These 5 Great Books About Acting Can Upgrade Your Performance

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“If I want pure sorrow, I call up Princess Diana’s death,” says puffed-up acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) on HBO’s “Barry.” “Or the day my dad fell off the roof when I was a kid. Ka-plunk. Or the next day, when he went right back up on the roof.” While these words might do the trick for a novice thespian, the following five books by real-life, acclaimed acting giants are rooted in experience—and written extremely well.

‘Respect for Acting’ by Uta Hagen

No drama school journey is complete unless you’ve witnessed post-high schoolers tucking this indispensable 240-page tome under their arms. It’s penned by acting legend Hagen, a German-born émigré who revolutionized the craft. Hagen played roles such as Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and the titular character in George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” before becoming one of the most sought-after acting gurus.

GOOD ADVICE: If you are affected in your daily life, calculatingly self-aware in your relations with others, you will undoubtedly be a bad actor, because your attention is narcissistic.”

‘The Intent to Live: Achieving Your True Potential as an Actor’ by Larry Moss

You can’t throw a stone in Hollywood without hitting a luminary who credits Moss as a massive influence. His clients include none other than Oscar winners Leonardo DiCaprio, Hilary Swank, and Helen Hunt, with Swank and Hunt even thanking him in their Academy Award speeches. Moss began as a Broadway stalwart before becoming a West Coast sensation, training actors across film, TV, and theater.

GOOD ADVICE: I’ve heard some actors say, ‘Well, I didn’t even read the whole screenplay, I just read the scenes I’m in.’ I think that’s irresponsible and arrogant, because the given circumstances are so integral to the work that you can’t give a full performance without including them.”

‘Audition’ by Michael Shurtleff

Shurtleff has worked as a casting director for huge movies (“The Graduate,” “Jesus Christ Superstar”) and coached the likes of Barbra Streisand, Lily Tomlin, and Bette Midler. His 1978 digest remains as invaluable as ever for those who see the dreaded, titular rite of passage as a weak spot in their acting arsenal.

GOOD ADVICE: “Put aside the limitations that instant characterizations inevitably instill; allow anything to be possible; make choices that give you the maximum possible involvement.”

‘An Actor’s Companion’ by Seth Barrish

Barrish’s pupils have included Anne Hathaway and Sarita Choudhury. The Barrow Group co-artistic director’s 2015 book is a guide for both those starting out and individuals with careers as decorated as Hathaway and Choudhury. It features simple, succinct tactics for actors to develop their skills.

BEST ADVICE: “Whatever you decide to do on stage, really do it. If you are cleaning, really clean, if you are writing, really write. The difference between faking and really doing a task will be obvious to you and your audience.”

‘The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide’ by Jenna Fischer 

Want a book written by someone who landed on one of the most beloved TV comedies of all time? Pick up “The Office” star Fischer’s 2017 how-to on persistence and dealing with rejection before landing that dream role. It always helps to hear directly from someone who lived to tell that tale.

BEST ADVICE: “You’ve got to fight the urge to spend all day alone…. Find anything and join it. Even if you have a theater degree, get yourself in a class. Just because college is over doesn’t mean you’re done learning.”

Jason Clark
Jason Clark (he/him) has over 25 years in the entertainment and media industry covering film, television, and theater. He comes to Backstage from TheWrap, where he’s worked as an awards reporter since 2021. He also has bylines in Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Vulture, the Village Voice, AllMovie, and Slant Magazine, among many others. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in cinema studies from New York University.
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