Should You Watch Previous Performances of a Role You’re About to Play?

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Photo Source: “Wonka” Credit: Jaap Buittendijk

You may not be one of the actors in consideration to play the new James Bond (yet), but chances are at some point you’ll be cast in a role that’s already been performed many times over. Like those other actors, you’ll probably be wondering how to contend with previous performances, particularly when those renditions have come to shape the role.

This begs the question: Do you owe it to yourself to study past performances? “I would say no,” says Shannon Sturges, whose Speiser/Sturges Acting Studio has been coaching well-known actors for 30 years. “You want to do everything you can to make the role your own. Otherwise, you’re just inviting the comparison.” 

The imminent danger accompanying watching another actor’s performance is mimicry—intentional or otherwise. “If you’re playing, say, Colonel Jessup in ‘A Few Good Men’ and you can imitate Jack Nicholson, good for you,” Sturges says. “It takes skill to perform imitation. But that’s probably not what you want people to remember about your performance.”

Staying away from other performances can feel counterintuitive for actors, Sturges admits. “I think a lot of times actors do not give themselves permission to be themselves and be their own artist,” she says. “There’s a tendency to drift into ‘what do I think they want?’ rather than ‘what do I want?’ You need to give yourself permission to make the role your own.”  

Rewatch for the reboot?

When it comes to this age of reboots, pay attention to context. “Take the latest ‘A Star Is Born.’ It’s a completely different script, updated for a different time,” says Sturges.  “It’s not like [watching Judy Garland or Barbra Streisand] is background work. Focus on what the writer gave you to work with and on the actors around you. What are they bringing to the table?” 

Sometimes, though, another performance is so iconic that it’s unavoidable. When Timothée Chalamet set out to play Willy Wonka, he couldn’t help but have Gene Wilder’s performance in mind. The context of director Paul King’s 2023 version helped the actor plot his own path: “This isn’t the Willy Wonka with a couple of screws loose that we see in the Gene Wilder and the other version,” Chalamet told the BBC. “This is a young, ambitious, hopeful, won’t-take-no for an answer, sprightly, light Willy.”

Know your stuff 

It’s also important to be aware of your own strengths and limitations. “My grandfather Preston Sturges made [the 1948 film] ‘Unfaithfully Yours,’ ” says Sturges. “Years later, they remade it with Dudley Moore. He was a much different actor than Rex Harrison, who played the lead in the original. He couldn’t do Rex Harrison and, smartly, he didn’t try to.”

All this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do your homework. “Sadly, I wish more actors had a better sense of film history,” says Sturges. “Too often, they’re not familiar with the source material.” Just try not to focus on another performance. “The fun of acting is all of that work that you do to create a character and a backstory, and all those discoveries you make in the process.”  

In the end, watching someone else can be enriching after the fact. “I always suggest that my students watch it right after,” Sturges says. “Maybe they discover similarities or similar impulses. It can be encouraging to know that you share an approach with a great actor.”

Acting coach and actor Shannon Sturges owns Speiser/Sturges Acting Studio in Los Angeles, California.