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Backstage Experts

Backstage Experts Answer: 15 Performances All Aspiring Actors Must See

Backstage Experts Answer: 15 Performances All Aspiring Actors Must See
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

With our Backstage Expert contributors spanning various areas of this business, they’ve worked with countless actors in their careers, and know a good performance when they see one. That’s why we knew they’d be the perfect group to ask the following question: 

What performance should every aspiring actor see?

(And if you missed the last installment of this column, check out “What Should an Actor Never Do in an Audition Room?” and see how to get your acting questions answered at the bottom of this article!)

Now, check out these 15 can’t–miss performances, and then start watching (and learning)!

Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher 
As much as I would recommend watching Ingrid Bergman, Meryl Streep, Marlon Brando, Gary Oldman and Cate Blanchett—all incredible actors in their own right—I’d like to shine a light on two less illuminated “greats,” both from vastly different eras, countries, and walks of life.

Gena Rowlands’ performance in the John Cassavetes film “A Woman Under the Influence” remains one of the most vulnerable, brave, and moving performances I have ever seen on film. Cassavates’ trademark of creating an environment of play in his films is used to full advantage by Rowlands, whose work is so raw as to be almost uncomfortable to watch. 

New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis, on the other hand, is an actor I suggest you seek out to learn about the art of transformation. To single out only one of his films would be to miss the point. From broad comedy to deep tragedy, and with the ability to master any physical look, nationality, or accent under the sun, his work is an inspiration whenever you are lucky enough to see it. 

Steve Braun and Risa Bramon GarciaThe BGB Studio
Mark Rylance—in anything and everything. Right now he’s easy to find on the BBC series “Wolf Hall.” Genius. But if there is a play he’s in, run, don’t walk, and savor every moment of him on stage. There is nothing quite like his simplicity, depth, clarity, and truth. His work is what every actor should aspire to. Joyous to watch. Inspiring to study. 

D.W. Brown, L.A.-based acting teacher
Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice” gives what is probably the greatest female performance on film. She is fragile and powerful, hilarious and heartbreaking simultaneously. And always, even as a German Nazi death camp survivor, totally believable. Willing to be laughed at for a lack of sophistication, she is able to marry maximum vulnerability with a full projection of her will.

David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood
Actors should seek out and study roles that are very similar to themselves for two primary reasons. The first reason is that it will give them the confidence to believe there is a place for them in the business. The second reason is that they can use these examples as prototypes when they are trying to promote themselves to industry luminaries such as agents, casting directors, writers, and producers. The more they are aware of how they fit into the business, the more room they will find for themselves in the business.

Marc Cartwright, L.A.-based headshot and editorial photographer
I could go on about Meryl Streep all day, but I will choose another actor to be fair. Glenn Close in 1987’s “Fatal Attraction” scared anyone even thinking of adultery into a life of fidelity well into the ’90s. One thing that I love when watching an actor is forgetting that I am watching a performance. Her chillingly convincing portrayal of a vengeful ex-lover made the film one of the most successful of the 1980s and earned her a best actress nomination at the Academy Awards.

Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio
Oh my goodness...there are so many great performances. I have to pick two.

Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” is still one of the most powerful performances in one of the most exquisite movies of all time. I can still remember when I first saw this movie as a child and I was transported to that place and time as if by magic. I can remember those eyes and that energy piercing my soul as I sat mesmerized in a Dallas movie theater. 

Charlie Chaplin’s performance in “City Lights” holds up as beautifully today as it did in the silent movie days. Those eyes have stood the test of time.

I guess I am a sucker for soulful eyes. What can I say?

Kate McClanaghan, L.A.-based casting director
Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda” as Otto, the egotistical, idiotic, self-proclaimed genius thug is legendary and one of my favorites—especially the scene in which  he and Jamie Lee Curtis (Wanda) open a safe to reveal they have been had by their crook-colleagues. Otto is broadsided, as if the wind has gone out of him. “Disappointed!” he blasts. Suddenly he leaps three feet vertically into the air, kicks the door with both feet in frustration and bleats, “What do you have to do in this life to make people trust you?” followed with, “People are always taking advantage of me!” (This was an ad lib added by Kline. Lesson: Express your subtext!) 

Wanda tells him to shut up and think. He responds by emptying his gun into the safe. “I’m thinking!” he bellows. There you have it, the character’s core exposed in its entirety in a single scene. Genius. Kline himself brought the bulk of that to the scene; it wasn’t on the page. The script simply read: “Disappointed.” “Shut up and think.” (Otto shoots gun out of frustration.)

Brian O’Neil, NYC-based career coach
Every aspiring actor who is in New York or visits NYC between now and September should see Alex Sharp in the Broadway production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Sharp, 25, was cast as Christopher, a 15-year-old mathematical genius who is autistic, on his first professional audition ever as he was completing his training at Juilliard. His performance will jolt every emotional and sensory button in your body and soul as you watch him in his 2015 Tony Award-winning performance for best actor in a leading role in a play. Theater is the true actor’s medium and I would urge anyone who wants to see brilliant and inspiring acting to see Sharp’s astounding work alive and breathing in a performance that is at once heartbreaking, uplifting, and inspiring—true art and a performance that will be talked about for years to come.

Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach
One performance that every aspiring actor should see is Dustin Hoffman’s role in “The Graduate.” While it’s a superb performance, there are three distinct reasons that it is a must-watch for actors. The first reason is that Hoffman was cast in spite of his appearance. As the story goes, the powers behind that film were looking for a tall, basketball playing, ivy league-esque leading man. Thus, actors, don’t shun an audition if you feel like you don't look the way the part is envisioned. The second reason is that Hoffman shows real innovation in the craft: As legend has it, Hoffman saw the director chuckling off-camera after some clunky move he made with Anne Bancroft onscreen. Determined not to break character, Hoffman starts banging his head against the wall—a move which made it into the finished film. Now that's determination and creativity. Finally, Hoffman shows us how pursuing the simplest attitude—“I’m going to get this girl back,”—can be truly riveting and dynamic as he approaches it through a variety of angles: desperation, comedy, lunacy, and courage. No special effects needed. With the highest percentage of booked roles in the industry, I help actors make the brave and surprising choices that win them the role and help them reach their Oscar potential on set.

Jessica Rofé, founder and artistic director of A Class Act NY
Every actor should see “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Sharp’s portrayal of a boy with autism is riveting and is a great example of how to inhabit a character in one’s physical being. 

Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher, founder of Actors Comedy Studio
Since I specialize in teaching comedy, I will offer up my No. 1, all-time favorite comedic performance in the history of cinema: Gene Wilder playing Dr. Victor Frankenstein in Mel Brook’s “Young Frankenstein.”

Wilder’s performance is simply iconic. He collaborated with Brooks to create the film. It’s quite rare that an actor-writer has the opportunity to collaborate with a writer-director to the extent Wilder was able to with Brooks. The result of that level of collaboration is powerful and why “Young Frankenstein” is on virtually everyone’s list of the best films of all time.

It’s also why I thought this role should be singled out among others. Wilder tailored Dr. Frankenstein to himself and did it brilliantly. To watch him is to glimpse the best of what can be achieved when playing comedy to the height of one’s intelligence.

Wilder is simultaneously powerful, sexy, heartfelt, goofy, unexpected, and complicated. If you want to learn how to perform with an active interior monologue running from beginning to end that somehow never becomes pushed, watch Wilder.

Denise Simon, NYC-based acting coach
J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash” is one of the best performances I have ever seen. His portrayal of an abusive music teacher is frighteningly memorable. Anybody can raise their voice and look scary, but Simmons brings humor, reality, and surprise to his brilliant Oscar-winning performance. Kids, watch and learn!

Ilene Starger, casting director
I chose one film with brilliant performances, headlined by Albert Finney and Diane Keaton.

I very much admire the not-widely-seen film “Shoot the Moon,” circa 1982, written by Bo Goldman and directed by Alan Parker. Finney and Keaton, as a married couple whose lives become undone by jealousy, betrayal, and loneliness, give towering performances. Dana Hill, as their eldest child who desperately wants them to remain together, is heartbreaking, and Peter Weller, Karen Allen, and the other cast members—several of whom are young children—are superb. The film has an almost documentary-like feel. It is raw, adult, and profound. Finney and Keaton give a master class in both rage and subtlety. It is not to be missed. 

Lisina Stoneburner, Atlanta-based acting coach
It’s no secret to my students that I am a huge fan of the movie “Ordinary People” and insist they all watch it for the magnificent performances of Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, and Mary Tyler Moore. It’s hard to speak about only one of them, but Moore in that film is simply amazing. Her manifestation of grief is so true to the character’s really flawed inner self. She touches base with the character’s upbringing, class position, and personal limitations with love and intimacy that she defines a relationship with her family that we cannot help but be hurt by. Then her commitment to the emotional objective of this character collides in an explosion against the character life she created. We hurt for her family, but for her we feel so many things (not all good), and she lets us in to see a real grief that families only experience in private.

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