I’m a director who has been working with actors for almost 30 years, and I’m also the son of a film historian.
I’ll give you my definition of good acting. But I really want to stress this very important fact:
If I say Al Pacino is great and you disagree, my experience does not make me right and you wrong. It just means we both have different tastes.
For me, an actor is good if …
1. He makes me believe he’s actually going through whatever his character is going through
I’m talking somewhat about the physical stuff: i.e. (He really is getting shot; he really is jumping off a moving train!)
But mostly I’m talking about the psychological stuff: (He really is scared; he really is in love!)
If an actor in any way seems to be “faking it”, then he’s not doing his job.
2. He has to surprise me
This is the most nebulous requirement, but it’s important. Except for really small 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 give it out.
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 his own possibilities. He must pull from this well and surprise us. Otherwise, he becomes boring and all too predictable.
There are many ways an actor can surprise. Gary Oldman and Johnny Depp 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 Depp, 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 to 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 Katharine 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.”
3. A good actor is vulnerable
Great actors share the parts of themselves that most people keep hidden. They are always naked. (Some are literally naked, but I’m talking about emotional nakedness here.) Bad actors are guarded. They don’t want to share the parts of themselves that are ugly, mean, petty, jealous, etc.
There are so many examples of actors being naked on stage and screen.
My favorite is Rosalind Russell in the movie “Picnic.”
Rent it sometime if you haven’t seen it. She plays a middle-aged schoolteacher who is in danger of growing old and dying alone. There’s a heart-breaking scene in which she begs a man to marry her. She goes down on her knees in front of him. She gives up every scrap of dignity inside her and lets the scared, hurting parts of herself burst out.
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 the sacrifice of their dignity. They expose themselves so that we don’t have to.
They are like Christ dying for our sins.
Note that this third quality ties in with everything I already wrote above:
When actors are exposed and raw, it’s always surprising. And if it doesn’t seem real, there’s no point to 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.
Good examples (in my opinion) are Julianne Moore and Bryan Cranston.
You can also rent “The Browning Version” sometime. The early one (not the remake). Watch Michael Redgrave. He turns himself inside out and wrings out all his pain.
4. A good 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.
5. A good actor has a well-honed “instrument”
By which I mean he knows how to use his voice and body to serve whatever role he’s playing. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s slim and 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.
One negative example here is Kristen Stewart.
It’s almost painful to watch her. She looks like she’d rather be anywhere else besides in front of a camera. She is (or seems) very self-conscious.
To me, Philip Seymour Hoffman was great because he embodied all of these traits. He was vocally and physically gifted. He wasn’t in great shape, but he used the shape he had in expressive ways.
If you watch him closely when he’s not speaking, you’ll see he always listened to his co-stars closely. What they said affected him deeply, and his reactions grew organically out of whatever they had previously said or done to him.
He was profoundly vulnerable. Always. This was his most distinctive trait. You always knew what you were getting from him was raw and honest. It was this rawness—as well as intelligence and a sly sense of humor—that made his work surprising and fresh. And I never once saw anything from him that seemed fake.
I don’t hate Tom Cruise the way some people do. To me, he’s believable most of the time. He’s just not very interesting. He rarely surprises me, and he doesn’t seem to dig deep into at anything raw or vulnerable inside him.
He seems guarded. The must vulnerable I’ve seen him is in “Eyes Wide Shut”, in which he did some good work.
But it wasn’t brilliant. And it’s not his norm.
Keep in mind that many people (who aren’t themselves actors, directors, or obsessive film buffs) aren’t very clear on what an actor contributes 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 his character. But that’s often a function of good writing more than good acting.
Or they think he’s good if he pulls off some impressive effect, such as gaining or losing a lot of weight or pretending to be handicapped.
Those are impressive stunts, but they aren’t the core of what actors do.
If you forced me to rank Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” vs. Dustin Hoffman in “Kramer vs. Kramer“, I’d say he did more exciting work in the latter.
In “Rain Man” he was able to hide behind some stunts.
In “Kramer vs. Kramer“, he just had to be truthful.
Some people also think acting is good if they like the movie.
Keanu Reeves, in my mind, is a horrible actor—mostly because he’s wooden and fake.
It often seems as if he’s reading from cue cards rather than saying words that are his.
But some people like him because they think the Matrix films are cool.
They confuse the movies with the actor. If some other actor had been in those films, those same people would have liked him.
It’s not really the actor (or not entirely the actor) they’re liking. But since he plays the protagonist, they focus on him.
Finally, many people confuse an actor’s life with his work.
Tom Cruise is a good example. He’s a high-profile Scientologist, and many people dislike that religion. They dislike his acting, at least in part, because they find him unsavory as a person.
To some extent, this may be a sign of bad acting on his part.
At least, he’s not a good-enough actor to make people forget about his private life while they’re watching him in movies.
To some extent, it wouldn’t matter how skilled he was.
Currently, many people are having strong reactions to works by Woody Allen and Mia Farrow that have nothing to do with what they’re doing on screen.
I’m not even remotely saying such people are wrong, stupid, or crazy.
I’m just saying that people’s reactions to actors are often complicated and not 100% influenced by their performances.
Marcus Geduld is a Shakespearean movie director, computer programmer, teacher, writer, and lover of dinosaurs.