the idiom may be lost.
  3. Emotional Resonance: For an actor, it’s not just about understanding the meaning; it’s about feeling the emotional weight and significance of an idiom, which can be tricky if it’s unfamiliar.

Tips to Overcome These Challenges:

  1. Research & Practice: Dive deep into the cultural and historical background of the idiom. The more context you have, the better you can internalize its meaning.
  2. Consult with Native Speakers: Whenever possible, run lines with native speakers. They can offer insight into the subtleties and common usages of the idiom.
  3. Physicalization: Try to associate idioms with a physical gesture or action. This can be a private rehearsal tool, helping you connect the body with the emotion or intention behind the idiom.
  4. Keep a Personal Idiom Journal: As you come across idioms in scripts, jot them down. Write out their meanings, origins, and any personal associations. Review regularly.

Remember, idioms add flavor and authenticity to scripts, capturing the essence of a culture or a community. Embracing and understanding them not only enhances your performance but also deepens your connection to the character and their world.

Acting isn’t just about words, it’s about understanding their deeper meanings. Master idioms, and you’re one step closer to a standout performance!

Published by andreaheald

Andrea Heald, M.Ed., a distinguished English educator with a decade's experience, holds a Master's in teaching English as an Additional Language. With 20+ years in theater as a director, stage manager, and administrative specialist, she merges her skills to empower individuals as communicators on stage and in life.

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