Evaluating Acting and Listening to the Actors
For me, an actor is good if …
- The Actor makes me believe (s)he’s actually going through whatever the character is going through.
I’m talking somewhat about physical stuff (“He really is getting shot!” “He really is jumping off a moving train!”) but mostly about psychological stuff. (“He really is scared!” “He really is in love!”) If an actor seems to be “faking it,” he’s not doing his job (as I define it).
- The Actor surprises me.
This is the most nebulous requirement, but it’s important. Except for really small (acting) parts that aren’t supposed to call attention to themselves (e.g. a bank teller who just cashes the hero’s checks), it’s not enough for actors to just seem real. Seeming real is a requirement, but a second requirement is that I can’t predict their every reaction before they have it.
Think of how a woman might react if her boyfriend breaks up with her. There are many, many truthful ways — ways which would seem like a human being reacting and not like a space alien behaving in some bizarre, unbelievable way.
She might break down and cry; she might laugh hysterically; she might throw water in his face; she might go completely numb, having no expression at all …
An actor’s job is to know the breadth of human possibility and the depths of their own possibilities. They must pull from this well and surprise us. Otherwise, they become boring and predictable.
There are many ways an actor can surprise. Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis surprise us by being truthful while playing multiple, very different roles. Jack Nicholson surprises by being … surprising. Even though he’s not a chameleon like Oldman or Day-Lewis, you never know what he’s going to do next. But whatever her does, it’s grounded in psychological reality. It never seems fake.
Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Al Pacino, and many others have a surprising danger in them. They’re a little scary to be around, because you feel they might jump you or blow up at you at any time. They are ticking time bombs.
And, of course, many comedic actors (e.g. Julia Louis-Dreyfus) surprise us in all sorts of quirky, zany ways. Or watch Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in “Bringing Up Baby.” Absolutely surprising and absolutely truthful!
Another great example of surprising acting that never seems fake is Diane Keaton’s work in “Annie Hall.”
- The Actor is vulnerable.
Great actors share the parts of themselves that most people keep hidden. They are always naked. (I’m talking about emotional nakedness). Bad actors are guarded. They don’t want to share the parts of themselves that are ugly, mean, petty, jealous, etc.
These are the same scared, hurt parts that are inside all of us — the parts we work hard to hide. Hiding them (by holding them in) takes a toll on us, and one of the greatest gifts actors can give is to sacrifice their dignity to us and for us. They expose themselves so we don’t have to.
When actors are exposed and raw, it’s always surprising. And if it doesn’t seem real, there’s no point in it. In fact, this sort of emotional nakedness is very hard to fake. If you ever get a sense that an actor is showing you a secret part of himself, he probably is.
Examples: Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Where Is Kyra), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Ed Harris (The Abyss), Viola Davis (Fences), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Sly Stallone (Creed), Jodi Foster (The Accused), Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man), Audrey Hepburn (The Nun’s Story), Tom Hanks (Forest Gump), Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place), Mahershala Ali (Green Book).
- The Actor knows how to listen.
It’s fascinating to watch actors when they’re not speaking. Some are too caught up in ego or technicalities (e.g. trying to remember their next line) to totally focus on whoever it is they’re acting with. Others seem to register everything they hear. You can see whatever is being said to them physically affecting them, as if the words are slapping them across the face. Watch Claire Danes. She’s an amazing listener.
Some other great talents use their eyes to express listening: Denzel Washington, Robert Downey Jr., Helena Bonham Carter, Adrien Brody, Johnny Depp, Rooney Mara, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, Paul Giamatti, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
- The Actor has a well-honed “instrument.”
By this I mean (s)he knows how to use his/her voice and body to serve whatever role (s)he’s playing. This doesn’t necessarily mean (s)he’s slim or has a six-pack. James Gandolfini used his body well. It means he knows how to move and talk in expressive ways. His voice and body aren’t fighting him or holding tension that’s inappropriate to his role.
Keep in mind that many people (who aren’t themselves actors, directors, or obsessive film buffs) aren’t very clear on what actors contribute to a film. Which is fine. It’s not necessary for most audience members to understand who does what during production.
Lots of people think an actor is great if they like the character. But that’s often a function of good writing more that good acting. Or they think (s)he’s good if (s)he pulls off some impressive effect, such as gaining or losing a lot of weight or pretending to be physically or emotionally challenged. Those are impressive stunts, but they aren’t the core of what actors do.
Some people think acting is good if they like the movie. They confuse the movies with the actor. If some other actor had been in those films, those same people would have liked him/her. It’s not really the actor (or not entirely the actor) they’re liking. But since (s)he plays the protagonist, they focus on him/her.
Finally, many people confuse an actor’s life with his/her body of work. If you don’t like someone’s life choices – that can impact you evaluating their acting –that is baggage. I’m just saying that people’s reactions to actors are often complicated and not 100% influenced by their performances.
Browne, B. (2011, January 3). The power of vulnerability. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/iCvmsMzlF7o
Film 4. (2015, August 5). Acting on acting. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Ul_wE953yPQ
Geduld, M. (2021, February 20). Acting: Marcus Geduld. Retrieved from https://www.quora.com/profile/Marcus-Geduld
Geduld, M. (2014, September 14). How to tell good acting from bad acting – Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-tell-good-acting-from-bad-acting-2014-9
Haft, S. (2020, September 12). Vulnerability in acting. Retrieved from https://www.stagemilk.com/vulnerability-in-acting/
Movie Clips: Coming soon. (2012, December 10). The Impossible: movie clip with Naomi Watts. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/I4Xsd2hLFFI
Oprah’s master class. (2015, December 3). Why Jeff Bridges almost walked away from acting. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/ozu8HXQLDCI
OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network
Pensare films. (2016, March 26). 10 actors on acting. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/QIgtVngQQ9A