What I’ve learned about actors, by actors
I’ve never wanted to really be an actor, but I’ve always found actors to be interesting (kind of like business affairs). One of my mom’s besties is a working actress; we would go to her house and she’d braid my hair quite often as I was growing up, or my mom would bring my sister and I to come to her house to play with her dogs Winnie, and later Biscuit. My aunt, as I typically refer to her, is highly engaging, and charming (even though she’s kind of a ham). Still, you can’t help but like her. And I thought she was insanely cool because she got to play Storm in The X-Men in a traveling performance-thing. As I’ve gotten to know her, I was able to see the complex life and attitudes of a working actor in New York City. It often made me angry if she didn’t get a part, or rejected for something. It was as though the rejection was a slight against me, too.
Anyway, she was the first actual person in my life that I knew who actually acted aside from kids in school plays. Seeing the experience, rejection, and hard work she would endure certainly turned me off from the acting thing (even though I’ve been told I do have a knack for it by people who don’t matter haha). Still, as an aspiring writer/producer, I am interested in the craft and business of being an actor — the rejection, the fear, the work, the sacrifice. I wanted to know when an actor comes to me, what are their goals? Their needs? So, I sent out to learn a little bit about what an actor goes through, from process to preparation, and practice. This is what I’ve come up with: 6 items that I’ve learned about acting, as expressed by actors and instructors themselves.
1. This is some serious business.
My sister wanted to be an actress. She never made it, but she does live in a trailer… so she got halfway. She’s an actress, she’s just never called to the set.
There are always going to be more actors than anybody can ever use.
To study acting is to also study marketing. Not just of your films, plays, or shows, but of your most precious commodity: yourself. You need head shots, reels, websites, resumes, business cards, cover letters, etc. to properly market yourself. And don’t skimp unless you skimp brilliantly.
One of the things that causes me to generally lose respect for people is the use of gimmicks and/or cliché. For some reason, people who are completely unaware of the way marketing works tend to sell themselves with relentless amounts of cheesy head shots with dumb poses, crappy websites with bad music playing in the background, lie-ridden résumés, and cheaply edited reels of their most mediocre work. I see this all the time, and I’m really only showbiz-adjacent: I live in LA, I’m married to a writer, I grew up in New York, and I know some actors. The bad stuff is just ubiquitous. Paul Russell, the tough-love actor-turned-casting director and author of Acting: Make It Your Business does what I would probably do: chuck all the crappy material from actors who don’t market themselves professionally. Whether your forte is Shakespeare or sketch comedy, your material should reflect you gently. Not like a battering ram.
Hence, a lot of people don’t make it. So, basically, if you’ve got good material for yourself, you’re already a step ahead of the hacks.
2. Method acting is half brilliant, half B.S.
The first step to a better audition is to give up character and use yourself.
All great art comes from a sense of outrage.
Both Uta Hagen and Stella Adler, two of the most venerable acting instructors of their time, were both somewhat against what had become an interpretation of Stanislavski’s method of character development/acting. Many people see method acting as having to draw upon experiences you’ve already had to shine through your acting. Nearly to the point of, if you have to break your leg in a film, you better know what it’s like to break your leg. However, it seems that Stanislavski’s methods have been somewhat devolved and misinterpreted over time. Instead, Hagen and Adler both advise actors to understand pain. Adler, who studied under Stanislavski himself, says so in The Art of Acting, when someone asks her about her thoughts on method acting (the book is basically a transcription of her courses, and it’s amazing).
3. Actors need room to create and build upon the material given.
Acting should be bigger than life. Scripts should be bigger than life. It should all be bigger than life.
With Othello, Shakespeare posed this problem of a black man in a white society in the role that he’s playing. And Shakespeare gave Othello such dignity – he came not from – as he said – not from hate but from honor, from a sense of his own human dignity. And to me, to my mind, there could be no greater character played
– Paul Robeson
As a creator of content, it’s part of my duty to create stories and characters that entice actors. And, actors, in return, will want characters that they can play with, interpret, and really feel, so that they can give a good performance.
4. Experiencing life is vital to better acting.
The articulate, trained voice is more distracting than mere noise.
Adler said students of acting should build a vocabulary of movement, and emotions. Once you master a movement as simple as eating an apple or jogging, take note of the intricacies of that movement, and then add new movements. When you have to draw upon that action in a performance, you can do it and look authentic, even if you have to mime it somewhat. You understand that movement and why it feels and looks real, so then you can duplicate it naturally.
Same goes for emotions that you want to bring to your performance. If you’re playing a young widow, it’s probably likely that you’ve never actually experienced the death of your spouse. However, they suggest thinking back to an emotional breakup or the death of another loved one, and thinking about how that effected you internally and externally. Then you apply that to your work, but make sure you then progressively adapt it to the scene or situation in play.
5. Acting is an omnipresent state of being.
Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world. The stage is like a religion you dedicate yourself to and then suddenly you find that you don’t have time to see friends and it’s not for them to understand you don’t have anybody. You’re all alone with your concentration and your imagination and that’s all you have. You’re an actor.
– James Dean
First of all, if you’re following Adler’s advice, you’re probably throwing all your thought and effort into acting, at all times. Observing how people do certain tasks, how you react to certain situations or changes.
And to prepare for an audition, as Russell said, actors should learn to avoid regurgitating the material by rote, by instead practicing with the material while doing something else like driving or doing you laundry. That way, when it’s time to audition — perform — you will be more able to feel your material, and intensify it with appropriately directed and focused actions. You won’t be that schlub sitting there reciting something off the page.
6. A.B.C.: Always Be Curious
I’m curious about other people. That’s the essence of my acting. I’m interested in what it would be like to be you.
Acting seems to be a constant repetition of observation, learning, and growth. So, maybe give Megan Fox 30 years and she’ll be really good? Who knows?