One-Upmanship: The Key to Chemistry On and Off Screen

Every actor dreams of knowing how to develop instant chemistry with the casting director at an audition

written by Benson Simmonds

Every actor dreams of knowing how to develop instant chemistry with the casting director at an audition and with the other actor on set.

We’ve all met someone and felt a spark, whether it was a potential love interest or just a friend. It’s a connection. You start talking about something and the other person inspires you to be funnier, sharper, smarter, kinder, more passionate, compassionate, etc. You really enjoy matching wits with this person and there’s this playful dynamic. Whether it’s romantic or just friends, this indefinable connection is the basis for on-screen chemistry. It exists in buddy films, romantic comedies.. even in action adventure films. Sizzling chemistry between the two leading characters is the essential prerequisite for every successful TV show or film.

As actors we need to know how to walk into an audition and have that playful and magical chemistry.’s time to break down the mystery and explain how to use one-upmanship to get the sparks flying.

One-upmanship is the act of trying to top each other. It’s as if you say, “oh, yeah, you think that was clever, watch this!” So it’s a way of playfully but passionately competing with the other person to “up” their game. It’s as if you’re making your objective to get the other person to prove that he/she is the one for you and up for the challenge.

Where the dialogue might simply read as a basic argument, you can use one-upmanship to transform the scene and make it a game to consistently challenge the other person.

Watch this scene from Moonlighting, a fun 1980’s TV show with Cybil Shepard and a young Bruce Willis. This show made Bruce Willis a star. And one of the reasons is because he knows exactly how to use one-upmanship. They are both constantly trying to outwit or top each other. Underlying it all is the sexual attraction. Sexual chemistry and one-upmanship almost always go hand in hand. Watch the scene from 4:13 – 5:37. It’s like a tennis game as quips and challenges are volleyed back and forth in a rapid fire succession.

Do you notice the line (4:37) where Bruce Willis says, “about you, or your whole gender”. That’s a classic “oh yeah” one-upmanship moment.

Shakespeare’s characters from Kate and Petruchio (Taming of the Shrew) to Beatrice and Benedict (in Much Ado About Nothing) engage in a endless series of entertaining repartee of one-upmanship.

Here’s a classic scene between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Watch the way he throws her the cigarettes challenging her to catch them. Then notice how he pulls up his pants and puffs his chest out. She tops him or matches him by throwing the cigarettes back at him the way he threw them to her. It’s all subtle one-upmanship, as if each character is saying, “oh, yeah, you think that’s hot and cool, well, watch this!”

As you will have noticed in both of the clips, there are usually some beats of seduction used in one-upmanship. This is where you are trying to win by getting the other person turned on by you sexually and challenging them to see what they’ll do next.

I explain this in much more detail in my complete Master Your Audition program ), but I hope these clips have helped clarify how to use one-upmanship to establish chemistry with the casting director or reader at the audition or the other actor with whom you’ve been cast in the scene.

If you bring a sense of the one-upmanship to the set, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how the other actor will respond in kind and yes…the sparks will fly!

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