1 Way to Expand Your Acting Range Into Any Genre

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Actors with the ability to transition seamlessly between drama, sci-fi, western, social realism, and stoner comedy are impressive beings. Not only does performing a wide range of genres and styles help keep an actor’s mind, voice, and body flexible, but also audiences are increasingly drawn to actors who take risks and traverse previously unexplored ground in their bodies of work.

Would you consider yourself an actor of great range? Are you aware of your own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the various styles and genres in film and television today?

Can you remember and proficiently deliver rapid-fire banter of the kind found in any Aaron Sorkin script, and quickly pick up a created language like Dothraki in “Game of Thrones”? Can you make audiences laugh, as well as make them cry in a romantic comedy, and then adapt to the almost theatrical style of mobster and superhero genres? On the flip side, are you comfortable with the laconic and underplayed requirements of westerns and mumblecore?

Some actors may find it difficult to imagine ever being cast in a chick flick or zombie outbreak movie, but for others, these are exactly the kinds of projects in which they regularly thrive. Period pieces, historical epics, and fantasy fare are intensely appealing to some actors, whereas family/kitchen-sink drama is the staple for many others. Performers that understand the demands of each and shift comfortably between them will find more work available to them in the long run…so why not go exploring?

Though you may have found an exciting place in indie horror films, do you know for certain that a romantic comedy Web series, or Civil War-era short film is not a challenge you might also relish? If quirky sci-fi is all you love doing, then by all means keep doing it, but keep looking around to see if there are other areas into which you might stretch, because you just never know what may come of the exploration. I suspect Mark Ruffalo never imagined himself playing the superhero Hulk in the “Avengers” franchise, nor would Jodie Foster have predicted her career to take her into the sci-fi/thriller “Contact.” And Bryan Cranston could only have dreamed of a role as dark and as complex as Walter White in “Breaking Bad” after more than half a decade of playing the odd father in “Malcolm in the Middle.”

Cross-genre stories are of particular interest to me, and require an even deeper understanding of the dynamics of each individual genre from which they draw. “The Office” (documentary/comedy), “Mad Max: Fury Road” (post-apocalyptic/chase film), “Warm Bodies” (zombie/romantic comedy), and “Safety Not Guaranteed” (time travel/mumblecore) are good examples of combining genres to create new forms.

Though certain outings such as “Cowboys and Aliens” (western/alien invasion), or “Wild Wild West” (western/steam punk) are arguably failures in cross-genre filmmaking, I appreciate the fact that they exist, because they buck the trend of creating an endless stream of cookie-cutter car chase, superhero, and police procedural dramas in film and on television.

The intriguing thing about the hugely successful “House of Cards,” for instance, is its deft blend of well-known modern political drama devices with the entirely under-utilized plotting drawn from revenge tragedies. Similarly, “Game of Thrones” captivates us with its mashup of Shakespearean tragedy, fantasy, and family drama.

My “Acting Genre & Style on Camera” course encourages actors to learn the many and varied differences between the types of performances required on screen, but there are other ways to learn if a class is not in your budget. Invite friends over once a week and hold “genre marathons.” Watch as many westerns as you can, from “The Magnificent Seven” through to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Django Unchained.” Follow it a week later with fantasy: “Game of Thrones,” “The Princess Bride,” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

Whatever you do, never stop learning, and never stop absorbing.

Lack of money should never prevent you from continuing to expand your understanding of genre and style on a daily basis, only passivity and laziness can do that. Otherwise, the thing stopping you from flexing your acting muscles in new and productive ways might simply be that you didn’t know they were there—and that would be a shame.

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Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.
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