Sanford Meisner once said that acting is “behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” When reduced to one sentence, it sounds easy. But anyone who has watched an unbelievable performance can tell you that crafting a standout role on stage or screen isn’t a simple process.
Does that mean acting is a natural talent? Is it something you either have or don’t? Is it possible to develop the skill through study and training? The answer lies somewhere between the two extremes: there are both inborn and learned elements to every actor’s arsenal. Keep reading for a deep dive into the debate.
Acting is a craft that benefits from learning about what makes a character feel believable, and there is no doubt that there are skills actors can learn to help them reach that goal. Whether you are an industry veteran or a first-timer, there are many avenues to explore to learn to act.
Do a cursory search for “acting schools” and you’ll find hundreds of options. Whether it’s Meisner, Method, Practical Aesthetic, or one of the many other acting systems and strategies, there are many people who are willing to teach you to act.
While there is no universally effective acting technique, it’s clear that there are benefits to looking at acting as a skill you have to consistently work at.
The foundation of nearly every school of acting thought is choice. A Method actor reads a script and chooses which memories to use as entry points to a character. Meisner technique involves putting the majority of the actor’s attention on their scene partners and reacting naturally; Jeff Goldblum has often credited his time studying under Sanford Meisner with giving him improvisation skills that have helped him both in acting and music. Even the Chekhov Technique, seen as one of the more spontaneous schools of thought, chooses what it calls “psychological gestures” to create characters. Any time there are choices, there are ways to learn how to make better choices.
Each system emphasizes different methods of learning:
- Viola Spolin’s Theater Games, which revolves around improvisation and play
- The Chekhov Technique, the “psycho-physical” approach to acting that grounds emotion in movement
- The Jerzy Grotowski technique, which starts with an actor practicing silence
- The Stella Adler technique, which urges the actor to study and analyze everything, from the text to the world around them
In addition to sharpening your mental decision-making, you can also strengthen your physical tools. Yale and other major drama schools ask their performers to study the Alexander Technique, for instance, which emphasizes ease of movement and eliminates unwanted (and, in some cases, unconscious) tics or motions. It is thought that removing as much tension from the body as possible is akin to letting down the physical armor that blocks actors from emotion. Removing those physical blocks can allow the actor to feel more deeply and immediately in the moment.
Not every spellbinding character portrayal comes from someone schooled at Juilliard or with decades of experience treading the boards.
When a 14-year-old Jennifer Lawrence spoke with a journalist in 2004, she said that she had never taken an acting class. “I went to an acting coach, and he said, ‘Don’t ever go to an acting coach or class. If you go to an acting class, they’re going to make you just act like everybody else,’ ” Lawrence said.
If that’s the case, where did her Oscar-winning performance in “Silver Linings Playbook” come from? The history of Hollywood is full of successful actors who were, if not complete newcomers, performers who eschewed formal school or training. Quvenzhané Wallis filmed “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at just 6 years old; three years later, the performance garnered the then-9-year-old a best actress nomination.
How are such children able to put in believable performances? There’s no universal answer, but it’s possible that kids are able to more easily access their imagination. It’s theorized that as we age, we use our imagination less and less. We know what is possible and we focus there, rather than on flights of fancy. Children don’t worry about what is technically possible; when Wallis faces off against the titular beasts, she may not default to “this could never happen.”
In addition, plenty of essential skills in any actor’s toolbox are traits some are simply born with. Some people are naturally better, for instance, at memorizing lines; a “photographic memory” is more innate than learned. Vocal cords can be strengthened to allow for greater projection, but it is an arduous task at best—it’s rare that a naturally meek-voiced person can end up blowing the roof off a theater. Things like rhythm, pitch, and tone can be taught, but if just one of these necessities is in your nature, you already have a leg up on your peers.
Finally, casting plays a big role in an individual performance. Barkhad Abdi was famously working as a cab driver before his first role in “Captain Phillips”—a part that eventually earned him Oscar and SAG nominations, along with a BAFTA win. On set, he was kept apart from star Tom Hanks until they had scenes together. That gave him some of the same feelings in real life—the drive to prove himself, to assert himself—that his character used. Abdi was able to successfully channel those real-life emotions that an established actor might not have felt at all.
Can a person learn how to be an actor? Does acting use pure skill or innate talent? The closest thing to an answer is that it’s both—you take your gifts and hone them into skills.
“Great actors make themselves out of the stuff they are born with and all that they experience as their lives unfold,” says acting teacher Edith Meeths. For many great actors, the learning process was critical to their work. “Really be as naive as possible,” Philip Seymour Hoffman advised aspiring actors. “Because then you can keep yourself as wide open as possible for anything that could be of help.”
It’s true that there are examples of actors who have a natural spark, and there are certainly elements of the trade that come much more easily to some. But there are also plenty of ways to improve on stage and learn the skill of acting that performers of all ages can take advantage of.
When discussing whether someone can learn how to act, it’s important to clarify that acting ability and success in show business are not synonymous. Having the ability, in some ways, is like holding a fistful of lottery tickets: You’re in the drawing, you’ve got a chance, but it will take something more—including a lot of luck—to be noticed.