18 Must-Read Books for Actors

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Photo Source: Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

There are countless ways to hone your craft as an actor: classes, coaching sessions, on-set or on-stage experience—and, of course, books on acting. We asked 14 industry experts, from acting coaches to casting directors, for their opinion on the best book for actors. Their book recommendations range from novels to memoirs to guides to honing your acting technique. There’s something here for every actor, no matter your medium or level of experience.

“The Actor and the Target” by Declan Donnellan
It will come as no surprise to anyone I’ve ever taught that Declan Donnellan’s “The Actor and the Target” is the book I’d recommend every actor read. From the outset he posits, “The main cause of an actor’s problems is far simpler than its many effects, just as a bomb is simpler than the havoc it wreaks.” His forensic search for imaginative, emotional, and technical simplicity had me immediately hooked.

Donnellan tackles the actor’s deepest challenges such as, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” “I don’t know what I want,” “I don’t know who I am,” and so on. Stanislavsky outlined “given circumstances” in order to address the same issues, but “The Actor and the Target” modernizes and augments such lessons in a language occasionally academic, but more often intoxicatingly poetic.

My copy contains around 50 bookmarks flagging major shifts it prompted in my thinking. “Acting is a reflex, a mechanism for development and survival...It isn’t ‘second nature,’ it is ‘first nature,’ ” writes Donnellan. To me, this is the heart of his incredible book. Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher 

“The Richest Man in Babylon” by George S. Clason
As an artist, especially when starting out, we try to juggle creating monetary security in the present and future while pursuing our dreams. This book changed my thinking about money, being a struggling artist, and actually creating opportunity. Marc Cartwright, L.A.-based headshot and editorial photographer

“Secrets of Screen Acting” by Patrick Tucker 
I can’t speak to every actor, but the one book I would recommend that any actor focusing on film and television should read, would be Patrick Tucker’s “Secrets of Screen Acting.” Acting on camera is such a unique and technical skill, and in my experience as an on-camera instructor, most actors entering the field simply aren’t trained in the medium. By relating his own experiences as an acting coaching and a director, Tucker explains clearly and concisely everything that someone going into film and television needs to know, and in terms that anyone can understand. Anyone who wants to make a career in film and TV needs to read this book. Jamison Haase, founder of L.A. On-Camera Training Center

“Secrets of Screen Acting” by Patrick Tucker is possibly my favorite book of all time, and for any actor. If you could learn to act for film or TV from a book, this would be the book. Tucker was the dramaturge at the Royal Shakespeare Company when I first met him. However, it wasn’t until some years later I discovered (from this book) that he and I were completely in sync when it came to recorded media. The book offers a number of techniques you can apply to offer your most effective performance. Most actors discover acting after becoming stagestruck (I know I did), and through improvisation. And we’re all fed the myth, “Acting for screen is completely different than acting for stage, voiceover, TV, and so on.” The truth is: Acting is acting is acting. There are a few things you need to know and apply in each medium to offer your very best performance. You may discover how remarkably close each form of media really is after delving deep into these pages! Kate McClanaghan, L.A.-based casting director

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
For me, the Bible of acting is a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare. Sacred simplicity. But there are many helpful acting technique books. I happen to love Michael Caine’s very short and anecdotal book, “Acting in Film.” But my best suggestion is that you don’t just get lost in reading about acting. Acting is experiential. Go do it! Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio

“Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert 
I’m currently reading Gilbert's “Big Magic” after watching this incredible interview with life coach Marie Forleo. I love how she said that every creative career has its own version of a “shit sandwich.” Gilbert helps eliminate the precious and the lies/excuses so that you can get out of your own way and start living a more creative life immediately. Some of my other favorite reads on art, creativity, and social media are listed here. Tony Howell, founder of Creative Social Media

“The Power of Nice” by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval
It’s not a book specifically for actors, but rather a book for all businesspeople, and actors are businesspeople. The book shares their real life experiences of how Thaler and Koval became two of the most powerful women in advertising by being nice. It reminds us all that smiling and being friendly is a professional choice and will almost always take you further than being a jerk! Said with love. Xoxo Jeremy Gordon, L.A.-based casting director

“The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment” by Eckhart Tolle
This book teaches actors not to get distracted by all the noise and focus on what they are doing in the moment. Combine that with clear goals and a plan, and you have a formula for success! David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood

“True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor” by David Mamet
This book is essential reading for any actor navigating the jungle of acting training. Mamet exposes the dirty underbelly of this industry by calling nonsense “techniques” out for being undoable, running actors through hoops, stealing their money, and offering little in the way of practicable, or actionable advice.

Mamet exposes the fact that character is an illusion created by the personality of the actor and the circumstances within the writing. For him, “There is no character. There are just lines on the page.” This concept is at the core of my work with actors—I help them to use their singular personalities to book the role and reach their Oscar potential on set. Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach

“An Actor Prepares” by Constantin Stanislavsky; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig
Sorry, it’s impossible for me to pick just one; there are so many valuable reads for actors out there! It is our responsibility to have perspective on those things that cause fear to bury itself deep inside of us. Then we need to work towards having a better relationship with it rather than let it be the master of our actions. Jessica Rofé, founder and artistic director of A Class Act NY

“The Hero With a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell
I chose this book for two reasons. Actors will discover that the classic “hero’s journey” is at the heart of every character’s story in every film or series no matter the genre—even if the project is an independent drama about relationships and feelings designed to make an audience cry, or a comic Web series designed to make them laugh because the classic “hero’s journey” is the story every human being lives.

It is the essence of the human experience and why stories exist in the first place. Actors will also discover that every scene they play is not only about what is happening on the page. Every scene in every story ever produced is also symbolic of a universal experience every member of the human species shares. Seeing their work through these lenses will not conflict with or replace what actors create with their classic “actor’s process.” It is, however, the key to making audiences identify with, relate to, and embrace what actors create with their classic “actor’s process.” John Swanbeck, director-author

“The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown
Read. All the time. It’s one of the best ways to improve yourself and get ahead. I have two bookshelves in my apartment: one for the books I’ve already read, and one for the books I’ve yet to read. Here are my current favorites on the former:

Ben Whitehair, L.A.-based actor

“How to Write a Movie in 21 Days” by Viki King
I don’t think that books are the best way to learn acting. That’s why I have neglected writing my own on the subject. If I were a film actor hoping to gain ground in my training, I would look toward story structure. Learning the formula of a screen story is vital. What is an actor if not an assistant storyteller? “How to Write a Movie in 21 Days” is a book by Viki King that will gently help you into the world of movie structure. Ryan R. Williams, L.A.-based on-camera coach, founder of Screen Actors System

“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum
Although we may go through life as any of the given characters in the book, focus on the one who gives brilliant advice and the one who is open to receive it. Tracy Byrd, L.A.-based casting director

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