Answers to Questions about Acting

Aug 23, 2020 3:00 PM

As an actor I sometimes get questions about acting. Heres a selection of them with my answers. (All have been previously posted on Quora. Some may have been edited and have additions.)

Why is acting not a sin?

I can understand the question. Christianity has had an uneasy relationship with theater going back to the days of the Roman Empire. I suppose the rationale for your question is that acting is a form of lying, right? And, after all, isn’t the word “hypocrite” with which Jesus condemned the Pharisees actually the Greek word for “actor”? (Yes, it is.) 

But no, acting is not a sin because acting is not a form of lying, but of storytelling. And storytelling is not a sin because it is a means both of communication and, ironically enough, of truth-telling, even though the story itself may be make believe. Jesus himself is the preeminent storyteller in the Bible.

 That’s not to say that all stories or that everything that is acted out is wholesome. But content notwithstanding, the acting-out of stories and dialogue is not in and of itself either sinful or righteous, but like all human arts becomes what the artist makes it to be.

How do you recognize a good actor?

A good actor does two things: Makes you believe the character they’re playing, and entertains you while doing it.

Why is it so easy to notice bad acting? What are good actors doing that makes them seem more natural? Is there a scientific explanation for how we tell the difference?

I’m sure someone will design a metric for this somewhere down the road, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Intuition will give as good an answer as science.

Acting is like magic: Its success depends upon the selling of an illusion and the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. That requires a balance between being real (or natural, or believable) and entertaining at the same time. Extreme realism is usually not very entertaining, and what is entertaining may not be very realistic. A good actor finds that balance and manages to entertain us without appearing to be making an effort to be someone different than himself. A great actor, like a great magician, amazes us and transports us to a different dimension of the imagination. In bad acting, the actor may appear to be trying too hard or not trying hard enough, but distracts us and shakes us out of our involvement with the story. The point is, the audience can see him TRYING to be his character instead of just being his character. Sometimes good and even great actors can give a bad performance, and that jars us even more because we don’t expect it.

How ironic is it when actors “act” like they are acting?

It’s not any more ironic than simply acting. It’s just more difficult to do it well, i.e., to make it convincing. In the same way, it’s difficult for a good actor to act like a bad actor or non-actor to try to act. It’s all about layering. One of my favorite scenes from Shakespeare is where Hamlet (Act III, Sc. 2) explains to the actors how he wants them to act, and in the process explains what to him (Shakespeare speaking through Hamlet) constitutes bad acting. Assuming that in the first run Shakespeare himself played Hamlet, that would make it a supremely classic case of layering: The playwright as an actor playing director to a group of actors and demonstrating by acting how he wants the actors to act. No irony, really, just layer upon layer—and loads of fun to perform and to watch, especially if you can pull it off.

Does acting professionally make you lose your sense of self?

The best actors I know actually have a very strong sense of self, and that becomes a psychological base of operations from which they launch some incredible performances.

The idea that actors lose themselves through their work is a common misperception about acting, exacerbated I think by a misunderstanding of a recent MRI study of the brain changes in method actors as well as by the extreme behaviors of some actors whose personal issues cannot rightly be blamed on their profession. 

It is not their sense of self that actors lose when they are performing but their self-consciousness. This is one of the main things that marks the difference between actors and non-actors trying to play a part. Non-actors may memorize their lines and hit their marks and suppress their fear, but they never really lose their self-consciousness and so cannot pull off the illusion of being another person. The actor can.

Actors they learn how to react to various situations the way their character would react. They may also put on a new manner of speech and behavior to which they are not naturally accustomed. In some cases their role may be so intense and they may become so immersed in their portrayal of a character that they must take some time after their film or play or whatever to “let go” of it. But that is not really different from having to take some days off or a vacation after an intensely stressful period working at any job.

How does an actor/actress hide their accent?

No one hides their accent. Not successfully anyway. That would be a recipe for failure. Rather, an actor replaces his own manner of speech with different accents, different ways of pronunciation, different ways of phrasing, different rhythms of speech. Not every actor is good at it and may not even try (you can probably think of some), while other actors seem to be better at foreign accents than their native one. It’s like singers: Some are versatile and can sing many different styles of music, while others can only sing one. But there are a lot of commonalities between accents and music, and one of the main ones is being able to hear distinctions between sounds.

Do actors dream in their roles?

I don’t know, but once when I was preparing for a major role my wife asked me if I was studying my script before I went to bed the night before. “Yes. Why?” “You woke me up talking in your sleep.” “I’m sorry.” “No, you don’t understand. It wasn’t you who was talking. Your voice was different, and you were speaking very clearly. She woke up startled wondering who was in bed with her.

So, there’s that.

How do actors feel after their movies get terrible reviews?


More to come.