What Makes A Great Actor? (Talent Isn’t Important)

Actor

So you want to be an actor, but you’re not sure if you’re good enough. Welcome to the club! It’s almost impossible to look at yourself and know whether you’re a good actor or not. In fact, most actors cringe when they see themselves act. But there are a few things that you can do, that some of the best actors in the world all have in common.

A great actor will have knowledge of acting techniques, the ability to research, the ability to empathise and most importantly, the ability to let go. An actor must be able to prepare in advance but let go and trust that their preparation was good enough and trust their instincts.

Of course, acting is an art form and art is subjective. But there are a few things that people commonly recognise to be important in improving as an actor. So let’s go into depth about the key attributes that all actors should have. Whether you’re naturally talented or not, by focusing on these things, you will without a doubt, improve.

Table of Contents

Control of Self (Body and Voice)

There’s a reason that all drama schools dedicate so much time to the body and the voice. Even if you have the psychology of a character, without having full control of your body and voice, your performance won’t sit well. An actor that doesn’t have control of their physicality and their voice will often seem awkward, out of place or won’t command the presence needed on stage or screen.

It’s very important that actors constantly train their bodies and voice in order to stay in control. Most of us are very sedentary in day to day lives. You don’t have to be an athlete, but as simple as it sounds, getting up and moving really is so important.

Many actors swear by movement practices like yoga, as it helps improve mobility, flexibility and connects the mind and body. If you don’t like yoga, that’s fine. Find something that works for you, something that you enjoy and will stick to. Adding this practice to your morning routine can be extremely beneficial.

Practising voice doesn’t just mean accents or singing, this is all aspects of the voice. Tone, pronunciation, projection, accents and much more. Actors spend years in drama school training their voices, you want to be prepared for any scenario you’ll have as an actor. Many actors believe that training the voice isn’t as important if you want to work on screen, but I thoroughly disagree.

Knowledge of Acting Technique

Acting techniques are very important in helping an actor develop their range. There are many different acting techniques, and I believe that there is a technique for everyone.

Maybe you’ve learnt Stanislavski’s methods but you don’t find them useful. That’s fine! Learn about Uta Hagen, Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg instead. Eventually, you will find something that works for you.

The usefulness of these techniques cannot be understated, some of the best actors in the world all have one thing in common; they’ve trained in one or multiple of these methods. You don’t have to follow them to a T, but by learning them you can take what you find useful and create your own technique.

In widening your knowledge of acting methods, techniques and practices, you will create a toolbox that you can pull from for each role. Certain techniques may be great for certain roles and not others. This is one reason that drama school can be great as it gives you intense training in multiple disciplines.

If you can’t afford drama school or classes to train you, there are many books and videos of Meisner, Uta Hagen and Stella Adler teaching and explaining their techniques. These are insanely useful resources.

Empathy

Before I explain why empathy is so important for an actor, it’s crucial that I establish the difference between sympathy and empathy. According to Merriam Webster, “‘sympathy’ is when you share the feelings of another; ’empathy’ is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.” This is a very important distinction.

Actors will often play a wide range of characters, some of which can be very dark. You won’t always agree with the actions or decisions of a character. So it’s important that an actor has the ability to empathise with a character, to understand their motivations, whether they agree with them or not.

It’s not an actors job to judge their characters’ decisions, but to understand the journey that the character embarks on that ultimately informs those decisions. You cannot truly play a character well unless you understand how they think, act and process emotions.

The Ability To Research

A great actor will have the ability to research. This can take place in many forms, from analysing the script, to doing online or in person research about aspects of a characters life. If your character is a doctor, you must be familiar with the process in which someone becomes a doctor.

If you’re playing a real person, it’s important to dive into every aspect of their lives. You need to truly understand who that person was and how other people perceived them. If there is an opportunity to talk to people that knew the person you’ll be playing, this would be an amazing opportunity.

When Gary Oldman played Lee Harvey Oswald (the man charged with the assassination of JFK) in the 1991 movie JFK. Oldman travelled to Dallas and New Orleans and would meet people at a bar who would know people, who knew people that knew Lee Harvey Oswald. He said that he had to be an investigator.

Through this, Oldman was able to meet one of the closest people to Lee Harvey Oswald and would find out really interesting, tiny details about the man. For example, he didn’t like the dark, he would eat an ice cream cone every morning and he couldn’t stand people that he couldn’t predict.

Whether this information seems important or not, it helps build a profile that gets you into the mind of the character. You can then ask questions about why they do those things. Asking questions is the key to in-depth research. This level of research should also be done for characters that are fictional too. Treat them as if they are real, because to the audience, they are.

Work Ethic

The greatest actors are the ones that put in the work. Acting isn’t easy, it can be incredibly draining. It can take years to hone the craft of acting.

But the ones that persevere, that love it so much that they put in every bit of effort to learn and improve, that study the techniques and learn from the greats, that spend hours researching and developing their characters and everything else that comes with being an actor. Those actors will be great.

The people will a killer work ethic are the people that are often called talented. It’s not talent, you just don’t see the work they put in. A great actor will put the work in to make it look like they don’t have to put the work in, they make it look that easy.

Confidence In Your Choices

It’s extremely important for an actor to make strong choices. Many actors don’t dedicate themselves to their choices as they’re worried that their choice may be wrong.

When auditioning, performing or developing a character, an actor needs to make strong decisions. Even when those decisions are technically wrong, the actors’ performance will benefit and the audience will therefore appreciate the actors’ choices.

Many actors going onto a set, or into a rehearsal room for the first time “play down” their choices, as they don’t want to be wrong in front of the director. This is the wrong way to think.

Instead, be confident in your character choices and your ability, but have the ability to adapt as you progress. The director will appreciate this and trust that you put your all into everything that you do. You’ll not only be a better actor for it, but you’ll also get more work. Trust yourself and people will trust you.

This also applies to auditions. Actors often worry about making strong decisions in auditions as they usually won’t get to read the whole script and they’re worried that they’ll make the wrong choice. But an actor is more likely to get the part by making a strong, but wrong, choice, than they are by not making a choice at all.

How Important is Talent To Becoming an Actor?

Most people believe talent is incredibly important. But you can be a truly great actor even if you start out ‘talentless.’ Talented actors will often rely on their talent and struggle to push forward and improve. Whereas someone that isn’t as good naturally, that puts in the work, can become one of the greats.

Talent can definitely help, but it’s not the be-all, end-all. Ultimately work ethic is the most important thing. No matter where you are in your acting ability, putting in the work will get you the results.

Reilly Featherstone

Reilly Featherstone

Reilly Featherstone is an actor & musician based in Wales, United Kingdom, who works actively on both stage and screen. Most recently working on Rage by award winning writer Simon Stephens, Closure, and Man For The Job. Reilly studied a Bachelor of Arts in Acting at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (2017 – 2020). Since graduating Reilly signed with a talent agent, Jackson Foster, and is now focusing on developing a full-time career in the arts.
Reilly Featherstone

Reilly Featherstone

Reilly Featherstone is an actor & musician based in Wales, United Kingdom, who works actively on both stage and screen. Most recently working on Rage by award winning writer Simon Stephens, Closure, and Man For The Job. Reilly studied a Bachelor of Arts in Acting at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (2017 – 2020). Since graduating Reilly signed with a talent agent, Jackson Foster, and is now focusing on developing a full-time career in the arts.

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