What Makes a Good Actor?

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What Makes A Good Actor? title card in front of two theatre stage acting masks

It’s obvious when you see it, but what makes a good actor?

A good actor or actress is more than just their script or costume; they are incredibly engaging, immersive, emotional, believable, and exhibit a spectrum of characteristics that involve more than just ‘saying the lines’. So, what defines a good actor, or better yet, what makes a great actor?

Good Acting vs. Bad Acting

Cinema and theater have introduced us to a plethora of actors renowned for their exemplary skills. Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Matthew McConaughey, and Laurence Olivier, they all provide a masterclass in what good acting truly looks like. But what separates their great acting from bad acting?

A great actor is one who can effortlessly jump into any character, embody their world, and convey that persona convincingly to an audience.

Each character, from Hamlet to the latest blockbuster lead, requires a unique set of traits, emotions, and mannerisms, something truly great actors can tap into effortlessly.

Moreover, the best actors know how to use their imagination to relate to the character’s given circumstances and inner life with absolute self-awareness and without becoming self-conscious.

Acting Technique 

The acting technique is not just about delivering dialogue but also encompassing physical and vocal performance, as well as internalizations and responses.

It’s about how an actor works with the material they are given, the choices an actor makes, and how these decisions influence their performance.

Whether it’s great writing or a not-so-good script, excellent actors can make even the simplest line sound extraordinary.

Remember, the actor’s job is to create memorable performances that engage, captivate, and move the audience.

A good actor can remember and recite lines well, but a great performer can ask and answer those lines with an emotional depth and intellectual thought which takes the audience on a journey, making each scene much more than just dialogue.

Regardless of their roles, environments, or teams, a great actor remains present in the scene, enabling them to tell a story that is convincing, captivating, and exceptional.

It’s important to note that good acting happens when the actor is able to tap into the “truth” behind the character and bring it to life in such a manner that the audience can relate to it, feel it, and understand it.

That’s why great masters of the acting craft, such as Stanislavski and Meisner, spent their lives teaching naturally talented performers the physical and emotional skills to reach their best performances.

Natural talent combined with training and experience, the ability to mould oneself according to the character’s needs, and a passion for performing on stage or on the set are what truly makes a good actor truly great.

The Audition Process

The audition is the proving ground for any actor. Here, every actor’s skill is put to the test.

The character you play might significantly differ from scene to scene, and the way you present them to the Casting Director can make or break your chances of landing a role.

Failing to improvise or getting too caught up in the character may lead to overacting, a common reason many actors fail.

Why Some Actors Succeed and Others Fail

Even if gifted with a natural talent, it takes much more for an actor to deliver a great performance.

In the art of acting, being self-aware, responsive, and effectively portraying another person’s persona in front of a camera or audience are key.

Many actors often fail as they ignore the internal emotions of their character or the characters they interact with, therefore, disrupting the connection and falling short in their performance.

The acting process involves studying a character, learning their backstory as if they lived it, and understanding where the character is going, their aspirations, and fears.

Acting is also a huge part of a team effort, where the actor must collaborate with other actors, the director, and crew members.

Self-awareness, deep research, going to museums, or visiting locations related to the character’s story can help an actor dive deeper into their character.

Famous actors usually have great charisma and a big personality, though not always. The majority show great patience with members of the public when they’re away from the stage or film set.

What makes a great actor?

In the realm of cinema, there exists a breed of actors who transcend the boundaries of mere performance and embody their characters in a way that leaves audiences spellbound. 

“He wasn’t acting the character, he was the character.”

Hear what Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff made of the movie stars he worked with.

What Makes A Great Actor? by Ted Kotcheff – Film Courage on YouTube:

About the video:

Canadian film director Ted Kotcheff had the honor of collaborating with Gene Hackman. Hackman’s portrayal in the 1974 feature film ‘The Conversation’ showcased his mastery over playing an introverted character. Every bead of sweat on his brow spoke volumes about the inner turmoil he was experiencing. It was as if he ceased to be Gene Hackman; he became the character itself. Such dedication is rare and awe-inspiring.

He recalls an incident in Bangkok, amidst shooting for our latest project. Over glasses of wine at The Oriental, their conversation took an unexpected turn as they were interrupted by the call for action. In that split second, something remarkable happened—Gene transformed from being a friend into embodying his role effortlessly. Witnessing this metamorphosis left Kotcheff awestruck and filled with wonderment.

Another formidable actor whose talents captivated both Kotcheff and audiences alike is Nick Nolte—a true force to be reckoned with. In one particular instance, Kotcheff directed Nolte during a scene where jealousy coursed through his character’s veins like molten lava. 

With finesse and nuance that only true artistry can bring forth, Nick subtly conveyed jealousy at just the right emotional temperature—neither overt nor concealed but perfectly balanced within his being. 

Now, let us delve into the intricacies of coaxing exceptional performances from actors. Kotcheff’s approach leant toward avoiding the hiring of actors altogether, because directors don’t have the specialist skills for that. However, giving direction to actors to guide them gently toward shedding the shackles of performance and becoming one with their character is part of the job.

During rehearsals—a phase often overlooked by many directors— Kotcheff devoted ample time to explore the emotional landscape of the characters. By immersing themselves in this collaborative process, they eliminated potential script-related conflicts that may arise on set. After all, rewriting dialogue during production equates to squandering precious time, and requires a talented script editor to get things right at short notice.

Kotcheff saw his role as a director extending far beyond providing mere instructions; it was an intensely personal connection akin to that between spouses. Understanding what moves each actor individually and discovering their triggers formed the crux of this intricate relationship. Moreover, tailoring his language and direction according to each actor’s unique sensibilities ensured a harmonious collaboration towards achieving greatness.

Directing actors is not merely a means to an end; it is an exhilarating dance where exploration intertwines with creativity. The camera angle and composition hold equal significance in capturing moments that resonate deeply within the souls of audiences worldwide.

Aspiring actors must grasp this fundamental truth: true greatness lies not in acting but in being—immersing oneself completely into the essence of their character’s existence. It requires unwavering dedication and an unyielding commitment to craft. As you embark on your journey towards artistic mastery, let the tales of Gene Hackman and Nick Nolte inspire and guide you. May their unwavering dedication ignite a flame within your soul, propelling you towards the pinnacle of greatness.

What Makes a Good Actor Truly Great?

A truly great actor draws on personal experiences and feelings, bringing them to life in the character they play. They must immerse themselves into the character’s psyche and fully understand the character’s motivations and relations to other characters and their environment.

The greatest actors, such as Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep, give the audience more than just a performance—they share their character’s reality, making the audience forget they’re acting. A great actor can make you see the character without feeling the actor’s presence. Their performance feels natural, effortlessly flowing as they become a heightened version of the character they play.

Remember, in this world of make-believe, it is the duty of a director to orchestrate symphonies of emotions through their collaboration with actors. Let your passion for this art form be the guiding light that illuminates your path—giving birth to performances that will stand the test of time.

With these words etched upon your heart, venture forth into the realm of acting—where dreams intertwine with reality and where legends are born.

Actors don’t walk off the street bursting with high level acting skills. It takes experience and practice. Start with getting some acting training by taking some acting classes or attend drama school if you can get a place, delve into different acting techniques, read books by famous acting teachers, and learn on-set etiquette.

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