Acting: Are "good" actors "good" because they are skilled at seeing the world from many different points of view?
February 24, 2016
David Beach, Actor... comedian.
I love the fact that Micheal J Fox once said he was just a good liar. I wouldnt be surprised to hear that many actors have said the same thing. I dont know if being able to see the world from different views is what makes a good actor. I think a good actor is one that can make the audience believe the character sees the world from a specific point of view. Consistently. Honestly, most actors are just taking the writers opinion of a different view. (improv aside). So, we work with the material given. If its good material though, our job is to bring it to life and make the audience accept it as truth, and consistent. From the words to the action and all that encompasses it. One of the things that 'bad' actors tend to do is to not ' fully embody' the emotion/mood/action etc. The words are saying 'anger' for instance, and the body and reactions are not.. perhaps relaxed or uninvolved. An audience member may not know why.. but something doesnt click as true to them as they watch.And some actors overact . Taking a simple scene and making it a bit unreal. My favorite moments are when I am driving by an audition site, or a theatre and you see two actors rehearsing...frequently it just looks forced. Our jobs are to recreate life. If the same two people just appeared to be interacting.. then that is acting.
I mostly believe in a completely different answer: good actors are good because they're so charismatic you can't take your eyes off them. Most mainstream stars are like this. I'm pretty sure Matt Damon, John Wayne, and Cary Grant are all more charismatic than anyone I've ever known well. And in yet another completely different answer: good actors are good because they make you feel a lot of emotion. Some good actors are also good because they're good at appearing to be different people in different roles, and that may be because of how they see the world or how they fake it -- but for me all of this is firmly in third place, behind charisma and emotion.
Good acting is many different things, to many different people for many different purposes. A few of those dimensions:
A good actor is one who gives a performance you like. While a lot of people wouldn't call Arnold Schwartzenegger a "good actor", his films pack 'em in. Whatever it is he's doing, people want to see it. What's he doing? If I knew, I wouldn't be here with you clowns. Is Russell Crowe really the best actor for whatever Russell Crowe vehicle he's about to be in? I dunno, but people go see it.
A good actor, to some, is one who does a lot of different things well; to others, it's one who does one thing very well. Hollywood especially prizes the latter; you need a stock role and you fill it with somebody who reliably does it. The stage often prefers the former, since it has a smaller pool of actors to draw on.
Some good actors are skilled mimics. This is a point of irritation for me: actors are often praised for "disappearing into a role" when all they've really done is adopted an accent or set of mannerisms. Which are remarkable and crucial skills, but they can also be shallow, capturing only the surface traits.
From the point of view of other actors, a good actor can be one who is open to ideas, innovative with their own, and willing to hash out what it takes to make a unified performance. Being the star of your own show may draw rave reviews, but if you're stealing focus, you're damaging the show. Often, the best performances are ones that only the other actors notice.
A good actor, to my mind as a director, is one who is able to incorporate new ideas quickly. We have limited time to work, and you can't afford months to rebuild your performance around my idea. A great actor takes an idea, incorporates it, and shows it to me. And then we can see if it works or not.
Good actors use a variety of techniques to get where they need to go. There are dozens of variants on "The Method"; some actors are internalist and others are externalist.
Some actors are praised for being able to deliver wild, exorbitant characters. The Academy loves to give awards to over-the-top roles, and audiences eat it up. These roles are one important type of acting, and the ability to deliver them in a convincing and engaging way is a hard-won skill. Personally, I don't really need to see histrionics, but I can admire the hell out of the way Johnny Depp managed to salvage Pirates of the Caribbean from its hackneyed script and ham-handed direction, as well as the dishwater performances from Whats-His-Name and Whats-Her-Name (good actors in their own right, actually, when given a decent script and a director who seems to care whether or not they actually show up).
Randy Marquis, I've been acting for two decades.
There are many schools of acting technique, so there really isn't a "one size fits all" answer. Some actors attempt to retrieve sense memory from past experiences and utilize it to drive their dialog or action in a given scene. Some actors are more technical, relying on physical or other external cues to influence their performance. Others still are more instinctive, listening to their scene partners and responding on the impulse. And of course we've all heard stories of actors who ride along with the police or shadow a historical figure in an effort to immerse themselves as much as possible in that person's life and perspective. Many actors will utilize multiple such methods depending on what they feel is necessary to deliver a truthful performance. Beyond acting, I would guess that most artists consider seeing the world from multiple points of view essential to their ability to interpret thoughts and emotions into their art form. But ultimately, it's still us that is going on stage or a canvas or a page and, beyond the simple ability to empathize with others, it is virtually impossible to "know" ever single perspective or point of view and apply it to our art. For example, many actors have played serial killers or other truly evil individuals. In that case, the understanding of such a person's point of view might need to be somewhat clinical and detached, as the human mind typically shrinks from such darkness, unless the artist is also a sociopath. Yet the artist must still find a way to connect to the motivation behind the action to play the truth of the moment, therefore requiring a less emotional direction and something more technical. As someone who has evaluated actors (as a director) will also being one, I have great respect for the actor who can ultimately deliver a truthful performance, no matter how they get there. However, it's hard to quantify to just how an actor reaches that point. Like Potter Stewart once said about obscenity, "I know it when I see it." :)
Marcus Geduld, Artistic Director, Folding Chair Classical Theatre, NYC (foldingchairtheatre.org)
Many actors are able to get to a point where they sympathize with almost any sort of character, even one most of us would find loathsome, like a Nazi, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily more open-minded or sympathetic when not acting. Most of the actors I know, when not acting, are just as prejudiced (or, to be kind, just as open minded) as the non-actors I know. If they are Liberals, they are likely to be close-minded to Conservatives, and vice versa. But if one of them had to play someone of the opposite political stance, he'd find a way, over the course of the rehearsal period, to sympathize with his character -- not necessarily with Conservatives or Liberals in general, but with his character. Partly, actors "find a way in" through techniques originally developed by Constantine Stanislavski, the father of modern acting. Stanislavski urged actors to focus on goals rather than emotions. So, for instance, if I (a Liberal) was playing Mitt Romney during the last direction, I would attempt "to win." Trying to win is something everyone can relate to. Both Liberal and Conservative politicians try to win. Which is to say trained actors focus more on what people are doing than why they are doing it. However, during the process, they may gradually come to be sympathetic to the why. Actors often do research, reading biographies and studying the environment his character was raised in. This does promote sympathy, but it's also very specific to that character. It doesn't necessarily translate to general sympathy.