These elements are always present in every piece of “great” acting.
1. Have Fun. If you are not having fun, you can be 100 percent sure it’s not working. Christoph Waltz’s recent Oscar-winning performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is a perfect example of this. You can see the fun poring out of his eyes every moment onscreen—it reminds us why we chose this profession.
I recently coached a tremendously talented client on a period piece where she had to play a slave on a plantation. In this particular scene, the character was tortured, raped, beaten and left for dead. The actor heroically made it to the end of the scene with the battle scars and raw emotion dripping from her face and body—it was a fantastic performance. I waited some seconds before asking her, “So…was it fun?” Her response, “Oh my god…yes…I’m embarrassed to say it was.”
Many method-based or “technique” acting classes sap all the joy and fun out of the process. It’s a tragedy to see actors flattened and deflated when this happens. Just as it’s your job to act truthfully, it’s also your job to figure out how to have more fun in the work. I often tell my students, “Don’t be afraid to look like an asshole or be a freak!” If a technique isn’t working for you—the human actor—look to the animal world, nature, art, or fantasy and find something that corresponds best to the character you’re trying to play. And when you pinpoint what that it is, don’t be afraid to crawl around on the floor hissing like a tiger or jumping from tabletop to tabletop like a lemur to prime the pump of your creativity. It can often help, and it’s definitely fun.
2. Effect Change. This means breaking through the Plexiglas barrier between you and your scene partner to impact them while also allowing yourself to be impacted by them. There’s a great temptation to be too timid while acting. Irresponsible training has paralyzed actors with the irrational fear of being “too big.” Life is sometimes big—even huge at times!
Working to effect change in your character and in your partner can also give you an advantage in booking the role because you’re making the writing look as good as it possibly can. Screenwriters know all characters must have an arc and have to effect change in one another. They’re not always confident that what they’ve written is accomplishing that. As an actor, you can empower the writing, and when you do, it’s more interesting to watch, thus making you look like a more attractive hire.
3. Bring Yourself to the Role. This is not be confused with playing yourself. Bringing yourself to the role is using your actor’s instrument (personality, voice, physicality, etc.) to express the character. It’s acknowledging that YOU are the instrument through which the character is expressed. The character must be expressed as the role dictates BUT the personality and humanity of the actor is the heartbeat of the role.
Zooey Deschanel’s character Jess in “New Girl” is a pure expression of Zooey’s own sense of nerdy fun and offbeat personality. What’s completely revolutionary about Zooey is that she strikes the almost impossible balance of sexuality and oddity without all the baggage of looking like another supermodel. She’s an oddball—and she hides none of it in her acting. She’s doesn’t choose between being funny or sexy, she blends them both into Jess, appealing to men and women, while giving herself verifiable staying-power in a fickle business.
4. Be Committed. Commitment is the ability of the actor to take the audience by the hand and yank them down the rabbit hole. Just as a roller coaster commits to a 600-foot drop no matter what, you also have to commit to the actions of your character just as irrevocably. And the difference is palpable, as it’s the difference between an actor who is acting, and the actor who is living truthfully under imagined circumstances. Commitment, among many other elements, meant that Marlon Brando never had to raise his voice in "The Godfather."
5. Find the Danger. There’s nothing like the exhilaration of watching work that feels like it’s teetering on the edge of danger. It takes an audience’s breath away. You can never “try” to make the acting dangerous—it comes as a by-product of all the above elements. Danger doesn’t always have to be fear of violence or bodily harm; there’s just as much danger present in watching an actor playing a character who is about to go up to the person they have a crush on and drunkenly profess their love for him/her.
6. Put Yourself at Ease. “Great” acting should feel easy and effortless—like there was no “work” involved. That’s a hard pill to swallow for those needing and expecting every moment be like birthing a calf.
Here’s a huge secret: The best pieces of acting should feel as comfortable and easy as if you were simply playing yourself—even if you’re playing an axe-wielding maniac. And that’s a great gift, as you never again have to worry about how your performance was—you know in your gut that it was connected and focused.
There are only two rules in acting. 1. You can’t actually harm another person. 2. You can’t actually have sex with another person.
Anything else is fair game! That should give you a sense of tremendous freedom as an actor. If there are only two rules—and those two are pretty easy to follow—then the world is yours and the colors and shapes you’d like to paint on the canvas of your character are truly up to you.
Joseph Pearlman is a private and on-set coach for Hollywood’s top actors, musicians, and comedians. He works with clients like Zooey Deschanel, and also coaches presenters for all the major award ceremonies including the Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys. Joseph Pearlman Coaching was voted Best Acting Studio in Los Angeles by Backstage’s 2011 and 2012 Readers’ Choice Awards. Joseph Pearlman Coaching is also located in New York. Joseph Pearlman Coaching offers private coaching and classes from beginner to working professional.