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What Are Special Skills + Which Ones Should an Actor Have?

What Are Special Skills + Which Ones Should an Actor Have?
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

When you’re an actor, particularly during the early stages of your career, you need to find ways to stand out. Sure, you’re talented, but so is everybody else in the pile of submissions that lands on the casting director’s desk. What are you going to do to make sure your headshot doesn’t get tossed aside?

There’s no guaranteed way to do this, and, as usual, you’ll need to make sure all of your materials are doing you justice, your training is top notch, and you’re conducting yourself with the utmost professionalism without fail. On top of all that, though, there’s a secret weapon you can use to your advantage that, every so often, may be the push you need to get seen, book the gig, or land an agent: special skills.

What makes a skill “special,” and which ones will actually help you stand out in the casting process? We’re here to answer these questions, as well as supply information to help you effectively utilize the skills section on your résumé, know when and how you should learn new skills for a given role, and answer once and for all that age-old question: Is it ever OK to fib about a skill?

What are the most desirable special skills?

Unlike human beings, special skills are not all created equal. Some will actually help you stand out in the eyes of the casting director or even help you get cast, while others... well, will not and should probably be left as party tricks. From accents to equestrianism, Backstage Experts weigh in below on what actually will add value to your skillset.

David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood:

“I would say it’s very useful to be able to do a few accents flawlessly. Being able to speak with an accent in which you are believable might save a production a lot of money.

Other helpful skills are gun handling as well as basic stage combat, so you know how to throw and take a punch without anyone getting hurt.”

Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio:

“If you do something really well or have won accolades, make sure you add that. I had a client who was an expert horsewoman and got careful consideration for the ‘My Friend Flicka’ movie even though she was a new actor. I did the audition tape for the young man who won the lead in ‘The Last Airbender,’ and he had never acted before, but he was a champion martial artist. Don’t forget gymnastics, cheerleading, stunts, fencing, martial arts, skiing, motorcycling, circus techniques, and musical instruments.”

Joanne Baron and D.W. Brown, owners of The Baron Brown Studio:

“It’s impossible to master the amazing range of skills that an actor might be called upon to perform, but of course, combat training (including an acquaintance with firearms) is probably more likely to come up than a proficiency with the unicycle. What’s important is to possess a basic, strong level of fitness, flexibility, and coordination so as to be able to immediately start applying yourself to whatever crazy thing they throw at you. Not least of which might be the endurance required for putting in very long hours on your feet or doing a jillion takes climbing courthouse steps or battling zombies, etc.”

Paul Barry, founder of Acting 4 Camera and an L.A.-based acting teacher:

“The three ‘Game of Thrones’ actors who have played ‘The Mountain’ must have found it hard to secure work as actors in worlds other than Westeros. ‘He’s freakish big and freakish strong,’ the character Bronn says of him. ‘Freakish’ is not a common castable quality, but in this series it paid off big time. Veteran actor Peter Dinklage has had an impressive independent career, but his unique size was also handy when it came to securing the role of Tyrion Lannister, which launched him into the popular culture stratosphere.

“Imagine Geoffrey Rush in ‘Shine’ had he not been able to play the piano, Olivia Munn on ‘The Newsroom’ if she wasn't fluent in Japanese, or Channing Tatum if he couldn't dance. Many of the seminal roles of those we now know and love have been career tipping points for actors due to their unique skills. Embrace your unique traits and cultivate your skills, then keep an eye out for projects that can launch you for what makes you different.”

Jackie Reid, manager, and owner of L’il Angels Unlimited:

“Speaking Spanish is a must if you are of Latino heritage. Whenever we pitch a Latino client to an agent, the first question is always, “Can they speak Spanish fluently?” If I say no, I’m usually left hanging with a dead phone in my hands. Other skills which we have found paid off are knowing sign language and having a driver’s license or permit when you are 16–18 years old.”

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How should I include special skills on my résumé?

There’s a lot of discrepancy in opinion as to which special skills belong on your résumé. Some industry professionals insist no skill is too small or irrelevant, while others are firm that only “legitimate” skills make the cut. Here’s everything you need to know about what to do with that all-important section on your résumé. 

Are there any “no-no skills”?

Casting director, director, and acting teacher Paul Russell has a pretty lengthy list of what he’s termed “no-no skills,” meaning those that should never be included in your special skills section. “The special skills section of an actor's resume is not a landfill for useless information,” he says. “This section should only contain actual, special skills that can be performed onstage or onscreen.” Below, Russell details, with his signature sense of humor, some of the special skills he has actually come across (complete with his commentary)—and which he advises you should remove from your résumé immediately.

  • "Cornholing proficient" (Even if this is related to the non-sexual sport found mostly in the Midwest... the confusion and images via the slang it's associated with is just too disturbing for any résumé.)
  • "Walking" (OK, the actor looks a bit mature in his pic so maybe, for him, walking is beyond ordinary.)
  • "Dog owner"
  • "Promiscuous female" (This was on an actor's résumé... either he doesn't know his sex or he has a lot of sex and his partners ignore the mid-waist protrusion.)
  • "Piano clowning" ("The Piano" meets "Stephen King's It.")
  • "I own a Russian Warmblood" (I dated a Russian who was warm-blooded, but he didn't shed.)
  • "Zone II hunter finals" (Huh?)
  • "Related to Jimmy Stewart" (And your point is...?)
  • "Tetris" (Is this actress hoping for the remake of "Tron"?)
  • "Amazing with children" (On a mature male's résumé…. Someone call Chris Hansen of "Dateline.")
  • "Babysitting" (I got a résumé from an older man who's "amazing with children".... You two need to get together.)
  • "Hard living" (Hey, sweetheart... we're all suffering these days.)
  • "Furniture refinishing and tiny tot gymnastics" (Imagine if she got the two confused. There would be a lot of damaged dinettes and shellacked kiddies.)
  • "Enjoys restoring cars in the family collection"
  • "Owner of [name withheld] jewelry"
  • "Makes incredible smothered burritos" (My local Taco Hell needs you.)

Can I use the skills section to display my personality?

Not everyone agrees with Russell’s stringent stance on skills, though. L.A.-based acting coach Anthony Meindl, for example, is a firm believer in the skills section as a way to show off your individuality as a human being, and not just as an actor.

“The most important skill in any actor’s tool kit—the thing that makes them the most appealing to casting directors—producers, audiences, and even random people you meet in your day to day, is a deep and abiding sense of curiosity,” he explains. “It’s not what you are interested in, it’s that you are interested.

“Are you the king of Comic Con? Do you know the starting lineup of every World Series team ever? Is your apartment filled with needlepoint images of cats? That’s awesome! That’s you! If you love it and you can do it well, put it on the résumé. Stop trying to second-guess what other people want. Be who you are, loud and proud, and I guarantee you, someone is looking for exactly what you have to offer.”

Backstage’s resident agent expert, Secret Agent Man, is also in agreement that special skills should help create some intrigue about you as a human being. However, he also adds that, frankly, not every detail about yourself is interesting. “[Another] way to make an impression is to list personal qualities that help you stand out as a human being,” he says. “I get curious when I see things like ‘reversible tear duct,’ ‘competitive clam shucking,’ and ‘comic book geek.’ A recent submission had ‘plyometrics’ in the special skills section. Nope, I didn't know what that was either, but I took a moment to look it up. Those precious few seconds kept that résumé on my desk, and sometimes, that's all it takes to sway an agent's decision in your favor.

“On the other hand, actors often waste my time by listing skills that are a complete waste of résumé space. For example, who cares if you're an avid reader? No one's going to hire you to read on camera. Volunteering is nice, but as an agent it means absolutely nothing to me. The same goes for crocheting and hiking. Great, you can sew and walk in the woods. Now what? My favorite worthless skill is being a licensed driver. Is that really supposed to make an impression? I work in Los Angeles, a town where non-drivers are shunned by the general public.”

Is it ever OK to lie about your skills on your résumé?

One aspect of special skills everyone agrees on is that, whatever the given skill that you’re listing, you must be able to do it—and do it well. In that respect, too, let’s clear this up definitively right now: No, it is never, ever, ever OK to lie about a special skill on your résumé. It doesn’t matter if a breakdown is an exact fit for you with the exception of that one skill. Even though the temptation will be there, resist the urge to fib. When it comes time to put your money where your mouth is, either in the room or while on the project, you run the risk of irreparable damage to your reputation if you can’t deliver.

“My one caveat is that actors must be completely truthful in listing their abilities,” says casting director Ilene Starger. “If you can’t do something with excellence, don’t put it on your résumé. I once cast an actor who said he could ride a horse; when the time came for him to shoot his scene, I received a panicked call from the line producer, who told me the actor was terrified atop the horse. Actors, please remember that you could cost a production a lot of money if you claim expertise in an area but don’t in fact have it.”

So we’ve established that stretching the truth is a total no-go. But that doesn’t mean you should downplay the skills you actually do have. Mary Anne Claro, of the Philadelphia-based Mary Anne Claro Talent Agency, insists that actors should not censor themselves when it comes to their special skills; even if you’re not entirely sure of the usefulness, it may be exactly what a certain project needs. “If you jump rope or ride a bike, that should be under ‘special skills,’ ” she says. “If you can dance or know medical terminology, that's useful for me to know. One actor who mentioned on his résumé that he was a Green Beret helped get him on ‘The Wire,’ where he got a two-year contract.”

Where on my résumé do my special skills go?

Not to be overlooked in this whole résumé/special skills breakdown is the actual placement of the section on the page. It may sound silly, but incorrect ordering of your résumé indicates a serious lack of professionalism—and that’s before you’ve ever even walked into the room. “Standard order: film, television, commercials, voiceover, industrials, theater, training, special skills,” states Cathryn Hartt. “List physical abilities or other skills that might be needed to land a job.”

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Should I learn a new skill for a role?

Let’s say they’re casting a role for a project you desperately want in on. The only problem is the character possesses a skill that you yourself do not. Well, depending on what it is, it’s not out of the question that you could learn how to do it well enough to be passable onstage or onscreen. Many famous actors, in fact, have done as much with great success—some even went on to win Academy Awards along the way!

Natalie Portman, notably, learned ballet for her grueling part in “Black Swan,” a role that won her a best actress Oscar in 2010. Adrien Brody, meanwhile, learned how to skillfully play piano for his leading role in “The Pianist”; he, too, won an Oscar for his work back in 2003. Another performer who took up a skill and went on to walk away with a golden statuette of her own: Reese Witherspoon. The actor learned the autoharp to portray real-life wife to Johnny Cash, June Carter, in the film “Walk the Line.” Her performance won the best actress Oscar in 2006. For more skill-learning success stories, check out our list of famous actors who have done so here.

An important disclaimer: to harp on a point previously made, if you plan to learn a skill for a given job, do not lie to the casting or creative teams and say that you already have done so. Complete and utter transparency remains most important. If you have the chance, let them know your plan of action. Your commitment to the role may very well impress them; lying and getting caught definitely will not.

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Should I tailor my skillset for the career I want?

We’ve spent a hefty portion of this guide discussing which of your skills will actually help bolster your résumé and career prospects, and those that should probably be left unsaid—er, unwritten. But what about going at it from a different angle and, rather than trying to suss out what skills they’re looking for, thinking more broadly about the career you want, and then targeting the skills that may help you attain it?

“Instead of trying to figure out what ‘they’ want, ask yourself, ‘Where do I want to go in my career and what skills do I need to get there?,’” says Wendy Braun, the founder of ActorsInspiration.com “When you begin with the end in mind, you’ll have a more specific idea of what best next actions you need to take. If you want to star in musicals on Broadway, mastering singing and dancing is an obvious prerequisite. To become more appealing, mastering tap dancing or backflips might help you stand out from the competition. If you want to do comedy in films or on television, having an improvisation or stand-up comedy background will serve you well. Honing these skills help you define your voice, create spontaneity in your work and ultimately, make you a more well-rounded actor.”

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