And thanks for reading! So, you’re an actor or want to become an actor? Consider these Top Twelve Acting Skills an Actor Needs to Develop.
Just a reminder here that when I use the term “actor” I mean it to encompass all forms of acting including voice, stage, and screen. What follows applies relatively equally to all of these forms of acting.
Or is it Skillz these days? I don’t know, but what I do know is that actors need them. I recently had someone comment on a Twitter link to a blog post that “…acting and blogging isn’t real work. It’s all just pretend…”. Well, to that I say…PSHAW! If you’ve been doing this work for any amount of time, one thing you’ll realize right away is: It’s not as easy as it looks and there is a definite skill set involved. These skills can be natural or trained, but the skill is required no matter what. Let’s take a look at the 12 most important skills an actor can have.
Admittedly, this skill is not one that is terribly important for the VO actor, although in a way it is if you are able to “lift” copy from the page – read ahead of your speaking so it doesn’t sound like you’re reading. That’s sort of a rolling memorization. For a stage or screen actor? Probably the most important skill to have. When you first get started this is also probably one of the hardest to master, but your brain is like a muscle and when you exercise it it gets stronger – and memorization gets easier. There are a couple of methods to help in memorization such as; writing your lines out by hand; reading your lines over and over and over and over…; or reading your lines out loud with a partner. These days there are apps like Rehearsal Pro that help a lot. Rehearsal Pro is my go-to method.
Maybe an essential skill in any career, but certainly important for an actor on several levels. Much of an actor’s work is communicating with a variety of people. Everyone from agents and managers to producers and directors while working out the details of the logistics of acting: Rehearsals, call times, wardrobe and many others. This is a critical skill for actors both on and off stage, after all, acting itself is communicating. One very important aspect of communication is listening. More specifically, active listening. If you are working with a scene partner, you are going to have to be actively listening to them so that you react appropriately!
Control: Body and Voice
As an actor your body and your voice are your instrument. An actor MUST learn to control their voice and body in order to be competitive in their career. For stage/screen actors think about learning dance, or fight choreography. Learn to know how your movement relative to the camera affects the scene. As a voice actor you will need to learn to control your voice much like Nancy Cartwright does when voicing Bart Simpson and Chuckie Finster. This skill is as important for voice actors as memorization is for stage/screen actors.
No matter the length of the script – a 30 second commercial to a feature length film to a series of 60-minute television shows – an actor will need to develop the ability to break down and analyze the script. A script is a 2 dimensional thing, but the end result needs to be 3 dimensional and believable. You start by asking the 5 basic storytelling questions of who, what, when, where and why. Who is your character? Who are the characters your character will interact with? What is everyone doing? What time period are we in? Where are we? Why are we doing and saying the things we are? All of these will inform your character and their dress, language, accent and how they interact with other characters. If the script doesn’t answer these questions, the actor comes up with answers as they build their character.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Actors work exceptionally long days, usually starting in the wee hours of the morning when sane people are still sleeping. Even with long periods of waiting while changes to camera position and lighting are going on, it takes a good bit of Stamina to be an actor. If you are a stage actor, add weeks of grueling rehearsals to the mix. And for VO, imagine recording, editing and mastering an 8–10-hour audiobook! Stamina is a necessity!
This is one you don’t think of often. An actor must be able to tap into their own emotions and use them to connect with their characters and their audience. Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, manage, and express emotions, which is essential for actors to be able to fully inhabit their characters. You not only need to understand a plethora of emotions and their nuances, you also have to know what they look and sound like.
It seems counterintuitive when you think about scripted content. Sure, IMPROV troupes need to learn and hone their IMPROV skills, but even in scripted formats improvisations is important. In a stage play if another actor “flubs” or misses a line, his scene partner(s) has to keep the scene flowing by improvising something or it looks wooden and unnatural. Actors should be able to think on their feet and react to unexpected situations. And sometimes an improvised line in screen or VO makes it into the final cut because it sounds more natural and the director likes it. Improvisation allows actors to be more spontaneous and responsive in their performances and can lead to more dynamic and interesting characters. Check out this list of The Ten Most Iconic Ad-Libbed Scenes in Film History.
The acting profession can be unpredictable, with rejections and setbacks common. As an actor, you better be able to handle rejection and failure and keep pushing forward. Even the best actors go through periods of un (or under) employment. It can be very easy to just give up and fall back on a 9-5 job. But the resilient actor keeps pushing on. You may never “make it”, but giving up makes it certain.
I’ve talked about this one before: If you are an actor who does this for any other reason than you love it, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. Actors must have a genuine love and passion for their craft or they quickly burn out. It is this passion that drives them to continue to improve their skills, take risks, and persevere through the challenges of the industry. Yes, you can still act and may even be successful without passion, but the odds are definitely not forever in your favor!
Let’s face it, no matter HOW much you love acting it is, at its core, a business. As an actor you are an independent freelance business owner and treating this career like that will take you a lot farther. Know your brand, understand fundamental marketing, stay on top of shifting industry trends, know simple financial management and contracts and you will go much farther, with much less stress.
The COVID pandemic shut down the industry briefly, and a major shift was to begin auditioning almost exclusively by self-tapes. This opened up an acting career path for a lot of people who might otherwise might not have had access, which is great, but it also added a whole new skill set required of actors: self-tape production. You don’t have to be an experienced DP, but you do need to understand a bit about framing lighting and sound to produce a professional self-tape.
You’d like to think this is a skill every human would possess, but if you’ve been alive long enough to become aware of other people, you’ll know it is not always so. This doesn’t need to be a massive effort, but small acts of kindness go a long way. Simple things like remembering the casting associate (or casting director’s) name, always being on time (or calling if circumstances make that impossible), listening attentively and following the rules. These are simple things that make people want to work with you more.
Being a successful actor requires a wide range of skills and talents. These include memorization, communication, body and voice control, script analysis, stamina, emotional intelligence, improvisation, resilience, passion, business savvy, self-tape basics, and kindness, Actors who are able to develop and master these skills will have a greater chance of achieving success than those who do not.