Should You Go to Acting School? These Top Talents Weigh In

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With spring basically around the corner, admission season across college campuses has kicked into full gear. Many are working hard at finishing their application and one of the hardest audition cycles of their career—whether it be at various conservatories, for a bachelor’s degree, or for MFA programs. And for those that are committing themselves to the grueling process of applying, auditioning, and waiting for callbacks, you might wonder: is it worth it? We’ve gathered quotes from talent across the industry. And the debate is very much evenly split. For every actor who swears by acting school, another dismisses the experience. Many feel they have learned more on set; others wanted to focus on something other than acting at college. 

But what stands out most is the drive towards balance. Becoming a great actor means becoming a better person, and most importantly, well rounded in your interests and experiences. Check out these quotes from rising stars and established talent alike. They might help you make one of the most important decisions of your life.

Chukwudi Iwuji, “Othello” (Shakespeare in the Park)
“Drama school is great. London is somewhere where drama school gets you into the industry; they all go to watch the showcases and things like that.”

Samira Wiley, “Orange Is the New Black”
“I decided to study acting intensively, so I applied to at least five big conservatory-style programs, such as New York University. I felt tense but confident going into my auditions: I did the Juliet monologue, and one from Fences, and I felt optimistic…. I got rejected by every theater school I applied to that year, forcing me to face what I assumed was my reality: “Samira, you’re not good enough to be on the stage”.... My audition for Juilliard felt different than prior ones: When I did the Juliet monologue, my body relaxed in a way it hadn’t before. Then the judges asked me to sing…. Juilliard gave me confidence in a way that I had never had before. Teachers told us, ‘You were the people we picked. We want you here for a reason.’ That affirmation was powerful.”

Gillian Jacobs, “Ibiza”
“I have not taken an acting class since I graduated Juilliard. I had my fill. I think I just felt so criticized there that it didn’t feel like it would benefit me. That kind of environment made me shut down. So I learned a lot from the actors that I got the chance to work with, and [from] directors. That’s where I really felt like that was my sort of grad school after Juilliard, was learning from the people I was working with.”

Joe Mazzello, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
“The best education I got was movie sets. I’ve gotten to work on amazing films with incredible directors, and I’ve tried to take a piece of everything that I felt was valuable that they did or something that they brought for me as an actor that I thought, Wow that was really helpful. So I tried to watch the way that they commanded the set, or watch the way that they vibe from the set.”

Al Pacino, “Paterno”
“Of course, you go to acting school, and the best school is the school where you go and do a scene with somebody in front of people. That’s the experience. And the more you can do that, I think the more you can understand that that’s what we do. We act in front of an audience, and how do you do that? That takes a certain amount of commitment. So if you can get into an acting class or school, that’s good. [One] that isn’t too expensive. Something that allows you to participate and be a part of a community, whatever the community is. You see you’re not alone as an actor.”

Billy Magnussen, “Game Night”
“[S]omeone recommended [the University of] North Carolina School of the Arts, to go and audition for it, and I was just fortunate enough that they let me in. I’m entirely indebted to the faculty at that program….It’s one thing to be confident and excited in yourself, but to have other people really support you and push you and invest in you, that’s the best gift anyone can give you. That gift there has changed my life, and I feel ever-indebted to every teacher I’ve ever had. If you want me to drop a name—Bob Francesconi at UNCSA. He taught the [Jacques] Lecoq mask technique, and you can’t write his class down. There’s no rule book or anything, but he taught you to dream, basically, and that tool has been one of the most powerful tools that I’ve used in the progression of my career. Just to dream and imagine and play.”

Glenn Close, “The Wilde Wedding”
“I was a 22-year-old freshman at [College of] William & Mary, and I chose William & Mary because it was a rigorous college and I wanted to get a good liberal arts education, but it also had a very, very strong theater department, and I benefited from that.”

Laura Donnelly, “The Ferryman”
“The work I received in that college, particularly the technical training in terms of voice and movement, was invaluable. I find myself drawing on that in every single job I do, whether that’s stage work or screen work. To really know the technical sides of your craft, particularly for stage actors, is just so important, because it really helps you release a character; it helps you be grounded on the stage and therefore tell a story in a way that every member of the audience can receive. So if you have those foundations and they’re comfortably in your body, you can forget about it when you walk onstage and you can just play. I think that it was completely essential. And at the same time, when I left college, I wasn’t a particularly good actor because I hadn’t had the experience. Actors have got to be open to learning….You don’t leave college with all of your knowledge.”

Sheila Vand, “Aardvark”
“[W]hen I was in school, I didn’t audition. I didn’t even know what a headshot was. For me, I was more focused on still being a kid, and I think that’s important. If you’re in college, you’ll never have college again. One of the things that makes you a great actor is being a great person. The more in touch you become with yourself, the more you have to give to your acting. Don’t think it’s all technique and classes and meetings. It’s not.”

Amy Stewart, “NCIS: Los Angeles”
“I also decided that if I was going away to school, I should study something other than theater since I had spent so much of my childhood immersed in it. It was good to take four years to be around young people who weren’t trying to make it in Hollywood, but were really interested in a whole variety of subjects. It opened my mind to a lot more than just the world of 90210. I studied my tail off in school in classes that had nothing to do with acting. In the long run, I think that made me a better actress.”

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!

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