In the entertainment industry, actors are the ones who help bring a production to life. They are responsible for embodying memorable characters and engaging with the audience—whether on screen, on stage, or from behind a microphone.
But how does an actor truly grip their viewers? Standout performers have all mastered a specific set of acting skills. Talent is, obviously, a given, but there are a few other techniques to finesse to take the industry by storm. From learning how to deal with rejection to marketing your brand, here are 10 essential acting skills every actor should master.
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Whether the character you’re playing is in one scene or commands the entire production, it’s up to you as an actor to bring the script to life. This makes memorization one of the most important skills that an actor needs. Preparing properly by memorizing your lines helps keep production on schedule, allows the creative team to make changes if they find issues with the dialogue, and ensures other cast members can perform their best in your scenes together.
There are many techniques for remembering your lines. To get you started, here are some tried-and-tested methods:
- Download one of the many mobile apps designed to streamline the process, like ColdRead or LineLearner
- Write your lines out by hand
- Go the old-school route and read your lines repetitively, running them out loud with a scene partner. “Read the script over and over and over and over and over and over, until you almost don’t like it, so it’s so settled into you that, actually, it’s the last thing you’re thinking about,” Jamie Dornan told us.
- Flag and remember your cue lines or the lines that come right before you have to speak
Whether it’s in an audition or on a set, communication is a necessary skill for actors. They may have to articulate their character choices if a casting director or director doesn’t quite understand them, for example.
Much of an actor’s job also entails talking to (or emailing with) a variety of people, from an agent or manager to a director or producer about logistics like scheduling, wardrobe, and rehearsals. And that’s just the hustle that happens off-camera.
At the end of the day, acting itself is communication. You have to be a skilled communicator to artfully tell the story you’re performing both for the audience and for your potential scene partner. Listening is just as important in communication as talking.
Stanford Meisner’s Repetition Exercise is a well-known method used to teach actors active listening. Whether onstage or off, it’s important to get out of your head and into your body and the moment. To be a good communicator, you need to make the space to listen so you’ll be open and ready for all feedback (business or otherwise).
“A Star is Born” Courtesy Warner Bros.
If an actor’s voice and body are their instruments, keeping them fine-tuned is essential for any sort of meaningful performance. Understanding how to manipulate your vocal range and physicality will work wonders for your character work. Think of how Bradley Cooper dropped his voice an octave to play Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born,” or how Nancy Cartwright controls her voice to play characters as varied as Bart on “The Simpsons” and Chuckie Finster on “Rugrats.”
Being in full control of your body can elevate tasks such as:
- Fight or dance choreography
- Taking on a physical character trait like a limp or facial tic
- Knowing where you’re moving in a space in relation to the camera
Vocally, actors must excel at:
- Longevity; certain roles can place a huge demand on your voice, so knowing how to control it will protect you in the long run
- Correctly projecting their voices based on what the space requires (i.e., a theater will require different projection than a living room)
- Altering vocal pitch to fit the part
You can practice vocal warmups with a coach or through guided exercise videos. There are countless methods to work on your physicality, from attending stage combat workshops to dance classes to yoga sessions.
From the first audition to performing on a set or stage, it is imperative that an actor understands how to break down a script. Think of it as gathering clues with the goal of understanding the writer’s overall vision—while also discovering who your character is and how you will portray them.
The process of analyzing a script can become pretty detailed, depending on the size of the role and the nature of the project. You should always remember to ask the five basic storytelling questions: who, what, when, where, and why.
Here are four basic steps to get you started:
- Pay attention to the title, genre, creatives involved, and your character’s description. These details can help you prepare and put you in the correct headspace before you receive your audition materials.
- Read the script first from the audience’s perspective. It’s important to understand the overall story and the writer’s vision. Allow yourself to be moved by the piece and keep track of those moments, as they may help inform your choices once you delve deeper.
- Do your research. You may run across something you don’t understand, whether it’s medical jargon or street slang. If there’s confusion, head over to Google and do some research. Being clear on the meaning of the words spoken in your scene will translate into clarity in your performance.
- Keep an eye out for the big events in your scenes. The tension in scenes will often ebb and flow to build drama. Recognize those spots in the script and identify how the comedic and dramatic plot points involve your character.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” Courtesy A24
Having physical, mental, and emotional stamina is a big part of the job. Between the long hours on set, the deep emotional work it takes to bring a character to life, and the regular hits of rejection, it’s important to have the fortitude to see things through to another day.
A few reminders to help keep your resilience up:
- Don’t take rejection personally. There are many factors at play that have little or nothing to do with your talent. You might not be the right height to play against the lead they’ve already cast, for example, or maybe you don’t have a driver’s license. Your audition is just one small part of the decision-making process.
- Remind yourself that “no” does not mean “never.” Just because it was a “no” today doesn’t mean there isn’t a “yes” around the corner.
- You can only control your response. Realize that your ability to handle rejection is the one thing you do have control over. Set yourself up for success by incorporating opportunities to continue to learn and build your craft outside of the audition process.
- Your main job is to audition and “book the room.” Even if you didn’t get the part, if you gave a good audition, that casting team or director might call on you later down the line for another project.
“It’s an easier life to live to not dwell on what one didn’t get and should have got,” Gillian Anderson said. “If you go in doing the best you can, then you’ve got something to feel good about, and sometimes feeling good about that can be enough.”
Take a walk. Read a book. Watch a movie. Go on vacation. Take a nap. Do what makes you happy and feeds your soul. This is an industry where it’s common to connect your self-worth with the work you may or may not be booking. It’s important to recognize when you require a break and need to recharge.
The pandemic ushered in the age of the self-tape audition. It’s imperative that actors have the proper equipment to shoot their scenes at home. Having a basic understanding of capturing video, editing it, and uploading a self-taped audition for casting to view are necessary acting skills. As you record your self-tape, confirm you’re following these guidelines:
- Get a ring light and a professional backdrop, the basic tools you’ll need to become self-tape-ready
- Make sure your phone is shooting video in landscape mode, and that you have the ability to transfer the audition to your computer once you’re done shooting
- Learn the fundamentals of video editing so you can compile your footage
- Double-check the instructions sent over by casting about how to label your video file, where to send it, and the deadline to upload it
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Taking direction is a vital part of the process. After you’ve created your character and made your unique choices to book the role, it’s inevitable that a director will give you a note to change something about your performance. Remember: They’re the ones steering the proverbial ship. Here are some tips for taking direction as an actor:
- Be flexible. Nothing is set in stone until the director yells cut and decides to move on to the next scene. They may want to see how different body language looks or how a change to your dialogue can impact things. You’re there to help bring the story to life, so always be ready to receive new ideas.
- Listen to the criticism. Acting is based largely on deeply emotional work that is personal to you. When a note alters your performance, take your ego out of the equation and listen carefully. Be sure to repeat it back to the director to acknowledge you understand.
- Don’t take things personally. Remember that the director is the one calling the shots. It’s their vision you are helping bring to life. If a note alters your understanding of the character and scene, view it as a chance to try something different and have fun.
- Ask questions. If something isn’t clicking with you, it’s best to ask the director about it. Remember, if you’re not clear on a scene change, that confusion will reflect in your performance.
Theater actors regularly play scenes to an audience in an environment that may require vocal projection and big physical actions. When acting on-camera, though, it is important to be aware of the distance between you and the camera, the framing of the shot, and how you may need to mediate your performance. The camera can pick up the tiniest facial tic or raised eyebrow. Unless otherwise specified by the director, less is usually more.
Productions commonly shoot a script’s scenes out of order. Be aware of the continuity of the story and keep track of where your character is throughout the shoot schedule.
An actor should be familiar with all basic camera shots. Here’s your starting point:
- The wide shot: Often referred to as the establishing shot, a wide shot sets up the characters and context for the scene. It lets the audience know where the action takes place, introduces a relationship between characters and their environment, sets the emotional tone, and establishes the story’s locale.
- The medium shot: Also known as a two shot, this is a technique that frames the view of a scene’s subjects. The shot is used to showcase the emotion between two characters.
- The close-up shot: This is a shot of an actor or object taken at close range intended to reveal important details of the scene to the viewer. These are the shots that feature the most emotion, allowing the viewer to connect with a character’s struggle in a story.
Hitting your marks, blocking a scene, and being aware of your surroundings are all key to on-camera acting.
While it’s an agent’s job to submit actors for work, you are responsible for knowing your brand and maintaining your marketing materials. It’s up to the actor to take inventory of the items in your toolbox to ensure your management team succeeds in submitting you for quality roles.
Long gone are the days of hard copy headshots, which minimizes the physical clutter that can come with this part of the job. Your brand should feel streamlined and accessible. At all times, make sure these components are updated:
All actors have those they look up to in the field. While taking acting classes to improve your craft is always helpful, it’s important to know what trends are currently in style—especially when it comes to voiceover work and television commercials. Writers regularly read other writers’ work to find inspiration, and the same can be said for actors.
Attend plays. Watch television. Go to the movies. Once you’re done, use resources like IMDB or Backstage to figure out who is casting the kinds of projects you want to be a part of.
“Ted Lasso” Courtesy Apple TV+
This may sound silly, but kindness is an acting skill that will take you far. When you’re on set, maintaining a kind demeanor with everyone from the background actors to the director will show that you’re an asset worth working with again. It doesn’t have to be a massive effort; small acts go a long way. When you’re working, always be sure to:
- Arrive on time, follow the rules, and leave any attitude at the door
- If you’re at an audition, remember the casting assistant’s name
- When you’re on set, listen attentively to the production assistants and assistant directors
If you’re kind to everyone you work with, chances are the creatives will call you in for other projects they’re working on. After all, kindness is the foundation of connection and relationship-building.