What Is Acting?

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Actors breathe life into characters, communicate stories, and create fantastical worlds out of thin air. Or, as Sanford Meisner famously noted, “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” But while acting is defined by imagination and performance, the purpose of acting varies depending on the performer and their relationship with the craft.

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What is the definition of acting?

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Acting is the art of performance. Actors portray characters and tell stories using dialogue, body language, and facial expressions. 

Acting can take place in theater, film, TV shows, commercials, radio, podcasts, and new media, and can entail improvisation or using scripts.

What is acting about?

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  • Acting is connection: Actors connect to the audience using their tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions.
  • Acting is communication: Acting is the practice of communicating messages about emotions, ideas, artistic expression, and plot. Through these signs and the process of semiotics, the actor communicates meaning—or signification—to their audience. 
  • Acting is believable: Good actors perform emotional depth with a naturalism and nuance that makes the audience willingly suspend their disbelief and believe in the character and performance.
  • Acting is labor: Whether it’s memorizing monologues, practicing lines, transforming their bodies, or changing their voices, the time and energy actors put into the craft is work—and hard work, at that.
  • Acting is human: Finally, the desire to perform, tell stories, connect, and communicate with each other is innately human and shares a history with humankind.

What does acting mean to performers?

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  • Austin Butler: Acting is truth-telling. “Something Denzel told me is: There is no stage acting or film acting; there is the truth. Human beings do really broad things in everyday life. Sometimes, they do very subtle things. You can do either onstage or onscreen. That freed me up to realize [that] all of the things I was learning onstage—I could take them back into film.” 
  • Ben Barnes: Acting is making choices. “When I started out, I felt my job as an actor was to serve the scene in the story, and all I had to do was commit to the moment and that would be enough. Being entirely candid, I got some criticism for being quite safe and playing characters who felt dull or bland. I found it helpful to start making more definitive choices about the characters I was playing. I know a lot of actors find watching their own work difficult, but I’ve found it very helpful when it comes to thinking about the choices I’ve made about a character.”
  • Anne Hathaway: Acting is life. “You have absolutely no control over how a project is going to be received. You don’t know if it’s going to make money or flop. You don’t know if you’ll love it or the critics will hate it. You don’t know if the critics will love it but you’ll hate it…. The only thing that you have control over is the time you have making the project. I heard that when I was 17 years old, but I didn’t hear it until a bit later on in my career. So I would just sit down with myself and explain that, when you’re an actor, the line between your life and your career—it’s a blurred one, because you’re living so many hours at your job. So this is your life, too. And these are the people of your life, even if it’s temporary or transient or any of those things. So be fully present in that aspect of it, as well.”
  • Danielle Deadwyler: Acting is growth. “Patience is your best friend. I think my trajectory went differently for good measure, and I feel good about that. But if [my younger self] could have known ahead of time, she could have gotten rid of a lot of anxiety. It shouldn’t go fast. If you go too fast, are you even ready? Allow yourself to be watered. Allow yourself to be planted, for that matter. I know that my path has been a slow one because it has enabled me to meet and learn from a wealth of people in various disciplines, and that’s enabled me to do the kinds of things that I’ve done.”
  • Adeel Akhtar: Acting is resilience. “That’s acting, sometimes you’ll feel alone and not seen but it can all change. Keep hold of that when you feel like you’re struggling. I’d also say to my younger self that there’s loads of other professions, you can be happy doing something else, it doesn’t have to be too much of a struggle.”
  • Justice Smith: Acting is reacting. “They always say acting is reacting, you know, and I think that might be a cliché, but it’s true. I think the perfect scene partner is someone who’s just listening to you and is on your team and wants what’s best for the scene. I’ve worked with actors who are a little more self-interested, who are prioritizing their own performance over the scene itself, which is something that I have to adjust to. But the actors that I prefer to work with are the ones who are invested in what I have to bring, as well, and allow it to change their original ideas about the character or their original ideas about the scene and vice versa. I love having my expectations broken when I get to set and I work with another actor who is challenging me to think about the character differently.”
  • Ellen Burstyn: Acting is communion. “Just hearing a purse clicking open when I’m doing something that’s making the audience cry and I know somebody’s reaching for their handkerchief or their tissue, or laughter, or any kind of response from the audience, even absolute silence where I can feel they’re really attentive, I call that feeling ‘communion.’ I always feel like I’m in a communion with the audience, with the individual people. I can feel their presence and their concentration, their attention. When I feel I don’t have that, that’s a terrible feeling and then I have to refocus and get concentrated and reestablish that communion.”