Good Acting vs. Bad Acting: How Can You Tell?

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Photo Source: Sarah Shatz/HBO/20th Century Fox

It’s a question that’s long confounded audiences, artists, awards voters, and anyone who has studied the collected works of Nicolas Cage: what exactly is “good” acting? Unfortunately, there’s no hard data that leads to an objective conclusion—except when it comes to Cage, who is a genius—and the answer largely depends on a mix of context, personal taste, and the specifics of a project. 

But we did our best. Below, we dig into the good-vs-bad acting debate, with examples from both sides of the fence.


What makes a bad actor?

Bad actors often overact, exaggerating the performance in a way that takes the audience out of the narrative. They are inauthentic. You don’t believe what they’re saying, the emotions they are expressing, or their movements onscreen or onstage. Bad actors make the most predictable choices at any moment—it’s a performance you’ve already seen before.

What makes a good actor?

Film example of good acting

Credit: Ilze Kitshoff

A good actor performs with naturalism and nuance. You believe them. You don’t see an actor who learned their lines, put on a costume, and followed the director’s exact instructions in front of a camera; you see the character and get a sense of their lived-in reality, even if it’s a detail that goes unsaid. Good actors will surprise you—from subtle notes to big reactions, they will perform an emotion that feels simultaneously new and real. 

Bad acting vs. good acting

Here’s a breakdown of the differences between bad and good acting, with examples of acting performances of each. It’s important to note that many of these bad acting examples are performance-specific—for example, Mark Wahlberg might have missed with “The Happening,” but was perfectly pitched in “Boogie Nights.”

Examples of Bad Acting


A bad actor might perform in a way that’s overly exaggerated, leading to corny, over-the-top performances. Overacting, according to writer Jean Schiffman, is characterized by dramatic or quirky facial, bodily, and vocal mannerisms; unrealistic accents; and a lack of naturalism due to sticking to the script without leaving room for flexibility. 

Example: Tommy Wiseau as Johnny in “The Room” 


If an actor can’t make the audience believe that they are truly inhabiting their character, it can ruin the entire production. Miscasting, poor accents, and unrealistic dialogue delivery interrupt the willing suspension of disbelief necessary for a positive performance.

Example: Mark Wahlberg as Elliot Moore in “The Happening” 


If the audience can predict your every move, they’re not going to be engaged in your performance. Although you don’t want to stray from providing a realistic experience, it’s important to include some elements of surprise. “Predictable performances aren’t inspiring,” writes acting coach Louise O’Leary. 

Example: Dean Cain in any (shockingly large) number of Christmas movies


A lack of confidence, energy, and excitement simply isn’t engaging to watch.

Example: Duke Moore as Lieutenant Harper in “Plan 9 From Outer Space” 

Examples of Good Acting


Good acting feels realistic, which means it’s subtle and nuanced but still indicates complex interior states. Actors who perform with nuance can convey complicated emotions and intricate details with a single understated glance. 

Example: Pam Grier as Jackie and Robert Forster as Max in “Jackie Brown” 


“An actor is good if he makes me believe he’s actually going through whatever his character is going through,” said director Marcus Geduld on Quora. “I’m talking somewhat about physical stuff (‘He really is getting shot!’ ‘He really is jumping off a moving train!’) but mostly about psychological stuff (‘He really is scared!’ ‘He really is in love!’). If an actor seems to be faking it, he’s not doing his job.” 

Example: Viola Davis as Rose Maxson and Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson in “Fences”


Conversely, a good actor’s performance contains an element of surprise that intrigues and delights viewers. If an actor is fully invested in the moment, they can surprise themselves as well as the audience. “An actor’s job is to know the breadth of human possibility and the depths of his or her own possibilities,” said Geduld. “He or she must pull from this well and surprise us.” 

Example: Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in “The Shining” 


Alternatively, the ability to be present and exude enthusiasm and confidence takes a performance to the next level. 

Example: Jason Sudeikis as the titular Ted Lasso in “Ted Lasso”

How to tell if you’re watching bad or good acting

good or bad actingCourtesy of Searchlight Pictures

These tried-and-true questions will help you determine if you’re watching something special.

How does it make you feel?

The simplest way to determine whether or not you’re watching good or bad acting is to determine how it makes you feel. The most profound performances across drama, comedy, and everything in between will incite an involuntary response. 

What’s the last movie that made you cry? Chances are, it had an emotional performance that triggered you to care for—and then, for one reason or another, mourn—a character. Need a good cry? Try putting on “Sophie’s Choice,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Titanic,” “Terms of Endearment,” or “Still Alice.”

Many would argue that it’s even harder to get an audience to laugh than it is to cry. An actor’s timing and delivery must be airtight and absolutely impeccable. If you need some laugh-out-loud inspiration, try watching one of the greats in some of their best: Jim Carrey in “Liar Liar,” Eddie Murphy in “Coming to America,” Kristen Wiig on “Saturday Night Live,” or Julia Louis-Dreyfus on “Veep.” 

Did you believe it?

A good performance, such as Tom Hanks as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in “Sully,” keeps you engaged, encourages the suspension of disbelief, and is so convincing that you almost forget that you’re even watching a performance. If you believe that an actor is truly inhabiting their role, it’s likely that you’re witnessing good acting.

What’s the context? 

Oftentimes, the style of acting is dictated by the project itself. In “Face/Off,” Nicolas Cage’s over-the-top, ramped-to-eleven performance fits perfectly with the heightened tone of the film and director John Woo’s operatic sensibilities. However, if Cage delivered a similarly-pitched take in the moody, meditative drama “Pig,” it’d feel out of place. If you bump up against the style or tone of a performance, ask yourself whether the genre and mood of the piece calls for it or not. 

What does the role entail?

Another good way to measure an actor’s performance is their approach to the material while filming. Were they fully immersed in their characters even when the cameras weren’t rolling? Did they go to extremes in preparation to learn a skill or change their appearance for the role? While such traits do not inherently guarantee a good performance, they certainly inform and further add to the lore surrounding one’s acting; highlights include Natalie Portman in “Black Swan” and Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln.”

Some of the meatiest roles for actors are those that are based on real people. It gives a direct comparison model for how they’re doing, and if they are looking and acting the part. If you find yourself forgetting that you’re watching a movie star at work, you know they’re doing a good job. Highlights of the biopic game include Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in “Milk” and Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.”

But getting to play themselves (or a heightened version of themselves) onscreen can be even more of a challenge for actors. Comedic or thought-provoking self-awareness adds complexity and intrigue. For this type of role difficulty, it doesn’t get much better than John Malkovich being John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich.”

Making risky decisions like choosing to portray a complicated dialect doesn’t always equate to good acting, but that kind of dedication can certainly ignite greatness. English actor Kate Winslet, for instance, took on the Pennsylvania Delco accent as Mare Sheehan in “Mare of Easttown,” garnering high praise for her risky and compelling performance.

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