How to be a Versatile Actor

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As actors we’re generally expected to be versatile enough to play everything. Or at least that’s the general consensus regarding acting as a profession—and not simply from actors and their coaches.

Of course, precious few have the wherewithal to rise to such daunting heights for the simple reason that none of these tasks are all that easy. Mastering the skills to perform in any medium, let alone making the transition appear effortless, is generally accepted to define what it is to be versatile. This is, at least in part, the degree of difficulty involved in being a versatile actor. Every genre demands skill and tenacity and requires constant maintenance if you hope to be a valued professional.

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, but being versatile is most often defined by the following:

  1. Being skillful at playing a role that is a dramatic departure from yourself, or playing a role that’s a dramatic departure from characters you play most.
  2. Mastering a variety of media. The more you make yourself familiar with the demands of commercial work, TV, film, and voiceover, the more capable and confident you’ll become performing in each of these forms of media. Besides, your aim as an actor should be to open yourself up to as many opportunities as possible.
  3. The ability (and agility) to offer appropriate performance options, take after take. This defines our creative muscle, regardless of the project, genre, or scene. The ability to deliver a unique expression with each take could very well be the very core of what makes us creatively valuable.

Certainly in theater, you typically have about two weeks of rehearsal before a production opens, which allows you plenty room to create and play. However, when it comes to recorded media, such as voiceover, film, and TV, you’re expected to offer effective options from the very start and with every take. (You’re rarely expected to deliver only one single take as you would with live performance.) Which is why surprising yourself take after take, with a variety of inflections, is consistently what’s needed and wanted from you most in recorded media.

You’ll miss the real opportunity to create something extraordinary if you consistently “ramp up” into your performance, as so many talent do in voiceover, when you’re first getting started, or with stage work, given the fact we have the time to process and discover.

And herein lies the degree of difficulty so many talent fall prey to when transitioning from stage to voiceover or TV and film. At Actors’ Sound Advice, we call this the “muscle memory delivery.” Not to be confused with Method acting’s definition of the term. We refer to the “muscle memory delivery” as a comfort zone created from the very beginning of any new practice. For us, it means that however you read the script the first time out, you’re likely to keep delivering the same read again and again out of sheer habit.

This impulse is necessary to drive a car, and certainly without it you’d never hear the phrase, “It’s just like riding a bike.” So it certainly serves a purpose; however, in acting, especially voice acting, it usually serves to offer a repetitive performance lacking creativity and spontaneity.

To become versatile requires that you train like an athlete. Whatever your performance experience is (or has been) speaks volumes to your ultimate defaults. To become a reliable, confident, and valuable talent, regardless of the medium, it’s vital to consider what you’re hoping to accomplish. Proper training is a matter of effective conditioning. The best coaching offers techniques you can apply that challenge your comfort zone in order to master versatility.

As Stephen Hawking once said, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

Agreed. All the more reason to work smarter.

Now start looking at Backstage's voiceover audition listings!

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Author Headshot
Kate McClanaghan
Kate McClanaghan is a casting director, producer, and founder of both Big House Casting & Audio (Chicago and Los Angeles) and Actors’ Sound Advice. She’s a seasoned industry veteran and actor who has trained actors and produced demos for more than 5,000 performers over her 30 years in the business.
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