For many people, acting appears to be people talking while sometimes getting emotional—basically, they think it’s someone onscreen or onstage being themselves. Which is why so many people think they can do it. They say, “Acting is only hard because you have to memorize lines. If I could remember, I could be an actor, too.” They see Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” and think, “I’m from New York and I can drive a car. I could do that.”
On the flip side, no one imagines they could just wake up one day and be a professional ballerina or opera singer or classical pianist. To the uninformed, what these professions require that acting seemingly doesn’t is years and years of intense training. Acting skills? Not a thing, they think.
But here’s the thing: Remarkable actors do go through intense training specifically so you can’t tell how hard they’re working, so you can’t see the years and years of training that got them to this point. There is a disguised virtuosity in the complex craft of acting that doesn’t show itself in skilled acting. The goal of great actors? To act so naturally—yes, acting naturally requires acting—that their skills are invisible.
Good quality, complex acting must always come down to an invisible naturalism that makes the challenging components of it far less apparent than every other art form.
Acting isn’t just memorizing lines and talking in conversational reality with intermittent emotion. As Meisner said, “Acting is doing things truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” If understood and appreciated, this definition is an ambitious and remarkable thing to aspire to and strive for. To do things truthfully, the actor must first acquire many challenging, hard-fought skills.
Speaking words in a costume does not guarantee the writer’s story will come to life or be clear. Without the skills mentioned above, the script will remain flat on the page, despite being recited out loud. To make a script come to life in a believable way, the actor must make active choices. These actions and the clarity of their execution in emotionally local sequences creates the character—much more than simply saying lines.
Imagine for a moment how many different ways there are to deliver one single line. Even something as simple as “close the door” can mean so many different things and be expressed in so many different ways by so many different types of people. The words are the writer’s, but the behavior that brings them to vivid life? That is the actor. The components of acting beyond reading and memorizing lines are the ability and facility to take the words in and then give them back in a new, purposeful way.
So yes, great acting does take training. It does require skill. You cannot just wake up one day and be a great actor. It takes time to train your eye and brain to look for action in lines, to figure out where and when to make bold choices and when to keep them subtle. Actors are instruments and their work is as complex as other crafts you often associate with trained skills (like that aforementioned ballerina, opera singer, and classical pianist).
Using your full imagination, analyzing scripts, planning both the inner life and actions of a character, developing a rich resonate voice and an expressive physical life are the skills that allow an actor to create a truthful, complex plan for a performance that doesn’t betray the amount of work that went into it. Do not be fooled into thinking anyone who can read and speak can be an actor. The subtly and naturalness displayed by great actors is exactly what makes you think that way, but it took them all years of training to get to this point. It is so much more than you know.
*This post was originally published on Sept. 20, 2017. It has since been updated.
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