Your Next Acting Assignment Is to Watch Classic Films

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Photo Source: Margaux Quayle Cannon

We’re living through the most prolific time in television history. Just 10 years ago, a “name” actor wouldn’t even consider guest starring on a TV show, much less starring on a series. These days, you see big movie stars with television production companies developing, starring in, producing, and sometimes directing series. 

With streaming TV platforms releasing a steady flow of content, we’re being flooded with phenomenal shows like “Hacks,” “Mare of Easttown,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to name just a few. Each episode has the quality (and budget!) of a feature film. To be a fully informed and prepared actor, you’ve got to watch a few episodes of everything out there.

The other night, despite trying to keep up with all the great shows, I thought I’d wander back to movies—not just new films, but classics. I was pleasantly surprised to find “Broadcast News.” This film was written, produced, and directed by the genius James L. Brooks. Many folks aren’t aware that Brooks also wrote, produced, directed, or created some of our most iconic TV shows, including “The Simpsons,” “Taxi,” “Lou Grant,” “Rhoda,” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and also directed many well-known TV pilots.

Watching “Broadcast News” again confirmed my belief that actors need to immerse themselves in iconic movies for research. Directors, bless them, don’t always know how to articulate in “actor speak,” but they know exactly where to put the camera. These directors tend to rely instead on film references. If you were having trouble with a scene and the director said, “It’s like the camaraderie that Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks have as coworkers and best friends,” would you know what they are getting at? Unless you’ve seen “Broadcast News,” you won’t get what the director is trying to draw out of your performance. 

Not only should you be seeing every iconic film you can find, you should also be reading books about both acting and filmmaking. I just finished a brilliant book called “The Big Goodbye” by Sam Wasson, which chronicles the making of the film “Chinatown.” Not only does it break down the behind-the-scenes journey of how the film came to fruition, but it also teaches you some cinematic history. As an actor, you should be watching this movie and taking notes to analyze how still these actors’ performances are. There are no major action sequences, no snappy dialogue—just extremely centered and rich performances that hold our attention on the screen. Tastes and trends in film may have changed, but the classics should still be part of your frame of reference.

In the 1970s, we had films like “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Godfather” and its sequel, “Heaven Can Wait.” And then, “Jaws,” and “Star Wars” debuted and changed film history. These films redefined the modern blockbuster, and what we’d call small stories back then are now called indie films. It took decades for the pendulum to swing back to “people” stories like “Nomadland,” “Minari,” and “Sound of Metal.” 

I’ve prepared a list of must-see films that should be in every actor’s arsenal. Start doing your homework, and check out my blog at to read my post entitled “My Must-See Films 1960–1990s.”

This story originally appeared in the July 29 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Marci Liroff
Known for her work in film and television, producer, casting director, and intimacy coordinator Marci Liroff has worked with some of the most successful directors in the world. Liroff is also an acting coach, and her three-night Audition Bootcamp has empowered actors to view the audition process in a new light.
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