These 5 Short Films Will Boost Your Acting Game

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Photo Source: “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” Courtesy Netflix

Have a lot of auditions coming up but not a lot of time to watch three-hour-plus epics for inspiration? Thankfully, many short films are not only helmed by Academy Award–friendly moviemakers but also happen to star actors lending their considerable clout to something much of the general public will never see. Here are five shorts that could amp up your acting prowess, featuring actors who impress no matter how long the runtime.

“The Phone Call” (2013)

One of the most difficult scenes for an actor to master is the “phone scene,” and this 21-minute look at a hotline help center employee (Sally Hawkins, from “The Shape of Water” and “Blue Jasmine”) taking a fateful call is one continuous example of such. Directed by Mat Kirkby, who ended up winning an Oscar for the film, it is also a true testament to Hawkins’ undeniable skill as an actor: Her shy Heather grapples with slow reveals of her own emotions and processing while remaining an active listener to the troubled gentleman on the line. The give and take represents pretty much the entire bedrock of acting technique.

“Trevor” (1994)

One of the few Oscar-winning short films to spark a full-scale musical (not to mention a real-life 24/7 crisis outreach program for LGBTQ+ teens), Peggy Rajski’s look at a lovesick, put-upon, Diana Ross-loving young teen is a great example of cinema advocacy in action. By covering such an important topic in an accessible and thoughtful way, Rajski and her cast enrich viewers with both emotion and information. An at times dark tale told with an undeniable affirmation of life, the short is also a benchmark work for its young actor (the wonderful Brett Barsky in the titular role). Such junior characters leading the events of a short film are a rarity, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one more memorable.

“Wasp” (2003)

Filmmaker Andrea Arnold is a master at depicting working-class individuals experiencing some sense of moral wandering (“American Honey," “Fish Tank”), and her Oscar-winning 2003 short is an arresting early version of that same theme. Movies about single mothers on the fringes always run the risk of feeling condescending, but thanks to a gritty, colorful performance by Natalie Press—playing a harried, wayward mom balancing a date at a local pub with the needs of her three children—the situation is beautifully realized and even a little romantic. Proletariat life is rarely portrayed with such verve, if at all in cinema, and Arnold always finds an effortless, truthful way into this sometimes-thorny terrain.

“The Human Voice” (2020)

Actors rightly bow at the altar of the great Tilda Swinton, but many have likely not seen one of her ultimate tours de forces: a filmic monologue about a severely depressed woman traversing a break-up and her own mortality, a mise-en-scène courtesy of legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almódovar. This piece is directly inspired by a Jean Cocteau piece—which keeps its roots quite theatrical, another Almódovar specialty—and is a whirlwind entryway into Swinton’s enveloping, physical style; if there was ever an actor you’d pay to see read the phone book, as the proverbial saying goes, it’s Swinton. And she even gets to be on the phone for a good deal of the 30-minute running time.

“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” (2023)

The most recent Oscar winner for Best Live Action Short Film—shockingly the first ever Academy Award for cineaste dream Wes Anderson—this work is a great example of how actors can adapt to a filmmaker’s trademark acting style. One of several whimsical Roald Dahl short story adaptations for Netflix, Anderson’s film casts an array of decorated performers (Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, Richard Ayoade) to tell the story of a rich man balancing philanthropy and greed amid Anderson’s exquisitely art-directed panoramas and staccato, pointed acting style. “Henry Sugar," which often breaks the fourth wall, is a showcase for how actors can infuse humanity and emotion into what may feel like rigid line readings

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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