One of the hardest audition cycles of an actor’s career is applying to acting school, whether it be at various conservatories, for a bachelor’s degree, or for MFA programs. For those committing themselves to the grueling process of applying, auditioning, and waiting for callbacks, you might wonder: Is it worth it?
We’ve gathered insight from talent across the industry, and the debate is very much evenly split. Some actors who didn’t study acting feel they learned more on set. Others swear by acting school, and others still dismiss the experience.
What stands out most is the drive toward balance. Becoming a great actor means being well-rounded in your interests and experiences. These quotes, from rising stars and established talent alike, may help you make one of the most important decisions of your life.
Glenn Close, “Hillbilly Elegy,” “Tehran”
“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, “Tolkien,” “Outlander”
“The work I received [at the Royal Scottish Academy], 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. 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. At the same time, when I left college, I wasn’t a particularly good actor because I hadn’t had the experience. Actors have to be open to learning.… You don’t leave college with all of your knowledge.”
Chukwudi Iwuji, “The Split,” “Peacemaker”
“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.”
Gillian Jacobs, “Transatlantic,” “Fear Street” franchise
“I have not taken an acting class since I graduated from 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. [My] sort of my grad school after Juilliard was learning from the people I was working with.”
Billy Magnussen, “Made for Love,” “Maniac”
“[S]omeone recommended [the University of] North Carolina School of the Arts, 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. 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, and that tool has been one of the most powerful that I’ve used in the progression of my career: Just to dream and imagine and play.”
Al Pacino, “Hunters,” “House of Gucci”
“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.”
Sheila Vand, “Snowpiercer,” “The Rental”
“[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.”
Samira Wiley, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “You’re the Worst”
“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. Juilliard gave me confidence. Teachers told us, ‘You were the people we picked. We want you here for a reason.’ That affirmation was powerful.”
Christian Bale, “Amsterdam,” “The Pale Blue Eye”
“I don't know, the college thing never really attracted me that much, so I decided to keep on working.”
Russell Crowe, “The Pope’s Exorcist,” “Thor: Love and Thunder”
“I’ve never been to drama school. I’ve been acting since I was 6 years old and over time you get more and more efficient at getting to the center of the character. I don’t even know what the Stanislavski method may be. I have no fucking idea, and I don’t care to know. Seriously, it’s not that complicated. If you want to be an actor, work it out for yourself. I actually like the old Olivier quote: ‘Learn your dialogue and don’t bump into the furniture.’ ”
Jennifer Lawrence, “No Hard Feelings,” “Causeway”
“I remember going to see [Taylor Sheridan] and him telling my mom, ‘Here’s your money back. Just don’t put her in any acting lessons, whatever you do.’ ”
Joe Mazzello, “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” “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.”
Amy Stewart, “The Affair,” “NCIS: Los Angeles”
“I 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.… 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.”
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